On what charges was Jesus Christ crucified? Was it that He was a prophet or teacher? Was it that He fed the masses, healed the sick, comforted the discouraged? No. The Jewish religious establishment opposed various aspects of His teaching and claims and was jealous of Him. Many even hated Him. But His laudable duties and acts could not be used to sentence Him to death. The Jewish leaders did not have the authority to impose capital punishment at this time. What, then, could they do?
In the final hours of His earthly life, a harassed and brutalized Jesus was taken by the Jews to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. They sought to have Jesus killed by the occupying power.
On what basis? “And they began to accuse Him, saying, ‘We found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar [which was a lie], saying that He Himself is Christ, a King” (Luke 23:2). The word Christ here means the same as the Hebraic term Messiah, the Anointed One—a reference to a coming King of the line of King David.
They knew this accusation would get Pilate’s attention. Continuing in John 18, Jesus stood before Pilate. In this momentous confrontation, Pilate asked Jesus, “Are You the King of the Jews?” Jesus didn’t deny it, but He stated that His Kingdom was not of the present world order. Pilate again asked, “Are you a king then?” (verses 33-37).
Jesus responded: “You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice” (verse 37, emphasis added throughout). This powerful answer encapsulated Christ’s role, purpose and gospel message—and it places on us who aspire to the truth the need to grasp this! What was Jesus saying?
“Behold your King!”
Pilate didn’t get it. But he didn’t see Jesus as an insurrectionist. Taunting the Jewish leadership, he asked the crowd, “Do you therefore want me to release to you the King of the Jews?” (verse 39). But those gathered refused. In John 19 Pilate had Jesus scourged, and the Roman soldiers mocked Him as King of the Jews (verse 3).
Seeing Him further brutalized, those gathered still called out for His crucifixion. When Pilate said, “Behold your King!” (verse 14), they cried out the more. Pilate asked, “Shall I crucify your King?” And “the chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but Caesar!’” (verse 15). Jesus was then led away to be crucified.
In that crucifixion a signboard was hung above His head giving notice of His crime. Pilate had not found Him guilty but gave in to pressure to punish the political offense. Pilate ordered that the placard say, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (verse 19). The chief priests complained that it should not declare Him King of the Jews but that He merely claimed to be—yet Pilate said it would remain as written (verses 21-22). Again, the listed offense for which Jesus died was a political one—that He was King.
But just what kind of king was Christ intended to be? Is this just a symbolic title for His preeminent position? Or does it relate to the actual duty of ruling over nations, directing governmental affairs?
Born to be King
Remarkably, Jesus was proclaimed King not only at the end of His human life, but also at its beginning and long before. As He told Pilate, this was why He was born. Announcing the conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary (Luke 1:26-31), the angel Gabriel told her: “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (verses 32-33).
This echoed a prophecy given centuries earlier: “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince [or Ruler] of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever” (Isaiah 9:6-7).
Both of these passages speak of literal government over people on earth. The world of Jesus’ time was waiting for a Messiah to bring far more than a spiritual revival. They were waiting for the One called “the Desire of All Nations” (Haggai 2:7) to arrive to bring about ultimate regime change. They yearned for freedom from Roman oppression.
When the wise men from the East came to pay respects to the young Jesus, they inquired: “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him” (Matthew 2:2). They learned from the prophecy of Micah 5:2 that the Messianic Ruler and Shepherd of Israel would be born in Bethlehem. So threatened was the Judean King Herod that he ordered the massacre of all children under two years old there to prevent this challenge to his own rule.
The Kingdom to come—a consistent message
Yet as Jesus said, His Kingdom was not of the present order. It would come in the future—and not over just Israel and Judah but the whole world. As the prophet Daniel had seen in vision: “Behold, One like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven! . . . Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His kingdom the one which shall not be destroyed” (Daniel 7:13-14).
Throughout His ministry, Jesus proclaimed the coming of this Kingdom over which He would rule on behalf of God the Father and called on people to repent and trust in this message (see Mark 1:14-15). He emphasized what it would take to be part of that Kingdom. It required His sacrificial role, but also His rule in our lives today. He taught the kind of attitudes and behavior needed for the Kingdom of God—the way of life absent from the kingdoms of men, which has resulted in all the misery we have in the world. And He sent His disciples out to preach the same message.
It’s interesting that just before He returned to heaven, they asked Him this last question: “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). They still firmly believed in the promise of an actual ruling government. Christ did not contradict their understanding. He responded merely that it was not for them to know the timing, and that they should continue their proclamation work until then (verses 7-8).
As they recognized, the only hope for the world is the establishment of the Kingdom of God as a real Kingdom on earth with Jesus Christ as a real King.
The closing chapters of the Bible’s last book show this actually happening. After smiting the national forces arrayed against Him at His return (Revelation 19:14), Jesus “will rule them with an iron scepter” (verse 15, New International Version), the nations now as sheep under a protective shepherd of unbreakable power. He will bear the name “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” (verse 16).
Jesus will finally replace this world’s corrupt, lawless rule that has inflicted untold misery on humankind. Then the time of true and lasting justice will begin—the time of the reign of Christ the King!