Jesus was asked by Pontious Pilate, “Are you the King of the Jews?” So, today we are going to have a history lesson and look at Israel’s recent Kings at the time of Jesus. It begins with Herod the Great, the Herod mentioned right at the beginning of the gospels.
Herod was installed by Augustus Caesar (Octavian) after Herod had wrongly backed Mark Anthony and Cleopatra. He begged for mercy and Caesar thought, “Aha! Exactly the kind of leader I need in Judea. Someone beholden to me; a puppet whose strings I can pull at any time I like.” And so, at age 36, Herod became King of the Jews.
Herod, who was caught between pleasing the Jewish people and the Roman overlords, thought to himself, “What can I do to please both parties? Well, they like building projects. You want to please people, do something with buildings.” So he did. He built temples and cities for the Romans, and for the Jewish people, a much needed temple upgrade and makeover — the major construction work took about 10 years and was utterly spectacular.
Herod the Great was married ten times and we know the names of eight of his wives: Doris, Mariamne 1, Mariamne 2, Malthace, Cleopatra (not Egyptian ruler), Elips, Pallas, and Phaidra. Let’s focus on the ones relevant to the Bible story!
Herod banished his first wife, Doris, and his first son Antipater. He murdered his second wife, Mariamne 1, and his two sons Alexander and Aristobulus. He banished his third wife, Mariamne 2, and decreed that her son Philip 1 should never rule. So that left three heirs: Archelaus, Antipas, and Philip 2. We encounter all four sons in the gospels.
Now… Aristobulus (one of the sons Herod had murdered) had a daughter called Herodius and she married Philip 1. They had a daughter called Salome. Herodius left Philip 1 and married Antipas. This divorce and reunion was criticised by John the Baptist and led Antipas to have John imprisoned and beheaded. Oh, and to make things more confusing, Salome then went and married Philip 2!
Anyway, we get ahead of ourselves! When Herod the Great died he left his estate (the nation) to his three sons (not Philip 1). Let me read from Bible scholar Ray Vander Laan…
“Herod lay dying in his opulent palace in Jericho. He had been seriously ill for a long time. From the description in Josephus’ writings, Herod had gangrene, severe itching, convulsions, and ulcers. His feet were covered with tumors, and he had constant fevers. The stadium of Jericho was filled with loved and important people from around his land who were to be killed at the moment of his death, lest no one mourn when he died. It didn’t seem to matter that they would not be mourning for him. As he lay on his deathbed, Herod’s thoughts may have turned to the rabbis and their students whom he recently had executed for tearing down the Roman eagle from the temple gate because it violated God’s law against images. Perhaps he reflected on his beloved wife Miriamne’s two sons whom he had drowned in the palace swimming pool next door. He could have remembered the execution of his favorite son, Antipater, only days ago for plotting against him – Antipater, the one who was to take his father’s place. Or maybe he thought about the members of the Sanhedrin whom he had murdered, the hundreds of family and staff whom he had suspected of plotting against him, or the thousands of subjects who died in his brutal campaign to claim a country they believed he had no right to rule. It is possible Herod also recalled – though only briefly – the massacre of a few boy babies in a town near his massive fortress Herodion, soon to be his tomb.” (Ray Vander Laan, Herod’s Family)
When Herod died, the kingdom was divided between Archileaus (who got Judea and the big bit), Antipas (got Galilee and Perea), and Philip 2 (who got the north-east bit). When Archelaus was to be installed he visited Caesar to ask if he could have more land. Now, Archelaus was known to be a bit of a monster, and so a delegation from Jerusalem also went to complain about Archelaus. Caesar let Herod’s wishes stand and so Archilaeus was installed as ethnarch, over Judea. Archilaeus had the delegation and everyone associated with it executed. Archelaus had all of Herod’s evil qualities, and his reign was as bloody as his father’s had been. We encounter Archelaus in Matthew Chapter 2.
After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene. (Matthew 2:19-23)
After about 10 years, the Jews were so fed up with Archilaeus that they sent another delegation to Caesar. This time Caesar got rid of Archelaus (banished to Gaul – where Germany is now) and installed Caponius and then Pontious Pilate. So, Judea was ruled by Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas, and Philip 2.
