How Jesus Subverts the Kingdoms of this World
He was born in the Roman Empire over two thousand years ago, growing up to command the loyalty of thousands. During his thirties he was seen as the fulfillment of national hopes and founder of an endless kingdom.
His achievements were considered signs of divine authority. Official proclamations of these acts, known as “gospels,” were published in his honor. In fact, an inscription on a stone was uncovered in southwest Turkey describing him in this way:
God sent him as a savior for us to make war to cease, to create peaceful order everywhere. And the birthday of this “god” was the beginning for the world of gospels that have come to men through him.
Who was this “god”? If you said Jesus, you’d be wrong. The “savior” described is Gaius Octavius, otherwise known as Caesar Augustus, first emperor of Rome.
As John Dickson explains in A Doubter’s Guide to Jesus, “Speaking of a ‘gospel’ for humankind, a ‘savior’ sent by God and ‘peace’ for the world were Roman imperial traditions long before they were part of the Christian vocabulary” (210).
Which leads to a central Christian claim: “the remarkable claim of the early Christians was that Jesus was, in a sense, the true emperor and Lord of the world” (210). The New Testament shows how Jesus subverts the kingdoms of this world in several ways.
Jesus: A Contrast to Caesar
From the beginning, the man at the center of the Christian faith has been contrasted with the kings of this world—and one in particular: Caesar Augustus.
In his New Testament Gospel, Luke writes, “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world…” (Luke 2:1). This census “was principally about Roman power and wealth” (212).
Set against this power backdrop is the detail that Jesus “belonged to the house and line of David” (Luke 2:5), which reflects Israel’s expectations for a descendant of King David who would one day rule an eternal kingdom, contrasted with Caesar’s earthly one. And Mary herself reveals Jesus “will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35), which contrasts a title given to Caesar himself.
Dickson makes clear what Luke is doing:
Luke’s presentation of Jesus as the Son of God entitled to an eternal throne sets up an immediate and potentially subversive contrast between the Roman emperor, with his pretensions to divine sonship, and the Davidic Messiah, God’s true Son.
Jesus’ Kingdom: Not of this World
“Lest we get carried away with this and think the Messiah has come to do battle with Rome,” Dickson explains, “the circumstances of the birth of this Son of God make clear that his will be a very different kind of kingdom” (213):
- Augustus was born into privilege; Jesus was born to peasants and was laid in a “manger”
- King Jesus wins allegiance through humble sacrifice, Caesar through might and power
- Jesus’ kingdom would bring peace, not by crushing force but by his death and resurrection
- The Christian gospel was subversive—it was a direct challenge to Caesar in a social, intellectual, and moral sense
The message inherent to this first-century Jesus movement subverted the kingdoms of this world because his kingdom is not of this world. “The first Christians, and Luke among them, believed they were in possession of a new gospel about the true emperor of the world” (216).
Jesus’ Kingship: True King, True Citizenship
Perhaps true “President” or “Prime Minister” is a better contemporary description, but the truth about Jesus and his implications for our lives still stands: “Seeing Christ as emperor involves doing the hardest thing of all: refusing to be a captive to one’s culture” 219).
Although we may not have an imperial system trying to shape our lives, a cultural one seeks to make us citizens of its empire as much as Caesar did through command and conquer. Seeing Jesus as True King calls us to rise above our culture and give priority to the values of Christ’s kingdom—to be citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20).
This expression recalls how important it was for ancient people to be “citizens” of the Roman empire. But it subverts the notion, asking believers to draw their sense of identity from God’s kingdom, to pin their hopes on Christ’s vision of the future, and to commit themselves to the Pax Christi, Christ’s way of peace through the ethic of love.
Which means that no part of life is free from the claims of Christ, for he is King of Kings.
“The gospel of Christ, rightly understood, is still subversive. It calls on men and women to see Christ as eternal and primary and all human cultures as provisional and temporary” (219).
If you’re interested in an in-depth, engaging introduction to the man from Nazareth—whether believer or skeptic—then read A Doubter’s Guide to Jesus to learn about Jesus’ history, teachings, and significance for today.