The whole nature of kingship can be confusing. At least it is confusing to me, raised as I was in Canada, a democracy that nevertheless retains a monarch as head of state. It does not necessarily get clearer in the United States, whose founding as an independent nation goes back to the casting off of an unjust king. These seem to be the two modern views of monarchs: pretty figureheads who wave to adoring crowds or petty tyrants who exploit their subjects. Neither model is particularly appealing and, more significant, neither model makes sense of the reality of Christ the king, the model of true kingship.
Confucius spoke of the need for the rectification of names in the political and social spheres, that unless people met the requirements of their name—like father, son, ruler or subject—the society would be out of order. That is, one could be called a king, but if one did not embody the requirements of a true ruler, like benevolent treatment of subjects, one was not a true king but only a person who bore the name. From a Christian point of view, there have only been rulers who imperfectly bear the name of king, apart from Christ the king. The rectification of our understanding of kingship depends upon a proper understanding of the nature of Christ’s kingship.
The people of Israel yearned for a king, and while the prophet Samuel warned them of the nature of every human king, God allowed them human kings. It was God who said of David, “It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.” David did rule, for 40 years, and in that time, apart from his great achievements, the Israelites could also reflect upon the adultery and murder committed by the great King David. He was a king like every other human king in so many respects. But God had also promised that his throne would be established forever. The Jews of the following centuries would await the fulfillment of the Davidic kingship, wondering, who would fulfill the messianic promises?
True kingship, it turns out, is a revelation. Having all power, Christ, the king of the universe, uses this power only to free us from the thrall of false kingdoms and kings, whether construed as human or spiritual kingship. The beautiful Christ hymn of Colossians, possibly pre-Pauline, tells us that God “rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” This kingdom, and Christ’s kingship, was intended for subjects unworthy of the kingdom, in need of redemption from slavery but unable to foot the bill. Though “he is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation,” and “all things have been created through him and for him,” his task was to serve the cosmos and humanity through his role as suffering servant. In fact, “through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
The power of true kingship, it appears, is made manifest as this: the king of the universe on the cross. We ought not to be surprised that the rulers, Luke tells us, “scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’” or that “the soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’”
When the only kingship you know is the brute force of power to impose your will on others, it can be difficult to recognize that the true ruler, the genuine king, acts not with arbitrary and malevolent force but with mercy. What a shock it must have been to the repentant criminal on the cross to realize that hanging beside him in his darkest hour was, in fact, God’s beloved son, who could transfer him from the power of darkness to God’s kingdom. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” is not so much a request as an acknowledgment: You are the true king!