The Strange, Upside-Down King

Luke’s Passion narrative shows how God is faithful to his covenant promises, mostly in ways that we (or Israel) would not have expected.

In Luke, even before Jesus is hung on the cross, the gospel’s transforming power is breaking into the world. The enmity between Jew and Gentile is abolished when Pilate and Herod become friends (Luke 23:12; cf. Ephesians 2:11ff). The sinner goes free (Luke 23:25; cf. Romans 3:21-27). And, best yet, God is becoming King (Isaiah 40:9).

Yes, God becoming King of the world was one of the greatest hopes of Israel. The Passover was the celebration of Yahweh as King over his people (Exodus 15:18). Much of the history of Israel is marked by psalms about the coming worldwide reign of God (Pss 2; 45; 89; 110, for examples). Yahweh, as king, would shatter the power of foreign nations, making them bow before his power and his reign. From the beginning, Israel was going to bear kings (Genesis 49:8-11). Deuteronomy prescribed laws for a king long before Israel ever had one (Deuteronomy 17:14-20).

After Moses and Joshua ruled over Israel, God appointed judges as Israel could not yet have their king. The king must come from Judah, but Judah’s sin with Tamar prevented the king from coming for ten generations (Deuteronomy 23:2). Israel appointed a king anyway, one whom God warned Israel would bring about disaster (I Samuel 8). Finally, Israel’s promised king came in King David, a man after God’s own heart (I Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:33), the tenth generation from Judah (Ruth 4:18-22). Yahweh made a covenant with David that Yahweh would build for David and himself an eternal house and would raise up a son from David’s own body (II Samuel 7:11-14; Psalm 89).

This Davidic covenant, and King David himself, became the basis of Israelite hope for future generations. The exilic community looked to David as the greatest King of Israel (I-II Kings; Jeremiah). A new king, one like David, would be taken up to bring Israel together under one banner (Ezekiel 34:23-24; 37:24-25). The David king would rule over a restored Israel and Judah (Isaiah 9:7; 16:5). The hearts of Israel would be turned back to this Davidic king (Hosea 3:5). The restoration of the Davidic throne would be the sign that Israel was once again raised up (Amos 9:11).

The post-exilic community, those who had returned to the land, but still under the yoke of slavery and sin and foreign powers (Nehemiah 9; Ezra 9) looked to a coming Davidic king. The Chronicler showed how David was Israel’s greatest king, and how the coming king would need to emulate David in order to be successful. Haggai and Zechariah both pointed to a time when Yahweh would plunder the nations, and a Branch would be raised to reign over the fully, actually restored Israel.

Finally, Yahweh had returned to Israel. Jesus, sitting on a donkey, rides into Jerusalem to be exalted. But this exaltation is not what Israel had expected it to be. The Maccabean martyrs had expected a king who would expunge Rome. The Wisdom of Solomon looked to Torah as the place where God would return to humanity and reign. But no one expected this meek and mild prophet to be the embodied return of Yahweh to Israel.

But here, in Luke’s account of the crucifixion, we see the beautiful and strange way that Yahweh would restore Israel under her new king. As Abraham was promised (Galatians 3:8), Jew and Gentile were coming together. As Isaiah predicted, sinners were being set free from their bondage. Israel’s songs, proclaiming Yahweh’s reign over Israel and over the whole world (Pss 2 and 110) were coming true. Here, at the cross, thanks to an inscription over Jesus’ head, the whole world was forced to come face to face with the King of the Jews. Written in three languages, the whole world would see written testimony that God has sent his king to die for Israel, and save the world.

This king, exalted on high (John 12:27-32), was enthroned with a new sort of royal advisers. Rather than princely, wise men, he was “numbered among the transgressors” and had criminals at his right and left hand. This would be a picture of his kingdom, filled not with the righteous, but with the redeemed sinners.

This simple sign over his head would be in the imagination of every Christian who sang the Christic hymn of Philippians 2:5-11. Soon, the whole world would bow to King Jesus, while every single tongue would confess him as Lord. How did they know? Because it had already happened! At the cross, Jew and Gentile alike confessed Jesus as Lord.

It was in this strange exaltation of Yahweh’s anointed King that the world was shown their new ruler, forever.



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