Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Christ the King Sunday - Year B

Other texts: 


From Commentary on the Lutheran Book of Worship, by Pfatteicher:

The festival of Christ the King is of recent Roman Catholic origin. Pope Pius XI in 1925, ... set the new feast day on the last Sunday in October "chiefly in view of the coming feast of All Saints" (and, it is thought, to combat the popularity of Reformation Sunday among Lutherans and others.) ... The Roman Calendar of 1969 moved the feast to the last Sunday of the liturgical year, the "final Lord's Day" with its eschatological emphasis. [p. 312]

This festival, which may have originally been, at least partially, a divisive festival has become part of a uniting movement as many denominations have adopted the Revised Common Lectionary with its 3-year cycle of readings. There is a strong emphasis on unity in the Prayer of the Day (from Evangelical Lutheran Worship):

Almighty and ever-living God,
you anointed your beloved Son
to be priest and sovereign forever.
Grant that all the people of the earth,
now divided by the power of sin,
may be united by the glorious and gentle rule
of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.


In some ways, John 8:33-37 is a strange reading for Christ the King Sunday. It is a small part of Jesus' trial before Pilate (18:28-19:16a). As a rule, kings usually do not stand trial. They rule until their deaths. They are in charge of everything that happens in their kingdom. There are times when a king may die an early death -- when another king with a more powerful army conquers the king or when the king's subjects rebel. When such things happen, the defeated king is seldom given a trial. He is just killed.

We should also remember, as Malina and Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John) point out:

To speak here of a "trial" of Jesus, so common in Western scholarly literature, is out of place. Rigidly hierarchical societies such as those under Roman imperial rule in the ancient Mediterranean world do not allow for trials of social inferiors; instead they have accusations and punishments. [p. 256]

Although I will use the word "trial," we need to bear in mind it's not like "trials" that we experience in 20th century America.

In other ways, this is a good text for this Sunday. There is a lot of king and kingdom talk in these verses. Three of five of John's use of kingdom are in 18:36. (The other two occurrences are 3:3 & 5 -- Jesus' discourse with Nicodemus.)

Throughout Jesus' trial, the topic of Jesus being a king frequently appears (18:33, 37, 37, 39; 19:3, 12, 14, 15, 19, 21), and only four times prior to the trial (1:49; 6:15; 12:13, 15).

Craig Koester (Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel) points out some of the irony in the earlier passages.

On the previous Passover, the crowd acclaimed Jesus a prophet and tried to make him into their king, but Jesus slipped away from them (6:14-15). When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem for this Passover, they again hailed him as king, but he hid himself from them (12:13, 36). Was he or was he not then "the King of the Jews"? [p. 201]

If Jesus is "the King of the Jews," he sure has a strange way of showing it! He will show it by being put on trial and subsequently crucified!

Brown (The Death of the Messiah) notes that the charge of being "king of the Jews" is included in all four gospels.

The fact that in all the narratives Pilate phrases the issue as "Are you the King of the Jews?" -- language which has not been used previously either in the ministry or in the Jewish trial/interrogation of Jesus -- would probably suggest two things. First, there would be a hint that the Jewish authorities were deceptive since they had not told Pilate what they really held against Jesus as reflected in their own questioning of him. (John would be dramatizing this by having "the Jews" at first reluctant to tell Pilate the real issue [18:30] and then finally admitting that it was Jesus' making himself God's son [19:7].) Second and more important, from the new phrasing that Pilate employs, readers/hearers would get the impression that there was now being introduced an issue the Romans were really interested in. The matters of concern to the Jewish authorities in the immediately preceding trial/interrogation were clearly religious, the Roman issue has a political tone. [pp. 728-9]

Later Brown writes:

The history of the title "the King of the Jews" is interesting. NT commentators point out that most often it appears on the lips of nonJews (John 19:21 is not really an exception). This supports the surface impression that we are hearing how a Roman would understand Jesus.... [p. 731]

If the designation of Jesus as king was done to get the Romans involved -- so that Jesus' prophecy about the kind of death he would die would be fulfilled (12:32-33) -- and to speak to them in an image they would understand; then what appropriate "titles" should we use today that our people understand, that would get them involved?

