Empires, Kingdoms and Truth on Trial
“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”
Found in John 18:1-19:16, Mark 15:1-20, Luke 23:4-16 and Matthew 26:69-27:31
“Very early in the morning, the chief priests, with the elders, the teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin, made their plans. So they bound Jesus, led him away and handed him over to Pilate.”
‘Are you the king of the Jews?’” asked Pilate. Mark 15:1-2a
Are you the King of the Jews?
Just a week ago He rode into Jerusalem as a King. Because He was one. Seven times this title is spoken or written of Him in Mark chapter 15 alone¹. The book of John records Him referenced as King nine times², six of these by the foreign ruling governor Pilate.
This title ‘King of the Jews’ was first bestowed on Him as a baby by foreigners from another land³, this title which put a bounty on his head from the moment He drew His first breath. This title which will hang above His head as He draws His last breath.
King of the Jews.
“Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’” John 18:33
Are you the King of the Jews? A complicated question with an answer deeply embedded in a long and complicated history…
“And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you.” 1 Samuel 8:6-8
The Jewish people had a long history of rejecting God as their true King and choosing other ‘Kings’ to replace Him on the throne of their hearts. All kinds of other Kings: corrupt kings, violent kings, puppet kings, religious regimes, foreign idols and other nation’s gods. They wanted a King like every other nation around them, a powerful King, an Emperor, a stately ruler. Not God.
‘Are you the king of the Jews?’. God had wanted to be their King. Longed to care for them and lead them, to gather them in his arms and protect them. He had wanted to be their King, and for them to be His people, not simply for their own national self interest, but for the interest of righteousness and justice on earth. This had always been His plan. The formation of a people lead by the true King of Heaven and earth, a people whose calling and purpose was to bless and heal this world, to partner with God in establishing His Kingdom on earth, His throne on earth. A throne of love. Not war. A rule of justice. Not domination.
‘In love a throne will be established; in faithfulness a man will sit on it— one from the house of David— one who in judging seeks justice and speeds the cause of righteousness.’
Are you the King of the Jews? How could Jesus explain the nature of this throne to Pilate, a ruler in an empire forged through violence and oppression? How could Pilate begin to understand? This Kingdom. This King. How could Pilate understand when God’s own people, Israel, hadn’t?
“’Is that your own idea,’ Jesus asked, ‘or did others talk to you about me?’
‘Am I a Jew?’ Pilate replied. ‘Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?’’’John 18:34-35
‘What is it you have done?’ What had He done? He’d proclaimed good news to the poor and liberty to the captives, restored sight to the blind, healed the sick, and ushered in a Kingdom that will never pass away and never be destroyed. A Kingdom from another place.
“Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.’’’ John 18:36
One servant had fought to prevent His arrest. One servant who, like all of God’s people, hadn’t understood this Kingdom. This King. Peter had tried to fight, because he never truly knew Him. He hadn’t understood the nature of this Kingdom. Or this King. Peter’s king was a worldly one. A successful one. A mighty Messiah. So he had tried to fight for Jesus- the Jesus he thought he knew. But found himself fighting God. He fought for the King in his head against the King over all the earth. The King of love. The King of Justice. The King whose crown would be of thorns and whose throne would be a cross.
This King of Heaven and Earth who, through this cross, was establishing His everlasting Kingdom that will never pass away and never be destroyed4. This Kingdom that is not of this world, or from this world, but for this world. This Kingdom from another place- breaking into our time and space. This subversive Kingdom of Light undermining the principalities and powers of darkness and usurping the dehumanising empires of this world.
This Kingdom, it was always the plan. At the outset of His ministry Jesus had revealed His mandate as the proclamation of this Kingdom from another place…
“But he said, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.”” Luke 4:43
This Kingdom is why He came. His death will procure it but His whole life proclaimed it.
All through His ministry Jesus was establishing this Kingdom; on the hillsides, by the lakes, in the towns and in the villages, teaching it through parables5, describing it through stories. Inviting, challenging, welcoming us all to join it and to join Him in proclaiming it6. This Kingdom drawing near7 advancing, this Kingdom that belongs to children8 and the child-like9, to those who are born again with water and the Spirit10. This Kingdom that belongs to the poor11 and the poor in spirit12, but often eludes the rich13. This Kingdom that is worth exchanging everything else for14. This Kingdom given to all who produce it’s fruit15.This Kingdom that looks like a party which welcomes people from every direction on the compass and corner of the globe16. This Kingdom that especially welcomes those those who have been persecuted and embattled for the sake of justice and righteousness17. This Kingdom that starts as small as a tiny seed but spreads and grows with abundant life18. This Kingdom that unfolds with the reign of God on earth as it is in Heaven19.
