Luke 23:33-43, Christ the King


[November 24, 2013] Today is Christ the King Sunday. Why do we call it that? It is the last Sunday of the church year (the church’s annual “curriculum”). Next Sunday is the beginning of Advent and the start of another church year. Why do you think Christ the King Sunday is the last Sunday of the year? Since Christ was already a King at His birth, my take on it is that this Sunday refers to His taking the kingdom for Himself. Therefore I like to also refer to it as Christ the Victor Sunday. We end the year by celebrating His future and final victory at the end of time. This also sets the stage for our anticipation of His Second Advent.

The Old Testament often says that God is a king. We hear it all the time in the Book of Psalms. “The Lord reigns, He is clothed with majesty … Your throne is established from of old … The Lord is a great King above all gods …  Say among the gentiles, ‘The Lord reigns’ … The Lord reigns, let the earth rejoice; let the many islands be glad … The Lord reigns, let the peoples tremble” (a sampling from Psalms 93—99).

But this day does not celebrate that God is King. It celebrates God incarnate as King. It celebrates the God who has become flesh and was crucified as King. God, as He has come to us in Jesus of Nazareth, as a human being, is King.

Is Jesus a king? In what way?

Today’s Readings (Jeremiah 23:1-6; Luke 1:68-79; 23:33-43)

In Jeremiah 23:1-6 the Messiah-King is like a shepherd who gathers the sheep, keeps the sheep from scattering, leads them, feeds them and protects them.

In Zechariah’s prophesy (Luke 1:68-79), the Child in Mary’s womb is the Son of David Who saves the people of Israel from their enemies that they might serve God without fear in holiness and uprightness. He will also rescue His people by forgiving their sins. He will be like the sun rising to shine on His people who have been living in darkness.

What about in today’s gospel text, Luke 23:33-43? The Jewish rulers, the Gentile soldiers, and one of the criminals—they mock Jesus because He does not save Himself, which presumably a “real” king would, if He could truly save others, that is (this is their way of thinking). The indictment against Jesus was that He supposedly claimed to be the King of the Jews. (Actually, He did not claim this title; others who were friendly to Him called Him the “King of Israel.”) It was to mock Him and His followers that Pilate wrote, “The King of the Jews,” and not, “He said, ‘I am the King of the Jews.’” Look at your King, arrested and nailed to a cross. I, Pontius Pilate, have the power and authority to do this to Him. I am your king here, representing the Roman Emperor who rules the world.

Yet, in a quiet way, Jesus was acting with the authority of a King even when He was on the cross. First, He says, “Father, forgive them.” Presumably, God would hear His prayer and do as He asked. Effectual prayer—that is, prayer that God answers—is a kingly act, even when we do it. Second, when Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, Today you shall be with Me in paradise,” He was passing judgment on a criminal, and granting Him a pardon, not in a legal sense but on divine terms. In other words, He was forgiving this man his sins, which is something only God can do. Jesus was acting in the place of God, that is, with the authority of God. This is very regal.

But we still have to deal with the fact that this King was being crucified. It looks like Jesus is a victim, like He is powerless, like He is defeated. None of these are kingly attributes.

We need to consider this PARADOX of Jesus’ kingship. For the fact is, His kingship pivots on the cross. There is great irony in the fact that they were mocking Him for being a King at the very moment when He was exercising the greatest act of kingship in the whole creation.

Is Jesus Your King?

What do we mean when we say that Christ is the King?
If Christ is your King, He must rule your life now through the Holy Spirit in the way of the cross.

We know that, while for all other men death is the end of the road, Jesus used His death, His human end, as a weapon against sin, against the unruly powers of the self, against the rebellious powers of the world, against the devil, and even against death—the real enemies of God’s people. He was being a Warrior-King. He overcame these enemies, first in Himself and then in everyone in whom He dwells.

