During Jesus’ life, many recognized and accepted Jesus as the prophesied Messiah (or Christ), Son of God, and anointed King of Israel. Others questioned Jesus’ authority or rejected him as the Messiah altogether. When used, the title of “King of the Jews” would have had both political and prophetic implications for both Jews and non-Jews living in Israel at the time.
Jesus - The True King of Israel
Prior to the birth of Jesus, the people of Israel had experienced a tumultuous relationship with God as a result of their disobedience and sin. God had made them His chosen people (Exodus 7:6) and “treasured possession” (Deuteronomy 7:6), going all the way back to the covenant made with Abraham (Genesis 17:6-7) and Jacob, renamed Israel (Genesis 28), and He had established Himself as their rightful king and sovereign ruler. However, in the days of the prophet Samuel, the Jews rejected God as their God and demanded that Samuel provide for them an earthly king, similar to the kings who ruled over the surrounding nations (1 Samuel 8:5, 19).
Rejected as king (1 Samuel 8:7), God nonetheless gave the people what they wanted, a temporary line of human kings, who would rule over them until Israel’s captivity in Babylon. Some of these kings served the Lord faithfully and were upright, virtuous leaders, Most, however, were selfish, corrupt, and spiritually bankrupt rulers who plunged Israel into an era of sin and idol worship.
After Saul had disobeyed the Lord and been rejected by God as king (1 Samuel 15), God anointed David (1 Samuel 16) and promised that out of David’s line, a new, anointed king would come to redeem Israel and establish his rightful place on the throne of Israel (2 Samuel 7:12-16; Isaiah 11:1-5). This, of course, was the prophesied Messiah, who the gospels confirm was Jesus, a descendent of David (Matthew 1:1, John 7:42).
For generations, the Jews anticipated the arrival of their Messiah and the coming king (Micah 5:2; Isaiah 9:6-7; Psalms 22:27-31). Unfortunately, they were so accustomed to the leadership of earthly kings, they envisioned a Messiah who’d come as a political ruler, revolutionary, or royal lord, not a lowly, humble servant and son of a carpenter (Zechariah 9:9; Isaiah 53:4; Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45; Matthew 21:1-7). They also didn’t anticipate that God’s kingdom would be a spiritual, heavenly realm (John 18:36).
But as God had proven with the anointing of David, “for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 6:7).
This is why many in Israel, namely the Pharisees and religious leaders, rejected Jesus as the promised Messiah and “cornerstone” (Psalms 118:22) or mocked him as “king” during his crucifixion (Mark 15:32; Luke 23:29). As it is written, “he came to his own and his own did not receive him” (John 1:11).
Ironically, most references to Jesus as the “King of the Jews” in the gospels come from non-Jews.
The Anointed One Born King of the Jews
Shortly after Jesus’ birth, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem seeking the Messiah, asking King Herod, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him” (Matthew 2:2). It’s likely that the magi also thought of the Jewish Messiah as a future political ruler, which may account for why they presented Jesus’ parents with offerings of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, expensive gifts indicative of kingly worship (Matthew 2:11).
Having heard the magi refer to the child as the “King of the Jews,” King Herod, a regional ruler of Judea given authority by the Romans, assembled his chief priests and scribes, who affirmed the connection to Old Testament prophesies of the Messiah (Matthew 2:4-6). This is why Herod reacted so quickly to seek out the child and destroy him, fearing any potential threat to his political power (Matthew 2:7-23).
Later in Jesus’ life, the gospels tell of a woman who poured expensive perfume over the head (Matthew 26:6-13) and feet (Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; Luke 7:36-39) of Jesus, using her hair to anoint him. This show of respect and adoration, recorded in all four gospels, not only pointed to Jesus’ death and eventual burial, which he himself confirmed, it also reflected the anointed nature of Jesus as God’s chosen king (Psalms 2:2), as was seen in the Old Testament appointment of kings (1 Samuel 10:1), namely the spiritual anointing of David (Psalms 23:5; Psalms 89:10).
A Rejected King
During Jesus’ trial, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, asked Jesus if he was truly the “King of the Jews” (Mark 15:2). Jesus responded, “It is as you say.” Later, Jesus confirmed that his kingdom was not an earthly, political kingdom but a spiritual kingdom and his throne was not of this earth (John 18:36).
Pilate gave permission for Jesus to be scourged and beaten, and there the Roman soldiers clothed him a purple robe, spit on him, and mocked him, shouting, “Hail! king of the Jews!” This was also when they fashioned a crown of thorns and placed it on Jesus’ head (John 19:2-3).
When Pilate brought Jesus before the Pharisees and people once more, presenting the beaten, bruised, and humiliated man as their king (John 19:14), the Jews again rejected Jesus as king and shouted for Pilate to take him away and have him crucified. Pilate asked, “Shall I crucify your king?” To this, the Jews responded, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15).
It was a bold and blatant rejection of Jesus Christ as king as there could be. Jesus, the true King of the Jews, was once again rejected by his own people and led away to be crucified.
At the crucifixion, Pontius Pilate had a sign placed at the cross, which read, in multiple languages, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19). The Jewish leaders demanded that Pilate take the sign down, arguing that Jesus wasn’t the King of the Jews. This was a false and blasphemous claim worthy of death (John 19:21). Pilate, however, left the sign in its place (John 19:22).
There, as prophesied, Jesus, the Messiah and King of the Jews died amongst thieves, rejected, scorned, humiliated, and bearing the weight of the world’s sin on his shoulders. But through his sacrifice, Jesus would forge a path to redemption and the forgiveness of sin once and for all (Hebrews 10:1-18).
What Does This Mean?
One day, those who have rejected God as King and Jesus as Messiah will know that Christ is King. And on that day, as it is written, “Every knee shall bow to Me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” (Romans 14:11; Philippians 2:10; Revelations 15:3).
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Joel Ryan is a children’s book author, writing professor, and contributing writer for Crosswalk, Christianity.com, Stand Firm Men’s Magazine, and others. He is passionate about telling great stories, defending biblical truth, and helping writers of all ages develop their craft. Joel discusses, analyzes, and appreciates the great writings of the past and present on his website, Perspectives off the Page.