A few weeks ago my family and I saw magician Criss Angel perform. In many respects he is the king of magic. According to his website and according to what he said at the show we saw, he’s been named “Magician of the Year” six times. He was the youngest magician inducted into the International Magicians Society Hall of Fame. Criss was the first recipient of the Magician of the Decade, as well as the Magician of the Century.
It seems he was born a magician. He learned his first trick at age 7 when his Aunt Stella showed him a card trick. Five years later, at the age of 12, he gave his first paid performance as a magician. The venue was a friend’s birthday party. He was paid $10. Today he makes millions and performs to massive crowds. You could say he was born a magician and is now the king of magicians.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart seems to have been born a musician. The Austrian-born musician first took up the harpsichord when he was 3 years old. He composed his first piece of published music at age 5, and by his teen years, he had already written several concertos, sonatas, operas and symphonies. Mozart would eventually grow into one of the world’s most celebrated and prolific composers. He was, in some ways, a king of classical music. Born a musician.
The gospel of Matthew begins with a statement about what Jesus was born to be:
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; (Matt. 2:1-3 ESV)
This morning we’re going to follow this phrase “king of the Jews.” It’s found four times in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life. The first time is in the mouth of the wise men as they ask this question:
“Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?”
The wise men describe Jesus as one who is born king not one who is born to be king. That is they describe Jesus not as someone who will be king but as one who, at birth is already king. He is born king. Jesus doesn’t have to learn any skill to be king. He doesn’t have to earn any right to be king. He simply is king. Jesus is born king.
He stands in great contrast therefore to the other king in this story – King Herod. Herod was given the title “king” by the Romans. Before they called him king he was something else. But there was never a time when Jesus was not king. He was born king. 
Why is this here in Matthew’s story? It seems to be here to answer one fundamental question: Who’s in charge here? It may seem like King Herod is in charge. But in fact baby Jesus is in charge. Baby Jesus is the only one born king. He is in charge.
David Sturt writes about Bill Klem. Klem was the father of baseball umpires. He was beyond passionate about baseball, declaring, “To me, baseball is not a game, but a religion.” He was the first umpire to use arm signals while working behind home plate. Klem umped for 37 years, including 18 World Series. On one occasion, as Klem crouched behind the plate, the pitcher threw the ball, the batter didn’t swing, and, for just an instant, Klem said nothing. The batter turned and asked, “What was it, a ball or a strike?” Klem responded, “It ain’t nothing ’till I call it.”
There was no doubt about who was in charge on that baseball field. And Matthew leaves no doubt about who’s in charge in this story–Jesus. Jesus alone is king. Not Herod. Not the religious rulers. Not you. Not me. Only Jesus. Only Jesus has been born king.
Matthew wants to leave no question about who’s in charge in your story. Now, you may not want to hear this. You may like to feel like you’re in charge. You’re calling the shots. You’re the king of your story. But Matthew argues that you’re not. Jesus is. He’s the only one born king.
But what king of king is he? After all, Herod was a ruthless king. History is replete with compassionless and power-hungry kings, presidents, dictators, and politicians. Jesus may be in charge. He may be born king. But what kind of king is he?
We don’t see the phrase “king of the Jews” attached to Jesus again until the end of Matthew’s story. And it’s there that Matthew answers this question. The phrase shows up three times in Matthew 27.
Now Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You have said so.” But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he gave no answer. (Matt. 27:11-12 ESV)
Pilate asks if Jesus is king. Jesus responds affirmatively. In saying “You have said so,” Jesus is not seeking to sidestep the question. He’s merely mitigating the misunderstanding brought to the question by the chief priests and elders and perhaps even by Pilate. They would have understood “King of the Jews” to refer to a rebel, one come to overthrow Rome. This is not at all what Jesus had come to do. Still, he was king.
