Make the Gospel Great Again

A political reflection for Holy Week.

“Are you the King of the Jews?,” says Pilate to Jesus. 

Remember, Pilate is a governor, and it’s the time of the Jewish feast where extra armed soldiers were placed in Jerusalem to prevent rioting and revolution. There were great rumors circulating that Jesus was a religious revolutionary. So his greatest concern as a ruler is: “Does this man pose an actual threat to Rome?”

Are you the king of a people whose land is occupied by Rome and governed by foreigners? Are you going to get me in trouble with my supervisor? Are you trying to mount an army and start a revolution to overthrow our rule in this region? Is your “kingdom” going to break down our great and mighty kingdom expansion?

Can you hear the political overtones with the probing question, "Are you King of the Jews?"

It’s inherently political. As Aristotle famously said, “man is by nature a political animal." 

Now, as always, Jesus doe what we don’t expect. His answer is not an answer, but it’s a question for Pilate. 

[34] Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Basically, “Do you really think I’m a threat to the Empire or is someone pressuring you into this

Check this out though. Pilate has power (authority) over Jesus, he’s got the executioner at his beck and call. But John wants us to see that Jesus is no pawn in this plan. He knows what is happening and is going to drink the cup his Father has for him, pouring it out through the hands of Pilate. “I have power to lay my life down, and I have power to take it up again” Jesus said back in John 10.

The next few words are insightful for all of us living in America right now.

Listen: Pilate presses Jesus again to answer his question, saying “What have you done?” and again Jesus doesn’t answer.

Instead, he says: v. [36] Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”

Pilate is hell-bent on figuring out if Jesus is a threat, whenever he hears “kingdom” he’s thinking it’s in conflict with Rome. But Jesus is redefining the words of “king” and “kingdom.” And Pilate’s response is, “Oh cool, he’s not a political threat. He’s just a lunatic talking about some fictitious, imaginary kingdom in his head.”

When we say Christ is the King, what do we mean? Not intellectually. What do we mean, when we evaluate our deepest ambitions and our greatest desires?

Are we so into our politics—whether on the Right or the Left in our context—that we find ourselves more like the church carrying AR-15’s into our Sunday church service than not? Do we worship a King who wore a crown of bullets or a crown of thorns? Are we so into our politics that we find ourselves resonating with the battle hymn of our current republic—Make America Great Again—sung inside of an evangelical worship service? Is the Jesus we bow down to triumphantly made in our own image, or is he the Christ who was crucified? Which king is worthy of your worship? Which king are you presently rendering worship to?

You see, the danger that we all have to fight is the tendency to define kingship in ways that suit our own political ends. Like Pilate, we’re starting with our notion of what a king is in order to define who Jesus the Messiah is. Btw, Pastors do this when we appeal to our greatest donor base, our biggest tither, rather than listening to the conviction of the Holy Spirit to challenge assumptions and strongholds of this present evil age. The Bible confronts both Liberals and Conservatives, make no mistake.

But to understand the kingdom of God we need to reverse our notions about the kingdom completely! Jesus Christ, himself—alone—defines the kind of king he is and the kind of kingdom he rules. He basically says, “If I were to be the kind of king you’re thinking of, my followers would have fought rather than fled. They would have revolted, not ran.”

But honest question: which kingdom does your heart beat for the most? 

  • Do you want to follow a king who will do anything to get power, honor, and glory at the expense of his people? Or do you want a king who gave up his glory, honor, and power for his people?

  • Do you want a king who will give you economic gain and advantage at the expense of others? Or do you want a king who promises you eternal gain at the expense of himself?

  • Do you want a king who looks like you and rules with policies that you like? Or do you worship a king who, as Isaiah says “had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him”? Which king do you serve? Right now?

One more question.

And this is a hard question.

When Obama was President, were you more excited about what God was doing in America than now with Trump as President? 

Now flip that.

