Jesus Before PilatePainting by James Tissot
The story so far: In the first two parts of this series (part 1, part 2) we've seen that, despite the widespread idea that the Gospel is mainly a message of God's love and forgiveness (although it is that), Jesus of Nazareth repeatedly defined it differently -- as an announcement of the impending establishment of the Kingdom of God. As we read through the accounts of Jesus' life, this kingdom gets closer and closer until he occasionally speaks of it as actually having arrived.
So now we come to the part of the story everyone knows: Jesus' capture, execution, and return to life. This brief installment will focus on that supreme crisis moment and what Jesus' final words were about the Kingdom of God he'd been proclaiming for so long. Then, in part 4, we'll look at the very different way the resurrected Jesus -- later followed by his students -- began to talk about himself and his kingdom.
The universe changed during these few days, and his Gospel and the kingdom it announced changed too: It changed in the way that something being announced changes when it finally arrives.
RomeJust before his crucifixion, Jesus is recorded as having made two important statements about the kingdom he's been proclaiming and his position in it, one to the roman authority in Palestine and one to the Jewish authority there.
His discussion with the roman prefect Pontius Pilate is especially interesting as we watch Jesus try to explain to a non-Jewish mind what kind of Messiah he is. Remember, the title "Messiah" carried very militaristic connotations to the average 1st century Jew or roman occupier, connotations Jesus had no use for. This is likely one of the reasons Jesus preferred to call himself "Son of Man," a more vague prophetic term that he could fill with his own meaning. But Pilate shows no sign of being familiar with that concept. So Jesus had to use another approach.
Pilate went back into the palace and called Jesus. “Are you the king of the Jews?” he asked him.
Jesus answered, “Does this question come from you or have others told you about me?”
Pilate replied, “Do you think I am a Jew? It was your own people and the chief priests who handed you over to me. What have you done?”
Jesus said, “My kingdom does not belong to this world; if my kingdom belonged to this world, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish authorities. No, my kingdom does not belong here!”
So Pilate asked him, “Are you a king, then?”
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. I was born and came into the world for this one purpose, to speak about the truth. Whoever belongs to the truth listens to me.”
“And what is truth?” Pilate asked.
(John 18.33-38, GNB)
Jesus confesses that he has a kingdom, but not the kind Pilate means, not a kingdom that "belongs to this world" and deals in battles and bloodshed. But when asked directly (for the second time) if he is in fact a king, Jesus prefers to define for himself what being king of a kingdom that doesn't belong to the world means.
IsraelTo the Jewish authorities however Jesus was rather blunt:
Again the high priest questioned him: ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed God?’
‘I am,’ said Jesus; ‘and you will all see the Son of Man seated at the right side of the Almighty and coming with the clouds of heaven.’
(Mark 14.61-62, GNB, and also Matthew 26.63-64)
Jesus blatantly called forth the image of the famous prophetic passage in Daniel 7 that the term "Son of Man" comes from:
I saw in the night visions,(Daniel 7.13-14, ESV)
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And 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 one
that shall not be destroyed.
Yes, he affirms, he definitely is the expected Messiah, the apocalyptic "Son of Man," on familiar terms with the "Ancient of Days" and inheritor of a kingdom that encompasses all the earth and will never pass away. The Jewish authorities were familiar with these terms, and knew precisely what he was claiming.
DregsJesus has one more brief discussion about his kingdom, this time not with leaders and scholars but, appropriately enough for Jesus, with the dregs of society -- a crucified criminal. “Jesus," he says, "remember me when you come in your kingdom.”
And Jesus said to him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."(Luke 23.42-43)
One does not enter paradise with the Messiah without being a citizen of the Messiah's kingdom. Just to draw the meaning of these pregnant words out a bit, Jesus is saying, "That day when I come in my kingdom? That day is today, and you will be there with me. The kingdom starts now."