Did You Say 'King'? (John 18:28-19:16a)

I had the radio on in my car a while back. Brent Musburger told a Yogi Berra story on his syndicated radio program that made me laugh out loud – and I’ve used it lots of times since that day. So just bear with me if you’ve been subjected to my telling of it before. It makes an important point that relates to our text for this morning.

As Musburger told the story, Yogi was burning leaves in his yard one fine autumn day. But the wind kicked up, and the fire line started spreading too quickly – in the direction of a storage shed. So he ran inside to call the fire department.

“Hurry out here!” he shouted into the phone. “I got a fire over here that’s about to get outa control!”

“Yes, sir!” replied the dispatcher. “And how do we get to your place?”

There was a pause. Then he answered, “You still got them red trucks, ain’t you?”

Does it sound like some conversations you have had with employees? With your children? With your mate? When it seems to be happening at our house, Myra or I will sometimes look at the other and grin. One of us will say, “Red trucks!” And that’s our signal to call a time out, go back to the start of the conversation, and try to get something clearer between us.

Pontius Pilate and Jesus had one of those conversations in the spring of A.D. 30. Pilate held the Jewish populace he ruled for Rome in contempt. He irritated them constantly with his insensitivity to their religion. He particularly angered the entire nation of Israel when he took funds from the temple treasury to build an aqueduct that would supply water to Jerusalem. There is even a reference in one of the Gospels to a report given to Jesus “about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices” (Luke 13:1-2). We don’t know that event from any non-biblical documents. What we do know is that it is perfectly consistent with Pilate’s behavior during his ten-year tenure.

The only way a low- to mid-level functionary could keep his place in the Roman system was by playing the patronage system. So someone like Pilate was protective of himself by demonstrating dutiful loyalty to the empire in general and to his immediate superiors in particular. When the issue of Jesus being a “king” was put on the floor with him, it got the procurator’s attention. But what a red-trucks scene it turned out to be! Pilate had no idea how to talk about a kingdom with someone who understood power the way Jesus did. He couldn’t conceive of a kingship that didn’t involve intrigue, weapons, and skull fractures. Jesus was a king, all right. And there was a lot of intrigue and abuse of power going on. Indeed, Jesus would wind up at a place some had nicknamed Skull Hill because of it. But he and Pilate were on completely different pages with regard to background and motive, vocabulary and meaning. Red trucks all around! Just listen to the way the word “king” gets tossed around in this conversation. You, like John’s first readers and unlike Pilate, will pick up on the dark humor preserved by it.

Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate went out to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” They answered, “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.” The Jews replied, “We are not permitted to put anyone to death.” (This was to fulfill what Jesus had said when he indicated the kind of death he was to die.)

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, “I find no case against him. But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover. Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” They shouted in reply, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a bandit.

Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying “Hail, King of the Jews!” and striking him on the face. Pilate went out again and said to them, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him.” So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!” When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.” The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.”

Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever. He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate therefore said to him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.”

When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, “Here is your King!” They cried out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.” Then he handed him over to them to be crucified (18:28—19:6a).
“Red Trucks” in the Gospel of John

What I’ve labeled “Red Trucks” is what you know already as double entendre or double meaning. Words and phrases are used throughout the Fourth Gospel with obvious and not-so-obvious meanings. Part of the reader’s responsibility is to pick up on them. Thus the conversation with Nicodemus about birth (John 3:3ff), a Samaritan woman about a drink of water (John 4:10), the disciples about Jesus’ food (John 4:32), and so on. One of the most dramatic of these is, in fact, from the lips of Caiaphas. When the Sanhedrin was trying to figure out what to do with Jesus of Nazareth, he said, “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50). He was more prophetic than he knew that day!

Do you remember the explanation John and I gave you at the start of this series about “signs” in the Gospel of John? Miracles are less deeds of great power for John as they are pointers to something more significant than themselves. Certain terms and conversations are sign-pointers as well. John has invited us from the start to be insiders to the true story of Jesus so that we can see deeper meanings and clearer perspectives than the original players in the drama.

