Christ the King in His Suffering
April 14, 2014
What does it mean for you that Jesus Christ is King?
While many of us could give a good answer, perhaps not many of us would include the profound and powerful testimony of Scripture to Christ as King in his humiliation. This is the period described in the Apostles' Creed: he "suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried; he descended into hell." Thinking through this time of earthly humiliation for Jesus, we might wonder whether his Kingship was evident at all.
In the Old Testament's prophetic descriptions of the coming Messiah, we see that a number of these refer to his Kingship immediately alongside his suffering: Psalm 22 places Jesus' sufferings (v.1-24) side by side with his Kingship (v.27-31). Psalm 24 refers to the entry into heavenly glory of the ascended King, who has conquered triumphantly (v.7-10). Psalm 110 also refers to Christ's conquest as the Priest-King. The prophet Isaiah, in the suffering servant songs, speaks of Christ the suffering servant who is also the Redeemer-King. In Isaiah 53 we see that where "it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief" (v.10), because "he poured out his soul to death" in accomplishing redemptive victory. So he receives "a portion among the great." (v.12)
Turning to the gospels, it is clear from the beginning that Jesus is the long promised Messiah King, the Redeemer King. Matthew opens with a genealogy of patriarchal and royal lineage, and then shows the prophecies of the coming King fulfilled in chapter 2: "O Bethlehem... from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel." Throughout his earthly ministry in the gospels, Jesus displays his Kingship in his authority and power over all creation, in his authoritative word, declared in grace and warning, in his sovereign saving work, and in his judgments and justice.
But his kingship is also clear as he heads up to Jerusalem, into his sufferings to death. Jesus is kingly in his purpose as he does so. He is fully intentional in his direction. As Matthew recounts "as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem he took the twelve disciples, and on the way said to them, 'See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death... to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.'" (Matthew 20:17-19) As they go along their way the blind men along the road cry out to Jesus as King, "Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!" (Matthew 20:30) He displays his divinity and kingly power as he touches them and they receive their sight and follow him.
There is the triumphal entry into Jerusalem: "your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden." (Matthew 21:5) Now preaching and teaching again within the temple, Jesus warns of the day he will return in glory and judgment: "they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather the elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other." (Matthew 24:31-32) This was spoken with the cross before him.
Through the last supper we see Jesus as King protecting and preserving his people. After the meal, Jesus intentionally goes to Gethsemane, knowing that this is where he will easily be arrested by Judas and the soldiers. In each case it is Jesus who is leading, his Kingship shining through his actions. Seeing Judas and the crowd come to arrest him approaching, "Jesus knowing all that would happen to him, came forward and said to them, 'Whom do you seek?" They answered "Jesus of Nazareth." Jesus' response: "I AM", the Covenant name of God, was in itself a display of divine sovereignty. As Christ, the King of all creation responds, the soldiers, for a moment encounter his glory and majesty, and fall to the ground. (John 18:4-11)
There are other indicators that reveal Christ as King here as well: Jesus tells them that he is coming willingly. Where Peter takes up the sword, Jesus commands him to sheath it. Jesus reveals that he could call on the Father to send legions of angels at that moment, but rather heals Malchus's ear, and again states that he is pursuing his sacrificial work with intentionality. He goes forward with regal dignity: "shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?"
Jesus kingship is revealed in his encounters with Pilate and through the ensuing mockery by the soldiers. These occasions display the wickedness of the human heart and the spite of Satan as they seek to disparage the very kingship that is being confirmed through his sufferings to death. Pilate, the leading regional Roman authority, declares "Behold your King!" The crowds would rather have personal pursuit of sin, under the rule of sinful men, than the kingship of Christ. "We have no king but Caesar." Pilate continues to publicly proclaim him king, finally through the inscription placed up on the cross: "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews." (John 19:19)
Christ's kingship is also revealed throughout his cross sufferings. The Westminster Larger Catechism, in its summary of biblical teaching on the kingship of Christ, reminds us that Christ's "office of king" includes his sovereign work of saving people from their sin (from regeneration to glorification), and his preservation and protection of them. Even from the cross, in the depth of his suffering as the Lamb who is being slain, He is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, exercising his kingship. In the courtyard, he preserves Peter from self-destruction in deceit with a look that breaks his heart, and profoundly convicts him and brings him to repentance. From the cross He protects and cares for Mary as he calls on John to care for her. He saves the thief on the cross, preserves him spiritually through his sufferings--which still include having his legs broken in order to make him die. Jesus preserves him bringing him safely to be with him in paradise that very day. Commentator William Perkins sees this is a powerful display of the virtue and power of Christ's death, and a sign of his glorious kingship, even in the midst of his humiliation and suffering.
