Today is the last Sunday of the Church year. Next Sunday we will begin the new Church year with the first Sunday of the Advent season that, even as it leads up to Christmas and Christ’s first Advent, looks forward to Christ’s return and final Advent. So, today, as a fitting end to the Church year, all the readings focus on the kingdom of Jesus Christ and his return to reign over all things directly, even as he reigns now at the right hand of the Father.
The reading from John’s Gospel contains Pontius Pilate’s questioning of Jesus about his kingdom (John 18:33-37). Pilate is the fifth Roman prefect of Judea, coming from the equestrian class, basically the knights. He has military and political power in the area, exercising authority on behalf of the Roman emperor Tiberius. Jesus has been arrested and brought before him, because the Jewish authorities wish to get rid of him for claiming that he is God. They have told Pilate that Jesus claims to be a king.
So, Pilate asks Jesus if he is the “King of the Jews.” In response to Pilate’s question, Jesus tells him that his kingdom is not of this world and that if it was of this world his servants would have fought for him. Jesus indeed has a kingdom, but it is not a worldly kingdom like Pilate is used to. Jesus also tells Pilate that he came “to bear witness to the truth” and that everyone who is “of the truth” listens to his voice. Pilate responds by asking, somewhat rhetorically, “What is truth?” Pilate is as unfamiliar with Jesus’ kingdom as he is with Jesus’ truth. Pilate is used to worldly kingdoms and power; he is used to truth that was as flexible as the number of Roman pagan gods and idols. Jesus is speaking of an otherworldly kingdom and of one divine Truth that comes through him, and Pilate does not understand either of these things. It’s like in the beginning of John’s Gospel where John notes that the light shines in the darkness, but the darkness does not comprehend it.
Now, Jesus’ truth and kingdom are revealed throughout the Bible, including our other readings from Daniel and Revelation (Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14 and Revelation 1:4b-8). Both the prophet Daniel and the apostle John in Revelation see similar visions that relate to this truth and kingdom. Daniel sees the “Ancient of Days” seated on His throne with many thousands serving Him and a “stream of fire” coming from Him. Then, he sees “one like a son of man” coming with the “clouds” and being presented before the Ancient of Days. The Ancient of Days gives this “son of man” “dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.” This is no worldly kingdom, because it is everlasting, it is righteous, and it shall not pass away or be destroyed.
John in Revelation sees something similar. He sees “him who is and who was and who is to come” and “seven spirits who are before his throne” and “Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings on earth.” In fact, both Daniel and John see a vision of the Holy Trinity, our Triune God, in heaven, just like the prophet Isaiah who in Isaiah chapter 6 saw and heard the seraphim singing praises to this Triune God as they sang, “Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh Sabaoth; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isaiah 6:3). Yahweh Sabaoth means “LORD of hosts” and brings to mind the thousand thousands serving Yahweh and the ten thousand times ten thousand who stood before Him that Daniel saw. The name Yahweh Sabaoth has a military connotation and shows God as the Almighty ruler of all things.
John and Daniel both see Yahweh Sabaoth; they see the three persons of the Trinity. The Ancient of Days is he “who is and who was and who is to come,” the Father; He is the source of all things. The seven spirits and stream of fire is the Holy Spirit; seven denotes completeness and perfection while the stream of fire brings to mind the tongues of fire which descended on the disciples at Pentecost as the Holy Spirit was bestowed upon them. And the “one like a son of man” is Jesus Christ; born of the Virgin Mary and yet God. In both Daniel and John’s visions they see the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in heaven in their glory.
John also calls Jesus Christ the “faithful witness,” because he bears witness to the truth. He is the one through whom God reveals Himself to humanity. Without Jesus, God is just Yahweh Sabaoth to us – the Lord of Hosts – the Almighty Lord God who is unapproachable in His holiness and power. But, this Almighty Lord God came to earth to be born as a baby in order to reveal Himself to us, free us from our sins by his blood, and reconcile us to Him. Jesus Christ, this Yahweh in the flesh, is “one like a son of man,” because he is fully human, and yet he is also everlasting, because he is God with the Father and the Holy Spirit. This is the mystery of the incarnation, that God became man and remained fully God even as he is fully man, and that He did all that is necessary for you to be in communion with God.
