Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:33-37)

In some churches, this is the lectionary reading for “Christ the King Sunday,” and many parts of Scripture speak to that title. Another reading is from the book of Daniel, where Daniel was given a vision and watched as “an Ancient one took his throne.” At the time that would have been understood to refer to God, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures. Revelation, which builds heavily on Daniel and other post-exilic prophecies, recapitulates this vision in Revelation 4, but adds Christ in—a lamb that looks as if it had been slain—in Revelation 5, sitting on the throne with God. Scripture bears witness to Christ enthroned, but Jesus, puzzlingly, does not take the title himself when asked point-blank by Pilate.

Why doesn’t he claim the title outright?

There is the possibility of a straightforward, theological answer: for instance, it may be because Jesus wants to universalize his kingdom. He is not King (only) of the Jews, but of the whole world, of all of existence. From at least the time of the book of Daniel, the Jews had hoped that all nations would recognize their God as the one God, over everything. Revelation only takes this further—for those interested, Richard Bauckham, in his entry in the fantastic New Testament Theology series by Cambridge, describes this universality as a key theme of Revelation. And the universality of this kingship is anticipated, arguably, from the start: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one,” Jesus tells his followers, quoting the famous language from Deuteronomy. (Mark 12:29). God is not the God of a particular people, or faction, or tribe—if there is one God, he must be God of all.[1] If the Divine is singular, meaning no other gods are around, he must be God of everything, or the whole world besides Israel would be left godless and in the dark. Thus Jesus is the God of Pilate, too, and he rejects Pilate’s attempt to pigeonhole him as king of one people.

If that is the case, one might have expected Jesus to say that outright, to explain his reasoning. But he does not. Instead Jesus turns the question back on Pilate—”Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” He is after an encounter which is personal rather than theological. Even here, speaking with the most powerful man in that part of the world, who holds Jesus’s life in his own hands, Jesus speaks to him as a fellow, individual human being. He wants to know where Pilate is coming from, why he is asking. Is he personally curious, or is he asking based on what other people are saying? It is as if Jesus sees not the Roman governor there but rather the bleeding woman who touched his cloak for healing. He is apparently thinking not of the universality of God’s kingdom—at least not primarily—but of the person standing in front of him.

Pilate does not answer the question, but dodges it. Why would he care whether Jesus thinks he is king of the Jews? To Pilate, Jesus’s question seems far off the mark. “I am not a Jew, am I?” he asks. As if to say, “How could this possibly be relevant to me?” To Pilate, it is a sectarian squabble, an internal argument between this strange people he governs and the rabbi who is stranger still. It is they who handed Jesus over to him, Pilate’s response implies, Jesus’s own people and nation. But if Pilate really feels this way—if Pilate’s sense of being outside all this, of it being simply irrelevant to him, is as strong as he acts like it is—why did he even ask in the first place? Perhaps Pilate wants to pin down Jesus’s offense, to figure out exactly why Jesus has offended the religious authorities. He returns to familiar and safe role of a ruler judging an accused man: “What have you done?”

Jesus refuses to admit his kingship outright, but this is not the only time God has turned down a title. In another famous encounter (in Exodus 3), God declined human attempts to pin a title on him.

But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you.”’

God’s rejection of names and titles is a deep expression of his Oneness. In the religiously plural universe of the ancient world, gods were tied to things, to objects or to natural phenomena. So if God had said he was the god of the thunder and lightning, we might think there was another god who was god of the rivers. If there were a god of the harvest, it would logical to expect another god who was the god of fertility, or the god of the sea. Pagan religion was that idea developed to fullness, with Olympian gods who each had their own domain. Zeus of the thunder and of the lightning was the greatest god, but not the only one—it wasn’t Zeus, but Aphrodite, who was the god of love, for instance. But the god in the burning bush refuses so delimit his domain. And it isn’t just that he refuses to be called the river-god or the sky-god. It goes deeper: even our legitimate names for God are too limited for him to speak them to Moses. That is, our God is not just God the Father, or God the Redeemer, or God the King, or God the Rescuer of the victims, or God the Forgiver of the guilty. So he does not tell Moses he is the God of forgiveness, or of hope, or of mercy; his name is utterly simple—“I am”—and thereby utterly universal.[2]

Likewise Jesus, when asked to describe himself as a king, to put himself in a familiar category so he can be properly scrutinized and weighed by Pilate, replies with an appeal to Pilate’s sense of transcendence: “My kingdom is not from this world.” He makes no pretensions to the kind of power or station familiar to Pilate.

