Throughout the gospel of Matthew there exists a steadily mounting anticipation of Jesus’ coming enthronement as the king of Israel, in fulfillment of the prophetic Old Testament messianic hope. Such an emphasis is obvious, of course, in the central place the “kingdom of God” occupies in Jesus’ teaching and life (and the preeminent role he himself plays in the kingdom) throughout the narrative. But the motif is similarly plain in a number of other ways, as well. In 2:2, King Herod’s horrible infanticide is motivated by fear stemming from rumors of a soon to be born “King of the Jews.” Jesus, as depicted by Matthew, is the proverbial man born to be king. During Jesus’ 40 days of temptation, the third and climatic temptation (4:8-10) revolves around the nature of how Jesus might seize the messianic throne with all its glory and power. Satan offers to deliver all the kingdoms of the world to Christ through a thoroughly worldly agenda of disobedience, selfishness and idolatry—which, of course, Jesus refuses. Such is not the pathway to power for this One.
5:34-35 makes the seemingly offhand comment that Jerusalem is the city of the great king—but its thrust becomes increasingly clear as the story progresses and Jesus heads for precisely that location. In 13:41, Jesus predicts a day when the Son of Man will cast out all the wicked from his kingdom—exactly what one would expect from the fiery, violent OT depictions of the coming of the kingdom. In 16:13-23, Peter makes the good confession on which the Church is built—that Jesus is not, as so many in the crowds are convinced, just a prophet. Instead, he is the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One—the true Davidic King who arrives to usher in the final and full manifestation of God’s rule over the Gentile nations through Israel. Of course, Peter immediately reveals that he misunderstands the counter-intuitive nature of Jesus’ kingship by rebuking his Lord for predicting suffering for himself, rather than glory. Amazingly, Jesus’ response echoes his earlier reply: “Get behind me, Satan” in 16:23 is an exact replica of 4:10. Like Satan, Peter “tempts” Jesus with an easy crown without a terrible cross, with wordly glory apart from atoning suffering. Such foibles notwithstanding, Jesus promises his closest followers that such radical political and social upheaval will come soon. According to 16:28, it is within their very own lifetimes that they will see Jesus enthroned as King and all false rivals usurped. Seemingly they are on the very cusp of revolution; what all the prophets foretold was soon to come to pass.
In 19:23-30, Jesus’ disciples ask—quite uninhibitedly—what they will personally get out of following him during his ministry, having given up everything for his sake. Jesus’ reply is stunningly bold. His followers will reign with him in his kingdom after he is enthroned, ruling over the new creation with him. They will, in a word, share in the power of his newly established government. Soon thereafter (20:20-28), the mother of James and John takes the hint and asks for even more. Can her two sons not only reign with Jesus, but even sit at his right and left hand (the most influential positions under a ruler in the ancient world) when he becomes king? Jesus’ response is telling, when interpreted in the light of later events—“you do not know what you are asking for.” Yet it is not so much that the request is wrongheaded, per se. Rather, they presently have no idea what reigning with Jesus entails. Next, in 21:1-11, Jesus enters the so-called city of the great king to absolute madness and stirring fanfare. The crowds know their king has come—riding on a donkey, no less, in fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9. That this same multitude will soon chant “Crucify him! Crucify him!” demonstrates their profound disappointment and failure to grasp what kind of king Jesus rides into the city as. Apparently, the donkey wasn’t an obvious enough clue. Finally, in 25:34, 40 Jesus once again looks to the future and not only reserves the starring role in the coming eschatological drama (the final judgment) for himself, but even refers to himself as “the king” twice.
Modern readers of the gospels are often not well attuned to the subtle narrative developments of these documents—we tend to be far more comfortable with Paul’s straightforwardly didactic letters or the inspiring poetry of the Psalms. Yet with all this background now in mind, a surprising fact confronts us. When does Jesus ever become king? Where is his glorious coronation, with the attendant judgment of evil and the salvation of his people? Even more perplexing is that in the closing crescendo of the story (28:16-20), Jesus would seem to act as if he were now king. When he claims that all authority in heaven and earth has now been given to him, and that now his followers should go to all the nations and teach them to obey him, what is that except a call to establish and extend his rule as King of Kings and Lord of Lords? Moreover, in light of earlier prohibitions to not go outside of Israel (10:6, 15:24), it is clear that at the beginning of the gospel narrative all dominion was not yet given to Jesus. Which is to say—he was not yet king when Matthew first put pen to paper (or papyri?). When, then, did Jesus become king and gain such authority along the way?
