Jesus the King
Who is Jesus? This is a Christian church; you are here on a Sunday morning, so I am assuming that you hold a very high view of who He is. But, for someone who is arguably the most influential person who ever lived, it is remarkable how many versions of Jesus exist. There is the Christian Jesus, the Son of God. But there is also the Islamic Jesus (who holds Him to be a great prophet), the Hindu Jesus (an Avatar of the Divine), the Buddhist Jesus (a teacher of enlightenment), and the Western New Age “Spirituality” Jesus (a combination of the previous two). Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe Jesus is God, but God’s first created being, and secular people do not believe Jesus is God nor God’s first created being, but was simply a teacher of high morals, love, and non-violence. And even within Christianity there are so many different “Jesus’s.” There is the heavenly and distant Jesus of high churches, like Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism, and there is the casual, “Jesus is my homeboy” of mega-churches and youth groups. There is the gentle, soft Jesus who is a kind of Mr. Rogers, quietly speaking words of encouragement, blowing dandelion seeds into the wind, and there is the macho, table-flipping Jesus who exerts power, justice, and would probably ride a Harley and drink Coors Light today.
Why are there so many Jesus’? I think it has to do with the fact that everyone likes Jesus. Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th century German philosopher, nihilist, and prophet of postmodernism, who hated Christianity—he called it a “slave morality” and even went so far as to describe himself as the “antichrist”—couldn’t resist admiring Jesus (even if he hated the movement that started in His name). Voltaire, the French philosopher, once quipped, “In the beginning God made man in His image, and mankind has been trying to return the favor ever since.” We tend to project onto God what we would like God to be like. And Jesus has such a magnetic draw to Him that He is almost universally admired—there something about Jesus that pulls you in, and once you are pulled in, you can begin to “interpret” Jesus in light of your own prior beliefs, interests, and convictions. But what if Jesus Himself didn’t give us the option of being “liked.” In Mark’s gospel, we will see a myriad of ways people respond to Jesus, but one thing becomes crystal clear: the people who merely “like” Jesus are the people who have not understood Him.
CS Lewis famously came up with the “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord” trilemma in Mere Christianity:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” (52)
As we turn to study the most famous human being who ever lived, let’s allow the profundity and shock of His claims and deeds weigh on us. Let’s let them confront our notions and assumptions of just who this Jesus Christ claims to be.
Mark is likely the earliest of the four gospel accounts we have. Matthew and Luke appear to have used Mark as a source when composing their gospels. Tradition (Papias, writing at the beginning of the 2nd century, quoting John the Elder, a Christian from the 1st century) tells us that Mark was a disciple of the apostle Peter and followed him around, collecting stories from Peter’s preaching and editing them into their current form. Most scholars today date the composition of Mark to somewhere in the mid 50’s of the first century; that puts it to being written about twenty years after the events being described happened (like someone today writing a story about September 11th, 2001).
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Mark 1:1.
This opening verse is deceptive. It is probably something you pass by without thinking as you read the book. However, this announcement is meant to provide a framework for rightly situating us to interpret Mark’s gospel. There are a handful of key words packed into this little sentence that function like “hyperlinks.” It is just one little word, but Mark is assuming that when you see that word, all of the information and background data behind that word is being brought with you as you read or hear this story. If I told a story where a young boy stumbles upon a sword in a stone and draws it out, you would have an expectation of something great about to happen to that boy. Why? Because the myth of King Arthur and Excalibur is widely known today, so I could have a brief passing reference to that cultural script and you would have a whole host of data flood into your mind without me having to explain the history of the Knights of the Round Table, or Merlin, or any of that. That is how important stories and myths function in society and culture; they become so well known that only passing references are needed to echo the background of the story. This is what Mark does here, so let’s zoom in on these key words and make sure we aren’t missing the rich story that Mark assumes we will pick up on.
We spoke about what exactly the gospel was a few weeks ago. It has a history in the wider, secular Greek world to refer to a royal pronouncement, usually associated with victory in battle or good fortune being bestowed on royalty by the gods. But it has a more specific background in the Hebrew Bible, and because Mark is going to introduce the prophet Isaiah in the very next verse, we should pay careful attention to how it is used there.
Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” – Isa. 40:9
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” – Isa. 52:7
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. – Isa. 61:1-2a
This last verse is directly quoted by Jesus in Luke 4:18-19, and He makes the audacious claim, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” (4:21).
So what is the gospel according to Isaiah? It is the announcement of the victory of God, the kingship of God over every rebel power, and this gospel will be announced through God’s Holy-Spirit-anointed Messiah who will proclaim liberty to the captives (the end of the people’s exile). God is king, and His gracious, righteous kingdom has come with all of its promises, and it has come to the poor, weak, and sinful. All sin is basically an affront to the kingship of God; it is a way of saying, “God, you don’t know what’s best, you shouldn’t be in charge—I should be.” So, for God to overcome every challenge to His rule, He had to overcome the greatest power that stood in His way: sin. It was “sin” which had led His people into exile, beginning with Adam and Eve being exiled from the Garden, to Israel being exiled from the land, and the spiritual exile all humanity faced in its separation from Him. The gospel is the announcement that God has made a way to bring an end to that exile by conquering sin and death through Jesus’ work on the cross. You hear this in Colossians
He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins…For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. Col 1:13-14, 19-20.
We are told in Matthew that Mary is specifically commanded to name the baby miraculously given to her “Jesus” because, “he will save his people from their sins,” (Matt 1:21). The name “Jesus” is the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew yeshua, which simply means Yahweh saves. It is lexically indistinguishable from the Hebrew name “Joshua.” But, there isn’t anything particularly unique about this name; “Jesus” was one of the most common names used in the first century in Palestine. This is why when Jesus is first introduced in Mark’s account he is distinguished as “Jesus of Nazareth.”
Contrary to common perceptions, “Christ” was not Jesus’ last name. “Christ” is simply a Greek title that means “anointed one,” and is synonymous with Hebrew term “Messiah.” In the Old Testament, priests and kings were anointed with oil when installed into service (Lev 6:15; 21:20, 12; 2 Sam 23:1; Ps 2:2), and in one instance a prophet (Elisha) is anointed (1 Kings 19:16). The Messiah that was looked for was to be the fulfillment of the promise of Genesis 3:15 that spoke of an “offspring” of the woman who would crush the head of serpent. The final prophet that Moses spoke of that would come after him (Deut 18:15-19), a final priest after the order of Melchizedek (Ps 110), and a final king to sit on David’s throne (2 Sam 7:12-16)—this is who the Messiah will be. Eventually, by the time of the prophets, there is an expectation that when this anointed one, this Messiah arrives, he will bring with him all of the eschatological promises and hopes—a return from exile, an eternal Davidic throne, the restoration of Jerusalem and its people, and the renewal of all creation (cf. Isa 9, 11; Dan 7:13-14; 9).
In the intertestamental book Psalms of Solomon (pp. 17-18), written in the first or second century BC, we see a snapshot of what Jewish messianic expectations were right before Jesus comes onto the scene: a Messiah would establish the throne of David, destroy sinners, purge Jerusalem of all Gentiles, regather the twelve tribes of Israel, and inaugurate a period of holiness and covenant righteousness. Of course, this wasn’t the only view of who the Messiah would be (some groups actually began to doubt that there even would be a Messiah at all), but it represented a significant slice of the Jewish expectation. In fact, the sociopolitical climate in Israel created an ideal situation for would-be Messiah-claimants to rise up. Basically, the people of Israel were weary, frustrated, and tired of being under the heel of foreign rule, suspicious of each other, and longing for God to follow through on His promises. Several individuals at the time arose, claiming to be the Messiah, or doing work that was be associated with the Messiah, usually by means of violent, political revolt. All, however, were ultimately crushed by the iron hand of Rome. We actually hear of some of these in the New Testament itself: Theudas, Judas the Galilean, and the “Egyptian” (Acts 5:35-37; 21:38). This is the context in which Jesus came and in which He claimed to be the Messiah.
