Jesus Christ is strongly identified as the king prophesied in the Old Testament in the Gospels of Matthew (see 21:5) and John (12:15) and he receives royal enthronement in the Letter to the Hebrews (1:3, 8) and the Book of Revelation (17:14; 19:16). By contrast, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is called king only in the mockery of his enemies. In the letters of St. Paul, the kingship of Christ goes completely unmentioned. In Luke, while the Angel Gabriel announces to Mary that Jesus will receive kingship from God, only outsiders call Jesus “king.” The same is true in the Acts of the Apostles.
Jesus Christ has been venerated as a king in many places by Christians over the centuries, but the liturgical feast of the Kingship of Our Lord Jesus Christ was not celebrated officially by the Church until its promulgation in the 1925 encyclical Quas Primas by Pope Pius XI. Why this discrepancy in the celebration of this aspect of the Son of God? The answer has to do with the different cultural nuances that the title “king” held in different times and places in the life of the Church.
Honoring Christ’s Kingship
Throughout the course of Church history, from the earliest days to modern times, royalty has meant many things, and “kingship” has had a variety of manifestations that have ranged from benevolent leader to violent loser. Where the Roman Empire dominated, the only kings in view were weak puppets of the real lord of the empire, the reigning Caesar. This probably explains why St. Paul and the author of Mark and the author of Luke and Acts never focus on the honor of “king” for Christ. We also know that from the earliest days of the Church and through the Middle Ages petty “kings” often made life difficult for believers. Later, more powerful kings interfered with Church rule with devastating practices, including graft, simony and nepotism. Even in more modern times, the absolute monarchs in Europe were often despicable overlords who suppressed religion and even persecuted the faithful. No wonder people were leery of thinking of Christ as a king!
It was the desperate times of the early 20th century, with its combination of the rise of despotic fascism and godless socialism, with so much radical anticlericalism, that moved Pope Pius XI to reassert the lordship of the only true ruler of the world, Jesus Christ Our Savior, by inaugurating a feast day for Christ as King. The qualities of Christ the King that Pope Pius highlights in the encyclical are interesting:
“It has long been a common custom to give to Christ the metaphorical title of ‘king’ because of the high degree of perfection whereby he excels all creatures. So he is said to reign ‘in the hearts of men,’ both by reason of the keenness of his intellect and the extent of his knowledge, and also because he is truth, and it is from him that truth must be obediently received by all humankind. He reigns, too, in the wills of men, for in him the human will was perfectly and entirely obedient to the holy will of God, and further, by his grace and inspiration, he so subjects our free will as to incite us to the most noble endeavors. He is king of hearts, too, by reason of his ‘charity which exceeds all knowledge’ [Eph 3:19]. And his mercy and kindness which draw all to him, for never has it been known, nor will it ever be, that a man be loved so much and so universally as Jesus Christ” (Quas Primas, No. 7).
The pope goes on in the encyclical to show how Christ’s kingship was predicted in the Old Testament, and how it is “even more clearly taught and confirmed in the New” (No. 10). Reading on in the document, it becomes obvious how the pope romanticizes the stability and propitiousness of the recently fallen ruling houses of Italy, Austria, Spain, Russia and even of the Ottoman Empire. He stated that it seemed to us that peace could not be more effectually restored nor fixed upon a firmer basis than through the restoration of the Empire of Our Lord” (No. 1). This may sound like advocacy of a union of church and state a little too close for us today, but given the times and the grave dangers to civilization that actually did ensue, we can see the pope’s sincere hope for something better for Europe than the war and chaos that followed the writing of the encyclical in 1925.
Church and State
We should understand that the idea of kingship also is not without complications in the Scriptures themselves. In a truly refreshing book on the life of Christ, “Jesus of Nazareth” (Michael Glazier, $24.95), Gerhard Lohfink has insightfully pointed out that Jesus never advocates the reconstitution of Israel into a nation-state. The truth be told, the nation-state of Israel under the kings Saul, David and his successors was a disaster! In it, rancor and greed almost always held sway. Misdeeds destroyed the kingship of the very first king, Saul, and political ambition split up the People of God into factions loyal to different heirs of David and his son, Solomon, completely destroying the unity of the Promised Land.
Jesus calls instead for the establishment of a new society, a new Israel, under the rule of God. In his famous saying, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Mk 12:17), Jesus opts strongly for separation of “church and state,” as we say today. “Caesar” has a right, even a duty, to establish and maintain order economically and politically. What Jesus advocates, however, is that government never infringe on the spiritual welfare of its subjects.
Jesus was very clear that he did not want the new society of the kingdom of God to be like any other political state: “You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you” (Mk 10:42-43). Lohfink argues that Jesus never acknowledges the historical kingdom of Israel by favorably citing any Old Testament picture of it. He even challenges David as a messianic prototype, as the father of the messianic line, when he quips: “David himself calls [the Messiah] ‘lord’; so how is he his son?” (Mk 12:37).
Freedom for God’s People
It is quite true that God is considered a king in the Old Testament, but always a ruler who opted for freedom in the choices the People of God were to make. In the great Jewish paradigm of salvation, the Exodus, God was the people’s savior who rescued them from Egypt and brought them together to live in a different manner from the rest, to live in covenant with their transcendent God. If they would freely do God’s will, they would live freely in justice for the world to see. This was what God wanted. The disappointment of Israel’s history was something else!
But since God in the Old Testament was the true king of Israel, we see the same God offering a new kingdom in the teaching of Jesus. Jesus was sent to preach God’s absolute rulership over the hearts of men and women, but it was their privilege to accept it of their own volition. In Matthew, Jesus clarifies the first two petitions of the Lord’s Prayer — “Hallowed be your name, your kingdom come” — by adding a third one: “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt 6:10). This is our free choice, and it is not valid under coercion or even by fair and just legislation!