Are you more excited about what God is up to now with President Trump than you were a few years ago with President Obama? 

Are you more jazzed about Making America Great Again than you are about Making the Gospel Great Again?

Check your social media posts, are you always sharing the latest political drivel to squash your political enemies, or are you more excited about what God is doing in his church? For where your Twitter or Facebook feed is, there your heart will be also. 

King Jesus came into this world to give us what we need. We all want economic gain and for our party to win and for the losers to lose. By wanting that through, what we’re really saying is that we want an economic or a political savior. We don’t want Jesus. Instead, it’s clear that we are buying into the lie that money and power can save us from our deepest need and our deepest problems. But we don’t need a better President, we need a different King to be king over us. 

We don’t need a king who preserves himself by force and violence. We need a king who gives up himself for the forceful and violent. We need a king who is willing to die for us to give us the life he had.

You might be thinking, what the heck are you saying? And you’re not the first. Jesus as a King was both “foolishness” to the Romans and an “offense” to the Jews (1 Cor 1:23). That’s why they murdered him. But what will you do with this message? Will you walk away from the truth like Pilate did, shrugging Jesus off as a liar or lunatic?

“What is truth?,” Pilate quips.

Are you searching for truth right now, but walking away from the answers because you don’t have time for it? Or because you don’t see your need for it? Pilate asks the question then exits stage right. He wasn’t about finding truth, he’s about continuing life as it is. Is that you too?

So Pilate goes back out and tells the Jews “I find no guilt in him.”  And we come to the end of this story. Pilate finds no fault in Jesus, while his own people find fault and want to put him to death.

Pilate was hoping to resolve the problem by offering a no-brainer solution. The Jews have the custom to release one man each year, and no sane person would release a man like Barabbas. We know from the other Gospel accounts that Barabbas was a murderer and insurrectionist. He was a big troublemaker for both the Roman Empire and for the Jews. John only tells us he was a “robber.”

So Pilate asks them, “So do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?” (assuming they’ll do the reasonable thing and not let a real killer walk free. But what do they do? “[40] They cried out again, “Not this man, but Barabbas!”

Barabbas, by the way, means “son of the father.” They release the wrong son, and the true son of the Father is thrown into prison and later nailed to a cross. We can sit in judgment over Pilate, or the religious leaders of this time, and think I would have done it differently than them, or maybe I would have been a Peter or a James and John in this story.

I’d have cut off Malchus’s ear!

I'd have been sobbing for Jesus!

But the truth is, we’re none of these characters in this story. 

The ugly truth is that every one of us reading this is Barabbas. We’re the prisoner on trial. We’re the one who deserves death for capital crimes we’ve committed. Only they’re not crimes, they’re capital sins against a holy God and are deserving of eternal death.

The Jews released Barabbas because they couldn’t see their need for Jesus. What they revealed is that they are just like Barabbas.

They chose to release the person who looked most like themselves.

They are, deep down, liars and murderers, narcissist, and racists.

Guilty before God and haters of men. 

But in this great exchange of one sinner for a sinless man, we see what the gospel is all about. Jesus went willingly to the cross. He put himself in chains and let us beat him, put a crown of THORNS on him, and nail him to a cross. 

Jesus gets what we deserve so we can get what he deserves. He got our sin, and through faith in him, we get his righteousness.

When you see this great reversal for you, the one perfect, sinless substitute in exchange for your imperfect, sinful self, you’re free. When you see that he gave up his freedom to set you free, this is news that will change you forever! This is good news that sets you free. 

Jesus is the one who became a prisoner for me, so I could be set free. Because of Jesus, I’m not a robber, now a lover of power, not a lover of money, not a sinner, not a murderer, not a sex addict, not a gossiper, not a slanderer anymore. I’m free with a new life, new purpose, as a brand new person. Only Jesus can set you free.

Will you let him set you free?

Nicholas Davis

Rev. Nicholas Davis is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America.

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