So, you could see why the majority of the people in the gospels are puzzled by and skeptical of Jesus. On one hand, He really does seem like He is this promised one—He teaches with authority (like a prophet), cleanses the unclean, casts out demons, heals sickness, and forgives sin (like a priest), and teaches that he has all authority and power (like a king). However, there are many things He does that don’t seem to align with the expectations. Rather than bringing judgment on sinners, He forgives them; rather than expelling Gentiles from Jerusalem, He embraces and serves them; rather than establishing a monarchy through military conquest, He teaches that His kingdom is established through meekness, humility, service, and ultimately His own death. Surprisingly, Jesus’ closest disciples, those who spend three years with Him, hearing His teaching, seeing His miracles, do not understand this. When Peter finally confesses that Jesus is in fact the Christ, the Messiah (Mark 8:27-30), Jesus then informs him that He will be crucified and three days later be resurrected. What does Peter do? He rebukes Jesus! That’s not how this works, Jesus—you are the Messiah! You don’t die—you make other people die! You conquer Israel’s enemies, you get rid of the Romans; you’re here to establish the kingdom of God we have been waiting for! And Jesus famously says, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man!” (8:31-33). I have come to establish the kingdom of God; my death on a cross is not an end to my kingdom, but is the very means by which it will be built.
This is why Jesus is so reticent to use the title “Messiah” and often is at pains to keep others’ confession of Him as the Christ a secret. After Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, we are told that Jesus, “strictly charged them to tell no one about him,” (8:30). He was concerned about igniting the powder keg of people’s current expectations of what the Messiah would be like. New Testament scholar Tom Schreiner concludes, “Jesus’ hesitation to proclaim himself as the Messiah or to accept the title publicly is best explained by the explosive political implications of accepting the title…Jesus did not intend to fulfill the promises in the manner expected by most Jews. He would conquer not through military might and force but through suffering and death. The promises of the kingdom would come to pass through sacrificial love instead of at the point of a sword,” (New Testament Theology, 206).
So yes, Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, but He fulfills that vocation in a way that almost no one at the time expected.
Son of God
When we read “Son of God” today, we might say, “I know what that means,” and immediately think that this title is simply a way of saying, Jesus is divine, the second member of the trinity. And while that is certainly true, and that idea is developed throughout the New Testament, there are also other connections connected with the story of the Old Testament that are often overlooked and need to be examined.
- Heavenly Being
- The “sons of God” (note plural) in the Old Testament were heavenly beings, members of the divine council of heaven (Gen 6:2, 4; Deut 32:8; Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7).
- Adam is described as a son of God (Gen 5:1-3; cf. Luke 3:38).
- Israel is described as God’s firstborn son, His beloved son (Ex 4:22-23; Jer 31:9, 20; Hosea 11:1); thus Israel is stylized as a new Adam, a new humanity.
- God promises David that He will relate to future Davidic kings like a father does to a son, (2 Sam 7:14-15; 1 Chron 17:13-14; 22:10; 28:6-7; Ps 89:26-27; Isa 9:6). In the ancient world, the king serves as an individual who represents the people he leads, thus the individual son of David, the king of Israel, is a son of God.
- This means to be called a “son of God” can include royal, kingly overtones.
- Psalm 2 describes Yahweh’s “anointed” (Messiah) as His Son (2:2, 6) to whom all nations must swear fealty to (2:12).
- During the intertestamental period, the appellation “Son of God” began to be synonymous with “Messiah,” (Schreiner, New Testament Theology, 235).
Thus, for someone steeped in the Jewish world, hearing the “Son of God” would not have immediately made someone think of a person being divine, though it could refer to a being who was from the heavenly realm (which would still apply to Jesus since He is divine). But it more regularly was used to refer to an individual (or collective individual, like Israel) with whom Yahweh bore a special, covenantal relationship with: Adam, Israel, and David’s heir. This trajectory of highly significant persons makes sense why “son of God” would then be applied to the expected Messiah—the Messiah would come as a new Adam, a new Israel, and a new David. He would do what the old Adam, Israel, and David failed to do, and therein usher in the new creation promises made to these individuals which were forfeited due to disobedience. What do the people of God need? An obedient Son who is in a special covenant relationship with the Father.
That being said, there is one other context that, in the providence of God, accords nicely with what has been said: Rome. Mark opens up his gospel with the announcement that Jesus is the “Son of God,” and ends his gospel with Jesus being called the “Son of God” by one of the Roman soldiers who crucified him, “And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” Mark 15:39. Surely, this Roman centurion was not steeped in the Hebrew Bible—what came to his mind when he thought of that title?
