What does a king look like? One of the images of royalty most deeply embedded in the psyche of the western world is of the Roman Emperor, Caesar, wrapped in a fine scarlet robe, a royal scepter in his hand, and wearing a laurel crown upon his brow.
This is the likeness, impressed on a coin, Jesus would have been referring to when he said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” The imagery actually goes back to ancient Greece and the Olympian god Apollo. The victors of the Olympic games were crowned with laurel in his honor. It is a sign of victory but also divinity.
At one time Rome was a republic, a system of checks and balances similar to our own meant to assure no one had absolute power, but Julius Caesar seized power through his military prowess and was honored like a god. It is frighteningly easy for a free people to hand their nation over into the hands of a narcissistic demagogue!
Julius’ pretensions at divinity got him assassinated, but after a long and bloody struggle his adopted son Octavian took the throne. He proclaimed himself ‘Augustus’ which means ‘worthy of honor’ and ‘majestic.’ If Julius Caesar was divine, he proclaimed, he was ‘the son of god.’ This is the very loaded political significance such a title would have held in Jesus’ day.
Augustus Caesar also took the title of Pontifex Maximus or “high priest”, firmly joining religion to his own royal authority. This was the good news, or the gospel, that Augustus Caesar, the son of god, was Lord and all the world would be united under him. All of the thousand year history of
had reached its climax in him and through his rule a new age of peace,
prosperity, and righteousness was inaugurated. Rome
Sound familiar? It should, because all of this grand royal symbolism is used by Christians too, not in connection with Caesar, but with a humble Jewish carpenter from
named Jesus. Here is the one true son of God. All of the long history of has
reached its climax in him and through his gracious rule all things are made
new. He is majestic and worthy of honor, the high priest of a new covenant
between God and man. This is the gospel, that Jesus Christ is Lord! Israel
He doesn’t much look like a king though. He doesn’t ride into Jerusalem like a conquering hero, proud, imperious, on the back of some majestic white steed, but humbly and meekly riding on a donkey. His royalty and divinity is hidden behind the veil of his humiliation, but the eyes of faith recognize him and shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
When Jesus came riding into Jerusalem on a donkey there is no doubt that the crowd would have been reminded of the celebrated rebel Judas Maccabaeus who, 200 years before, was hailed in Jerusalem in a similar fashion after defeating Israel’s pagan oppressors and cleansing the temple. The crowds expected Jesus to be a great warrior like Maccabaeus who would drive out the pagan oppressors with violence.
Jesus would turn upside down every expectation the people have not only of what a king looks like, but of what true power and victory look like. The enemy that Jesus is coming to defeat is larger than even the mighty
Empire and the salvation he comes to bring is deeper and more
universal than national liberation.
Jesus is coming to rescue not only the nation of Israel, but all humanity from the power of sin and death and to reconcile them to God. Mysteriously, the means of this victory will not be through the violent death of
enemies, but his own bloody crucifixion. Israel
Today, our joyful Palm Sunday procession has turned from celebration to betrayal and horror. Once the crowd realizes that Jesus has no intention of being the king they want, their cries of “Hosanna” are changed to cries of “Crucify Him!” The crowd chooses the violent revolutionary Jesus Barabbas over Jesus Christ. When presented with their one true king they cry, “We have no king but Caesar!”
In the events of Holy Week we see represented for us the perennial tendency of the human heart—originating with our parents in the garden—to trade the truth of God for a lie, God’s way for our way, freedom for slavery, the gospel for law, and life for death. We reject God as our king and instead give ourselves over to the tyranny of idols who enslave and oppress us.
The good news is that our sinfulness and rejection of God’s Kingdom aren’t the only things represented in the events of Holy Week. We also see represented the radical and transforming, one-way-love of God in sending Jesus Christ to rescue us from sin and death. As the scriptures teach us in Romans 5:8, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners Christ died for us.”
Even in the face of our rebellion God gives us his son Jesus Christ to be our king. The account of Jesus’ passion over and over again points us to the startling fact that God declared the very one who was rejected and crucified to be the king of glory! Jesus was wrapped in a scarlet robe, given a hollow reed as a royal scepter, and crowned not with laurel but with thorns. His persecutors mockingly bowed before him and paid him homage.
In the ancient Roman ritual of coronation, Caesar was similarly garbed, acclaimed by his guard as Lord, and led through the streets to a high hill followed by a sacrificial bull. Jesus too was led through the streets to a high hill. He could not carry his own cross so it was given to Simon of Cyrene who carried it for him. Jesus followed behind in the place of the sacrifice.
Despite the protest of the religious leaders, even the sign nailed above him on the cross read “King of the Jews.” An early Christian commentator named Chromatius writes, “These things were done to mock Jesus. But now we know these things happened through a heavenly mystery.” The events of Jesus’ passion are a kind of ironic coronation. Jesus is the king enthroned upon the cross! What looks like humiliation and defeat, to the eyes of faith, is glory and victory. Jesus shows us strength in weakness, power in gentleness, and that God’s love is stronger than all the world’s hate. This is what a true king looks like.