Caesar as Savior vs. Empire of Grace

“Behold your King!”

They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!”

Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?”

The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.”

So he delivered him over to them to be crucified.

— John 19:14–16

The way of the world often includes religion, but ultimately comes down to power. Jesus joined the call to challenge his own community to rethink reality in regard to power and authority. We are to continue that legacy.

Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. — John the Baptist

Repent literally means to rethink. When we rethink something that matters we redirect or actions according to our new thinking. John the Baptist preached repentance, rethinking that redirects our actions, and Jesus responded. He passed through the waters just like Israel coming out of the empire of Pharoah’s Egypt. Israel’s 40 years were re-lived in Jesus’ 40 days of testing. The ultimate temptation was to trust the adversary and create the most powerful empire. That is how this world works.

But Jesus refused. Jesus came to rescue us, but not from any specific empire, Egyptian, Roman or other. Jesus came to rescue us from identifying with any beastly empire of power and domination. Jesus came to save us from the dominion of darkness into the kingdom of light, the empire of grace.

Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. — Jesus

My goal with this message is to help us repent, to rethink this proclamation that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. As Christians we say we accept this, but it is not natural or easy for us to understand.

“The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” means that God’s ways of leading are here and now. We are invited to rethink, realign, and experience renewal around God’s unique idea of kingdom, of empire. We want to be encouraged that the empire of grace is where we belong and the ways of the empire of grace will be our ways.

A few years ago I was working with a tribe in Asia that did not have the gospel of the kingdom in their language. Several had come to faith but mainly through hearing the gospel via the market language. Many of their people did not speak the market language and so it was not only a good idea to translate the gospel into their language, it was essential.

I learned a lot about how language works, including how it does not work. Another team with a different tribe had tried using someone who spoke the national language and another tribal language to just translate some scripture on his own. They used John 3:16 as a test.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. — John 3:16

The man understood in Mandarin and rendered a translation into his tribal language. The translation team then took his translation to other tribal speakers who also spoke Mandarin. They listened to the tribal translation and then used Mandarin to explain what they heard. When John 3:16 came back from them it sounded significantly different.

For God so loved the world

For the God so lusted after the fields of men

that he gave his only Son

that he forced his eldest son to go among them

that whoever believes in him

that whoever is deceived by him

should not perish but have eternal life.

could not die but would become a hungry ghost.

What happened? Different languages have widely different numbers of words and types of words. Words are most commonly understood in connection to stories within a culture. The stories of the tribal people shaped their language. When words are used by ideas from another set of stories there can be a huge gap between what the speaker means to say and what the listeners hear. Without even trying we can automatically interpret what is being said according to what we already have in our minds. This makes learning something significantly different challenging for all of us. Jesus knew about this problem.

This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. — Matthew 13:13

Jesus’ people had a variety of stories about what it meant to be the people of God and how to overcome the problems of the world. When he wanted to lead them to rethink the ways of grace he had to be clever. Speaking too plainly would lead people to translate his teachings into the stories they already had in their heads. By using parables he slowed down the process of people assuming what he was saying. Communicating this way makes the ideas difficult to understand quickly, but if there is perseverance, a willingness to understand, the challenges actually help us to learn more accurately and to remember more deeply.

Publishing ideas in a hard-to-read typeface may make concepts harder to learn but easier to retain, according to a new study by researchers from Princeton University and Indiana University.

In the first, 28 participants between the ages of 18 and 40 were brought to a lab at Princeton and asked to learn about extraterrestrials, to limit the amount of already known information that could influence the test. The material was presented in either easy or challenging fonts. The subjects were given 90 seconds to memorize information about the aliens, distracted for 15 minutes and then tested. Those who read about the aliens in an easy-to-read font (16-point Arial pure black) answered correctly 72.8 percent of the time, compared to 86.5 percent of those who reviewed the material in hard-to-read fonts (12-point Comic Sans MS or Bodoni MT in a lighter shade).

The Parables of the Kingdom vs. Beastly Mascots

The idea of kingdoms, or empires, is not easy for us to understand. In the book of Daniel empires are described as various forms of monstrous beasts. The descriptions end up sounding like our culture’s idea of sports mascots. Our typical concept for a mascot is to express your local identity, but preferably to choose something powerful and scary to rally behind as you challenge your enemies: Eagles, Bears, Rams, Giants. Even the exception proves the rule. The Oregon Ducks are an ironic mascot choice, but the Richland Thunderducks are even more ironic.

Jesus was being more than ironic when he chose a donkey foal over a white steed as a mascot when entering Jerusalem. His parables, both in word and deed, had actively worked to deconstruct the assumptions of his people. God’s Kingdom is not just a fiercer version of worldly empires. Jesus wants us to struggle through his message and create new images and understanding about the world, ourselves, and God himself.

When Jesus’ disciples said, just show us the father Jesus shocked them. He said when you see me you have seen the father. I had always taken this as a stunning declaration of his divinity. But that isn’t the shocker. Jesus had already revealed that to his disciples on multiple occasions, though it would be fair to say what that means was not easy for them, or us, to fully understand.