We, Americans, don't know about living under a "king" or even a "lord." What does it mean to us to declare "Christ is King" or "Jesus is Lord"? On the other hand, we may be free from the prejudices against kings and lords that can be present among those subjected to their absolute authority. We may be better able to understand a kingship that does not come from this world; because we don't have a negative "gut reaction" to kingships that do come from this world.

Malina and Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John) highlight this problem:

For most U.S. readers of the Bible, the words king and lord are perhaps the most difficult New Testament words to appreciate. Most people today simply have no experience of persons embodying these social roles, much less of the social system that supports such roles.

For pre-enlightenment people (before the eighteenth century C.E.), the king was the author and guarantor of the prosperity of his people -- if he followed the rules of justice and obeyed divine commandments. ... [The king's] proper function it was to promote fertility about him, both in animals and vegetation. Kings ensured prosperity on land and sea, with abundant fruit and fecund women. Thus, subjects expected peace and prosperity, security and abundance, from their kings. [pp. 364-5]

While we, in the U.S., might expect our government to provide us with peace and security, we also tend to rely on our individual efforts for prosperity and abundance.

These quotes also illustrate the great irony of Jesus as king -- the one who is to provide the "good life" for his subjects -- is the one who will be put to death.

How do we talk about the authority and power of Jesus in ways that speak to our people in the pews? How do we present Jesus in a way that forces the hearers to make a decision -- either for Jesus or against Jesus? That is what Jesus does to Pilate in our text.

The annotation in the New Interpreter's Study Bible by Gail O'Day says the following about John 18:28-19:16a:

Jesus' trial before Pilate is the centerpiece and dramatic climax of the story of Jesus' hour. There is nothing parallel to its scope or literary artistry in the trial narratives of the synoptic Gospels. The trial is structured like a drama, with seven scenes delineated by Pilate's movement sin and out of his headquarters (18:29, 33, 38b; 19:1, 4, 9, 13). The trial brings to conclusion many of the important christological themes of the Gospel, especially the themes of judgment and kingship. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus' presence in the world has been pointed to as the moment of judgment of the world (3:19-21; 9:39-41), which must decide whether it recognizes the revelation of God in Jesus (see also 16:9-11). In chaps. 18-19, the world tries to put Jesus on trial, but he is shown to be the true judge (see 19:13-16a). Similarly, the trial will show that Jesus is not king according to the world's conventional expectations (7:14-15; 12:13), but is truly king in the events of his hour. In addition, the trial narrative highlights the intersection of religion and politics in mid-first-century Judea. The Jewish leadership and the Roman leader Pilate each work to protect their own political self-interests throughout the trial.


Throughout the trial before Pilate, there are numerous scenes in two different locations: outside and inside the praetorium ("Pilate's headquarters" NRSV). Outside the praetorium Pilate speaks to the "Jews," because they won't enter the praetorium, "so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover" (18:28b). What does this indicate about Jesus who is inside the praetorium?

It is one of the many ironies of Jesus' trial that those Jewish leaders who scrupulously observe the statutes about ritual purity by refusing the enter the praetorium; who cry for the release of a Jewish freedom fighter (18:40); who badger Pilate into executing a blasphemer, which was required by Jewish law (19:7); are the same people who betray their faith by confessing that their only king is Caesar (19:15), the man who attempted to usurp the place of God.

In a sense, John pictures these authorities as being the scribes and Pharisees that Jesus rails against in Matthew 23; e.g., "For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!" (23:23-24)

At the same time, Pilate also betrays his faith. He believes that Jesus is innocent and tries to set him free; but in the end, he turns him over to be crucified. He acts contrary to his beliefs.

Brown (The Death of the Messiah) writes:

"The Jews" are outside the praetorium refusing to enter; Jesus is inside the praetorium; these are the separated forces of darkness and light. Pilate must shuttle back and forth, for he is the person-in-between who does not wish to make a decision and so vainly tries to reconcile the opposing forces. For John, however, one must decide for light or darkness and thus judge oneself as one faces the light come into the world (3:19-21). By not deciding for the truth, Pilate is deciding for falsehood and darkness. [p. 744]

Our text begins with Pilate entering the praetorium to question Jesus -- so he thinks.


Pilate asks, "Are you the king of the Jews?" Maybe he had heard the crowds calling Jesus their king when he rode into Jerusalem on the donkey (12:13, 15).

Jesus responds with a question: "From yourself are you asking this or have others told you about me?"

