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?” (John 18.33-34)
Empire, Supremacy, and Legitimate Rule
This weekend, churches worldwide mark the end of the liturgical year with the feast of Christ the King (also known as “The Reign of Christ”). The official line on its origin holds that Pope Pius XI instituted the feast in 1925 to offset growing secularism among the Faithful, to remind them that Christ is the Sovereign Ruler and Lord of all. But numerous historians have suggested the feast was also born of political expediency. World War One effectively unraveled the last of Europe’s dynastic empires, in one case contributing to the overthrow of a monarch (Russia) and in others (Great Britain, Austro-Hungary, and Germany) reducing royal figures to ceremonial heads of state. As “anointed” rulers of vast lands, they had governed at the behest of their spiritual overseers. This paradigm would be no more. In addition to splintering the Continent into smaller, autonomous nations, the War augured the ascendance of a new world leader, the United States. Although Americans were far less consumed by secularism than their French cousins, both countries passionately upheld the separation of Church and State. There was no mistaking they signaled a wave of the future that would strip Catholic and Protestant prelates of power they’d exercised for centuries.
Pius XI’s declaration of Christ’s sovereignty over all nations and peoples was an easy purchase for Protestant bishops who typically ignored Vatican edicts. Few questioned its theological urgency. Rapid shifts in thought had thrown the balance of religion and politics off-kilter. Christianity’s role as Western civilization’s voice of justice and compassion was failing; God’s kingdom was losing ground. As so often has happened in Church history, there was more to the Feast of Christ the King than met the eye: the assertion of Christ’s Lordship doubled as reassertion of ecclesiastical influence. And its tension between religious and political power is instructive, since the same issues—empire, supremacy, and legitimate rule—bubble up in Sunday’s Gospel. (John 18.33-17) This time, however, belief threatens politics. A new wave of thought is taking hold, one that insists a Higher Authority trumps the power structure cobbled together by an uneasy alliance between Rome and Judaism. A new kingdom—mysteriously described as “not of this world”—is on the rise. And its Herald, the renegade Rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, is called to account for allegedly treasonous ideology that could (and ultimately does) overturn the status quo.
Pilate on Trial
Familiarity with the scene—Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus—offers no help with deciphering its riddles. The bluntness of their exchange is deceptive, as each man harbors doubts about about the other’s legitimacy. Jesus is charged with heresy, a matter of no concern to Rome beyond its potential to destabilize the fragile balance of power the Empire has struck with the Temple establishment. Yet the high priests are reluctant to rule against Jesus, fearing a populist backlash that would demonstrate they’ve lost control of their people and render them useless to Rome. With acute cunning, they shift the burden to Pilate, accusing Jesus of professing to be King of the Jews, which qualifies Him as an insurgent worthy of death at Roman hands.
When Jesus stands before him, Pilate doesn't mince words. “Are you the King of the Jews?” he asks, to which Jesus responds, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about Me?” (v33-34) With that, the tables turn. Jesus puts Pilate on trial. Has the Roman summoned Him because he wonders if Jesus is indeed the King of the Jews? (This possibility isn’t lost on either of them, since Pilate’s boss is also a self-avowed divine monarch.) Or is this merely a pro forma hearing to get to the bottom of baseless gossip? Neither option pleases Pilate. Genuine curiosity about Jesus’s identity would belie his faith in Caesar; investigating religious rumors would make him a puppet of the Temple elite. So Pilate deftly distances himself from the situation, admitting, “I’m not a Jew. I shouldn’t be expected to understand this stuff.”
The deflection opens the door for Jesus to assert divine authority. “My kingdom is not from this world,” He says. With daring sarcasm that brings a smile to the alert reader’s face, Jesus validates His otherworldly claim: “If my kingdom were from this world, My followers would be fighting to keep Me from being handed over to the Jews.” (v36) Since this obviously isn’t happening, the argument makes sense to Pilate. Still, its elusive nature doesn’t settle the matter. “So are you a king?” he asks again, dropping the Jewish reference. Jesus replies, “You say 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.” (v37; emphasis added)
Power to Seek the Truth
The Feast of Christ the King invites us to witness the truth of Christ’s Lordship—to embrace faith in a divine kingdom that supersedes human authority. Yet accepting this belief cannot happen by taking prelates and pastors’ word for it. We can only discover the truth by listening to Christ’s voice. And I’m persuaded this realization springs from the first question Jesus puts to Pilate: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about Me?”
Our confidence that Christ reigns supreme begins with profoundly personal questions about Who Jesus really is—and how much real power we’re willing to cede to His Lordship. As it was in Pilate’s court, so it is in our lives. Faith in Christ’s kingdom demands humility born of understanding its mysteries can never be fully understood. It’s impossible to equate Christ’s sovereign rule with earthly powers, as the kingdom of God seeks no earthly power; it summons authority by granting us power to seek the truth of Who God and Jesus really are, who we really are, and the roles we play in a kingdom unlike any ever known. Pilate’s small-mindedness is exposed in his dismissal of Jesus’s challenge. He wants an admission of power that has nothing to do with the truth of Christ’s kingdom. Clearly, he’s not listening. And we benefit from his deafness, because it opens our minds to recognize the truth of Christ’s Lordship can never be told. To experience its majesty, it must be heard. Amid all the regal adjectives tossed around in this weekend’s liturgies, hymns, and sermons, I trust we’ll hear the voice of Jesus. Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about Me?
Seen through the prism of Pilate’s interrogation, the truth of Christ’s Lordship emerges as thing that cannot be told. It must be heard to be understood.