In pursuing the suffering to death, bearing the full weight of the penalty of the sin of his people, Christ actively accomplishes his work as the Redeemer-King. When he satisfied the full measure of the wrath of God against their sin on the cross, he declared "it is finished... and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit." (John 19:30) The curtain temple is torn in two, the earth shakes. "The power of the Lord who was dying and the extraordinary wonder of His death" was displayed. Dead believers are raised in the city---a sign of Jesus' kingly power even in his death: "Christ by his death upon the cross vanquished death and the grave; the raising of these saints testified that He is the resurrection and the life." The Roman centurion testifies: "truly this was the Son of God."
Even the burial is noble: Jesus' body is buried by Jewish nobles (Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimethea), with humble, quiet dignity, at great cost, in a never-used tomb of the City of David.
Roman Catholics and some Lutherans, through a misreading of 1 Peter 3:18-19 in conjunction with a misinterpretation of the Apostles' Creed, argue that Jesus descended into hell after his death. A more scriptural understanding stands in harmony with Jesus' statement to the thief on the cross: "today you will be with me in paradise," and his statement "Father into your hands I commit my spirit." (Luke 23:46) Jesus, as the Redeemer-King, experienced separation of body and soul just as we do. Yet upon death, rather than descending to hell, his soul entered heavenly glory. He experienced what we call "the intermediate state" prior to His resurrection. The phrase "he descended into hell" summarizes his suffering unto death itself, including the burial of his body, and its remaining in the state of death until the third day. The reference to hell particularly includes his bearing of the full weight of the Father's wrath and penalty for the sin of his people. This is hell: experiencing the full weight of the active wrath of God against sin, while being separated from his love, grace, and mercy. That is the descent, the ultimate humiliation, that Jesus made for his people.
In accomplishing our redemption, Christ, the Redeemer-King, gains victory over Satan. Satan's scheme to stop Christ was utterly undone, as will be gloriously displayed in the resurrection. In paying the penalty that sin deserves from God, Christ the King delivers his people from the kingdom of this world. He delivers them from Satan's rule--from the charge and claim Satan can lay against the people of God, as "the accuser." Satan's power to subjugate humanity comes from the guilt of their sin; Christ broke the devil's power precisely by making satisfaction to divine justice. The place of payment is the place of triumph. From atonement arose the power to set the captives free. The sufferings of Christ "abolish the kingdom of sin and Satan, and establish his own kingdom throughout the whole world." Christ is the perfect Redeemer-King.
The New Testament epistles further reveal the reality and significance of Christ's kingship in his sufferings and death. Colossians 1:21-22 tells us, "who were once alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you blameless and above reproach in him...". Colossians 2:13b-15 states that through his victorious cross work, Christ "...forgave us all our trespasses, by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him."
Understanding Christ's kingship in suffering, through death itself, to complete victory brings us to Revelation 5:5-9: "Weep no more... the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the Root of David has conquered, so that he can open the scroll... I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain." "Worthy are you... for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth." If he was faithful as king through suffering and death, we have every reason to be assured that he is the faithful and good king now: "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever." (Hebrews 13:8)
Christ's kingship in his sufferings and death, and burial should deepen our faith, our trust in him, as our Savior and King. He has shown himself powerful and willing to deal with our sin and its penalty; he has conquered sin and Satan, and in dying for us, has removed the sting of death. It should comfort us to see His kingly sovereignty and grace displayed even in the deepest intensity of His suffering. It should comfort us knowing that as the Captain of our Salvation (Hebrews 2:10) he has gone before us, making the way for our salvation. He is victorious. He has gone through the hostility and persecution of this world before us. He has gone through, borne the holy justice and wrath of the Father against our sin for us. He has led the way, and has done so for our salvation. We have a High Priest and King who can sympathize with us in all our weakness, and who will powerfully preserve us as we take up our cross to follow him. He will bring us safely into the fullness of His kingdom; and vindicate the right in His holy justice to come. Christ's kingship in his sufferings and death, and burial should lead us to joyfully serve him. It should also lead us to hate sin and forsake it, because it is displeasing to him. We should live with awareness of the great offense of sin against our Holy God: the eternal Son of God, Christ the King, had to suffer to death itself for our redemption.
Understanding more of Christ's kingship displayed through his sufferings and death should profoundly deepen our love for him. As his children we desire to obey His good commands, pursuing holiness by His grace to His glory. Where it would be a sheer wonder to simply become servants of Christ the King, through him we are made sons and daughters of God: "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him... once you were not a people, but now you are God's people." (1 Peter 2:9-10) Christ's kingship in his humiliation, particularly in his sufferings and death should lead us to awe, wonder, and humble worship.
The eternal Son of God, the King of glory...: "who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant... being found in appearance as a man he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place, and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." (Phil. 2:6-11)
William VanDoodewaard is Associate Professor of Church History at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, and an ordained minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.