This Sunday, the last of the liturgical year, is Christ the king, and comes immediately before Advent. It is a slightly odd festival, since one of the key themes of Advent is not the anticipation of Christmas, but the anticipation of Jesus’ return as king; the Latin adventus is a translation of the Greek parousia (1 Thess 2.19, 3.13, 4.15, 5.23 and through the NT) which means the coming of the king or emperor to be present in the midst of his people. I think the name and timing originates from the fact that the four weeks before Advent were previously called ‘kingdom’, but this was changed to ‘Weeks before Advent’ at some point—but leaving this feast in place.
The readings set in the lectionary are Daniel 7.9-10, 13, 14, Psalm 93, Revelation 1.4b-8 and John 18.33-37. The psalm is a relatively straightforward exaltation of God as king in creation, and connects with God’s sovereignty in creation which is delegated to humanity, male and female, made in his image, created and called to exercise dominion as God’s vice-regents. The only striking thing about this is that it is Yahweh, Israel’s own god, who is sovereign over the world, and to this extent Israel is making an exclusivist claim in relation to the gods of the nations.
The reading for Daniel is more complex—but hugely significant for our understanding of Jesus and our reading of the New Testament. Daniel is very much a book of two halves, and after the narrative first half (albeit including visionary dreams within the narrative), it feels in chapter 7 as though we have entered a strange new world. In fact, the two halves correlate pretty well; the vision of the statue in chapter 2 is a symbolic representation of four human empires, ending with the Romans, all of which are destroyed by the rock ‘not cut by human hands (Dan 2.34)’ which is the kingdom of the God of heaven (Dan 2.44). These four kingdoms (Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman) correspond to the four beasts of Dan 7. (See John Goldingay’s How to Read the Bible p 113 for a handy chart illustrating this—added here on the right; click on it to enlarge.) Just as the four-fold statue has been destroyed by the rock, so the four beasts are stripped of their authority, and ultimately slain, to make way for the kingdom that is given to the ‘one like a son of man’ (Dan 7.14). (An appropriate song to sing this Sunday might the chorus ‘Oh Ancient of Days‘, whose chorus consists of words taken straight from this passage.)
The dream of Dan 2, miraculously known and interpreted by Daniel, and his vision in the night of Dan 7 share a key theme. The kingdom of God that is to come is like the kingdoms of this world—it has an impact on them—but is also not like the kingdoms is this world, in that its origin is not in the will of human beings and their lust for power, but an expression of the just and righteous rule of God which will never end. This is rather important for interpreting the reading from John 18. John is distinctive in including this detailed dialogue between Jesus and Pilate. There is no need to think it was made up by John, since we know that there were followers of Jesus in the various royal households in Jerusalem, and there would certainly have been attendants in the room with Pilate and Jesus who would have heard their conversation. And, like other passages in John, it is full of ‘reality effects’—so much so that is was used verbatim as the script for this scene in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
But the phrase of Jesus ‘My kingdom is not of this world’ (John 18.36) is often taken to mean that his kingdom is other-worldly, in the sense of being ethereal, or spiritual, and somehow detached from the realities of culture and politics and the nitty-gritty of everyday life. This cannot in fact be the case; even if John is the ‘spiritual gospel’, it is also the one most earthed in reality, depicting as it does a Jesus who is hungry and thirsty, lonely and tearful, and broken and bleeding on the cross. And it cannot be the case in the light of Daniel 2 and 7; ‘not of this world’ in John corresponds theologically to ‘not made by human hands’ in Daniel 2. As Jesus makes clear in the second half of the verse, the ‘other-wordly’ distinctive about his kingdom is its origin—from the will of his Father in heaven. It does have a very real impact on the human world—as Pilate is about to discover. In fact, the Greek that Jesus speaks ἡ βασιλεία ἡ ἐμή οὐκ ἔστιν ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου τούτου should be properly translated ‘My kingdom is not from this world’ (TNIV); the mistaken ‘of this world’ is another example where the tradition of the AV is one that modern translators find it hard to overturn, but it is quite misleading.
(It is also worth noting the interesting pun in the Latin Bible, Jerome’s Vulgate, which was the main translation in use until the Reformation. ‘What is truth?’ in John 18.38 becomes ‘Quid est veritas?’ which is an anagram in Latin of ‘Est vir qui adept’—‘The man who stands before you’.)
It is a shame that the lectionary omits verses 11 and 12 from the Dan 7 reading, since these are the verses which articulate the interaction between the earthly, human kingdoms and the kingdom that has come from God. The reason for the omission is, I suppose, to avoid all the awkward language of beasts and what they mean—but the result is a sense that the kingdom of God doesn’t make contact with earth, and that is quite a high price to pay.
There is a second feature of the reading from Daniel is the term ‘son of man’. The phrase is used extensively in Ezekiel, where it is God’s customary address (93 times) of the prophet, and emphasises his frail mortality—hence the common English translation ‘mortal man’. The phrase also comes in Ps 8.4, traditionally rendered:
What is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you should consider him?
Modern translations turn this into the generalised ‘humankind’, which retains the meaning here, but loses the connection with other occurrences of the phrase.
The phrase is Jesus’ favourite way of referring to himself, coming as it does 78 times in the gospels (Matthew 28, Mark 14, Luke 25 and John 11 times). There has been much scholarly ink spilled in debating the meaning and significance of this term, but Jesus appears to use it with a number of different senses:
- Simply as circumlocution for ‘I’ (Matt 11.19)
- As a reference to his humanity and humility (Matt 8.20)
- Specifically with reference to his being handed over and his crucifixion (Mark 8.31, Matt 20.18)) and his resurrection (Matt 12.40)
- By contrast, it is also a title related to Jesus’ authority (Matt 9.6, 12.8)
This last point is crucial, and has two OT ideas behind it. The first comes from the theme of creation and humanity as God’s vice-regents which is alluded to in Ps 8. In that sense, Jesus is the Ideal Human, an idea re-expressed by Paul in his language of Jesus as ‘second Adam’ (Romans 5.12–17 and 1 Cor 15.45).
