The Jewish leaders themselves had become frustrated with Pilate and, so, they 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 (and the church, all too often) 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, every church, all of us on trial. Who is your king?
But I don’t want to leave this here before the individual—which of course you must decide who is your 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 the gathered-church. This scene parallels the 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! This scene is good news to the church!
There is no NT analogy for what we do on a Sunday morning. We’ve exchanged someone’s supper or upper room in the greater Ephesus region for a theater-like setting in a building; we have exchanged a meal, a diepnon or supper, that began with the broken break share to signify all those gathered at table were in Christ, a new family, made one because of Jesus’ broken body on that criminal’s cross (cf. Eph 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.
Yet, the church lived in the tension and conflict differently. Like Jesus and his kingdom, the church will not be defended (or grow) by the world’s means. We turn too often to the powers to get our way, to defend our plot of ground—way too close to the duplicitous Jewish leaders’ use of Caesar’s power through Pilate. The Ephesus church would later hear from the Apostle Paul that our fight is not against blood and flesh, but against the spiritual powers in the heavenly places . . . 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.
Everything about that scene 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. You see this cup would have been raised throughout the Roman Empire at this time at every household supper gathering (a household banquet, if you will) . . . this is where the church would have declared openly, in front of each other and guests and onlookers (remember, the uninvited would crowd around these suppers)—this is where they would set things right and declare that they had no king but Jesus!
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