Theologically, we could gloss this as another appeal to universality—as Jesus making the point he is King not only of the Jews, but also the whole world—but that would neglect its negative characteristic, the fact Jesus is defining himself—or more specifically, his kingdom—in terms of what it is not. That negative assertion—saying only where his kingdom is not—perhaps means to check Pilate. It is both comforting and alarming; comforting because he will not challenge or try to reduce Pilate’s own power and domain one jot, but alarming because it is something entirely new. As if he expects Pilate may not fully believe him. (Pilate sits on a hot seat, after all, as Roman-Jewish relations were not good, and religiously motivated uprisings were common.)

So Jesus reasons it out for him. “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.” They are not fighting, as Pilate can see, and presumably Jesus means to say they will not fight. No trouble here; Pilate may do with him as he wishes without any interference with Pilate’s own power. “But as it is, my kingdom is not here.” That is the scary part, and where Jesus seems to mean comfort, Pilate hears cause for unease. But Pilate at least has gotten an answer to his first question. If Jesus implies he has a kingdom, he must be a king. So Pilate thinks he gotten his answer: “So you are a king?” he asks. You can almost hear the trap coming shut. But “Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’”

Christ is a king; he does not reject the title. But the word, while a good and helpful title for Jesus, must be spoken by Pilate. Christ will not name himself that, just as God would not name himself for Moses. But Pilate can identify him.

It is worth noting that although Pilate speaks the truth, the phenomenon he sees is a flat one, a poor one. Pilate deduces the bare fact that Jesus calls himself “king” from the fact he has a kingdom (about which he has said nothing, except that it is not here).

By way of analogy, Sudan and Egypt currently have a border dispute. There is a large piece of land called the Hala’ib Triangle and a smaller piece of land called Bir Tawil. Going by what Sudan claims as the border, the Hala’ib Triangle is in Sudan and Bir Tawil is in Egypt. Egypt’s claimed border has the Hala’ib Triangle in Egypt and Bir Tawil in Sudan. The upshot is that neither country claims Bir Tawil, so it is ungoverned. Jeremiah Heaton, a Virginian, who claimed the land as his own in 2014 and purported to be its ruler. He did this so that his daughter could be a princess—she had always wanted to be.

Pilate knows no more about Jesus’s kingship than I know about the Virginian’s kingship. He knew even less—we at least know where Bir Tawil is, a little bit of its history, etc. Christ’s claimed kingship is, to Pilate, a merely logical proposition, an inference. It implies, perhaps, some degree of power or prestige—that is what kings usually have. But if that is what kingship means to us, it is almost surprising Jesus would allow Pilate to give him that title at all.

Despite God’s mystery and universality and history of dodging human attempts to pin God with titles, we believe Jesus the full, final, and complete revelation of God. Christ is the image of God, the ultimate icon, and he is a perfect representation of God. He nods to this when he says he was born—referring both to typical human birth and to his incarnation[3]—to testify to the truth.

But again, why not simply tell Pilate all that? The simple way for Jesus to testify to the truth, we might think, would have been to tell Pilate Jesus was a king, but not in the way he thought, and that true kingship lays not in power and prestige, but in love and humility and sacrifice, and that although Jesus was king of the Jews, he was also king of the cosmos, and one day all would be brought into the fold. Such an answer certainly would have saved the theologians some ink.

Would that have been the simple way to communicate the truth? I don’t know. You can certainly see more of the beauty of a simple piece of art by looking at it for a while than you can by reading a book on how X artist’s time in France influenced his artistic style. All the words in existence could not adequately describe the beauty of one painting, or tree, though they used an ocean’s worth of ink.[4] How much more so for a person.