Three times in Jesus' question he emphasizes a form of "you" (singular). Jesus puts Pilate on trial. "What do you say about me?"

O'Day (John, The New Interpreter's Bible) says this about v. 35:

Pilate's response to Jesus is also pivotal in interpreting both Pilate's character in this trial and its political undertones. His initial question is introduced with the Greek interrogative particle mēti, which anticipates a negative response, and its sense is accurately reflected in the NRSV, "I am not a Jew, am I?" In this question, Pilate expresses his disdain for the Jews. This disdain, consistent with the description of Pilate in Joseph, will govern his dealings with the Jewish authorities in the remainder of the trial....

Pilate's question in v. 35a is also an example of the Fourth Evangelist's use of theological irony in this trial. For the Fourth Evangelist, "the Jews" represent the world's resistance to the revelation of God in Jesus. Pilate anticipates a negative answer to his question, but the trial will show that in fact Pilate is "a Jew," that he belongs with those who reject Jesus. Pilate's question is thus similar to the Pharisees' question at 9:40 ("Surely [Gk 'mē'] we are not blind, are we?"), in which the false certitude expressed in the question will be ironically exposed by one's response to Jesus. [pp. 816-817]

Jesus puts Pilate and the Jews on trial. "Who is your king?" As I wrote earlier, the Jews make it clear that Caesar is their king (19:12, 15). Pilate, by his actions makes it clear that Jesus is not his king. He will prove that he is just as "Jewish" in his response to Jesus as "the Jews."

NOTE: I am using "the Jews" as O'Day indicates that John does: to symbolize all people who reject Jesus; not as a racial term. Brown also notes that by the time John was written, Christians had been expelled from the synagogues, so "the Jews" was a generalized term representing the people and authorities that were anti-Jesus and anti-Christian. I am a person whose heritage is half Jewish, I don't want to be accused of being anti-Semitic. Nearly all of Jesus' first followers were racially Jews. It has been suggested that wherever John uses "the Jews" in this way, we should read "some of the Jews."

Can we talk about Jesus putting us on trial? "Who is our king?" One might bring in Revelation, which was written at a time when the Roman Emperor Domitian, required all citizens, at least once a year, to bow down and worship him, calling upon him as "god and lord." Christians, who worship only one God and Lord couldn't do that. The question of who is your king was very real to them. Is it God or Caesar who is our "god and lord"? For Pilate and "the Jews" is it Jesus or Caesar?

Who or what competes with Jesus in our lives to be king (or lord) over us?


Pilate asks at the end of v. 35: "What have you done?" Jesus doesn't answer that question. It's a wrong question. The issue is not about what Jesus has done, but who he is and where he has come from -- his origins. We, the readers, know from the very beginning of time and of this writing, that Jesus, the Word, has come from God.

The question of origins is part of Jesus' answer in the next verse. The origin of his kingdom is not from earth. If it were, he would act like Pilate and other earthly rulers. He would have an army who would fight to preserve him.

The word in v. 36 translated by the NRSV "followers" and NIV as "servants" is ὑπηρέτης (hypēretēs). Every other time this word is used in John it is translated (in NRSV) with "(temple) police" (7:32, 45, 46; 18:3, 12, 18, 22; 19:6). In the instance just before our text, one of these "police," when he feels that his superior has been insulted, strikes Jesus on the face (v. 22).

The word originally meant "a rower" on a boat, then any seaman, then any inferior officer. In NT times, it could refer to any servant or assistant -- not necessarily military-like, but it is used this way only in Luke/Acts and its sole occurrence in Paul (1 Cor 4:1). It can refer to "servants" of Christ, but John's use of this word in our text, present an illustration of the contrast between belonging to God and belonging to "this world." Jesus' "police" are not like the "temple police." Jesus' kingship is not like the kingship that Pilate and the Pharisees and the chief priests serve. Jesus' kingship is not secured or kept in power by force. In fact, Jesus orders Peter to put his sword away (18:11) when the possibility of a battle looms near.

If we are to talk about what Jesus does, it is nothing like any other king on earth. What he will do is be (unfairly) tried, convicted, and executed. He will suffer, die, and be raised.


In the NIV, the first part of v. 37 is a declaration by Pilate: "You are a king, then!" In the NRSV (and my Greek text) it is a question: "So you are a king?"