I hope you are already at a level of identification with John’s project that you will never again confuse the superficial and the profound in this Gospel. That you will look beyond the obvious for the hidden. That you will peer beneath the cursory reading of words for a more thoroughgoing search for their meaning.

Here is a related case in point: anti-Semitism. John repeatedly speaks of “the Jews” in these scenes around the arrest, trials, and death of Jesus. And I am acutely aware of the sensitivity of my Jewish friends to the use of this language by people in the West to promote obnoxious and malicious anti-Jewish sentiment. From medieval European charges of “God-killers” to Hitler’s death camps to Bible-thumping white supremacist groups, the trifling use of these texts as support – or even as the alleged grounding – for anti-Semitism is simply dead wrong and racist.

Yes, John blames the Sanhedrin and the Jewish leaders who exploited that body against Jesus for his death. But he also blames Gentiles for it. It is pretty hard to miss the fact that nothing official could have been done to Jesus apart from the Roman procurator. Had there not been a self-seeking and cowardly Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas the high priest would have been only the more frustrated at the end of these events.

There is no license for racism here. The crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth was at the hands of both Jew and Gentile. At an even deeper level, it was the work of every Jew and every Gentile. It was my work – and yours. For it was the sin of the whole human race that required the death of the Lamb of God to take away sin.

My word, the first Christians were Jewish. The men who wrote three of our four canonical Gospels were Jews. The church was born from the womb of Judaism and cannot understand itself correctly apart from its Hebrew heritage.

King Jesus

The immediate issue for Pilate and Jesus, John and his original readers, or the biblical text and today’s church is how to understand the role of Jesus as king. The word “king” appears nine times in today’s text, and the word “kingdom” three times. Jesus never denies being a king, but he can’t get Pilate to see that his sort of kingship does not make him a rival to Caesar, Elizabeth, or any other earthly ruler per se.

The kingship of Jesus is not about political rule on Planet Earth as we traditionally understand such things. In Luke’s account of these events, he has the Sanhedrin telling Pilate: “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king” (Luke 23:2). Some elements of this proffered charge are simply outright lies; others are, perhaps, rooted in their misunderstanding of the messianic function.

So, when Jesus comes before Pilate in the Gospel of John, we are not surprised that the crux of the interrogation focuses on this question: “Are you the King of the Jews?” (18:33b). To that question, Jesus replied only indirectly at first: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” (18:34). In other words, he wanted to know if Pilate was asking about kingship as he, a Roman official, would understand it (i.e., a political term) or as the Jews would have stuck that label on him (i.e., a messianic claim). Pilate’s befuddlement and frustration come through in his answer. “I am not a Jew, am I?” he said. “Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” (18:35). Although he had to deal with this case, Pilate probably would have given anything to have been able to keep his distance from it.

With the question on the floor, Jesus characterizes his role as a king and positions himself in relation to Pilate, Caesar, and Rome. “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here” (18:36). Jesus is not a king to compete with Caesar. His kingdom is other-worldly, not this-worldly. He has no army. He isn’t recruiting or training one. He is concerned with something quite different from Caesar and his aspirations to power. And the key to understanding his kingdom is not some Constitution, law code, or geographical location. Admitting that he was indeed a king, he said, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (18:37b). Cynical Pilate turned away from Jesus and his comments about the truth with these famous words: “What is truth?” (18:38).

Forget Pilate for a moment. Can you and I take up the conversation with Jesus at that point? Do we know the truth? “Well, it’s the Bible, of course!” says somebody. Not quite. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is the truth (John 14:6). Scripture is true and bears witness to the truth, but the written Word of God is not an end in itself. Do you remember these lines we have read already in this Gospel: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life”? (John 5:39-40).

