Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology

Authority's Question and Questioning Authority

by Leonard J. Vander Zee

Scripture: John 18:33-38
Preached: November 25, 2001
Location: South Bend Christian Reformed Church

I was talking to someone this week about some issues in his life and said, "You've got a problem with authority." He did. People in authority set him off. It was like dropping a match into dry kindling. Predictably, he was of my generation, the baby-boomers. That's why I recognized his problem. We're the ones who marched and burned flags and bras, and invented the bumper sticker, "Question Authority." Interestingly, I have found over the years that those who have the most problem with authority have, at one time or another felt betrayed by it.

So here we are at the climax of the Christian year, and the final word, the final theme, the final image of the year is this: Christ the King. As a worship planner, your first thought is to get out the trumpets, sing bright hymns with a march-like cadence, and spruce up the liturgy with shouts of praise.

There's an enigmatic quality to the day. Christ the King. Few kings today have any real power. Most monarchs are ceremonial figureheads at best, bumbling exiles like the King of Afghanistan, at worst. In a world of democracies and dictatorships, kingship sounds musty and old fashioned; it seems triumphalistic and politically incorrect.

Yet God's sovereign rule is basic to our faith. We learned it in the sandbox theology of Sunday School. Ask any child who made the world and who's in charge and he or she will patiently explain how God made the sun the moon and the stars, the animals, trees and dinosaurs, and us. Everything belongs to God. It's basic to all theology. It's what makes God God. That same power and authority extends to Jesus Christ. It was the cry of the early church; "Jesus Christ is Lord and King." The whole kingdom metaphor of divine power and authority now belongs to Jesus as well, because he is God's son, kin to sovereignty, so that what belongs to God belongs to Jesus. At the end of the ages, all of creation and heaven too, gets rolled up like a carpet and laid at Jesus' feet, and he will be all in all.

You would think that if you have trouble with authority and the power it wields, you would have trouble with Christ the King. But, strangely, the Bible teaches us that it's ultimately Christ the King who delivers us from our authority problem. Here is the authority that will not let you down.

It's all packed into this story, this climactic showdown between Pilate and Jesus. It's a clash of power and authority-who's in charge.

It was a tense scene. The chief priests, Sanhedrin, and the temple police brought Jesus to Pilate's headquarters after a long night of questioning. Jesus had to be killed, his truth struck at the foundations of their power. But they had to have the approval of the Roman procurator.

After a prickly interview with his Jewish accusers, Pilate goes inside to get the facts and decide the case. "So, you're the King of the Jews, are you?" Was this said in mockery, or in the matter of fact tone of a bureaucrat trying to do his job? I think that latter.

But Jesus response is astounding. He certainly acts like a king of some sort. In John's gospel, Jesus is never a victim; he's always in control of the situation. His reply to Pilate is hardly deferential. Pilate asks, "Are you King of the Jews?" Jesus replies with his own question, "Is that your own idea or theirs?" Very shrewd. If the question came from Pilate it would be something like this: Are you claiming to be some kind of king challenging the authority of Rome? The answer is clearly, No. But if it were a Jewish question, it would be something like this: Are you the messianic king of Israel? To that the answer would be, Yes. So Jesus, like a skillful attorney, wants to know who's asking the question and what it means?

Pilate is put on the spot, and he doesn't like it. He nearly spits his disgust with the Jewish leaders who wouldn't even enter his house; "I am not a Jew and I? It's your own people who have handed you over. It's all part of their political-religious garbage with self-proclaimed messiahs who were nothing but dangerous terrorists. Now let's get down to brass tacks. What have you done?" For some reason his mouth is going dry. There's something unsettling about this man who may be king of nothing but stands before him with remarkable dignity and cool confidence.

So, now Jesus knows where Pilate's coming from. Pilate needs a lesson in the politics of God's kingdom. "OK", says Jesus, "You want to know who I am and what I'm all about, I'll tell you. Call me a King, I'll accept that, but then you must understand it by my terms and my definitions, or you won't understand it at all." Then Jesus speaks the words that form the hinge on which this whole drama swings, "My Kingdom is not from this world." But what does he mean?

The issue here is not the extent of Jesus' power and authority as King. Jesus is not saying his rule and authority is purely spiritual, otherworldly, having little or nothing to do with life here and now. His reign extends to every square inch of creation; his dominion is over all.

It's interesting how in this country people sometimes suppose that matters of faith have has little or nothing to do with this world. It's about heaven, not earth; it's about religion, not politics. The Kingdom of God is about the personal, and private side of life, not the public and communal. Of course, when the chips are down, and God can be of some public use, God gets dragged into the public life to back our cause. Witness the "God Bless America" frenzy since September 11. It began as a sincere impulse responding to the shock of the terrible attack. It's become a charade, whereby everyone from store owners to lawyers display their God and country patriotism, hoping that a God wrapped in the flag will gain customers. After seeing all the signs in front of churches, I wondered about our own sign: God bless Afghanistan!

What is Pilate worried about? Well, he's worried about a threat to the political power of Rome and to his own civil authority. There is only one kind of politics to Pilate, and it is the kind that requires the exercise of power.