By His death He cleared the way for His rule to take place within us by the Holy Spirit. Jesus Himself actually rules us through the Holy Spirit. He rules us not outwardly by rules, but personally from within, by the Holy Spirit who leads us. If the Holy Spirit truly leads us, then Christ is ruling us as our King.

The Word of God—the Bible—does not command us from without. Instead it comes alive within us by the Holy Spirit. The Word of God is the witness to Christ that makes Christ come alive within us. It is as if the Word awakens the Holy Spirit within us, strengthening Her. Actually, Christ (as the active Agent here) makes Himself come alive within us—by means of the Word through the Holy Spirit’s presence and movement.

When Christ is alive in us through the Word and Spirit, then He leads us on the way of the cross, along the same kind of path that He walked.

His example becomes our mold or pattern. He always denied His own will—even though His will was perfect—to do the will of the Father. His will always agreed with the Father’s will, but He did not do the Father’s will because He agreed with it. He did it in any case, whether or not He would agree with it, renouncing His own will. He was most kingly when He was obedient to the Father and went to the cross. We are most like Him when we deny ourselves, take up the cross by obedience to the Father, trust the Father to provide for us as we walk on the way He has chosen, and refuse to save our soul.

But we cannot do this simply by outward conformity. It has to be from within, by the Holy Spirit giving life to the Word so that Christ may live in and through us. And this can only happen if we are people who pray, who pray often, regularly, and on the spot. If we live in prayer and meditation on the Scriptures, then the Holy Spirit can lead us in the way of Christ. If we do this, then we own Christ as our King.

His Way with Us

But He can only rule us freely, and have a free way with us, if we love Him. If, however, we do not love Him, He is still our King. By His goodness He will attempt to win us over and woo our love. But He will also break us down by His discipline. He will not take His hand off of us until we at last stop surrendering ourselves to other kings and other loyalties, and we stop trying to make our ego our king, and instead we put our faith and trust in Him. When we finally do that, we will discover that we love Him far more than ourselves (even if our petty selves still cling to us for dear life—because it is afraid, not willing to let go of us). Yes, we can love Him even when we have this struggle going on within ourselves.

Jesus is always the King because He will have His way with us. Let us come to Him, and pray, and—using the Bible—meditate on Him, until we love Him, and make His way easier on ourselves: until we own Him as our only King. It is worth it, for our Jesus is beautiful and kind. In any case, for us He will always be the King of Love.

The Firstborn from the Dead, the Firstborn of All Creation (Colossians 1:15-20)

Paul’s epistle to the Colossians goes deep. Some of you may think it is over your head, but it was written for you—it was not merely a letter, Paul wrote it as an “epistle,” to circulate among the churches—so it would be worthwhile for you to try to understand it.

The key that will unlock our minds in this passage is to realize that Paul is not just talking about God, nor even about only the divinity of the Son. He is talking about the incarnate Son, the Son who has become human in the Man Jesus of Nazareth.

He, this One, was in the beginning with God before anything else existed. He was not yet incarnate, of course, but He was never anyone else except He Who was going to become incarnate. God never had any other intention for His Son than that He become human, a creature. You see, in our minds, we think the Son could have remained simply God. The only reason that He became human was to die on the cross. But if that were the case, how could He ever be the Firstborn of all creation? In order to be the Firstborn of all creation, He would have to be Himself created! Yet, as God, He is not created. God is uncreated—by definition: God has no beginning. So how could the Son be the Firstborn of creation if He is only God?

He became the Firstborn of all creation when He became the Firstborn from the dead (see also Revelation 1:5). When was that? It was when He rose from the dead. His humanity became the Firstborn of the creation because the entire creation is going to rise from the dead in Him and because of Him. All creation right now is waiting for its fullness. It cries out in the birth pangs of delivery, the labor pains of giving birth—but it has not yet given birth. When the kingdom comes, His kingdom, then the creation—this creation—will come to birth. It will then participate in the fullness of God. He is the Firstborn from the dead because in His own resurrection His humanity was the first to participate in this fullness, and it paves the way for the rest to follow. He is the Goal of the entire creation. And because of this, He is the Heir and the Ruler of creation.