Those Bible scholars had so zeroed in on written truth and were battling one another so fiercely over its meaning that they failed to see Living Truth standing right before them! A curse of the Christian church has been its loss of focus on Jesus for the sake of battling over orthodox interpretations of the Bible. This could be story of practically every congregation from Jerusalem forward to every denomination spawned by the Protestant Reformation to our own movement:

We were “exclusive” Brethren, a branch that believed in keeping itself pure of false doctrine by avoiding association with the impure . . . . [W]e made sure that any who fellowshipped with us were straight on all the details of Faith, as set forth by the first Brethren who left the Anglican Church in 1865 to worship on the basis of correct principles. . . .

Unfortunately, once free of the worldly Anglicans, these firebrands were not content to worship in peace but turned their guns on each other. Scholarly to the core and perfect literalists every one, they set to arguing over points that, to any outsider, would have seemed very minor indeed but which to them were crucial to the Faith . . .

Once having tasted the pleasure of being Correct and defending True Doctrine, they kept right on and broke up at every opportunity, until, by the time I came along, there were dozens of tiny Brethren groups, none of which were speaking to any of the others . . . .

[T]o ourselves, we were simply The Brethren, the last remnant of the true Church.[1]
The term “Kingdom of God” denotes the kingly reign of God in someone’s heart and life. That divine sovereignty is exercised through Jesus, as his presence dwells in and gradually transforms a man or woman through the influence of the Holy Spirit. And the ideal toward which this reign moves was defined in the parallelism of the Lord’s Prayer that has the petition “Your kingdom come” explained with the words “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

When the kingdom of God is present, life gets changed. . . . Unbelievers ought to be able to point to Christians and say, “Ah ha, that is what the kingdom of God looks like.”

The changes that God wills in our broken lives – in our hearts, our relationships, and (ultimately) our social institutions – are numerous. Where there was once self-centeredness comes self-giving; where there was once autonomous individualism comes loving, interdependent community; and where there was once exploitation comes justice. Security in power is replaced by security in God. The endless pursuit of wealth is replaced by an option for the weak and poor. Bondage to self-fulfillment and aggrandizement is replaced with freedom to serve others. The oppression of slaves, racial minorities, and women is replaced by equality. Lies are replaced by truth, brokenness by wholeness, the law by grace, and division by forgiveness. This is the vision of the kingdom: where God becomes God in human lives, life is transformed. The old dies and the new is born.[2]

Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin were never the hope of Jesus, for he was not here to make peace with the institutions of religious power and control. Neither were Pilate and Caesar keys to the mission of the Son of God, for the force of arms cannot conquer hearts. To the contrary, Jesus showed us a view of reality very different from either church or state. He allowed us to glimpse in his own person the inbreaking of the kingdom of God. Now it is the task of the church to herald, plead for, and challenge its own to model the kingdom of God in a world that loves darkness above light, lies above truth, and death above life.

Charismatic leaders, the latest church-growth fads, and church associations are not our hope today. Neither is the Democratic or Republican Party, Pat Robertson or Rush Limbaugh, David Lipscomb or Freed-Hardeman, Contending for the Faith or Wineskins. For whatever good or harm may be done by any or all of these entities, God’s kingdom purposes are neither wrapped up in nor limited by them.

Jesus has a kingdom dream still. Being a church member doesn’t make you part of its fulfillment, mind you! Many a church member thinks, positions herself, and lives so that she can never inherit the kingdom of God – according to Paul (Gal. 5:21c). But the heavenly plan is for a church such as this one to keep the dream alive, create a safe and healthly community, and encourage one another to take heaven’s view of reality more seriously than any this world can offer. May we never lose sight of our reason for existence. That reason is Jesus. So may we never offer ourselves or anything we have created or learned to manipulate as an alternative to his sovereignty over our lives.

[1] Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days (New York: Viking Penguin Inc., 1985), pp. 105-106.
[2] Christian Smith, “Is the Church Interested in the Kingdom?” Voices (July/August 1989), p.2.

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