For he came to make you a kingdom, priests before God, by freeing you from your sins by his blood. He gives you his righteousness so that you may stand before Yahweh Sabaoth and live. Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, because it is eternal and it is ruled by him and populated by redeemed sinners. Christ’s kingdom consists of people living in the holy Jerusalem, the Church; people whom he called out of the nations and made a part of God’s nation. So, you are fellow citizens of the kingdom of God over whom Jesus has dominion and glory.
And both Daniel and John see Jesus Christ coming on the clouds on the Last Day when he returns, not as a humble baby in a manger as he did when he first came, but as a conquering king to judge and restore all things. This will come to pass, because Yahweh Sabaoth is the “Alpha and the Omega… who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters in the Greek alphabet and illustrate the fact that God is the beginning and the end. He created all things and He is restoring all things through Jesus Christ. He is eternal: is, was, will be.
John also calls Jesus Christ “the firstborn of the dead,” just as St. Paul in his letter to the Colossians did. Firstborn is used in the sense of preeminence. St. Paul explains what this means, saying of Jesus that,
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:15-20).
Jesus Christ is the firstborn of creation, because He is the Word through whom the Father spoke all things into existence. And he is also the firstborn of the dead, because He is the incarnate Word through whom the Father is recreating all things by restoring you and all creation to Himself through Christ’s cross and empty tomb. And he is also the end, because he is returning to rule directly over this new, restored creation.
So, you see, Jesus is not returning to rule over a restored kingdom in modern Israel atop a rebuilt physical temple, as some people believe. That type of belief completely misses the point of God’s promises. Christ already has a kingdom, it is eternal, and you are part of it. The Church is the people Israel, dwelling in the midst of Zion through Christ’s presence in Word and Sacrament. So, he is here now with his people, veiled through his means of grace.
But, the day is coming when he will arrive with the clouds and everyone will see him. And when Christ returns, he is returning for you, because he will not abandon you to your graves. “Every eye will see him, even those who pierced him,” because he will raise up all people from the dead to stand before him as living people, body and soul. “Ten thousand times ten thousand,” a whole host of people, more than we can count will stand before him for the judgment as the court will be in session.
Those who rejected him will be cast away, but you and all those whom he loves will be restored to everlasting life to dwell in his kingdom forever, which will encompass the whole of the restored earth. The common, popular idea that Christ is returning to rule over a worldly kingdom is too small. Christ is God, the whole earth is his and all that is in it. When he returns it will be to finally, fully, completely restore all creation and give his kingdom, the Church, the whole creation as her dwelling place. And he will dwell in the midst of his kingdom forever in this restored creation.
This is our Christian hope. It’s not to die and remain disembodied spirits. It’s not to rebuild the physical temple in Jerusalem so that Christ will come to reign over the modern state of Israel. No, our Christian hope, indeed our Christian life, is that Christ reigns over His kingdom even now through his presence in Word and Sacrament in his Church, that this kingdom is spread throughout the earth and composed of all peoples, nations, and languages, and that when he returns he will raise up all the dead, body and soul, and bring those who have died in the faith into your inheritance, which is life everlasting in a restored, perfect creation.
This world that we inhabit is God’s. Sin, death, and evil are intruders in this land. They don’t belong and have no right to be here. But, you, having been redeemed by the love of God through the blood of Christ, do belong here. You are part of Christ’s kingdom. This is your land. This is your inheritance. And Christ is coming again to give it to you when he comes with the clouds to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth. Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, but it will one day encompass the entire world when he returns and the Church inherits the land prepared for her. Amen.
(Image: “What is Truth?”; by Nikolai Ge – http://www.picture.art-catalog.ru/picture.php?id_picture=7515, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=426635)