This Kingdom that will outlast every empire, every religious regime, every pretension to power on earth. Rome will crumble and fall as every other human empire has before it and will after it. But this Kingdom will remain. The one true Kingdom that will never pass away, this everlasting Kingdom that will never be destroyed20.
This Kingdom that is good news. Now.21
“‘You are a king, then!’ said Pilate.”John 18:37
How could Pilate hear? How could he understand the Kingdom of this King? Pilate understood the worlds of Empire, power, wealth and domination. How could he comprehend a Kingdom that comes through love and self sacrifice? A defenceless armour-less Kingdom whose only weapon is God’s word. The Truth.
“Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.’”John 18:37
Jesus’ words, they sound like a statement, but they act on a soul as a question… ‘Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.’ Are you on the side of truth Pilate? What side are you on? Who is it you want? Where are you? ‘Everyone on the side of truth listens to me’. Are you listening?
Satan had dismantled the throne of God in human hearts with a deception in a garden and a spinning world of lies from that point on.
God is now taking back His throne in the heart of humankind. Beginning with the truth. For those who can hear it. For those who want to hear it.
His Kingdom is ‘not of this world’, but Truth has reached out to this world. Truth has reached down into this world, into our worlds, into our frail human grasp of reality, into our post-truth era lives. Into our skewed and broken vision of reality. Truth has come. From elsewhere. Truth had to come from elsewhere, because we don’t have it in ourselves. Truth always has to come from outside us. And it did that night in the manger straw. Defenceless. And it does this night as He’s put on trial. Armour-less.
Every Gospel, in every story, reveals this Truth in human sandals, walking out the Kingdom of God, travelling alongside human brokenness and blindness, whispering gently “this is the way, walk in it”22 Walk in it awhile with me.
Truth came. As a person. For us. So we could know truth. The truth that we are loved. Endlessly. The truth that we are children of God made in His image. The truth of God’s everlasting Kingdom that will never pass away and never be destroyed23. The truth that when YHWH sits on the throne of human hearts, freedom, restoration and wholeness return.
Truth is a person. And it needs to be. Because cultures shake and change, Laws outdate with shifting circumstances. Only He remains. Standing. Feet planted, shining light over the dim grasp we humans have on what is true.
“‘What is truth?’ retorted Pilate.”John 18:38
Pilate, so lost in the dark of empire, power and violence, at least has the integrity to admit he doesn’t know. Truth. Doesn’t see truth. Doesn’t recognise truth. When the Truth is standing before him, beaten, bloodied, calling gently “Where are you?”.
“What is truth?” Pilate says into the silence, the dark silence of distance from God.
Truth is a person, the silence whispers back. Everyone on the side of truth listens to Him. And fearful, deaf and blind Pilate will wash his hands of Truth and send Him to the cross. Knowing He is innocent.
“Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, ‘I find no basis for a charge against this man.’
But they insisted, ‘He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here.’
On hearing this, Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean. When he learned that Jesus was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time.” Luke 23:4-7
What is truth? Uncomfortable. So making it someone else’s problem is the easiest thing to do.
Herod Antipas was someone else. Not the true King of the Jews, but rather the mixed race- Roman-backed-Roman citizen- King of the Jews. An imposter. A Puppet. An unspoken lie. Not fully of Jewish descent and not at all of the tribe of Judah, his only claim to Jewish kingship was that his father had won the power games that put him there. He knew the game of empire well, just as his father and his father’s father before him had. ‘Herod the Great’ his father had played politics with the oppressive forces of Rome. He gained power and prestige and friends in high places. But the game of empire is always a game fraught with darkness, and Herod’s family life was rife with suspicion, murder and mistrust. And his son, Herod Antipas now followed in his footsteps.
‘Herod the great’ had (like the people of Babel) tried to make his own name great. He had used his wealth to build the most lavish temple possible. Oversized. Extravagant. Stunning. Vacuous. The Spirit of God never filled it as He had the temple of Solomon. It had always echoed empty. As empty as Herod’s family’s claim to the Jewish Royal line.