Matthew 27:27-44 holds the key. With the profoundest irony imaginable, Matthew depicts Jesus’ crucifixion as his actual enthronement as king—for those who have eyes to see, at least. For the rest (such as the crowds and rulers and soldiers; cf. I Corinthians 2:6-8), their eyes are veiled and Matthew’s gospel of the kingdom is hidden (2 Corinthians 4:4-6). Listen afresh as the grim scene plays out:
“Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole battalion before him. And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they spit on him and took the reed and struck him on the head. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him and led him away to crucify him.”
Matthew’s fantastic intention is crystal clear–if along the way we have been taking careful note of Jesus’ repeated tendency to frustrate the popular expectations of what his kingship will entail. What the soldiers do here in mock homage is, from the perspective of humble faith, exactly what is happening behind the scenes in God’s redemptive scheme. They treat Jesus scornfully as if this were his anticipated coronation—purple robe, crown, scepter for his right hand, and the prostration of his servants before him. Of course, in their minds they are merely adding insult to injury. For Matthew’s audience, however, they enact truth without knowing it–for this is Jesus’ coronation. Here is the enthronement of the man of sorrows, the glory of the suffering servant of the Lord who will be exalted for his sacrifice (Isaiah 52:13 tellingly precedes 52:14-53:12). In John’s gospel, of course, this is even clearer—there Jesus explicitly announces the cross as his glorification, his exaltation, his “lifting up” from the earth (3:14, 7:39, 8:28, 12:16, 12:23-36, 13:31-32).
As we see so often in the New Testament, Jesus’ kingdom and sovereign rule is associated not with worldly patterns of wisdom and power and dominance, but rather with foolishness and weakness and suffering. The strange triumph of the Lamb comes not in spite of his public execution, humiliation and failure—but precisely through them. Our king reigns from a cross, Christians. The world, to be sure, can never acknowledge this—this coronation is veiled to the eyes of unbelievers. Like the soldiers, those who are of the flesh can only mock at the weakness and defeat of this would-be pretender king. But to us who are called—both Jews and Gentiles—this crucified Jesus is both the wisdom of God and the power of God.
One final word must be spoken. It is not enough, I am convinced, to merely assert that Jesus’ kingdom was ushered in through his own weakness, suffering and death. The cross is not merely his way to the crown—as if we had the prospect of another more pleasant way open before us as we follow him, seeking to extend his kingdom to all the nations. The way the kingdom advances is exactly the same as the way the kingdom first arrived.
Recall the question of the mother of James and John in Matthew 20—she wanted her beloved sons to reign with Jesus when he became king. In light of 19:28, such a request cannot be judged wrongheaded in and of itself. Even Jesus’ response to the mother in 20:22 shows this—he does not rebuke her directly or flat out refuse her desire. Rather, he foreshadows what is to come by alluding to the dark cup and blazing baptism that he must soon undergo as part and parcel of his coronation. And he goes on to ask whether they are able to share in them with him.
Return then with me to Matthew 27:27-44. Three things in this gruesomely ironic scene echo back to the request to reign with Jesus in his kingdom in Matthew 20. First, Jesus becomes king precisely here—and it is when Jesus comes into his kingdom that James and John are to reign with Jesus. Second, the only time in the gospel that the phrase “one at the right hand and one at the left hand” appears is here (cf. Mark 10:40 with 15:27, where this intratextual play is also made). In 27:38—immediately after Jesus’ veiled coronation—two godless revolutionaries are “seated” with Jesus, one on his right and one on his left–in the eyes of the soldiers, “reigning” with the “King of the Jews” (27:11, 29, 37, 42). Not enough for you? Note then this third connection. The only other time in the entire New Testament that the mother of the sons of Zebedee is mentioned comes directly after this scene, in 27:55-56. Matthew mentions that some women who followed Jesus were also watching this hidden enthronement—and among them stood the mother of James and John. Why mention her, except to recall for his audience the only other time she has made an appearance? What in the world must she have been thinking at this moment, in light of her earlier glory-seeking request? In Matthew’s narrative world, the answer seems unavoidable. Jesus has become king, and two men are indeed seated at his right and his left–precisely the coveted spots she wanted her sons to occupy. “You do not know what you are asking” (20:22) now comes home to Matthew’s audience with fresh, bitter meaning. This is what it means to reign with Jesus in his kingdom. Take up your cross and follow him. There is no other way with this King.
Do we confess such a blatantly upside-down, expectation-crushing gospel today in the West? Matthew was not the only early Christian writer to promulgate it: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs–heirs with God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Romans 8:16-17). Therefore, “let us go to him outside the camp [i.e. where Jesus was crucified in shame outside the walls of Jerusalem] and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” (Hebrews 13:13-14).