"My Kingdom is not from this world." The issue here is not the extent of Jesus' Kingdom rule and authority, but its origin. Where does it come from? Jesus says his kingship does not originate in this world, it is not cut from the same cloth as the kingdoms of this world. The Kingdom of God is the coming of God's judgement and salvation to the world. Therefore Jesus' kingly power and authority rests on a completely different foundation than the power and authority of Rome. It has a different origin and employs different tactics.

"If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here." (18:36) Jesus is saying, "I refuse, I reject, the use of power or coercion to win the world to my kingdom." Then how does this Kingdom operate? How does it conquer? The answer rings clearly from every page of the gospel. Love! In the words of our hymn today: "For not with swords loud clashing/ or roll of stirring drums. / With deeds of love mercy/ the heavenly kingdom comes.

When Pilate and the Jewish authorities had exercised their ultimate weapon, the weapon of violence, when the true and only King was nailed to a cross, there, the Bible says, he was lifted up as King and would draw all people to himself. The heartbeat principle of the Kingdom of God is this: Love conquers all.

Jesus repeats again, "My Kingdom is not from here." Pilate finds this theological discussion tiresome. Pilate is a practical man and the business at hand is the defense of the power of Rome. That's all he cares about. He cuts to the chase. "Well, then, You are a King?

Here it is; a straight question that deserves a straight answer. Yes or no, are you or are you not a king? But Jesus is not about to be trapped in Pilate's practical logic, or stumble into Pilate's definitions.

"You say that I am a king." Or as one translator nicely puts it, "King is your word, not mine." Having told Pilate what his kingdom is not, Jesus now sets out to tell him what it is. "For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."

His kingdom is a kingdom of truth. His royal mission begins in heaven and he has a divine mandate. He was sent to unveil the truth. Now when Jesus talks about truth he's not talking about honesty or truthfulness. He's not saying he is merely here to say true things. He is the truth. Truth in John's gospel is reality, God's reality. His voice is God's voice. His words are God's words. Everyone who recognizes the ring of truth in him belongs to the truth. The very Creator of all things has revealed himself in the world through this one authentic man. He is the King of truth.

Now Pilate has had it up to here. "What is truth!", he says, and turns around to deal with the Jewish leaders. What does all this talk of truth have to do with the reality of power politics that was going on outside his door?

The irony is that Truth is the only authority and power that Jesus wields. He stands as the naked truth that upholds the universe before the lies of religion and power politics. The religious leaders refuse to listen to the truth, and Pilate isn't listening either. They will ultimately conspire together to destroy him. But the truth cannot be overcome. It is the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

Jesus' confrontation with Pilate reaches out across the centuries to us. Do we accept Jesus as the voice of truth, the authentic and final revelation of God? If Jesus is our Lord, then no other power is stronger than his. If Jesus is the King of truth then every other claimant to be the ultimate truth in our lives is a lie. If Jesus is our sovereign, then no other authority can be ultimate in our lives. You see, this is serious stuff. Declaring allegiance always is.

Now we're back to where we began-- the strange ambivalence we have with Christ the King, the struggle of power and authority in our lives. On one level it's a cultural struggle. The voices of political correctness demand multiculturalism and diversity, many truths, many ways to God. The Bible says there is only one truth, one reality, and Jesus claims to be it. On another level it's a personal struggle. Our fear, of course, is that this one truth will stifle us, this one Lord will tyrannize us, and under his authority we will lose our personal power and autonomy.

In John 8 Jesus has a telling conversation that bears directly on the issue of truth, authority, and freedom. "Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." They're wary of Jesus claim to truth. "We're free people, we're children of Abraham," they say. Jesus answered them, "Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed." (8:31-36)

"If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed." Theologian Alice Camille says that if the voices of our past sins and struggles tell us that everything is hopeless, we may turn from the lie and embrace our true hope in Christ the King. If our parents or teachers told us that we will never amount to anything, we must to refuse that authority and affirm our value as the brothers and sisters of Christ the King. If our families, or friends or coworkers tell us we are not free to change or grow, we have to shake loose from that bondage and celebrate our freedom to be what Christ the King calls us to be. If any person or circumstance, or power draws us into servitude to a world that will only rust and decay, we must listen to the voice of truth in Christ the King

The celebration of Christ the King has high stakes. The usual controlling forces of this world-the media, public opinion, fashion, military might, patriotism, and materialism -these have no sovereignty over us. The authority of Christ is not just another voice among many; it is the only voice we need to listen to. His kingship of truth will set us free. If we do not bow before Christ the King we will continue to bow before the tin-horn sovereigns of this world, we will sacrifice our lives and integrity at countless other altars of false gods. If we do not listen to the truth of Christ the King we will listen to a cacophony of voices, beckoning, demanding, enticing our obedience, while they spin their web of lies.

The voice of true authority does not crush us. The King of truth does not tyrannize us. Christ the King restores us to our truest self as God's beloved children created in his image, redeemed by Christ blood, and destined to share in his royal glory. Here's an authority you can trust. Here's a King to whom you can offer your heart. Here's a King who will usher in a New World-a shining new creation. Let us declare our allegiance to Christ the King.


Rev. Leonard J. Vander Zee is editor in chief for Faith Alive Christian Resources and was previously the ordained pastor of the South Bend Christian Reformed Church of South Bend, Indiana for 16 years. He is the author of the books, "Catch Your Breath: Bowing but Not Scraping," "Christ, Baptism and the Lord's Supper: Recovering the Sacraments for Evangelical Worship."

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