In some ways, this is another wrong question. Jesus turns it around: "You are saying that I am a king." With that statement is Jesus again putting Pilate on trial: "You have said it, but is it what you believe?"

An approach to this question might be to tell this brief story:

An Amish man was once asked by an enthusiastic young evangelist whether he had been saved, and whether he had accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior?

The gentleman replied, "Why do you ask me such a thing? I could tell you anything. Here are the names of my banker, my grocer, and my farm hands. Ask them if I've been saved."

Jesus could tell Pilate anything. What is important is what Pilate believes.

Now Jesus partially answers the earlier wrong question -- he talks about what he does!

"For this I have been born" and "For this I have come into the world" say essentially the same thing by Jesus. His reason for being here is "witness to the truth" and those who are "of the truth" are hearing (present tense) Jesus' voice.

O'Day (John, The New Interpreter's Bible) makes some good comments about this verse:

Verse 37c-d is a distillation of theological themes that have run throughout the Gospel. First, it stresses the connection between Jesus' origin with God and his witness to the truth (e.g., 3:31-36; 8:14-18, 42, 46; 14:6; 17:17).... Second, the expression "Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice" recalls the claims of the shepherd discourse of John 10 (vv. 3-4, 16, 27); to "belong to the truth" is thus to be one of Jesus' sheep. In addition, at 8:31, knowing the truth and being Jesus' disciple were presented as synonyms. To "belong to the truth" is to recognize in Jesus the truth of God, to see the fullness of God revealed in Jesus, to hear the words of God in Jesus' voice (cf. 5;42; 8:47; 12:49-50).

It is important to remember that pastoral imagery had political overtones in Israel; shepherd was a common metaphor for king (e.g., Ezek 34:1-31). By introducing motifs from the shepherd discourse into the trial, then, the Fourth evangelist points the reader to the proper theological context in which to interpret the discussion of Jesus' kingship. Jesus is the good shepherd, the one who lays down his life for the sheep (10:11, 17-18). Verse 37 also interprets Jesus' kingship in the light of his role as the eschatological judge. Jesus' presence in the world and the word of truth that he speaks are the moment of judgment and decision for the world (5:22, 27; 12:46-48). Although Jesus is nominally on trial here, he is the one who testifies to the truth, and the world is judged by its response to his witness (3:19, 9:39).

It is in the context of Jesus as eschatological judge, as the one who testifies to the truth that Pilate's much-debated question in v. 38a ("What is truth?") must be heard and evaluated. In the immediate context of the legal proceedings against Jesus, Pilate's question seems to provide one more example of his contempt for the case that has been brought before him. Nothing in the portrait of Pilate in John 18-19 supports reading this question as evidence of Pilate's desire to acquit Jesus. The real significance of Pilate's question, however, lies in what it signals to the reader, and here again, one finds a consummate example of Johannine theological irony, because Pilate's very question contains its own answer. In asking this question of the one who is the truth (14:6), Pilate unknowingly reveals that he does not belong to the truth, that he does not listen to Jesus' voice. Pilate shows that he is not one of Jesus' sheep and thus begins to answer his question of v. 35, "I am not a Jew, am I?" [pp. 817-8]

We may insert again that Pilate asks the wrong question. Given the situation, it is not "What is truth?" but "Who is truth?" Jesus has declared, "I am the truth" (14:6). The truth is right in front of Pilate and he is unwilling to see it.

Brown (The Death of the Messiah) presents the same interpretation:

In a sense, then, Jesus' statement, "Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice" is a test of Pilate; the judge is being judged. Pilate's response, "What is truth?" is not to be understood as a profound philosophical question. It does echo the imperiousness of the Roman when challenged (see also 19:22); but ironically it is a self-condemnation: His failure to recognize truth and hear Jesus' voice shows that he does not belong to God. This is the last time in John that Jesus shall speak of truth, and his voice has not been heard. [pp. 752-3]


I started my comments by talking about the unifying aspect of this festival. It may be that the most important aspect of declaring Christ as King, is not our understanding of Jesus' lordship -- who he is and what he does; but our life with each other under that lordship. "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:34-35). It is not enough to confess with words and life, "Jesus is my Lord and King." We also have to confess with words and life, "Jesus is our Lord and King."

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 2215 S 8th Avenue, Yuma, AZ 85364