If you followed even half of that then you did good! But you get the point. It is against this backdrop that Jesus was asked by Pilate, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Was he?
When Pilate entered the headquarters for a second time, he summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Stop the video tape right there. Never has a question been imbued with such a heaviness in meaning, carried such a burdensome weight of millenia of cultural heritage, and slammed with such force against the prevailing power. Like a jackbooted foot hovering over a stationary ant, such is Jesus in the face of the unbridled power of the Jewish and Roman authorities. What did the word ‘king’ mean to Pilate? What did he know of Roman kings and, for that matter, Jewish kings?
“Where Kings and Queens still exist today, they mostly live and work within a carefully constructed framework. They are ‘not’ absolute monarchs, but ‘constitutional’ ones. They can bring subtle pressure to bear on politicians. They can let it be known that they would prefer one course to be followed, rather than another. But let them try anything more than subtle pressure, and people will get restless. Monarchs must now stay within careful limits.” But in the ancient world kings ruled in “an autocratic, dictatorial fashion without any semblance of democratic consultation… Kings ruled people according to their own wishes and whims… They were all powerful” (Tom Wright, 2002).
In the time of Jesus there were two powers at play – the Herod Dynasty and the Roman Empire. Both had ruthless, bloody, and powerful kings. So, when Pilate asked, “Are you the King of the Jews?” it was heavily loaded with preconceptions, judgments, and living examples. Does he mean a King like Herod the Great? A King like his ruthless sons Archelaus or Antipas? Or does he mean a King like the emperor Augustus Caesar or Tiberius Caesar?
If you think the Jewish Herodian kings were bad, the Roman kings were even worse. In the Roman world, it was assumed that if Caesar was able to defeat the Jewish people, then the gods of Rome must be greater than the God of the Jews. When the notice was nailed to the cross that read, Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews, it was not in any way in recognition of who Jesus was. It was a blatant disrespect; a sticking up of two fingers; from the Romans to the Jews. It was a message saying, “Look who is really in power here: not you; not you puppet overlords nor you insurrectionists. We Romans have all the power and we can crush you, like an ant, any time we wish.”
Jesus answers Pilate that his Kingdom is not the same as the kingdoms of the world. It is not from the world but it certainly is for the world.
The Roman emperors had a gospel. Caesar’s good news promised peace and prosperity to those who would bow down to him. Like the Roman Empire, today’s governments or organisations can become centred on power and believe their messages are the “good news.” Followers of Jesus believe that the Bible contains the inspired revelation of the Creator of the universe. ‘Gospel’ is the word that’s often used — the good news that God is redeeming a broken world through His Son, Jesus Christ. As Christians, we are called to proclaim God’s name in all the earth — often in the midst of false gospels in the world; a world that would tell you that Jesus is not the true King, that there are many Gods or many paths, or that God unknowable, or that the Kingdom of Heaven is not of or for this world.
When we sing our worship songs we proclaim that Jesus Christ is KING and that his Kingdom exists in the here and now and in us. It exists nowhere else and in no-one else; not in any earthly ‘king’. Oh, we sing it so easily and freely here don’t we? Would you be so bold as to sing Jesus is King under Herod Antipas? Under Tiberius Caesar? Under Caligula, Claudius, or Nero who burned Christians alive to light up the driveway so his guests could see in the dark on the way to his parties? The first Christians did. Will we be bold enough to proclaim that Jesus is King in our schools, in our workplaces, in our lodges, in our clubs, and in our homes?
Today, Jesus’ disciples must still bring God’s kingdom to every corner of our world, starting with our own cities, schools, and businesses. Some will find our message offensive. Others will see it as a threat to their own influence. We may even have to pay a price for speaking the truth, whether it be our job, our reputation, or our way of life, however wherever we live, and no matter who we encounter, we must remember that Jesus’ message is for everyone — even the very people who seem the most lost. Jesus never asked his followers to keep the kingdom in their religious clusters, he asked us to take it to every corner of the world. Will you take God’s message to every corner of your own community? Or will it stay hidden in your own private life or just in church?
So… let us be bold and proclaim Jesus as KING!