After the assassination of Julius Caesar, his successor and adoptive son, Augustus, had Caesar deified and began to refer to himself as the “son of god,” which became a title regularly used by Roman Emperors. You can see this in Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus in the gospel of John. Pilate is perplexed by Jesus, so He dismisses Him for a time and announces (repeatedly) to the Jewish crowds that he has found no guilt in Jesus and is intent on releasing Him:
“The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God.” When Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid…From then on Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.” John 19:7-8, 12
Why is Pilate so afraid? Why are the Jews claiming that Jesus somehow is challenging Caesar? Because to the Roman world there is only one son of God: Caesar, and anyone else taking that title is challenging his rule, his kingdom.
You see how the Roman connotation dovetails in nicely with the Davidic, kingly overtones of “Son of God” that come from the Hebrew world? Jesus is claiming to be the son of David whose throne and kingdom will last forever (2 Sam 7:16) and to whom all the nations will submit to—including Rome. You see, Jesus’ claims are certainly more audacious than Pilate realizes; He isn’t claiming to be a challenger to the throne of Rome—He is claiming to be the supreme Emperor of the entire world. He is claiming to be the King to whom all people owe their allegiance to.
So, in summary, who is this person that Mark has written about? He is the man Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God—God’s King. He is the long awaited for fulfillment of the promises of the Old Testament. He is the new and final son of David, the new and obedient Israel, the new Adam who will usher in a new humanity and a new creation. Creation was cursed and marred by the first Adam’s sin; creation will be made new by the second Adam’s obedience. We still have in our collective imagination the idea that when the rightful king returns to His throne, the kingdom will flourish—when the mighty King Richard returns, all of Nottingham will rejoice, when Aragorn takes up the throne of Gondor, the whole kingdom blossoms. The story of the gospels is the story of the rightful king taking up His throne and the beginning of the restoration of the world.
Do you treat Jesus like a king? Or is he more if just a nice friend, a good advisor, or an encouraging coach? Do you like Jesus? Or do you fall down at His feet and say “command me”? In 2 Corinthians 5:20 we are told, “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ.” What is an ambassador? A royal representative. Does your life model that you are a subject of the King of heaven?
How do you know how you if you treat Jesus like a king or not? What do you do when He disagrees with you? What happens when you read something in the Bible that you don’t like? We like the idea of an amorphous, mailable “god” that we can mold into whatever we want, but dear friends, that is not who Jesus Christ is. Jesus has concrete edges to Him. CS Lewis offers this sobering warning to us,
An impersonal God? Well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness inside our own head? Better still. A formless life force surging through everyone – a vast power we can all tap? Best of all. But a living God – pulling at the other end of the cord approaching at infinite speed, the hunter, the covenant Lord, the husband, (the King)? That is quite another matter. There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion suddenly draw back – supposing you really found Him? Or, worse still, suppose He found you. If there is a God you are in a sense alone with Him. You cannot put him off with speculations about your neighbor’s hypocrisy, or memories of what you have read in books. What will all that chatter and hearsay count when the anesthetic fog we call the real world fades away and the divine presence in which you have always stood becomes palpable, immediate and unavoidable?
– C.S. Lewis, Miracles
How do you alter your perspective of Jesus? How do you treat Him more like a King? You realize that Jesus’ throne is a throne of grace. He does not install His kingdom by crushing His human enemies, but by dying for them. As He is being crucified He is forgiving the very people who are killing Him! This is no king, emperor, or president that we are familiar with. When you see the bottomless depths of love this King has for His children it will melt your obstinate heart and in its place will be a softened, warmed heart that will fall down at His feet and say, “Command me.”
 Gospel scholar Michael Bird notes, “Domination by the Roman Empire, threat of invasion by the Parthian Empire in the east, several sporadic and unsuccessful revolts against Rome, turmoil within the Judean ruling class, sectarian rivalries over the proper way to observe the law of Moses, and speculation on prophetic oracles about Israel’s deliverance in the Hebrew Scriptures—all created a fertile context in which messianic hopes could flourish,” (Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 2nd ed., 116-17)