The Once and Future King ©
Throughout most of the history of civilisation, authoritarian rulers, often called kings, have governed humanity. Such kings have had a rudimentary covenant with their subjects in that, in exchange for some semblance of security, they granted themselves the right to lord it over the inhabitants of their kingdom.
During most of the history of Christianity, Jesus has been viewed as a kind of king – otherworldly, yet supreme. In fact, from the time of Emperor Constantine until the advent of modernity, Christ has been seen as the source from which earthly kings derive their legitimacy.
With modernity has come an often-misguided focus on secular and spiritual freedom, wherein rights have usually been understood to precede responsibilities. Kings have systematically been dethroned in favour of a variety of democratic systems, some in which the needs of the individual overrule the needs of the community.
This trend has run in parallel, not coincidentally, with the growth of so-called religious freedoms and the emergence of sects and personal forms of worship. To be sure, religious freedom is a good thing, but to be constructive, it must presuppose the existence of a developed conscience maturely oriented in obedience to the will of God. Otherwise it either leads down blind alleys or to various forms of agnosticism or atheism.
The Lord is king.
– Ps. 93
While a climate of individual sovereignty has virtually eclipsed the reign of kings, whether spiritual or secular, the kingship of the individual may at times resemble more the volatility that distinguished warring city states in medieval Italy than the more appealing portrait of Augustine’s City of God. Already, there is evidence of how wrong-hearted individualism can lead to tragic consequences, just as we have seen signs that wrong-headed authoritanism has led to brutal consequences.
The death of secular monarchies may well represent social progress and the advancement of human dignity, but it must not be replicated by the abolition of kingship insofar as God is concerned.
Fortunately, we already see signs that the kingdom of God is back in vogue, at least among those who understand the devastating effects of trying to remove God from human interaction. For such people, Christ is the once and future king.
Nonetheless, given our human understanding of kings and kingdoms, we must use these terms cautiously in reference to God. An earthly king is someone who both sets the rules and leads the kingdom in the execution of those rules. By definition, the sovereign is the final authority.
Christ is king of kings because, unlike other kings who set rules during particular periods of history and within a limited territory, his kingdom extends beyond all time and space. Christ leads in the execution of God’s rules, not with edicts, but by example.
Behold, your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on an ass.
– Matthew 21: 5
The best an earthly king can provide are the material necessities of life. Despite his humility – or perhaps because of his humility in relation to the Father – Christ the king provides something no other king can provide, that is life itself.
The dynasties of human kings rise and fall with the ebb and flow of political, economic, military and technological change. Jesus’ kingship is indestructible because his sovereignty is based on moral authority rather than the authority of physical might or wealth. Its scope is infinite, overpowering even nature and death.
Jesus tells us in John’s gospel that everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice. In fact, at his trial, he summarised his life by saying I have come to testify to the truth, to which Pilate responded – perhaps with sadness in his voice – on behalf of lesser kings: “What is truth?”
Christ is an authentic king because he reveals the truth as the primacy and power of love. God is love, says John. Nothing else is worthy save for love, says Paul who is perhaps the best instructor of Jesus’ teachings. It therefore follows that Love rules and that Love incarnate, that is Jesus, is the king of kings.
Paul adds in his first letter to the Corinthians that Christ must reign until God has put all enemies under his feet, and the last enemy to be destroyed is death…When, finally, all had been subjected to the Son, he will then subject himself to the One who made all things subject to him, so that God may be all in all.
Christ is king despite the fact that his style is not regal, as we normally understand the term. Quite explicitly he told us that he came to serve and not to be served. He told those closest to him that those who wish to lead must be slaves to all. For his sceptre, he took a rugged cross. For his throne, he took the barren hillsides. For his castle, he took open spaces where the Son of Man has no place to lay his head. For his tapestries, he took the lilies of the field, more beautiful that all of the treasures of Solomon.
Christ is the king of kings because no one can take this kingdom away from him, neither man, nor moth, nor wind, nor any form of evil.
Christ is king of kings because no other king can offer his subject such security, namely freedom from fear.
No other ruler can promise victory over death.
No landed lord can bring his subject to the dignity of reaching his full potential in the Spirit of Truth. As Peter said when Jesus invited his apostles to scatter if they feared the outrage of disbelievers: Where would we go; you have the words of eternal life.
To him was given dominion and glory and kingship.
– Daniel 7: 14
No other king can say I am the way, the truth and the life. No other king was there at the creation and sits at the right hand of the creator. No other king can say I am the Alpha and the Omega, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
Christ the king can claim to be the Alpha because he is the word of God, who was present at the creation of humanity, and became the perfect revelation of God on earth.
Christ the king can claim to be the Omega because, rather than have his kingdom end on the cross, Pilate inadvertently revealed the indestructibility of Christ’s kingdom that will last until the end of time. No force, no matter how oppressive, can limit the victory of the Resurrected king.
As historians point out, throughout Old Testament times through to the days of the early Christian church, the image of the messiah as king of kings brought with it the expectation that he was about to establish a kingdom that would end Roman rule. Declaring that Christ “shall destroy temporal kingdoms and introduce an eternal one”, several writers of the early church went on to describe in great details the changes that the coming of Christ the King would accomplish.
Even through to modern times, there has been a temptation to confuse spiritual power with temporal power. Yet Jesus made his position clear when he invited is to respect secular authority without idolatry: Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.
There is a long-standing tradition that presents Christ at once as prophet, priest and king. The evidence for his kingship is compelling, stretching into ancient times, climaxing with his own convincing words, and concluding with the letters of the New Testament and the Book of Revelation.
But kingship is a remote concept. One would be entitled to wonder what, if anything, this has to do with our daily lives.
In reality, we have a share in Christ’s kingship. We are kings in the manner of Jesus and provide genuine leadership to a people lost in the fog of self-centred materialism, whenever we function as instruments of God’s life-giving truth and God’s empowering love.
Leadership is a natural part of social interaction and is not limited to those who hold public office or head large corporations. It is a responsibility we all bear in daily life. The leadership we are called to is not one that would have us lord it over others. Rather, it is a ministry to be exercised in the spirit of truth and love for the good of the community in general and our brothers and sisters in particular.
It is leadership legitimised by virtue, rather than might: virtues such as faith, hope and love; humility, patience and courage; obedience, poverty and chastity; perseverance and wisdom.
Indeed, it is leadership characterised by wisdom, rather than wealth: The wisdom of God’s truth enshrined in the ancient law of Moses and summarised by Jesus himself as the authentic love of God and neighbour.
The mystery of Christ’s kingship is captured in the simple reality that he was raised in the utmost glory and promised to return in all his majesty at the end of time, all this without a whisper of triumphalism. The majesty of Christ kingship is both simple and marked by kindness and gentleness – the kindness and gentleness for which he was know by his disciples, those he called his friends, and those who have known him through the millennia, by way of their simple and loving spirituality: those who have come to know him by the little way.
There are numerous references to the kingship of Jesus and the kingdom of God in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, each worthy of special consideration. Yet, in regards to Christ the king, I invite you to mediate upon the following passage that, though it seems to summarise my entire reflection, perhaps fittingly does not even mention the word king.
“Let us profess the truth in love and grow to the full maturity of Christ the head. Through him the whole body grows, and with the proper functioning of the members joined firmly together by each supporting ligament, builds itself up in love.”
– Ephesians 4: 15-16