Let us listen to Colossians again. “He is the Image of the unseen God.” No one can see the divine essence; no one can see divinity as such. God as God is invisible. But Jesus makes God visible. We can see Jesus because He is human. But when we see Jesus we are seeing God, because He is also God. His single Person (His “I”) has two natures, divine and human, one naturally and the other by “assumption.” When we see this “I” in one nature, we see the “I” of the other nature. If God is King, so also is Jesus. In the Old Testament God was always visible through a “messenger” or angel, an intermediary (such as the burning bush). He spoke through His prophets. But in the New Testament, when Jesus spoke, He spoke as God (see Hebrews 1:1-2 in Greek).

He is “the Firstborn of all creation.” Literally, the firstborn refers to the first child born of his or her father (or mother, as in Luke 2:7 and Hebrews 11:28). In terms of rights, the firstborn son is the father’s primary heir (he received a double portion of the inheritance) and the head of the household in the place of his father. In most cultures, the firstborn has a certain superiority in terms of privilege and authority (see Exodus 4:22; Jeremiah 31:9; Psalm 89:27; Hebrews 1:6). How should we understand Jesus to be “the Firstborn of all creation”?

(1) He is literally the first born of the creation because He was born before the rest of creation. As the Son, He was eternally begotten, not made. That is, He had no beginning; He was not born at a particular moment but rather is always being generated of the Father (and thus John 1:18). He was the Firstborn of Mary, in His humanity, but not the first born of the creation. He was, however, the first born of the creation if we understand that He was “born” on the day of His resurrection (Psalm 2:7; see Acts 13:33) and the rest of creation will be born when He comes in His glory. His humanity underwent such a transformation in resurrection that we can say the Son was born with a “new” glorified (because divinized) humanity (though it was the same humanity that was thus divinized). He is also, therefore, the Firstborn among many siblings (Romans 8:29). We who are born again are born in our spirits but we await the salvation of our souls and the redemption of our bodies.

(2) He is also the first One given birth by the creation, first from the womb of Mary and then from the tomb of the earth. This is not often appreciated. What was born of Mary was One who is fully God and fully human, but what was born on Easter is One whose humanity has become fully divine. You see the difference? Before His resurrection, His humanity hid His divinity. Only certain people could see it, when the Father lets them. Now His humanity becomes transparent to His divinity and manifests it. His divinity shines through His humanity like light shines through glass. This is what creation is here for; contributing its own substance (through Mary, His human mother), it is also all a womb to give birth to this. He is therefore, in this literal sense too, the Firstborn of all creation.

(3) He is also the Firstborn of all creation in that He is the heir of the Father’s household and the head over it, ruling in His Father’s stead. Firstborn is used metaphorically to describe Jesus’ primacy of status over the entire creation, making Him also the heir of the Father’s entire household, which is the creation. Actually, the Father still rules, of course, but the Son—Who also participates in creation because He is human—rules the creation from within, at its Head (see Ephesians 1:22), with the Father’s authority. “He is the Image of the unseen God” to the creation.

This is why Paul goes on to say, “For in Him were created all things in heaven and on earth: everything visible and everything invisible, thrones, ruling forces, sovereignties, powers—all things were created through Him and for Him.” In the beginning of the Gospel according to John, we read that He was in the beginning with God and all things came into being through Him. Who was? The Word was, the same Word that became flesh and dwelt among us. After saying that the Word was in the beginning with God, John 1:2 then says, literally, “This One”—referring to the subject of his gospel, the incarnate One—was in the beginning with God. All things were created “in Him,” “through Him” and “for Him.” He—His sharing our human nature—is the basis on which all things were created; He is the reason they were created—they are meant to become what He now is; and they were created for Him—they exist for His sake, for His satisfaction and joy, and for His glory, to express His divine nature.

