The final of the three Pilate-questions that occupy our attention comes after Pilate could find no guilt in Jesus, “Shall I crucify your King?” This question sets up the statement of all adamic statements: “We have no king but Caesar!”
The Jewish leaders themselves had become frustrated with Pilate and, so, had turned to the clincher of their argument for doing away with this Jesus--they made it all about Caesar. They do what the world always does: they change the characters in the judgment hall. They put Pilate before Caesar rather than Jesus before Pilate. The Jews set Pilate up, for when “Pilate sought to release him” (19:12), the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.” And in their last breath, the words that confront us all, Pilate was done—out-done: “We have no king but Caesar!”
The ironic thing, the Jewish leaders didn’t want to defile themselves by going into Caesar’s Jerusalem judgment hall, yet they had carried Caesar in their hearts, leaving them most defiled and guilty at their very core before God. As he had tracked the Jewish leaders and Pilate down to that very moment, Jesus puts every listener of this story, us all, on trial. Who is your king?
But I don’t want to leave this here before the individual—which of course each of you, each of us must decide who is our king? —but I think we need to go right to the listeners of this in its original setting and see how this all works for church, for a gathered-church. This scene parallels the apostolic and early church’s social-religious-political-civil setting—as Jesus was on trial, so is the gathered-church—not just for judgment, but to affirm their allegiance, for encouragement, despite all appearances to the contrary, Jesus is king! As I said already, this scene is good news to the church!
“We have no king but Caesar” . . . this is the space the church finds itself in the world—there is no other space in which the church exists.
Beside the idea of "meeting," there is no NT analogy for what we do on a Sunday morning. We’ve exchanged someone’s supper or upper room (say, in the greater Ephesus region) for a theater-like setting in a properly zoned building with a street address and a exempt status granted by the state; we have exchanged a meal, a diepnon or supper, that began with the broken break shared to signify all those gathered at table (literally reclined at table) were in Christ, a new family, made one because of Jesus’ broken body on that criminal’s cross (cf. Ephesians 2:11-22) and where a cup after the supper was raised to honor, not Caesar, but the resurrected treasonous-traitor, Jesus the real and only King of kings and Lord of lords—all exchanged for tokens and symbols rather than a gathered-church of unequals and strangers, poor and wealthy, beggars and doctors, the discarded and the elite, the temple prostitute and the patron, slaves and masters, orphans and male child-heirs, girls and children of slaves, women and men . . . this was the way to destroy the gods of the Greco-Roman empire and to topple a Caesar. This is what made Jesus dangerous to Caesar. You see, we hear the passion-week scene where Jesus stood before Pilate with strange ears to the story . . . but . . . hear we must . . . hear it again, differently . . . we must cry out, “We have no king but Jesus!” and abandon all our idolatries and allegiances to Caesar and the powers of this world.
. . . a gathered-church of unequals and strangers, poor and wealthy, beggars and doctors, the discarded and the elite, the temple prostitute and the patron, slaves and masters, orphans and male child-heirs, girls and children of slaves, women and men . . . this was the way to destroy the gods of the Greco-Roman empire and to topple a Caesar. This is what made Jesus dangerous to Caesar.
Yet, the church lived in the tension and conflict differently (than other rebellious sects and groups) . Like Jesus and his kingdom, the church will not be defended (or grow) by the world’s means. By any form of violence or appeal to power. Yet, we turn too often to the powers to get our way, to defend our plot of ground, to promote our agenda—way too close to the duplicitous Jewish leaders’ use of Caesar’s power through Pilate. The very opposite of Jesus before Pilate. The Ephesus church would later hear from the Apostle Paul that the gathered-church's fight is not against blood and flesh, but against the spiritual powers in the heavenly places (6:12) . . . our struggle is always to keep Jesus before our accusers and we must stop making our gospel, our stake of ground, our values a fight between our neighbors and Caesar.
At the end of the meal . . . those gathered would then commit high treason by lifting-up a cup to acknowledge and celebrate that the once dead usurper of every throne, is the true King, the true Emperor, risen from the dead to save humanity.
Everything about that episode with Jesus before Pilate, the cunning temple-priests, the angry crowd . . . everything was backward: that crown was real, the purple robe was royal, the jeers of the crowd was praise, Caesar was bowing before King Jesus. The church, every time it gathers turns the tables around. At the end of the meal and before the instruction time (called, the symposium), those gathered would then commit high treason by lifting-up a cup to acknowledge and celebrate that the once dead usurper of every throne, is the true King, the true Emperor, risen from the dead to save humanity.
- Church, be encouraged, God has put you right here (right where you are)—as a young church, a church plant,* caught between two cities, Bridgeport and Fairfield (literally on the line), right smack in the midst of the hardest to reach New Englanders, doubts can creep in—this scene is gospel to you. It’s not and never about Caesar—this church thing is all Jesus, it’s all about Christ.
- Have the faith to be empowered as a church to be like Jesus before Pilate and open a path to faith for our challengers (skeptics, doubters, haters, those outside thinking church is all a set up) to believe Jesus is the king and has kingly authority: to choose Christ or choose Caesar.
- This episode is for you, the gathered-church, to raise the cup with renewed understanding, not as a token but as a confession that you have no other king but Jesus.
 David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 167.
*This message was originally delivered at Christ Presbyterian Church Fairfield and Christ Presbyterian Church in The Hill.
I am the author of Wasted Evangelism: Social Action and the Church's Task of Evangelism, a deep, exegetical read into the Gospel of Mark. All royalties from this book go to support our church planting ministry in the Hill community of New Haven, CT. The book and its e-formats can be found on Amazon, Barns'n Noble, (and most other online book distributors) or through the publisher, Wipf & Stock directly.