The fact that God expresses himself finally and perfectly in a human person is astounding. Every form of communication has a medium: if you want to teach someone math, you learn to substitute letters for numbers, and later you might learn to graph equations. If you’re interested in the economy, pie charts and line graphs might do it. If you want to express love, graphs don’t work; you’re as bad off expressing love with a graph as you would be expressing the Pythagorean Theorem in poetry. Memories may be called up strongly by certain smells, and ink does better for maps than watercolors. Everything has its own proper medium (or media) of expression. What is God’s medium of expression to us? The human person of Christ. Not in words or concepts or even images, but in one human person and life. “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”

Although that idea is unbelievably rich, it is not wholly novel. As religion in the West developed, it moved beyond the animistic sense of tree-spirits and river-spirits and developed personified gods, most notably in Greece.[5] The Greek gods were like humans but stronger and cleverer and more powerful. Thus Pilate probably would have been closer to the gods than most Romans. He was certainly more powerful and wealthier, and he probably had great physical strength and intelligence and people-savvy and education. Kings and rulers and Roman governors were more like gods than ordinary people. That is partly why some Roman Emperors came to be seen as gods, or at least as sort of divine.[6] A life of enough power and virtue and wealth and wisdom and service to Rome might see you raised to quasi-divine status, through apotheosis.

It was not until the twentieth century that philosophers were able to articulate what was wrong with this picture. What was wrong was this: men who thought they were emulating the gods were actually imagining gods who emulated them—their own best qualities, idealized.[7] But Jesus, in shying from Pilate’s title of kingship, anticipated that critique by two millennia.

To the Christian mind, likeness to God looks different. It looks like the life of Christ, a poor carpenter with nowhere to lay his head. The form of true kingship was being nailed to a cross and lifted up and stuck in the ground, arms spread full in devastation and embrace and surrender. Surrender of all a king might claim, surrender of every possession and title and power and prestige he ever possibly could have had, stripped naked. And embrace of all us others wallowing through our own struggles and emptiness, embrace as if to say, you might think god is up there, in your power and pride and accomplishment and wealth and virtue, but your God is right here, right where you are, if you look.

But Jesus doesn’t even try to explain it like that, because God’s Word is not a word, but a person, living and dying. Jesus cannot answer to Pilate, cannot possibly begin to explain what his kingdom looks like, standing there as he is. Or to answer Pilate’s next question, “What is truth?”, which Jesus actually leaves unanswered during their conversation, because it cannot be answered in mere words. But the answer comes, just a few hours later. Pilate’s answer to kingship and to truth is right there, a short time later, where “Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.’”

“Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, “The King of the Jews”, but, “This man said, “I am King of the Jews.”’” Because even Christ’s reluctant admission of kingship to Pilate was just a claim, and an implausible one at that. “Pilate answered, ‘What I have written I have written.’” Perhaps at the last, he caught an inkling of that truth.

[1] H. Richard Neibuhr, in his essay on “Radical Monotheism,” deepens and extends that idea brilliantly. It’s worth a read.

[2] The Patristics, and some modern theologians reviving them, see this in grammatical terms. A complex thing, in terms of our everyday grammar, requires descriptor words which simultaneously limit it. A “green door” is more complex than a door, and less universal. A door is also more “one” than a green door, since a green door is an amalgamation of two different ideas—doorness combined with greenness. At a fundamental level, words of description are words of limitation and words of plurality. That is why the Hellenistic theologians settled on an idea of God as being, or God as a still-deeper concept lying somewhere beyond being, with its perfectly universal—and perfectly singular—abstraction. The theology of God is always wrestling with the tension between that conception, which is perfection by the terms of classical philosophy, and the personal distinctness of God as he revealed himself to the Hebrews. Because the Bible does not reject names or images but embraces them and asks the reader to hold together the tension between the One God and his many names, the universal—“I am who I am”—and the particular—“The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”. The titles are paired from the start in Exodus.

[3] And to his being begotten of the Father. “Born” here would become part of the Trinitarian formulation of Nicaea.

[4] The longest hymn hypothetical I know is concerned with making the point that God’s love is inexpressible by any amount of human words. The fact the song spends an entire verse of speculating about scribes and quills and stuff to make that simple point is both awkward and possibly clever.

[5] Of course, the Greeks may have personified their gods because they had a sense of the truth and hit on part of it in an oblique manner. Meaning the Incarnation is still prior to the Olympians in the human imagination, even if its date is later. Same with the Jewish and later Christian idea of man being made in God’s image.

[6] Or “quasi” divine, to say “sort of” more impressively.

[7] Credit for that goes to Dave Zahl, who preached a classic sermon on Feuerbach and made it land hard emotionally, too.