Herod Antipas was someone else. But He wasn’t the true King of the Jews.
The true King of the Jews (whom Herod Antipas’ father had tried and failed to extinguish thirty three years ago as a baby) now stood before him. Defenceless. Armour-less.
“When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform a sign of some sort. He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer.” Luke 23:8-9
Herod was looking for circus tricks and entertainment. Jesus gave Him silence. Deafening, silence. As silent as the temple Herod’s father had created to prove himself a king.
What else could there be but silence? How could this puppet king hear or comprehend anything Jesus had to say? How could he understand the Kingdom of this true King he stood before? Herod, like Pilate understood the worlds of empire, power, wealth, and domination. How could he comprehend a Kingdom that comes through love and self sacrifice? A defenceless armour-less Kingdom whose only weapon is God’s word.
The God whom Herod’s temple purports to worship stands before him, the true King of Heaven and earth. And Herod Antipas, the puppet King, King of lies, deception, and intrigue thinks he’s the one in power. How little he knew. How little he understood what was truly going on, the activity of God behind the curtain of all that is seen with eyes in this world. Herod was completely in the dark, the deep darkness of distance from God.
Light has no argument with darkness. His very existence is God’s answer to the dark.
So Jesus stands silent before ‘King’ Herod Antipas.
Deep space silent.
The silence of a trillion stars exploding in the night.
“The chief priests and the teachers of the law were standing there, vehemently accusing him. Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate. That day Herod and Pilate became friends – before this they had been enemies.” Luke 23:10-12
And all these trials, they are really about one thing. One question. One answer ungraspable by those who think they hold the power.
These trials all point to the lie at the heart of humanity’s broken heart and the false presumptions of all principalities and powers. The lie that we human beings are in control. Of anything. The lie that we are king. Of anything.
The unspoken question emerging through Jesus’ trial is: ‘Who is truly King?’ And the question His trial asks of every human being once more is: ‘Who is it you want? As King?’
We threw Him off the throne of our hearts when we chose our own will over His loving will and broke our own hearts in the process. The throne of the human heart never sits empty. There will always be a ruler on that throne. And it is never actually ourselves. When we think we rule, when we think we hold power, we enslave ourselves to darkness and the empty machinery of our past. Ultimately, the only choice we have is between the rule of darkness and light. God. Or not.
‘Who is it you want? As King?’
Repeatedly throughout these trials Jesus is declared ‘King’ by mocking ironic voices, by Pilate, by soldiers. But the greatest irony still is that their ironic declarations state the truth- a double irony. He is not simply a King, He is the one true King and He is ushering in a Kingdom revolution, calling all empires, principalities and powers to account- both those that are seen, and those that dwell in darkness.
All along, this is what these trials have been- a clash of Kingdoms, a conflict of empires. The empires of the world meeting the one true Kingdom of God, the principalities of darkness arrested by the Kingdom of Heaven. A Kingdom that has been advancing right under their noses. A Kingdom with one weapon only; God’s word.
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, …
..the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” Luke 3:1-2
While the ‘powerful’ walked the halls of power in state, God’s power was revealed to the meek, God’s Word was being given to the humble. God’s true Kingdom was breaking in, quietly, covertly, like a seed sprouting silently in the earth.
All the rulers and regimes listed above- Rome, Caesar, Pilate, Herod’s line, Annas and Caiaphas- where are they today? Where are their empires and regimes? All their power, status and wealth eventually crumbled. Dust to dust.
God’s Kingdom still stands today. And will stand forever. Because light does not argue with darkness. It simply shines deep into the night, revealing the nature of the one true King, and the nature of His throne and eternal rule on earth.
‘Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and for ever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.’
“The Lord will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one Lord, and his name the only name.”
How could any of them understand this King? This Kingdom? They had bought the lie of empire. The lie that human beings are in control. Of anything.
Jesus didn’t come to build an empire. He came to establish His Kingdom. These trials, they are really about one thing: ‘Who is truly King?’.
And the question His trial asks of every human heart today is: ’Who is it you want? As King?’
Where are you?
‘Who is King’ is the theme of this wrestle and the answer revealed reveals the beat of our heart. The truth that we, like Peter- thought we knew, that we, like Caiaphas assumed we understood, that we, like Herod, were confident in our self-deception, that we like Pilate, presumed we were in control.
