The underlying theological fact is that the dying of Christ is a kingly act, not merely in the sense that he dies royally and with dignity, but in the sense that his dying is his supreme achievement for his people: the act by which he conquers their foes, secures their liberty and establishes his kingdom.— Donald Macleod Christ Crucified: Understanding the Atonement, 37.
The Gospel of John is suggestive, revealing the true nature of Jesus and his kingdom even while showing the hiddenness of that reality. Several times John shows the glory of Christ that was hidden to the people among whom Jesus walked. He appeared to be a normal man, a carpenter, but he preached and demonstrated a kingdom of grace and glory through miraculous signs and healings. And after he entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey, hailed as a king, in the last week of his life he spoke of his death. He said, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:31–32).
Jesus described his death as a victory over the ruler of the world, as being lifted up from the earth, as drawing all people to himself. This sounds like the fulfillment of Israel’s hope scattered throughout the psalms and prophets. Consider a few verses that would come to mind in the audience Jesus addressed:
All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. (Psalm 22:27)
I will cause your name to be remembered in all generations; therefore nations will praise you forever and ever. (Psalm 45:17)
Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth. Selah. (Psalm 67:4)
All the nations you have made shall come and worship before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name. (Psalm 86:9)
Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. (Isaiah 42:1)
And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. (Isaiah 60:3)
The nations shall see your righteousness, and all the kings your glory, and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give. (Isaiah 62:2)
These verses all spoke to the hope of Israel, the hope that Jesus’ ministry seemed to evoke, the hope that Jesus’ words seemed to ignite. It was the hope of the restoration of Israel’s kingdom. It was the hope of justice for the oppressed. It was the hope of freedom from the tyrannical nations that ruled over God’s people. But then John adds an explanation of Jesus’ true meaning: “He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die” (John 12:33).
Was Jesus just being tricky? Was he contradicting the hope of Israel? Did Jesus really mean to illicit hope only to confuse people? No, Jesus was redefining victory.
Much of Israel’s hope was well placed. God did intend to save his people. God did intend to end tyranny and oppression. But God had chosen to do it contrary to their expectations. Jesus would establish his kingdom through becoming a crucified king. John makes this point by the way he paints the crucifixion story in John 18 through 20. John pictures Jesus as the king whose kingdom was not of this world, not characterized by oppression and tyranny. John reveals Jesus as king, crowned with a crown of thorns, clothed in a bloodied, purple robe, and lifted upon the throne of the cross.
John and Jesus wanted us to think about it this way. John wanted us to see the cross not as a failure but as Jesus’ victory, and through this victory we learn two important truths.
1. Jesus victory reveals the character of his kingdom.
Jesus shows a kingdom of grace and mercy, the kind of kingdom his actual people need. If Jesus would have come judging the sins of the world, overthrowing tyranny and oppression, who would be left? Who isn’t guilty of oppressing someone? Who isn’t guilty of participating in injustice?
I think about this even as I type on a computer that was built by I don’t know whom. It was probably built in some poor country with unjust working conditions. I don’t know. I don’t have the time or energy to ever know all the ways that I participate in injustice and advance the cause of evil people through my negligence. But Jesus knows, and if he came as a judge to judge me according to my works, he would at least judge me for my neglect. He would judge me that I did not fight with all my heart and soul for the good of my neighbor, whether in this country or in another. A just king cannot let any injustice stand anywhere. Jesus is a just king, but he is also a gracious king who suffered the punishment due to the entire world so that we could receive mercy and grace.
2. Jesus’ victory reveals the real enemies of humanity.
This is probably the most important point. We tend to think that people are our enemies. We demonize groups and imagine that the world would be a better place without them. The most insidious fact about the evil of genocide through history is how people bought into the lie that a group of people was evil and needed extermination.
Our problem is not that there is some group of people out their raining on our parade. Jesus exposed our real enemies: Satan, sin, and death.
At the cross Jesus dealt with the power of the devil, gaining victory over his rule (Gen. 3:15; 1 John 3:8; Col. 2:15). Jesus’ entire life of perfect obedience, experiencing temptation without sinning, shows his victory over sin (Heb. 4:15). His resurrection was the first of many, and his offer of eternal life shows his victory over death (1 Corinthians 15:21; 1 Peter 1:3; John 1:4; John 3:16; 1 Timothy 1:16).
On Jesus’ last night, the night before his death, he wanted to be absolutely clear with his disciples about what he had come to do. He knew that his death would trouble them. He knew that they would be tempted to see his mission as a failure. But he told them the truth when he said, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Through death, Jesus conquered the world, and because of this, we can have hope.