Οὐκ ἔχομεν βασιλέα εἰ μὴ Καίσαρα – “We have no king but Cesar.”
The Roman governor of Israel, Pontius Pilot, has been arguing with the leaders of Israel over whether to put Jesus to death. He is desperate to avoid a bad PR situation on the most politically charged day of the year. But finaly, the king of the Jews is condemned to death with these words from Israel’s leaders: “We have no king but Cesar.”
It is as the king of the Jews that Jesus is mocked by Cesar’s soldiers, and it is as the king of the Jews that Jesus suffers and dies.
In Anglican churches, it’s traditional to talk about the seven last words of Jesus on Good Friday. But I find it highly significant that the four gospels don’t all record the same words as Jesus’ last. Mark and Matthew agree, but Luke and John are different. But the four Gospel writers are unanimous in emphasizing that the charge above Jesus head on the cross is “King of the Jews.”
John makes a point to tell us that it was written also in Latin and Greek, the two most popular languages in the known world at that time, as if to say to everyone, everywhere, here is your crucified king.
The significance of Jesus as Israel’s rejected king is interesting, because Jesus is not the first king who Israel had rejected. One thousand years earlier, Israel had rejected its first king. Who was Israel’s first king? Not David, or Saul, but God. The original plan for Israel was that God would be its king. God used the human concept of kingship to say, this is an important part of what I’m supposed to be to you, a wise and selfless ruler.
And He made that clear to Israel by saying, you’re not going to have a human ruler. You’re not going to have a human king. Instead, God gives Israel judges. The judges were human governors that God appointed as subordinate representatives of His kingly authority. And that lasted for many years.
But at the end of that period – the time of Samuel, the last judge – the people reject God as king and ask Samuel to appoint for them a human king, so that they could be like the surrounding nations. “We want to be like the nations,” they say. “We want a king to govern us and lead us out to fight our battles.”
In response, Samuel complains to God, but God surprisingly grants the request, saying:
“Listen to the voice of the people…for they have not rejected you, they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt… forsaking me and serving other gods”
Israel’s rejection of God’s rule in the time of Samuel is part of a historic a pattern since the Exodus, and in fact, it’s rooted in the rebellion of humanity against God from the fall of Adam and Eve. The problem isn’t just Israelite rebellion, but all of humanity’s rebellion against God.
So then, in the story of Jesus, God crucified, this small group of Israelites and Romans acts out the rebellion against our loving Creator that is endemic in all human cultures and hearts.
The prophecy John quotes, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced,” in its original context was not directly referring to the Messiah, but to God, being wounded by His people’s rebellion. In Jesus, we see God Himself, pierced and wounded by our transgressions.
But think about this, the Romans and the Chief priests and the people don’t realize that Jesus is God incarnate. The issue is not that humanity has a problem with the idea of a divine ruler in the abstract. As God told Samuel, they keep forsaking me, not to be atheists, but to following other gods.
No, humanity’s real problem is that God is not the type of king we want. Jesus was not the type of king that the people wanted. Though they had welcomed him with palm branches and open arms just a week before, when he came in and chased out the money changers, and prophesied about the fall of the temple, and convicted the people of their sins, and did not endorse the people’s agenda, they quickly decided that they didn’t like their new king so much after all. ‘If this is the messiah, it’s not the one that we want.’
And Good Friday is a time to remember that we are all like that. We want a ruler who gloriously dominates our enemies, who fulfills our desire for power, who gives us the prosperity we long for, who represents our interests – and who overlooks and ignores our sins and failings.
Such a king does not insist that we forgive our enemies or love our neighbors as ourselves. Such a king demands glory but leaves us plenty of opportunities to glorify ourselves. Such a king has only superficial love for us, and so requires only superficial love in return.
Essentially, we want a ruler who gives us what we want without impinging too much upon our personal sovereignty. As the Scottish, Christian poet, George MacDonald put it:
The one principle of hell is: ’I am my own. I am my own king and my own subject… My own glory is my chief care…The more I close my eyes to the fact that I did not make myself…the greater I am. I will be free with the freedom that consists in doing whatever I am inclined to do… To do my own will…is to be free, is to live.’
The human heart does not want a king who washes the feat of his followers. We don’t want a king who gives up glory to serve others. We don’t want a king who forgives & loves us, because through that unmerited love we would belong to him. Instead we want a king who fights our battles, ensures our prosperity, and who otherwise leaves us alone. A king like Caesar.
So, when the crowds shout “crucify him” and the chief priests say “we have no king but Caesar,” I think we can hear our own voices mingled with those cries.
And on a somber Good Friday night, the weight of that might weigh on us heavily. But let’s turn our hearts to remember that Jesus didn’t face rejection merely because of us, he faced rejection for us. That’s something that human rulers do not do.
In 1 Samuel, after God tells Samuel to allow the Israelites to have a human king, he tells Samuel to warn them what human kings are like. And he gives a long list that basically says, your king is going to make you his servants and soldiers and “you shall be his slaves.” He’s going make you serve him, and he’s going to make you die for him.
But when God became king in Jesus, he showed that His type of kingship is just the opposite. Because the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Our rejection of God could never hurt God unless God made himself vulnerable to us. In response to our rejection of him, God could have very justly rejected us – and abandoned us to our own devices. But when God saw us going astray, He decided to restore us. Jesus took the rejection that we deserved upon himself. So, that in him, we might become heirs of the kingdom, citizens of heaven, children of God, sinful yet forgiven, and empowered by the Holy Spirit to receive him as our true king, in love, obedience, and truth.
As Paul tells us in Colossians, “[God] has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”