Updated: Mar 28, 2022
This post corresponds with our Lenten Study Session series, On the Trail to Skull Hill. In this session, we discuss Jesus' kingship.
In Greco-Roman culture, emperors were seen as divine, indeed as gods. To say “Caesar is lord” was a religious slogan, not just a political one. This made the Christian affirmation of faith, “Jesus is Lord” (Rom. 10:9) not only an inflammatory statement among the Jews (for Lord was the reverential name for YHWH of the OT), but a flagrantly seditious statement among the Romans. Given their culture, this was not only a theological statement, but also a political one. The real divine emperor was Jesus. But he was no god-king in the Greco-Roman tradition, far from it. Jesus represented a Kingdom that turned Rome, really, the whole world, upside-down.
Sharyn Dowd makes some poignant observations about Mark’s depiction of the crucifixion that help us see Jesus through Greco-Roman eyes. Some of the particular details that Mark carefully notes suggest that he is intentionally trying to connect with an audience bathed in the expectations of a motif called the Roman triumph. This procession essentially inaugurated Roman emperors, dressing them in the purple, crowning them, and leading them to the top of a hill where a sacrifice was made in their honor. The ideal king was a figure who would heroically give up his life on behalf of his people. The triumphal procession was a way to install this heroic “ruler as a god” (Dowd, Reading Mark, 158).
In Mark’s account, the Roman soldiers cloth Jesus in purple inside government quarters. “A color permitted only to the nobility would not have been owned by any soldier such as the ones portrayed in this scene, but it was precisely the color of the cloak worn by the emperor in a triumphal procession, along with a crown” (Dowd, 158). This means the soldiers went out of their way, procuring special robes otherwise unavailable just to bathe Jesus in this triumph imagery, adding insult to injury. They also took to the painstaking task of fashioning a crown of thorns. Then they pledged their false fealty. Mark describes their mocking gesture, “kneeling down in homage to him” (Mark 15:19). Jesus was then led up a hill for the finale. Skull Hill (Golgotha) itself ironically alludes to the Roman triumph as these processions would end on prominent hills, giving topographical significance to the headship of the inaugurated emperor-god. Mark records that the wine offered to Jesus upon the cross was “mixed with myrhh” (15:23) which “was prized as the finest of delicacies” (Dowd, 159). Again, the soldiers procured ceremonial items as if Jesus was truly the divine emperor! Yet Jesus did not drink from this sarcastic libation. And, without realizing the truth of their words, the Roman guards etched Jesus’ title in their charge: “The King of the Jews” (15:26). At last, Jesus was offered as the sacrifice. “In this play upon the motif of the Roman triumph, the Markan Jesus is both victorious king and sacrificial victim” (Dowd, 159). For attentive Romans, God was not simply making his reality known through the symbolism of the Passover for the Jewish audience, but through the ironic triumphal procession of Roman emperors for the Gentile audience. What was meant for mockery, God purposed for mission. Those who caught the profound symbolism would witness the truth of the matter - that this was the God-King indeed. Dowd summarizes it poignantly:
“But all of this humiliation reveals to those who ‘have eyes to see’ the truth about Jesus according to Mark’s Gospel. He is the divine warrior-king, and this is the moment of his triumph. Here the king gives his life as a ransom for the welfare of his people. Here he saves others by refusing to save himself.”
- Sharyn Dowd, Reading Mark, 160.
This moment, with Jesus garbed in an imperial robe, hoisted and nailed onto a tree, wearing a crown of thorns, condemned to a painful death - this is his inauguration. This is surely an upside-down Kingdom. It is why the Gospel was “foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:18). And yet, the biblical narrative closes with this Warrior-King returning, not on a cross, but indeed on a horse.
Revelation 19:11 Then I saw heaven opened, and a white horse was standing there. Its rider was named Faithful and True, for he judges fairly and wages a righteous war. 12 His eyes were like flames of fire, and on his head were many crowns. A name was written on him that no one understood except himself. 13 He wore a robe dipped in blood, and his title was the Word of God. 14 The armies of heaven, dressed in the finest of pure white linen, followed him on white horses. 15 From his mouth came a sharp sword to strike down the nations. He will rule them with an iron rod. He will release the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty, like juice flowing from a winepress. 16 On his robe at his thigh was written this title: King of all kings and Lord of all lords. (NLT)
Revelation, written in a genre called apocalyptic literature, reveals the heavenly view of things. This is the spiritual reality of Jesus’ coronation - that he is not a mock king, but the King, the King of Kings. The dissonance between the earthly crucifixion and the heavenly reality can be called eschatological tension, tension between the world as it is and the world as it will be. Jesus, then, is the King of the already-and-not-yet Kingdom. Theologians call this idea “inaugurated eschatology” (we explorered this idea in a devotional video). Thus, we share in the delayed fulfillment of Christ’s Kingdom as we live between the ages. Though he is King now (already) and always has been, his Kingdom is not yet fully arrived. For knights of the Crucified King must wait to participate in his final glorification. This has grand implications for how we live daily as representatives and ambassadors of the One True King. We must keep this eschatological tension in mind, for as we live a life in response to Jesus, we should expect our lives to mirror more of the cross than the triumph. That’s how Paul sees it, as he reminds Corinthian Christians who have imagined themselves as already arrived at the fulfillment of Christ’s glorification. We join in the kind of procession Jesus experienced:
1 Corinthians 4:8 You think you already have everything you need. You think you are already rich. You have begun to reign in God’s kingdom without us! I wish you really were reigning already, for then we would be reigning with you. 9 Instead, I sometimes think God has put us apostles on display, like prisoners of war at the end of a victor’s parade, condemned to die. We have become a spectacle to the entire world—to people and angels alike. 10 Our dedication to Christ makes us look like fools, but you claim to be so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are so powerful! You are honored, but we are ridiculed. 11 Even now we go hungry and thirsty, and we don’t have enough clothes to keep warm. We are often beaten and have no home. 12 We work wearily with our own hands to earn our living. We bless those who curse us. We are patient with those who abuse us. 13 We appeal gently when evil things are said about us. Yet we are treated like the world’s garbage, like everybody’s trash—right up to the present moment. (NLT)
The hero of our faith wore a crown of thorns. He bore a cross. Nails pierced his hands. He was mocked. He was rejected. He was executed. The life of a Christian mirrors this - the divestment of our false bids to authority to find true ballast in the life of Jesus. As members of the upside-down Kingdom, we should not fear being treated as trash, mocked for our message, derided for our Crucified King.
Walter Brueggemann calls Lent an “alternative to empire” (A Way Other than Our Own, 10). How often do we want our stories to be about earthly victory? Isn’t the American Dream just another bid for a personal empire of increasing dominion? Lent indeed is an “alternative to empire” for it connects us with the reality of Jesus’ upside-down Kingdom. May we descend with Christ to ascend with him on the road of discipleship.