At this time of year, choirs all over the world are beginning to rehearse George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah.” This oratorio is an anthology of key texts from both Testaments set to music. One high point among many for believers and even nonbelievers is the so-called “Hallelujah Chorus,” which loudly proclaims the “King of Kings, Lord of Lords.” The words are taken from the Book of Revelation (19:6; 11:15; 19:16) where they refer to God and Christ as king and lord over all.
On this last Sunday in the church year, we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. On the surface it seems odd to proclaim an obscure Jewish wisdom teacher and prophet who lived 2,000 years ago in an unimportant part of the world and died an especially shameful death to be a king of any sort, let alone “King of Kings, Lord of Lords.” Our Scripture readings for this Sunday can help us understand better the biblical theme of the kingship of God and of Christ.
Today’s responsorial psalm, Psalm 93, provides a good starting point. It proclaims that “the Lord is king.” The “Lord” here is Yahweh, the national God of Israel. This psalm, like several others in the Hebrew Bible, celebrates the God of Israel as the king over all creation. It was an astoundingly bold assertion for a small nation like ancient Israel to say that its God created and now rules over all things, that the throne of its God will last forever and that the decrees of its God define the nature of truth and justice. Psalm 93 offers us a snapshot of what ancient Israelites understood the kingship of their God to be.
The Old Testament reading from Daniel 7 represents a shift in perspective from present to future regarding God’s kingship. Though it is part of a book written in the second century B.C., the scene it depicts has very ancient roots in Near Eastern mythology. In this scene “the Ancient One” (the creator and lord of all) hands on to “one like a Son of Man” (in the original context this figure was most likely Michael the archangel or Israel taken collectively) “dominion, glory and kingship” that will be eternal. Early Christians found in this scene clues to the relationship between God the Father and Jesus the Son of God. The transfer of royal and cosmic authority provided a foundation for belief in the kingship of Christ.
Today’s reading from John 18 sheds light on what kind of king Jesus is. The scene is the trial of Jesus before the Roman prefect or governor, Pontius Pilate. From Pilate’s political perspective, Jesus looked like just another in a series of annoying Jewish religious fanatics who imagined themselves, or were imagined by some Jews, to be the Messiah of Israel or King of the Jews.
In his dialogue with Pilate, Jesus implies that Pilate does not understand the spiritual or transcendent nature of Jesus’ kingship (“My kingdom does not belong to this world”). And yet Pilate is (ironically) correct in calling Jesus a king. Indeed, Jesus admits that “for this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” In Jesus’ understanding of his spiritual and transcendent kingship, we glimpse his identity as one who went far beyond speculations about the Jewish messiah and Roman political propaganda about the emperors like Augustus and Tiberius as divine beings.
The text from Revelation links the present kingship of Jesus to his resurrection as “the firstborn of the dead.” The one who was “pierced” in death emerges as the one who has conquered death. His kingdom includes those whom he had freed from their sins “by his blood.” Thus Jesus has made them into “a kingdom, priests for his God and Father.” Echoing phrases from Daniel 7, John ascribes to the risen Jesus “glory and power forever and ever.” The Book of Revelation displays a very high Christology insofar as it attributes to Jesus the “slain Lamb” much of what the Bible customarily says about God the Father. That is why John proclaims in Rev 11:15 that “the kingdom of the world now belongs to our Lord and to his Anointed, and he will reign forever and ever.”
Whether we participate in a choir, sing along with a radio or merely hum the melody to ourselves, Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” is an appropriate expression of what John said (and we believe) about the kingship of Christ. It is also a fitting way to end one church year and begin another. The great biblical themes of God’s kingship, the transfer of the Father’s dominion to the Son, the spiritual and transcendent character of the kingship of the risen Jesus and our share in it—all call for a rousing rendering of the confession “King of Kings, Lord of Lords!”