Most of us only know of kings and queens through fairy tales. Especially those who reside in North America, we have not witnessed the coronation of a royal, nor visited the museum that houses crown jewels. For most of us living in the modern world, kings and queens are the product of legend and myth, or remembered through history classes as those often tyrannical figures overthrown by revolution.
Yet, if you are part of a church that journeys through the liturgical church year, then you’ll be aware that this past Sunday, November 25 was the Sunday of Christ, the King. This special Sunday marks the end of the church year, and inaugurates the Advent Season that includes Christmas Day. This day, for Christians, celebrates and recalls the rule of Christ over all creation. Special hymns, Scripture readings, and prayers fill the day captured by the apostle Paul’s words to the Philippians: “God highly exalted him, and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”(1)
For many living today, the language of kingship may seem outdated or oppressive. And perhaps for many, the dominant images of kings and kingdoms conjure up thoughts of tyrants. We think of ancient feudal societies with despotic rulers and overlords, or power-hungry leaders who will stop at nothing, nor think twice about stepping over anyone who gets in their way. As a result, these images often negatively impact thoughts about Christ being called the King.
But the biblical imagery and descriptions of Christ’s kingship are not despotic or oppressive. The ancient Hebrew prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah, both envision a Messiah who presents an alternative vision to the stereotypical understanding of kingship:
“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth…the wolf and the lamb shall graze together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox…they shall do no evil or harm in all my holy mountain, says the Lord….Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I shall raise up for David a righteous Branch; and he will reign as king and act wisely and do justice and righteousness I the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely; and this is his name by which he will be called, ‘The Lord our righteousness.’”(2)
In addition to this prophetic vision, the way in which Jesus lives radically alters the human understanding of kingship. For, the earthly ministry of Jesus was not one of power, military might or oppression. Indeed, Jesus turns the whole concept on its head in a discussion with his disciples:
“You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to become great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.“(3)
Jesus argued before Pilate that his kingdom was not of this world. He understood all too well popular images of kings and lords and he specifically sought to undermine them. Jesus demonstrated that as king and as ruler of all, he would be the servant of all. Indeed, even the Incarnation celebrated on Christmas day is an example of this: God the Son, King of all creation, humbled himself to become human, even sharing the ultimate fate of his would-be captive subjects: human death.
For those who care to see and hear in a new way during this season of Advent, Christ, the King Sunday points us to King Jesus who did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, being made in the likeness of humans. It is before the rule of this servant-king that one day all will bow.
Margaret Manning is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Seattle, Washington.
(1) Philippians 2:9-11.
(2) Isaiah 65:17, 25; Jeremiah 23:5-6.
(3) Mark 10:42-45.