But the second idea is from our Daniel 7 reading—the one like a ‘son of man’ comes to the Ancient of Days on his throne and receives from him an everlasting kingdom and authority. It is clear from Dan 7.27 that this human figure stands for the ‘holy people of God’, that is, Israel set free from oppression by her enemies (compare Luke 1.71–75!). And yet Jesus takes over this term to claim that he himself has fulfilled the destiny of God’s people—Jesus himself is ‘recapitulating’ the story of Israel, and where they failed in disobedience, he remained obedient. It is the same idea behind some of Matthew’s ‘fulfilment’ verses, such as his use of Hos 11.1 in Matt 2.15, and Jesus’ re-use of Isaiah’s vineyard parable (Is 5.1–7) in Mark 12.1–9.
Understanding this is crucial to making sense of the ‘little apocalypses’ in Matt 24 (which we read in Advent in Year A) and Mark 13 (which we read last Advent and last week). The ‘coming of the Son of Man’ (Matt 24.30, Mark 13.26) is not his parousia to earth from 1 Thess 4–5, but his coming (Gk erchomenos) to the Ancient of Days from Dan 7.13. It represents not Jesus’ return to earth, but his vindication in the resurrection, exaltation in the ascension, and power of the kingdom shared by the outpouring of the Spirit on his people at Pentecost. And, of course, all this will happen ‘before this generation passes away’ (Matt 24.34, Mark 13.30). (For more detail, including on Stephen’s vision of exactly this in Acts 7.56, see my other posts on Matthew 24 and Mark 13.) It is also worth noting how Matthew in particular ties the idea of ‘Son of Man’ with Jesus royal, kingly power; in Matt 25.31 the Son of Man takes his throne, and without further announcement in Matt 25.34 becomes ‘the King’.
The reading from Rev 1 picks up all these ideas, and (as is typical of Revelation) makes what is largely implicit in the gospels explicit and plain to see. Unlike God’s people, Jesus has remained a faithful witness through trial and temptation. He is the firstborn from the dead—the first of a new kind of humanity. As king he is the ruler of the kings of the earth, and so ‘king of kings’ (Rev 17.14 and 19.16). He is sovereign over the power of sin, so is the one able to set us free from slavery to sin and offer us freedom in the promised land of his grace, by his death. And he has fulfilled God’s original intention for his people to be a kingdom of priests (Ex 19.6). It is shame this reading does not continue on to the end of the chapter, since the vision of Jesus here combines features of the vision of the Ancient of Days in Dan 7 with features of the vision of the angel in Daniel 10. Jesus (John tells us) is both the messenger from God but also the presence of God himself, a paradox that can only be solved by locating it in something like the understanding of God as Trinity.
All this still leaves us with one rather large unanswered question: if the idea of Jesus as king is so important in the NT, how come it rarely surfaces in Paul’s writings? When first writing about this, I was waiting at the airport with an eminent group of NT scholars, so I asked them. After a brief discussion, the consensus was: ‘That’s a very good question!’ Here are some possible answers.
- For Jews, the idea of expecting a coming king is very specific—it is the hope of a king like David, sitting on his throne and restoring his kingdom. For the gentiles in Paul’s audience, this meaning wouldn’t be present in the same way, and so the question does not have quite the same significance.
- In the New Testament, the word for ‘king’ and ’emperor’ are the same word. It is not clear that Paul would have wanted to suggest that Jesus was an alternative emperor for the Roman Empire, not least because of the theological relationship between the kingdoms highlighted above.
- One important idea about Jesus as king is that he brings peace. For a Jewish audience, this involved deliverance from their enemies, but (again) this idea does not translate in the same way to a Gentile audience.
- The ideas of a king with a kingdom is a political metaphor that doesn’t have a particularly strong communal dimension. In Paul, we find the unifying and communal metaphor of God’s people as the body of Christ.
Having said that, the language of ‘kingdom’ is not entirely absent from Paul’s writings; Paul does in fact talk of Jesus ‘reigning’. In English, our word king comes from German ‘König’ whilst our verb ‘reign’ comes from the Latin regnum and ultimately from rex, king. In Greek and Hebrew, however, the noun and verb are ‘cognate’—they come from the same root. So a king kings, or a reigner reigns, depending on which way you choose to go. For Paul, that Jesus is Lord (rather than Caesar) is the basic Christian confession (Romans 10.9, 1 Cor 12.3), and although his reign is presently hidden and confined, one day ‘every knee will bow’ (Phil 2.10, using Isaiah 45.23’s language of the sole kingship of God) and ‘he must reign until all his enemies are put under his feet’ (1 Cor 14.25). In case you didn’t think this was important, the verb ‘to reign’ comes seven times in the Book of Revelation!
I hope that gives you enough to preach—perhaps more than one sermon—on the idea of Christ the King this Sunday. For some other resources:
- Malcolm Guite has written a moving poem on Jesus’ crowns of thorns and glory, arising from the language of kingship in Psalm 21 here.
- You might also like this well-known meditation on Jesus as king edited from a sermon by the Pentecostal Dr S M Lockridge.
How can we make sense of what the Bible says about the end of the world? What are we to make of things like end times prophecies, the ‘rapture’, ‘tribulation’ and ‘millennium’? Are these things important? Come and find out at my Zoom teaching morning on Saturday December 4th!