We all know that Herod was king of Israel when Jesus was crucified, but what may elude us is that all kings of Israel, from the return from exile to that date, were puppets of the ruling power. The last actual king was Zedekiah: “Then they [the Babylonians] killed the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, put out the eyes of Zedekiah, bound him with bronze fetters, and took him to Babylon” (2 Kings 25:7). Jews returned to Jerusalem under the authority of the Persians. Then, they were ruled by the Greeks, and in Jesus’ day, the Romans. All of the prophecies about a king that would come to rule Israel were held tightly by the nation, but they expected a mighty warrior who’d raise the armies of God and conquer the occupiers. That wasn’t what God had in mind.
When we read the gospels, Jesus never ascribed the title “Messiah” to Himself. In the first centuries BCE and CE, many figures bore that title. They were militaristic and often led insurrections only to be quashed by the ruling power (cf. Acts 5:36-37; 21:38). Israel wanted their Messiah to be the type of king that succeeded in this venture. He would liberate Israel from Gentile rule. The nation would be exalted on the world stage once more and returned to its former glory of the days of David. Jesus, however, preferred the title “Son of Man” (Dan. 7:13). He likely avoided the title Messiah due to the way it had been used.
The Roman Empire, and preceding republic, often granted triumphs. It was a religious and civil ceremony where a successful military leader, likely a general, was publicly celebrated and sanctified. On the day of his triumph, he wore special attire that identified him as a near-divine or near-kingly figure. Often, his face was painted red as an imitation of Rome’s highest god, Jupiter (Zeus). Then, he rode a four-hour chariot through the streets of Rome with his army, captives, and any spoils of war. He’d then conclude by offering sacrifice to Jupiter. Jesus had a triumph of His own wherein He was acknowledged as King (John 12:13; cf. Mark 11:9-10).
Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem on the week He was crucified worried the religious leaders. Subsequently, they sought His death (cf. John 18:14). However, it’s necessary to note that Pilate did not constantly live in Jerusalem or thereabouts. He would arrive in the city in a procession akin to a stately or royal procession before the high holiday of the Jews. Therefore, King Jesus’ triumph followed Pontius Pilate’s grandiose arrival. While on trial, Jesus and Pilate had a discussion revolving around Jesus being called a King (John 18:33-37). Jesus sets His kingdom apart from earthly kingdoms. Warfare is the modus operandi for earthly kingdoms, but Jesus’ kingdom isn’t from the world. Not only is His kingdom different in origin, but it’s also different in kind.
Jesus was crowned, not with gold, but with thorns. He was robed, not with regal majesty, but mockery. He wasn’t bowed to but struck by the hands of Roman soldiers (John 19:2-3). What sort of kingship is Jesus’? It’s self-sacrificial love. It’s service and suffering. It isn’t the seeking of power or the use of military might. As Christians, do we belong to this kingdom, or are we so entrenched in politics that we fail to live the lives of citizens of heaven?