To the reader: In this series, Caleb Friedeman explores some of the unique dimensions of Luke’s Christmas story. The purpose of this series is to provide fodder for fresh preaching, teaching, and application of Luke’s birth narrative, so please, borrow at will. See here for parts one, two, and three.
They say that whoever defines the terms wins the argument. It is also true that the one who defines the word determines the meaning—not only of the word in question, but of the words and concepts surrounding it as well.
For example, to reprise a point from the last post in this series: if the “peace” that the angels proclaim to the shepherds (Luke 2:14) means merely comfort and contentment, then many of us in North America have achieved it and Christmas becomes the yearly commemoration of such peace. If, however, this “peace” entails the world being run as if God were the one in charge—as Mary seems to suggest in the Magnificat—then we emerge with quite a different picture of what Christmas should mean for us.
One word that we tend to use quite a lot during Advent is “King.” For example:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come
Let earth receive her King
Let every heart prepare him room
And heaven and nature sing
Hark the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel
If you were to ask most people who sing these songs what they mean when they declare baby Jesus to be King, you might receive the following answers:
“Jesus is King within my heart”
“He is Lord of my life”
“He reigns in the hearts of his people”
“He rules over his Church”
When we call Jesus “King” at Christmas, what we really mean is that Jesus reigns over our individual lives, or the life of the Church. Indeed, this seems to be an essential part of the answer, as evidenced in Charles Wesley’s hymn “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus”:
Born Thy people to deliver
Born a child and yet a King
Born to reign in us forever
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone…
But the internal element is only the start. Although Wesley here speaks primarily of Christ’s reign in “heart” terms, this was clearly not all that he had in mind, as evidenced by the massive impact that early Methodism had on 18th century England. For Charles Wesley and his brother John, Christ’s reign in one’s heart manifested itself tangibly in society.
However, today many of us tend to say “King” and mean merely “in my heart.” Although such a reign is quite satisfactory to us, if we were to try to define “King” in this way for 18th century Anglicans like the Wesleys, or 1st century Jews like Mary, Zechariah, and Elizabeth, they would look back at us quizzically and respond (in the words of Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride), “You keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means.”
So, once again, let us return to Luke to discover what we really should mean when we declare Jesus as King this Christmas.
King Jesus and King Caesar
Luke first raises the issue of Jesus’ Kingship when Gabriel announces Jesus’ birth to Mary: “the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Gabriel’s words recall YHWH’s promise to David to place one of David’s descendants on his throne forever (2 Sam. 7:12–16).
By linking Jesus’ reign with David, Gabriel implies that this is no purely internal or spiritual kingdom that is in view. If Jesus’ kingdom is anything like David’s, it will be a public kingdom that manifests itself on earth—perhaps more, but not less, and certainly not merely a matter of individual piety. Of course, a Davidic king like Jesus would naturally pose a threat to other kings such as Herod (Matthew makes this point explicitly) and ultimately Caesar. Luke, however, does not address this issue head-on, but rather lets it sit in the background.
Luke’s first mention of Caesar comes at the beginning of chapter 2, when he notes that it was a decree by Augustus that caused Joseph and Mary to go from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be registered. There is a certain amount of irony here: the reason that Jesus, the Davidic king, was born in Bethlehem (the city of David) was because his adopted father was ordered to go there by Caesar, who unwittingly serves God’s purposes.
Luke’s veiled references to Caesar seem to continue in the story of the shepherds. Many scholars have seen in the angel’s “good news of great joy that will be for all the people…a Savior” an allusion to the Priene Inscription, where similar language is used to describe Augustus on his birthday. In addition, the heavenly host’s mention of “peace on earth” may also play on the notion of the famed Pax Romana (“Roman Peace”) that Augustus had ushered in. For 1st century readers, Luke’s subtle echoes of empire would have likely raised questions about whose birth was really good news of salvation for the whole world, and whose reign really marked the beginning of true peace on earth.
Who’s Got the Power?
All of this Caesar-speak might lead us to think that Luke envisions a head-on collision between Jesus and Caesar. However, as the rest of Luke-Acts unfolds, we never get the showdown we want.
Or do we?
Many of us assume that a conflict between Jesus’ kingdom and the kingdoms of this world would manifest itself in a battle, or perhaps a debate. Since we don’t see it, we assume that Jesus’ kingdom must be merely in our hearts. However, this is to overlook possibly the most significant contrast between Jesus and Caesar.
Perhaps the greatest irony for Luke’s story is that Jesus the King is born and laid—of all places—in a manger “because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). The King of kings, although from the line of David, is born not to royalty, but to a common carpenter and a girl from Galilee. He is not laid in an elegant bed, but in a food trough for animals. The first people to visit him are not royal emissaries, but shepherds.
This, says Luke, is what true power looks like.
Jesus’ kingdom—unlike Caesar’s—manifests itself in humility and love. The Son of God becomes human for the salvation of the world.
And it is precisely for this reason that Jesus poses a threat to Caesar and the kings of this world: In his birth, Jesus demonstrates a different kind of power—a power that manifests itself in love, sacrifice, and the proclamation of truth. For rulers who have built their kingdoms on idolatrous systems of oppression, brute force, and deception, this is indeed reason to tremble. Jesus’ kingdom threatens the kingdoms of this world because it says that true power looks like the Son of God in a manger…or on a cross.
Jesus the King and Why He Matters
So what should we mean when we declare Jesus to be King at Christmas? We must mean more than simply that Jesus is King “in our hearts” (although that is surely where it starts). To declare Jesus as King means that by virtue of his birth, life, death, and resurrection, Jesus has taken his seat at the right hand of the Father and is King over the world. From his birth to the cross, he has redefined what true power is, and thereby turned the kingdoms of this world on their heads. He is not one king among many striving for dominion, but is the King of kings and the Lord of lords, who will one day bring his kingdom to consummation.
What does it mean to worship a King like this? Here are three questions to consider:
- Who is defining the terms? Definitions are crucial. As we serve King Jesus, whose definitions are we using? What is power? What is love? What is justice? If we want Jesus to be Lord at the deepest levels of our lives and societies, we must allow his life to transform the way we think about reality.
- Where are the boundaries? It is all too easy to compartmentalize our lives into sections that Jesus is Lord over and sections that he isn’t. Are there any areas of your life—both public and private—that you have yet to submit to Jesus’ Lordship? Does God want to expand your life into other areas—perhaps a new ministry or vocational call?
- How would Jesus run this _____? Each of us has been given some authority—are you using yours in Christ-shaped ways?
Questions for further study:
- How does the rest of Luke-Acts shape our understanding of what it means for Jesus to be King?
- How do Jesus’ kingdom and its representatives confront the kingdoms of this world in Luke-Acts?