Christ is our king. But Americans don't do kingship. The last time we had a king was in 1776. We threw him out after a real tea party. And we put firm safeguards in our Constitution to ensure no new king would ever rise here again. We admire kings and queens from afar, in Victorian books, BBC movies, and televised royal weddings. But at home we don't deal with kings and queens.
So for many democratic citizens today—in the United States and worldwide—the Bible's talk of kings and kingdoms can be mystifying. But such talk, if we read the Bible carefully, actually makes a great deal of sense even in our political setting.
A Strange Sovereign
The Bible teaches that Christ the King is infinitely more powerful than any ruler on earth, even the Roman emperor or the Jewish King Herod, who were the supreme rulers of Christ's day. These earthly kings ruled only for a lifetime. Christ rules eternally. These earthly kings ruled only over a limited territory. Christ rules everywhere. These earthly kings had only political power. Christ has power over all creation. He orders the waves to be still. He turns water into wine. He feeds five thousand from one boy's lunch bag. He heals the sick. He restores the disabled. He drives out demons from their tormented hosts. He summons corpses from their graves. And when Christ rose from his own tomb, he made resurrection and eternal life available to all who believe in him. This was no ordinary king.
But for all this infinite and eternal power, Christ's incarnation as king is modest, understated, sublime, and sacrificial. Christ was born not in a palace but in a stable, close to the ground, surrounded by animals and shepherds. He did not travel with a legion of soldiers, as the Roman emperor did, but wandered about the countryside with a dozen men of humble origin. He dined not in elegant splendor with the rich and the powerful but with tax collectors and prostitutes, Samaritans and sojourners, the down and outs of the day.
Christ did not clatter into Jerusalem, as King Herod did, sitting in a splendid chariot bedecked with gold and jewels and drawn by twelve strong horses with shiny silver saddles. Christ plodded into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey who had never been ridden or broken. Christ did not enter Jerusalem through the main wide gate at the end of the straight road. He came through the smaller back gate, having descended the Mount of Olives and passed through the Valley of Death, which was known as Hell. Christ did not come to Jerusalem to attend a royal feast, as becomes an heir of the house of King David. He came to preside over a simple last supper with his friends, prefaced by his self-humbling act of washing their feet, even those of the one who would betray him.
When later arrested on trumped-up charges by local authorities, Christ did not claim sovereign immunity as any higher power of the day would have. His simple defense was, "My kingdom is not of this world." Even Pontius Pilate recognized this was no ordinary king.
While Christ's kingdom is not of this world, Christ still rules in this world. But, in extraordinary defiance of every handbook on royalty, Christ rules through fragile, weak, and sinful people. Christ appoints us to be his royal witnesses and ambassadors on earth. "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people," Peter wrote to the new Christians (1 Pet. 2:9, NRSV). Each of us is called to represent and reflect, to embody and embrace God's royal prerogatives and divine rights on earth.
These rights belong to God the Father, who created humans in his own image and commanded them to worship and obey him. These rights belong to God the Son, who embodies himself in the church and demands the full and free exercise of this body on earth. And these rights belong to God the Holy Spirit, who is "poured out upon all flesh" and governs the consciences of all persons in Christ.
As image bearers of God, each of us is called to reflect the Father's glory and majesty in the world, to represent God's sovereign interests in church, state, and society. As prophets, priests, and kings of God the Son, each of us is given the spiritual duty and right to speak and to prophesy, to worship and to pastor, to rule and to govern in the communities we inhabit. As ambassadors of God the Spirit, each of us is given the duty and right to "make disciples of all nations" by word and sacrament, by instruction and example, by charity and discipline.
The Democratic Bible
Here, in the Bible's teaching about the triune God, we have a key source for some of our most cherished democratic values: popular sovereignty as a reflection of the absolute sovereignty of God the Father; freedoms of speech, religion, and rule, because we all are prophets, priests, and kings of Christ; rights to serve, evangelize, and teach, because we all have the privilege to discharge the Great Commission aided by the Holy Spirit.
Our common calling as God's royal ambassadors is another sign of our radical equality. As Paul says, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28, NKJV). The New Testament is a leveler of the human race, a standing rebuke against false hierarchy. All have vocations that count. All have prophetic voices to be heard. All have priestly services to render. All have kingly gifts to be cherished.
This common calling is also a sign of our radical freedom. The New Testament is chock-full of bracing declarations on freedom: "For freedom, Christ has set us free." "You were called to freedom." "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom." "You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." We have all been given "the glorious freedom of the children of God." As God's creatures and ambassadors, we are utterly free in our innermost being. We are like the greatest king or queen on earth, above and beyond the power of everyone. We enjoy a sovereign immunity that no authority can touch or trespass.
But while utterly free, we are not untutored. Christ has taught us how to serve as God's royal ambassadors on earth. The touchstones are there in the Gospels: that we remain close to the ground, that we live with humility and grace, that we care for the poor and sick, that we embrace the sojourner and stranger, that we seek out the needy and lost, that we teach by word and example, that we work to heal what is broken, that we share generously of our talents and gifts, that we deal fairly with our neighbors and friends, that we forgive those who do us harm, that we love even our enemies.
This is not a formula for weakness, a resume of the supine. There are times to rebuke the fools and blasphemers in our midst, to prophesy loudly against injustice, to kick out the merchants and harpies from our temples and homes, to exorcise the demons and devils from our community. Not out of pride, anger, or impulse, not out of pretended authority, but out of our inherited divine right and divine prerogative. For Christ is our king, and we are his ambassadors.
John Witte Jr. is director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University.
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Additional Christianity Today coverage of politics, Christ as king, and democracy includes:
The Politics of Being a Good Christian | Why there might be two "God Gaps" in America. (June 13, 2011)
The United States Needs an Ambassador for Religious Freedom Now | The Obama administration must send a clear signal to Egypt and the Middle East that they must embrace religious freedom in full. (February 8, 2011)
King Jesus the Disguised | There's a reason it's not easy to spot him. (December 22, 2006)
Editorial: Voting Against Anarchy | The greatest threat to liberty in Iraq is not international terrorism. (February 18, 2005)
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