“Are you the King of the Jews?”

By Theresa Newell, LCJE Coordinator for North America

As I read through the Gospels this year, it struck me that the title bestowed on Jesus by pagans and Eastern magi (Matthew 2:2), “King of the Jews,” was in fact a rightful title for him, one he did not deny.

The title is used in most instances sarcastically or as mockery during the time of his suffering. Pilate asked Jesus: “Are you the King of the Jews?” and Jesus replied, “Yes, it is as you say” (Luke 23:3). Pilate asked the crowds, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” (Mark 15: 9). When Jesus was hung on the tree, a sign-board was nailed above his head: “This is the king of the Jews” (v. 38). Matthew says that this announced “the charge against him” (27:37), and John notes that the sign was written in Hebrew or Aramaic, Latin and Greek for the world to read without interpretation (19:20). The soldiers who tortured him put a crown of thorns on his head and “mocked him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’” (v. 29). The chief priests and elders taunted him as he hung on the cross, “He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now” (v. 42).

Twice in John’s Gospel there is a sincere use of this phrase as when Nathanael exclaims of Jesus, “You are the King of Israel!” (1:49) or when the crowds shout, “Blessed is the King of Israel” as Jesus enters Jerusalem (12:13).

I remembered the first song I learned in Hebrew: David, Melech Yisrael. For a thousand years before Jesus, Israelites had celebrated the theme of the coming Messianic King as the divine promise which would complete the Davidic dynasty. It was especially in the Prayer Book of the Temple, the Psalms, where believers sang of that anointed king of David’s line that would usher in the very Kingdom of God. The psalmists’ words kept hope alive. God’s promises were sure! The King would come!

This Messianic King would be wise, responsive to the will of God on earth, instructed from his youth (Psalm 71:17). He would bring protection and glorious deliverance to God’s people. The Ideal Messiah King (cf. Psalm 72) would administer the government with righteousness and justice. There was also provision for the goyim under David’s royal grant (22:27-28; 72: 8-17; 117:1-2). Jews, gentiles and the whole of creation would enjoy the messianic King’s beneficent rule!

Then Jesus came. He proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come” (Matthew 4:17). May we guard against the two extremes as we meditate on the messianic rule of King Jesus: that there is no future for the Jewish people in the messianic kingdom or that the messianic kingdom is meant only for the Jews. The Messianic King is also the Good Shepherd who knows his own and who announc-ed, “There will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16).

The challenge of our day is to use the words of Israel in calling Israel to recognize Jesus as their Messiah-King by declaring what God has done for us through him. This message must be motivated by love and presented with forbearance and understanding. The Jews are still God’s beloved and holy to Him (Romans 11:16). All who have come to faith in this Messiah-King Jesus, Jew and gentile, should carry the covenant privileges with humility before those Jewish people who have yet to acknow-ledge that their King has come. David’s greater son is Melech Yisrael!

Theresa Newell