A Believable King
Early depictions of Jesus are my favorite. In art that appears in the first few centuries after his life, Jesus was depicted as a working man. Specifically, he’s painted, or cast in mosaic as a shepherd holding a young ewe over his shoulders. He’s dressed in the blue collar of that day. In these first, second, and third century portrayals he’s robust and strong. He looks like he could hog-tie a full-grown heifer one handed. Basically, the point is, that Jesus didn’t look like such a sissy in pictures that were made of him early on.
As time marched forward and the church began to command a budget, it commissioned art. Jesus suddenly started looking different. The three centuries of previous depictions would no longer be the iconic norm. Instead, pictures of Jesus became much more – what’s the word – oh yeah, girlish. I suspect that this shift happened because the church clergy, who commission the art, were robed academics, who had spent most of their time in dank church libraries. Their savior, as often happens, was cast in their image rather than the other way around.
Another contributing factor was probably the theologian, Origen and others like him. In the third century, he shifted the focus in the gospels away from a literal physical worldly kingdom. He wrote that the kingdom, spoken about by Jesus and the Old Testament, is a spiritual, and even allegorical kingdom. He majored on the idea that the kingdom is “in us.” This further cemented Jesus’ portrayal in church art as a soft-skinned mystic rather than a leather necked sheep toting day laborer. Jesus’ ghostly completion in the art of the following era made him look like one who sat alone in dark rooms humming strange sounds to himself. He became the inaccessible glowing guru that you probably imagine when you conjure up memories of “Jesus paintings.”
I bring this up because it presents a problem for us as we try to understand who Jesus was and is. One of the overarching themes in the gospels is that Jesus was a believable king and would command a literal kingdom. Even Pilate saw something in him when he asked him if he was a king. Jesus replied, “You say that I am a king… For this reason I was born and have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to My voice.” (John 18:37)
Not only did he claim to be the future King, but people jumped to that conclusion without being told. There are a number of places where people saw him as the rightful king of the nation without so much as a catchy campaign slogan or political poster to back it up.
Nathaniel, in the first chapter of John’s gospel, announces, “you’re the king of Israel.” Understand here that, Nathaniel wasn’t prompted, and hardly knew a thing about Jesus. However, the words that Jesus had just spoken to him convinced him that he was the king. Can you imagine a presidential debate where a single sentence secures votes? That’s the power of Jesus. Nathaniel wasn’t alone in this. (John 1:43-50)
Jesus was someone who the people believed could and should be king. In the same book, chapter six, it says that Jesus slips away from a large crowd because he knew they were going to make him king by force. (John 6:15) They saw him as a person who could command the nation. This wasn’t because of their great faith. Quite the contrary, it was because they had eyeballs in their eye sockets. Pretty much anyone who saw him recognized, “Yeah this dude could run stuff.” The establishment was threatened by him because he commanded a monarch’s following. The people were excited by him because he looked like a king.
So, Jesus was so powerful in presence, so imposing in personage that people believed he could be their King long before he ever revealed himself as the messiah. When the crowds watched him; when they listened to his words, it wasn’t like the previous teachers they’d heard. The people noticed that he spoke with authority. In fact, that was their first impression when he went public in Capernaum. Before he was doing miracles, he spoke like he was in charge. (Luke 4:32, 36)
People noticed that Jesus was utterly confident. His authority was evident. His decisiveness was intoxicating. They could see that he could handle not only himself but a nation. Leadership was written all over him. With a single sentence, he put to rest debates that had been raging for centuries. With a few words, he turned political traps into backfiring debacles. (Mark 11 & 12, Luke 20, Matthew 21 & 22) He was so good at debating that he threatened to end the political careers of those in charge and bring the whole system down on their heads in the process. He was so impressive in his rhetorical abilities that the most well-trained politicians, lawyers, and leaders started avoiding conversations with him. (Luke 20:40) He made the most powerful people in the nation scared to even engage, and instead, they opted to just kill him. (Luke 22:2, John 5:18) All of this represents the simple power of his words, to say nothing of his supernatural powers. He stood head and shoulders above the rest.
Now let me ask you something. Have you ever met someone that you think should be your king? I’ve had friends that ran for public office like School board, mayor, I even met a state representative a while back. They were vote-worthy but I certainly wouldn’t want them to RULE, especially not for all of eternity. I was adequately pleased to vote for those candidates in local and state elections, but largely because our political framework is a trial and error system. I was generally ok with voting for my friend’s dad for school board because I knew if he started pushing flat-earth curriculum, I could vote him out of office a few years later.
