The crowd watched as the three men were hoisted high above them, silhouetted against a dark sky. The men’s soft moans were barely audible over the sound of jeers and insults, punctuated by a few sobs from the back of the crowd. Further away, a group of men in robes stood watching, grim satisfaction on their faces, pleased with a job well done. That was at least, until a young man in Roman armour propped a ladder against the cross in the centre, climbed it and nailed a board above the head lacerated by a crown of thorns. The satisfaction on their faces slowly turned to rage as they read the white inscription daubed on in Hebrew, Greek and Latin: JESUS OF NAZARETH, KING OF THE JEWS. As the Roman official overseeing the execution walked past, his work done, the priests shouted at him “why have you done this?”, to which the man responded “on the orders of Governor Pilate”.
Why write this? what was so incendiary about this inscription? Well, it gave the man on the cross the title prophesied that he would hold, but that the priests denied was his. Jesus Christ, descendant of the royal line all the way back to King David himself, the Son of God, was that day proclaimed king.
But what a strange King he was, for there was never one like him before or since. Nothing about this man would ever have struck anybody as Kingly. Born literally in the straw, from a mother who would have been considered a bit of a wrong’un (pregnant and unmarried), growing up in a less than desirable part of the neighbourhood, who was a carpenter until the age of thirty, decided one day to quit that job and become a travelling preacher! People who knew him must have thought he’d lost his mind!
Once this campaign started, he starts preaching his manifesto for his Kingdom. But it’s not a manifesto like we’ve ever heard of; it’s one where the meek will inherit the earth, that tells you to love your enemies, give to the poor as help the sick. He surrounds himself with the most motley assortment of people, the weirdos, the outcasts, the money-lenders, scabs, hookers and diseased. His own closest followers are uneducated country bumpkins from the middle of nowhere, not the generals, priests and the wealthy diners one normally needs for a revolution! Even worse, he shuns those people in favour of the outcasts! And he touches them! Rather than remaining aloof, away from the unwashed rabble, he rolls up his sleeves and gets on in there, with no fear for his personal health! He touches the blind, the lame, the mentally ill, the lepers and even the dead! He gives out food, washes feet and hugs those who need them. He acts with compassion, not judgement, never turning anyone away who might accept his help! In this way, he became a revolutionary, a man at the vanguard of a new way of life, one that chose to value all people, not just those with power and influence. Anyone could join his movement, regardless of status.
But all revolutionaries run afoul of the authorities eventually, especially when his own people turn on him. They come for him in the night. They put on a show trial with a predetermined outcome. Even when the Roman governor can’t find fault, the frenzy of the crowd cowes him. He releases Barabbas instead, a violent militant on the removal of Roman power. And the self-proclaimed king? Is nailed to some wood and left to die on a hill, his friends, family and followers left to watch as he agonisingly dies.
The Act of Dying
I’ve spent a lot of time reading about death. In history it’s unavoidable. Everyone dies, including Kings and revolutionaries, and they range from the heroic to the cowardly, from the mundane to the ridiculous. But this death is the strangest, and I’ve only just realised why.
One point is that Jesus’ death is kind of pathetic from a human point of view. If you were a King, you may want to die in battle, having cut down a dozen men in a heroic last stand that echoes down through the ages. If you are a revolutionary, perhaps you want the same, maybe after delivering a heroic braveheart-esque “FREEDOM” that ignites rebellion in the populace and that leads your face being plastered on t-shirts and the walls of teenage idealists. But Jesus dies without shouting, not ordering his followers or cursing his enemies. No heroic battle-cry, just suffocating slowly, hanging from a cross. Not exactly epic, is it?
Were the Bible pure propaganda, then you would expect something different. Perhaps a defiant Jesus, killing several people before being overpowered. A Jesus who at his trial delivered a speech so rousing that it rallies people to the cause, causing a revolt and the overthrow of the Roman autocracy. But the Bible doesn’t do these things. It chooses to tell us how the son of God died in public view, slowly suffocating as the pain in his hands and feet grew too unbearable to support his weight to breathe. It chooses to tell us of his cry out to God “My God, my God, hey have you forsaken me!”. It chooses to say he forgave rather than cursed. All this, because that’s what the revolution was about. Love, forgiveness and honesty.
But there is another, far more crucial thing at play here. You see, Kings are kings and revolutionaries are revolutionaries because they are the leaders. They are the names on the banners, the faces on the leaflets, the statues in the town squares. Their image and prestige are everything to their people. They are indispensable. But that means the people, their subjects, are in some way disposable.
Rarely does a King fight on the frontline. They send people to fight for them, choosing instead to sit on their horse overlooking and perhaps directing proceedings. The members of our armed forces swear allegiance to the King or Queen of the day. The President if the United States is the Commander in Chief of the armed forces. And the same is true for all leaders throughout history; they all require grunts to do their bidding for them, and in many cases die for them. For millennia men have marched to war for the cause of their ruler, who does not put himself in harms way, except if he may achieve some glory. And when they are in danger, it doesn’t really matter how many of their people might die for them. When the wolves are at the door, the royals and people of power are often last to die, staying safe behind their walls as the ordinary ones are beaten and killed.
And that’s the distinction between them and the King Jesus. Because Kings don’t die for their people – their people die for them. Thousands, perhaps millions of men may lay down their lives in blood-soaked battlefields for their monarch or leader. But in this case this King, a King who could have wielded power beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, chose to die for his people, and not have his people die for him. His death didn’t come at the end of a long war, with thousands already perishing for his cause. He saw the danger, the threat of sin and death to his people, to all people, and chose to face it himself.
But also unlike other Kings or revolutionaries who die, Jesus is alive now. When these other Kings die, no matter how much wealth they may have had, will end up just like the rest of us plebs, rotting in the ground as worm food. But this man Jesus through his death conquered sin and the power of death itself, and by so doing broke the chains of the rest of us. This King chose to die for you. But his death means new life for us. No other leader would do that for you. So, maybe question your allegiances, because the King who died for you offers something far greater than anything in this world.