The book and television series Game of Thrones has brought the mythical medieval world of kings and kingdoms back into the contemporary imagination. The world it depicts is a brutal world of despots and power-hungry individuals who will make any alliance to secure their way to the throne. While there are some characters who place the good of the realm over family or individual ambition, most of the characters are a despicable lot maniacally driven towards power.
For those who hail from kingless countries, the language and images of kings and lords may seem at best outdated and the stuff of Arthurian legend, or at worst oppressive. Dominant images of kings and kingdoms as overlords, like those portrayed in Game of Thrones, conjure up images of tyrants living in ancient feudal societies who will stop at nothing and not think twice about stepping over anyone who gets in their way. As a result, for some the word “king” can hold fairly negative images and feelings.
Regardless, for Christians the language of king, kingdom, rule, and authority is inescapable. Christian’s celebrate the rule of Christ over all creation. The apostle Paul’s words to the Philippian church describe Jesus in the language of kings: “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)
In contrast to the images of despots and oppressive tyrants, however, the biblical imagery for the kingship of Christ offers a very different picture than what might be typically envisioned. Long before the advent of Jesus, the ancient Hebrew prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah, both describe a coming king who presents an alternative vision to the stereotypical understanding of kingship:
“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 in 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 lived radically alters typical visions of kingship. Despite the hopes of many of his followers, the earthly ministry of Jesus was not one of power, military might, or oppression. Jesus turns the whole concept on its head in a discussion with his followers:
“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 the 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. The birth of Jesus itself 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, the Christian gospel presents an entirely different kind of king than those who simply play the games of thrones. King Jesus ruled by becoming a subject and reigns by serving even those subjects who would reject him. Christ the King is one who emptied himself, one who took the form of a servant, one who came in the likeness of humans. It is this sort of king precisely who seems worthy of the accolade that one day all shall bow.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Philippians 2:9-11.
(2) Isaiah 65:17, 25; Jeremiah 23:5-6.
(3) Mark 10:42-45.