Now imagine this scenario involving Jesus. The people of his day knew that the messiah would usher in an everlasting Kingdom. Their scripture told them in plain words that their king would sit on the throne forever. (Isaiah 9:7) Those who saw Jesus and decided to follow him as the messiah were casting their vote for him as king. It was not a vote for a two or four-year term of office but forever. That’s an important vote! They knew that if they voted for him and he was God’s chosen king, they’d be stuck with him down through the ages.
One of the graces of God is that we only live so long. I know that sounds a little crazy, but think about it. In the first few chapters of the Bible God says that he cut the length of man’s life short. The sin of mankind grieved him deeply. (Genesis 6:3-7) Although it may seem like cruelty at first, it was actually a type of mercy and blessing. Imagine that the worst villains and murderers you can imagine could live for 1000 years. How many murders could they commit? How much suffering could they cause? Can you imagine the destruction that a criminal could bring upon the world if he was able to operate at his prime for 950 years? God shaved off about 800 years from the average lifespan to minimize the havoc and the number of victims evil people could effect.
So, the same goes for a king. Can you imagine having to live with an evil king for 1000 years? Wow, that would be a real stink bomb in your scuba mask. Imagine being Frodo and having to live with evil immortal king Sauron for all of eternity. You’d probably want to cast yourself into the fires Mordor.
Now, remember, when the people of Jesus’ day cast their vote for Jesus, they knew all of this. Well, not the bit about Frodo and the one ring, but they knew they were casting a vote for a king who would sit on the throne indefinitely. None-the-less they were still excited about Jesus as eternal king.
Those that were closest to him were his biggest supporters. It was those who had limited knowledge of him that opposed him. The ones that had seen and heard the most, spent personal time with him, and were intimately connected to his teaching were ready to die for this impossibly great king. They knew the eternal stakes, and still, they wanted him as king. They understood what they were voting for, and still, they longed for the kingdom to come upon the world.
Almost every political campaign has a street team. It’s a team of volunteers who hit the streets with flyers and pamphlets. Their goal is to convince the public that their candidate is the one true hope of the current election. Suppose a campaign volunteer shows up at your door with a flyer. In the course of the conversation, she lets it slip that she’s willing to die to ensure that her candidate gets elected. You’d either think she’s nuts, or you’d want to know more, possibly both.
Jesus had his own street team of very enthusiastic participants. His street team was a group of lion-hearted, lightning-eyed visionaries, that carried news of the coming king throughout the Roman world. they were unique as far as political campaigns go. Jesus’ volunteer base was willing to go to their graves in order to get their candidate elected. Many of the first disciples were so sold on this idea that they willingly climbed on crosses, put themselves in the way of spears, and got themselves decapitated to prove that Jesus was a maximally good candidate for eternal king.
Although it might sound like insanity, the reality is, these guys were not crazy. We know they weren’t crazy because they are best-selling authors who changed the world. Their writings prove them sane. The New Testament is packed with reasonable persuasive arguments, powerful narratives, and accurate historical accounts. These guys weren’t sun-baked wild men, they were logical, well-trained teachers, who strategically shifted the paradigm of the entire Roman world. They were impressive in every sense of the word. These guys weren’t crazy, they were world changers.
Impressive strategists, they were brilliant because they were hand picked and well trained by Jesus. Not only was Jesus a believable eternal king, but he had an incredible ability to turn unimportant Palestinian boys into unalienable leaders of thousands. He shaped the lives of these twelve such that they redirected the glacier of human history and struck out into a new direction.
Jesus’ pupils were convinced that their lives were less important than the kingdom that Jesus would bring. Their reasoned approach eventually brought the Roman machine to its knees. Their ideas are still studied today in the premier universities at the highest academic level. Their writings on judicial matters are woven into nearly all the articles that make up modern democracy. They have shaped the world in ways that are nearly unimaginable. They were trying to reshape the world so that it looked more like the future kingdom of God, one congregation at a time.
All of this was accomplished, as the result of their three-year training with this incredible philosopher King, Jesus. He spent less time with them than I spent in college, but his impact on these twelve men changed everything that the world knew about everything.
Jesus proved his ability not only by his works of miracle and message, but he proved himself a worthy king by what he was able to accomplish through the boys that he trained. Imagine what he could do with an entire world who trusted him. Imagine what he could accomplish with a planet-wide kingdom. Imagine how the world will look after year one of his empire rule.
Jesus was a believable king to those who witnessed his life. They willingly accepted the idea of his eternal rule. They gave their lives in loyalty to their king, and Jesus proved himself by his word, deed, and ability to prepare them for the work he sent them out to do.