The will of God and God’s eschatological kingdom can only exist if none of the nation-states of the world is taken to be God’s own. Rather, the new society proposed by Jesus is a worldwide community in which God alone is the Lord — but lord as God wills it: noncoercive, nonviolent, nonoppressive — in a phrase, “in freedom.” Thus Pope Pius XI observes:
“This kingdom is spiritual and is concerned with spiritual things. That this is so the above quotations from Scripture amply prove, and Christ by his own action confirms it. On many occasions, when the Jews and even the apostles wrongly supposed that the Messiah would restore the liberties and the kingdom of Israel, he repelled and denied such a suggestion. When the populace thronged around him in admiration and would have acclaimed him king, he shrank from the honor and sought safety in flight. Before the Roman magistrate he declared that his kingdom was not of this world.... This kingdom is opposed to none other than to that of Satan and to the power of darkness. It demands of its subjects a spirit of detachment from riches and earthly things, and a spirit of gentleness. They must hunger and thirst after justice, and more than this, they must deny themselves and carry the cross” (Quas Primas, No. 15).
Comprehending Christ’s Kingship
Now what is Jesus’ place in all this? Jesus is the one who announced the newness of God’s original proposal to Israel, the promise to be their God if they would be God’s people according to the divine will. Scholars agree that “kingdom” — Jesus’ teaching on the kingship of God, on God’s “being king” — was the very center of Jesus’ message. With it, Jesus makes his own the Old Testament announcement of the eschatological arrival of God as king: “And the Lord will become king over all the earth on [the day of the Lord]” (Zech 14:9; see Is 52:7-9). But in Jesus’ own person, God’s blessed kingship was breaking into history in the miraculous presence, prophetic teaching and selfless demeanor of Jesus himself. His enemies picked up on his messianic potential, but they turned it against him, saying that his kingship challenged the rule of Caesar. In fact, Jesus was crucified as “King of the Jews” according to all four Gospels.
It is no wonder, then, that after God’s vindication of the selfless death of Jesus in the Resurrection, his very Jewish followers began to apply to him other events predicted in the secret passages of the Old Testament: “As the visions during the night continued, I saw coming with the clouds of heaven, one like a son of man. When he reached the Ancient of Days and was presented before him, he received dominion, splendor and kingship” (Dn 7:13-14). Jesus promises to return in kingly splendor as the Son of Man in Mark 13:26, Matthew 24:30 and Luke 21:27.
In these synoptic Gospels, Jesus responds to Pilate’s question — “Are you the king of the Jews?” — with the very ambiguous reply, “So you say.” But in the fourth Gospel, with John’s deeper reflection on the whole scene, when Pilate asks this, Jesus answers with the exquisite Johannine reply: “My kingdom does not belong to this world ... my kingdom is not here ... I came into the world to testify to [God’s eternal] truth” (19:36-37). So we see how the Old Testament’s royal traditions were applied more and more to Jesus, especially where the culture was amicable to the notion of kingship.
Looking at the Gospels
Matthew’s Jewish heritage makes great use of the image of king. He embraces the tradition that the Messiah would be of the royal line of David, for even at his birth, Gentile Wise Men were seeking “the newborn king of the Jews” (Mt 2:2). Matthew makes explicit the gesture of Jesus when he enters Jerusalem on the humble donkey by citing the text of Zechariah: “So that what was spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled: ‘Say to daughter Zion, “Behold, your king comes to you, meek and riding on an ass”’” (21:4). In the parable of the last judgment, Jesus presents himself as the royal Son of Man sitting upon his glorious throne, “and all the nations will be assembled before him” (25:32). Finally, in Matthew’s great commission of the apostles to “make disciples of all nations,” he makes that demand because, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (28:18).
The Gospel of Mark underlines Jesus’ kingship with its characteristic irony. As Jesus “gives his life as a ransom for many” on Golgotha, the Jewish religious leaders mock him with these words: “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the king of Israel, come down from the cross that we may see and believe” (Mk 15:31-32). Did he not save others because he did not “save” himself? Did not the Messiah, the king of Israel, go up on the cross so that we might see and believe?
Kings like Herod Antipas and Agrippa are not well spoken of in Luke and Acts; there they are inconsequential tyrants for the most part. While others may claim that Jesus proclaimed himself to be an earthly king (see Lk 23:2, Acts 17:7), Luke knows that the true kingdom of God has already begun (10:9) and that Jesus is God’s prophetic witness to it (16:16; 7:28).
John’s Gospel, written for a very Jewish group of believers, fully embraces the reality of Jesus’ kingship. In Chapter 1, when called by Jesus, Nathanael says, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel” (1:49), and we have seen above how Jesus himself welcomes the title in John’s version of the encounter with Pilate.
Ruling for Eternity
From this New Testament testimony, Pope Pius XI identified the threefold power that is essential to Jesus Christ as lord and king (for both are titles of the highest rank): universal dominion as our redeemer, lawgiver for the community of believers and judge of the living and the dead (see Quas Primas, No. 14).
We may fittingly end our discussion of the kingship of Jesus Christ with the imagery of the last words of the New Testament. In the Book of Revelation, Jesus is the “King of kings and Lord of lords” who will defeat the dragon of sin and death. When the old heaven and earth pass away he shall come down out of heaven with the “life-giving water flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb” (Rv 22:1).
When our eternal King says, “Yes, I am coming soon,” let us reply with Christians of all ages, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!” (22:20).
BROTHER ELLIOTT C. MALONEY is a monk and professor of New Testament studies at St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Visit brelliottnttopics.libsyn.com to listen to or download his broadcasts. They are also available on Youtube under “Elliott Maloney.”