Who is the true King of this world? Those with the greatest military might- like the Roman Empire? As they mindlessly crush other nations under-foot inflicting on them their ‘Pax Romana’ version of peace on earth, peace for themselves, and subjugation for everyone else?
Who is the true King of this world? Religious regimes that place prosperity, prestige and status above all else and ignore the true mission of God- to bless the whole world-especially the vulnerable?
Who is the true King of this world? Todays economic empires? As they endlessly expand, exploiting the natural world, placing human beings in soul-less factories producing and producing, and other human beings in soul-less shopping malls, consuming and consuming. Producing the lie that ‘stuff’ will satiate our longings so we will consume the lie that we can buy our way to hope.
Who is the true King of this world? Who is it you want? As King?
Rulers who play the game of empire with this world for their own gain, or this man. This Jesus. Who gives His life for its ransom? For ours. This Shepherd King. Endlessly searching for His lost sheep. Every one of us.
This is what God as King looks like. This is the true King of Heaven and earth.
Who is it you want?
Finally, in the end, Pilate asks this question of the chosen people of God.
“Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, and said to them, ‘You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death. Therefore, I will punish him and then release him.’ Luke 23:13-16
“But it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release “the king of the Jews”?’” John 18:39
Who is it you want? Do you want ‘the King of the Jews’?
Or someone else?
“They shouted back, ‘No, not him! Give us Barabbas!’ Now Barabbas had taken part in an uprising.” John 18:40
They chose. They chose a man of violence over the Prince of Peace.
“Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe and went up to him again and again, saying, ‘Hail, king of the Jews!’ And they slapped him in the face.
Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews gathered there, ‘Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.’ When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, ‘Here is the man!” John 19:1-5
Here is the man. The Shepherd King, crowned in the violence and mockery of empire.
Who is it you want as King? Do you want ‘the King of the Jews’?
“As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted, ‘Crucify! Crucify!’
But Pilate answered, ‘You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him.’” John 19:6
Three times in both the book of John and the book of Luke Pilate states clearly that Jesus is innocent26. Jesus will not die for any crime, for any breaking of any law. He will die because of who He is. The true King. The son of God.
“The Jewish leaders insisted, ‘We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.’”John 19:7
He will not go to the cross because of a lie, but because of the truth of who He is.
“When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid, and he went back inside the palace. ‘Where do you come from?’ he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer.” John 19:8-9
Silence. It can be so loud. So unnerving.
“‘Do you refuse to speak to me?’ Pilate said. ‘Don’t you realise I have power either to free you or to crucify you?’ “John 19:1-2
But that is where Pilate has always been mistaken. How little he knew. How little he understood what was truly going on. The activity of God behind the curtain of all that is seen with eyes in this world. Pilate was completely in the dark. The deep darkness of distance from God.
Pilate, Herod, the religious rulers, they think they’ve got Jesus on trial, but in truth they are in the dock. Empire is on trial before the King of Kings. Religious Pride is on trial before the God of Heaven and earth. Darkness is on trial before the Light of the world.
Jesus stands before them all. As God. As judge. As King.
“Jesus answered, ‘You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.’ John 19:11
Does Pilate begin to see? Is a dawning awareness rising in his heart? The unsettling knowledge that he, Pilate, has no power. This man before him is choosing everything that happens to Him. While his own choices, wrapped in politics, power games and darkness, are few.
“From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders kept shouting, ‘If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.’” John 19:12
Pilate’s own choices, wrapped in darkness, are few.
“When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha).
It was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about noon.
‘Here is your king,’ Pilate said to the Jews.’ John 19:13-14
It was noon. On passover. The day the lambs would be slaughtered to remind the Jews of when God rescued them from the darkness of slavery. How their shepherd King God came for them and redeemed them from the hands of their oppressors.
“Here is your King” Pilate tells them on this passover preparation day.
Does part of Pilate’s heart recognise the truth he speaks?
And His declaration acts once more as a question. One last chance. To choose. Him. Who is it you want as King?
“But they shouted, ‘Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!’” John 19:15
Who is it you want as King?
“‘Shall I crucify your king?’ Pilate asked” John 19:1-2
Who is it you want as King? Where are you?