“He exists before all things”: the Son who already existed as God, with no beginning and no end. But in the will and intention of God, Who the Son became, in the incarnation and resurrection, was already the blueprint or master plan for the whole creation.

“In Him all things hold together.” The thing that holds the whole universe together, that gives it unity and coherence and direction, is its origin and future in Jesus Christ, born of Mary and resurrected from the dead. Apart from Him none of it would make sense. It would just as well be random chaos. Even physically, I think, all the matter and energy and even the fabric of space-time would not hold together.

Jesus Christ then is the King of all creation, the King of everything that exists, every atom, every galaxy.

This One then, who is the King over all creation, is the Head of His own body, which is the church. The church already participates in His resurrection: not physically, but spiritually, and—partially—in our souls. In the resurrection our bodies will also participate in His resurrection. Christ in us is therefore the beginning of the new creation—after the first beginning in Himself, the resurrection of His own body.

“He is the Beginning, the Firstborn from the dead.” He is the beginning of the transfiguration of the entire creation. He began to be this when He rose from the dead.

The Overcoming (Colossians 1:11-14, 18b-20)

But now Paul introduces a negative note, for the first time. In order to be the Firstborn of all creation, He must be the Firstborn from the dead! The creation right now is subject to futility, to the chaos of meaninglessness because it is subject to death. Death is the end for everything. Everything dies. In particular, human death has come in as a result of sin. Because we are so destructive, death comes to all of us to put an end to our activity. It is God’s judgment on our activity. No matter who we are, God says, “Enough.” Jesus raised a few people from the dead, but He merely reversed death for them and gave them back what death took from them, and death will take again. But when He rose from the dead, He actually overcame death itself, defeating it so that now He cannot die. By overcoming death, He overcame our separation from God: He overcame sin, the world and the devil.

When the people mocked Him on the cross, they saw death as the end, but, for Jesus, death was the weapon by which He would overcome our enemies. It was not the end for Him but the beginning.

When He emerged from the tomb, He was supreme in every way. How? Paul says, “God wanted all fullness to be found in Him.” In His resurrected humanity, all the fullness of God was in Him, in His very humanity, radiating through it. His humanity now had all the characteristics of His divinity, without separation or division, yet without change or confusion. It transcended space—He could go anyway and be anywhere He chose for He was now everywhere. It transcended time—His humanity retroactively became eternal, without end and, yes, without beginning.

“God wanted … through [Christ] to reconcile all things to [God], everything in heaven and everything on earth, by making peace through [Christ’s] death on the cross.” Jesus’ death reconciled everything in the universe to God, making peace. It ended the rule of sin, which distorts creation, and makes way for the rule of God.

First of all, “in Christ” we enjoy redemption and the forgiveness of sins, and as a result we have been rescued from the ruling force of darkness and have been transferred to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son where we share the lot of all God’s holy people and with them inherit the light.

Secondly, we are being fortified (strengthened) with all power, in accordance with Christ’s glorious (resurrection) strength, to persevere and endure whatever the world throws at us. The world is in rebellion against God, but we are here, called out of the world, to represent the kingdom of God that is coming. Christ shares His own strength with us to enable us to persevere and to endure until He comes.

Third, everything in heaven and on earth has been reconciled to God by Christ’s death on the cross, so that one day God will overcome all His enemies, the kingdoms of the world will be overthrown, and God’s kingdom will rule over all without resistance. This is when the whole creation comes to birth as Paul says in Romans 8:22. The whole creation will be “headed up” in Christ (Ephesians 1:10) and become like Him in His resurrection.

What do we mean by “Christ the King”? All this. It means that He become in us—and we thus become—what He has become in Himself. This is happening now when we live in the Holy Spirit. At the end (the telos) of the age to come, He shall be all in all, that is, in the whole of creation; but it begins with us who are awake and aware (Ephesians 3:19; 1:23).

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