In primary school, we played ‘king of the mountain’ on a sizeable mound of dirt (or failing that, a gargantuan stack of used semi-trailer tyres) in the playground. You know, if you’ve played it, that the rules are straightforward: occupy the peak of the hill (as ‘the king’) and physically fend off usurpers, who come from every angle to shove you from the throne by any means necessary. My friends Mark, Joel, Darryl and I strategised, forming alliances to unseat the king, before making that inevitable grasp for individual glory. But Donald Lomax was a blunt instrument. He could dispense with the clever tactics and simply outmuscle us. His brute force routinely won the day.
Royal Ruler Needed…Apply Inside
That hill needed a king like Donald Lomax, lest the playground descend into anarchy. No good comes from a power vacuum. Not long ago, we had a King of Pop. Then he passed away and the world was stuck with Justin Timberlake. When the Pevensie kings and queens abruptly disappeared back through the wardrobe, the land of Narnia started to circle the drain. And when Queen Amidala relinquished the throne of Naboo to serve in the Galactic Senate – then inexplicably allowed Jar Jar Binks to stand in for her during votes of crucial import…well, we all saw how that turned out.
Without a woman or man of royal blood at its head, someone who can lead, who can protect, who can build and restore, who can govern wisely, then a kingdom’s not much of a kingdom.
The biblical prophets knew that. When they spoke of the Kingdom of God, they naturally anticipated a king. YHWH had promised an ongoing kingdom to David (in 2 Samuel 7) and so they believed their God would restore order to the world through an ‘anointed one’, a king in David’s royal line – a Messiah.
Fast forward to the first century A.D. and inhabitants of Palestine were still waiting for that Messiah to appear. They wanted a warrior king, a bona fide ass-kicker to take it up to the occupying Romans and liberate the nation. Plenty of spoon-bending ‘potentials’ had come to the fore over the years (most of them ending up in a bone box, courtesy of the Romans), but ‘The One’ was yet to be revealed. So they watched and waited and expected his arrival any day.
What they didn’t expect was for God to bamboozle the powers-that-be and their authority models and systems of control with history’s most unconventional king. That’s the point of the four Gospels, all written to present Yeshua ben Yosef as the Messiah, the promised king of Israel. And the cosmic joke of it all wasn’t lost on the Gospel writers.
Consider again the nativity narratives of Luke and Matthew, which you probably read this past Christmas season. Emperor Augustus, the ruler of the known world, aims to extract even more taxes from the already over-burdened populations at the far reaches of his empire. Herod the Great desperately clings to power, lashing out violently against any threat. And the king that will counter these forces? According to the Gospels, a baby, born to an unwed teenage mother and a day-labouring surrogate father from a backwater village in northern Palestine; sleeping in a feeding trough in a house in King David’s hometown (don’t miss that!); announced by God’s messengers, not to the elites in Jerusalem, but to shepherds working the night shift; visited later, not by Jewish royals or priests, but by some foreign mystics; hunted by a megalomaniac willing to kill every small child in the town just to eliminate him.
But this child survives, grows up, enters the Jordan for baptism by John the Baptiser (his royal anointing, where the Spirit indwells him – an Old Testament requisite for Israel’s early judges and kings) – then starts to behave in a somewhat unorthodox fashion for a prospective Messiah.
He doesn’t make grand, fiery speeches to unite people under a patriotic banner. He doesn’t raise an army to drive out the foreign oppressors. He doesn’t topple Herod Antipas from his perch. He doesn’t unseat the wealthy Temple elites or restructure the tax code.
Instead, he hangs around with low-rent, disreputable types. He talks about loving and praying for enemies, about submitting to their abuse, about the meek and the poor inheriting the Kingdom, about becoming peacemakers and people of mercy. He heals all and sundry – even hated Gentiles, remarking that, in many cases, their faith exceeds that found in Israel. He tells a bunch of cryptic stories about the Kingdom, which imply that the coming of that Kingdom will defy everyone’s assumptions.
King of the Mountain
Then, to show he was serious, he willingly succumbs to the corruption, the injustice, the violence of the Jewish priestly elites, Herod Antipas the political puppet and the all-conquering might of the Roman Empire. And this is where the Gospel writers really turn the screw. All four clearly portray the crucifixion of Yeshua – a naked, broken, bleeding Jewish prophet, at the top of a hill, fastened to a cross in a crude sitting position, with the marks of a crown of thorns on his head – as his ‘enthronement’, his ‘coronation’! This is the place where he is ‘lifted up’ and glorified!
Maybe the Fourth Gospel presents this most poignantly:
[T]hey crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews’.
John 19:18-19, NRSV
Yeshua, another defeated would-be Messiah. Rome remains in charge, Herod remains their puppet, the corrupt religious and taxation systems remain corrupt.
Only that, according to the Gospels, is the punchline. As the first day of the following week dawns, it becomes clear that somehow, Yeshua, through that excruciating execution, absorbing all the animosity and brutality they could serve up, has actually turned the tables on the empire, the quasi-kings and the religious elites – and the dark powers lying behind them. Sure, they may still appear to be in charge, but their authority has been wrested from them by Yeshua himself.
It’s a joke that most of Yeshua’s contemporaries didn’t get. And it’s one that might pass us by, if we have eyes but don’t see and ears but don’t hear.
Suspended from that cross, Jesus was the king of the mountain – just not the kind of king we expected.
The Kingdom of God is the key focus of scripture and the message of Jesus. That’s why I’ll be writing exclusively about the Kingdom for the next year. You can view all of the the pieces in the series on this page.
- Binks (from Wookiepedia – https://goo.gl/images/W4c4Bn)
- Nativitiy (1644), George De La Tour (from Wikipedia, Public Domain)
- Al-Maghtas (by I, Producer, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6620561)