What shocked them is what Jesus’ statement said about God. This happens throughout the Bible. Abraham thought God needed human sacrifice like the pagan gods, but God walked Abraham through the process of preparing to sacrifice his son in order to help Abraham deconstruct his understanding of YHWH as not just another local deity. God did not want Abraham’s son, God wanted Abraham’s trust.

The prophets work passionately to reveal that God used ritual to teach his people to rethink identity, but not for the sake of ritual purity. Rather this was for the sake of relational healthiness and ethical purity. Jesus brings this idea to a climax as he willingly surrenders power and allows himself to be taken. But as he does he is making a statement about who God, the I AM, really is.

Whom do you seek?”

They answered him, “Jesus of Nazareth.”

Jesus said to them, “I am.”

Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When Jesus said to them, “I am,” they drew back and fell to the ground.

-John 18:4–6

Peter does not understand this story and so he tries to translate what is going on into a Maccabean type story, one of an underdog rising empire violently resisting the dominant empire. But Jesus rebukes him, heals the damage, and goes with his captors.

The institution of the Temple was central to the hopes of Israel to return to political power of their own. The Temple leaders understood that Jesus was challenging their authority. They resented the imposition of the Roman empire but their own power was limited. Pragmatism moved them to approach the Roman representative. They needed access to Roman power to crush the threat Jesus presented to their own power.

Pilate was reluctant to accommodate the temple leaders. They had nothing to offer him for his trouble, so Pilate made a minimum effort to fulfill his duties as the representative of the Roman Empire. He bantered with Jesus in a disinterested way, but Jesus began to bring Pilate into his puzzles.

“Are you the King of the Jews?”

Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?”

Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?”

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”

Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?”

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world — to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”

Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” — John 18:33–38

Jesus as a King, but not one of this world, and not one that would fight to but one that listens to truth… what does that even mean? Pilate scoffed saying “What is truth?” but his befuddlement is more than that. What kind of a “King” is this Jesus talking about?

Pilate offers Jesus back to Israel but they don’t want him. He suggests that they use a get out of jail free card on Jesus, but they’d rather free a rebel. Pilate then punishes Jesus and the whole controversy by severely beating Jesus and humiliating him with mock kingly robes and crown. Pilate’s hope is that a medium dose of empire violence should be enough. But it is not.

So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Behold the man!”

When the chief priests and the officers saw him, they cried out, “Crucify him, crucify him!”

Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him, for I find no guilt in him.”

The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God.”

When Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid. — John 19:5–8

Israel’s leaders are adamant about their need for the ultimate power of empire, the power of death. They have nothing to bribe Pilate with and so they threaten him with blackmail. The emperor of Rome held the title “Son of God”. If Pilate let someone get away with saying they were the “Son of God” he would fail his duty to the empire. Pilate tried to understand Jesus. When Jesus did not respond, Pilate took his own fear and tried to push it onto Jesus. It did not work.

He entered his headquarters again and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?”

Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.” John 19:9–11

This is not just Pilate’s problem, it is our problem. Do we want to be like the religious leaders who betray their own values for the sake of political power? Would we rather deal with Jesus and his claims from the blatantly worldly side?

From then on Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.”

So when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Stone Pavement, and in Aramaic Gabbatha.

Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!”

They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!”

Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?”

The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.”

So he delivered him over to them to be crucified. — John 19:12–16

Like Pilate we sometimes try to avoid the issues raised by Jesus. We do not want to take a stand one way or another. But that does not work. The pushing back and forth between the idea that Jesus is dangerously threatening our way of life and the idea that Jesus is irrelevant keeps getting this puzzling response from Jesus. He is not afraid of us making a bad choice, but maybe we should be. Jesus does not need our affirmation. His existence and authority do not wait on us. He is who he is and our response to him matters.

Pilate chose the fear of the world and its unmerciful power. Why? That is what he knows. That is what he had given and received throughout his life. Power and fear are what makes the empires of the world work.

But Jesus’ messengers have a puzzle for us. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, but it is not the end. What does it mean to fear the LORD? Let me ask you this, what is something that you fear even though you know you probably shouldn’t. Have you ever tried to kill a mouse that was under something. What happened when it panicked and scurried out toward you? Did you jump? Did you squeal?

We fear what we do not control. A mouse running underneath us, out of our control, is scarier to us than something much larger and more dangerous that does not seem beyond our control. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” means that when you realize that you cannot control God you are wising up.

But what about God’s messengers, the angels? They say “Fear not!”

I cannot control God = fear.

I do not need to control God, I can trust God = no fear.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, but when you grow in experiencing the grace of God’s love it becomes the end of the fear.

Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but mature love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us. -1 John 4:15–19

Caesar is not the Son of God.

Violence and domination fuel empires without a future. Reject the ways of power that lead to fear and death.

Jesus is the Son of God.

Mercy and sacrificial love are the future. Rejoice with us in the empire of grace. Trust in sacrificial love, and fear not.