“‘We have no king but Caesar,’ the chief priests answered.” John 19:1-2
And these human beings, they chose.
When asked the question ‘Who is it you want?’ They chose a violent vigilante (Barabbas) over the gentle Prince of Peace. They chose the domination of an oppressive Emperor (Caesar) over the loving Shepherd King.
They chose. Not God. Not the Shepherd King.
In less than one generation the type of nationalistic ‘freedom fighter’ they chose will ignite a bloody rebellion that will eventually lead to the violent overthrow of their nation.
In CE/AD70 the type of ‘Emperor-King’ they chose will lay siege to Jerusalem, starving them, before mercilessly slaying them in their thousands and sending the remnant into dehumanising slavery in Egyptian mines or Roman provinces27.
Israel will be exiled from the promised land once more. Once more carried into slavery in Egypt.
They chose. Not God.
Because the larger truth underneath their choice is that all other kings on the throne of human hearts always and only ever lead us into darkness. Only the one true King leads us into light. The Light of the world that overcomes all darkness28.
They chose, as Adam and Eve had chosen, as their ancestors had chosen. To once more choose another false ruler over their hearts, rather than the true King, who even while they are lost in the dark will pray for them ‘father forgive them they don’t know what they are doing’29.
The true King who will now walk out to give His life as their ransom. As ours.
“Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified. So the soldiers took charge of Jesus.” John 19:16
“The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium) and called together the whole company of soldiers. They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. And they began to call out to him, ‘Hail, king of the Jews!’” Mark 15:16-18
They dressed Him as a King, and He let them.
Because He is one.
The true King of the Jews.
The true King of Heaven and Earth.
“Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spat on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him. And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.” Mark 15:19-20
As Caiaphas had unwittingly prophesied “You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish”30 : Jesus will die for those yelling ‘crucify him’, He will die for Pilate shrugging ‘what is truth’, He will die for the Jewish ruler’s religious pride, He will die for every lie of the witnesses they bribed, He will die for Peter’s ‘I am not’ betrayal, He will die for Barabbas’ insurrection. He will die for all the violence Roman soldiers did to Him. He will die for every little white lie we live. He will die for our apathy towards Him. He will die for every bruising shadow in our heart as we reach for darkness as though it is light.
He will die to make a way for us.
Because He is the Way. The only way back to God.
He is the Life. The only life, breathing into us restoration and wholeness.
He is the Truth. The Truth that burns the Kingdom of lies to the ground. Blazing. Combusting. Like a trillion stars exploding in the night.
He is YHWH31. The true King of Heaven and Earth.
Taking back His throne in human hearts. By making it a cross.
“On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half of it east to the Dead Sea and half of it west to the Mediterranean Sea, in summer and in winter.
The Lord will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one Lord, and his name the only name.”
Who is it you want?
Look around at the ‘Kings’ in this world around you.
Who is it you want? As King?
References, Notes and Credits
1 Mark 15:2,9,12,18,26
2 John 18:33,37,39 and John 19:3,14,15,19
3 Matthew 2:2
4 Daniel 7:13-14
5 Mark 4:26,30
6 Luke 9:1-6,
7 Mark 1:15
8 Mark 10:14
10 John 3:3, John 3:5
11 Luke 6:20
12 Matthew 5:3
13 Mark 10:23, Matthew 19:24
15 Matthew 21:43
16 Luke 13:29
17 Matthew 5:10
18 Matthew 13:31
19 Matthew 6:10
20 Daniel 7:13-14
21 Matthew 9:35
22 Isaiah 30:20-22 “Although the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, your teachers will be hidden no more; with your own eyes you will see them. 21 Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.””
23 Daniel 7:13-14
24 John 1:5
25 Jeremiah 23:1-6, Ezekiel 34:2-31, Isaiah 40:10-11
26 Luke 23: 4,14,22 and John 18:38, 19:4,6
27 The sacking of Jerusalem AD70 took place also at Passover, almost exactly forty years after Jesus Death during Passover. As described by the Historian, Josephus in ‘The Works of Josephus’ translated by William Whiston, Hendrickson Publishers, 1987
28 John 1:5
29 Luke 23:34
30 John 11:50
31 Hebrews 1:3
All Biblical quotations are from the NIV Bible UK version (NIVUK) unless otherwise stated. Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.