We find another instance of this label just moments later:
Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole battalion before him. And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they spit on him and took the reed and struck him on the head. (Matt. 27:27-30 ESV)
The title “King of the Jews” implies an exaltation. To give someone a title like this you lift them high and you crown them. Instead, we see just the opposite. Instead of exaltation, we see humilation. The soldiers of Pilate gather an entire battalion before Jesus. There may have been up to 600 troops here. The scarlet robe is likely a faded red soldier’s cloak. The reed is a bamboo rod, the kind used to beat prisoners. The thorns were from an available bush nearby which would have resembled the garlands worn by princes. The spitting was the severest expression of disgust in that culture. And the spit from a Gentile would have been considered especially unclean for a Jew.
This is the kind of king Jesus is. Not one who abuses power. But one who is abused by power.
The final use of this title “king of the Jews” is found here:
And when they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots. Then they sat down and kept watch over him there. And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” (Matt. 27:35-37 ESV)
In some cases a charge like one nailed above Jesus would have been carried by a member of the execution squad in front of or beside the condemned as he was paraded to the execution site. This small tablet was then fixed to the criminal’s cross. In other cases, the tablet on which was recorded the criminal’s crime was hung from the neck of the criminal as he walked to his crucifixion site. As I meditated on this passage, I wondered what would have been written on my little tablet. What sins of mine, what crimes of mine, would have been recorded on a small tablet if I’d been the one paraded before the people that day? While we can’t know for certain, at least one scholar believes the background of that tablet was white and the words were written in red. It makes me think of Jesus’ red blood.
This is probably not where we expected to wind up after the first appearance of this phrase “King of the Jews.” all the way back in Matt. 2. The one born “King of the Jews” hanging on a cross. He’s not seated on a throne. He’s not lounging in a White House. He’s not at a boardroom table on the 100th floor. This king is hanging on a cross.
What in the world is happening? Why is our king on a cross?
Let me give you two of the most simple yet profound reasons which Christians have given to that question.
First, Jesus is a king who is suffering with us.
The novel Silence by Shusaku Endo wrestles with the issue of suffering. Why is God silent when we suffer? In the seventeenth century two Jesuit priests secretly enter Japan while Christians are being persecuted and martyred. One, Rodrigues, is eventually betrayed by a Japanese Christian named Kichijiro into the hands of Japanese officials. Just as Judas turned Jesus over to his persecutors, Kichijiro turns Rodrigues over to his persecutors. Rodrigues is imprisoned and mentally and spiritually tortured. He is forced to watch another Christian killed by the sword. Later, he is forced to watch three Christians wrapped in straw mats and thrown into the ocean to drown. And then he is forced to watch a group of Christians hung upside down in a pit and tortured. In each case, their lives will be spared if Rodrigues will just renounce his faith in Christ. Through it all Rodrigues prays and prays. Yet God remains silent. Christ remains silent. Through it all Rodrigues wrestles with this silence. Months pass. Rodrigues has never experienced such suffering and such silence. Finally, he has a vision of Christ. Christ says to him, “I understand your pain and your suffering. It is for that reason I am here.” He responds with, “Lord, I resented your silence.” Christ responds with, “I was not silent. I suffered beside you.” (203).
One of the points of the novel is that in Christ we have one who suffers with us. We don’t have a king who remains aloof from us. We don’t have one who sits on his throne in comfortable silence. His throne is a hard wooden cross. Jesus is a king who suffers with us. And no matter what you’re suffering with this morning, be it an illness, a broken heart, or a sin, Jesus understands that suffering. On the cross, this king suffered with us.
Second, Jesus is a king who suffers for us.
Lauren Oliver is the author of Before I Fall. The New York Times bestseller tells the story of Samantha Kingston, a senior high student at Thomas Jefferson High.
For Sam a soothing idea was this: there is always tomorrow. No matter what happens today, there will always be a tomorrow. But then, in a tragic car accident, Sam dies. Only not quite. She dies, but then she wakes up and she is forced to relive the day of her death. Again. And again. And again.
But the book is really not a reflection on death as much as it is a reflection on life. Sam is not the only character in the story to die. There is another character in the book who dies. Her name is Juliet. Sam’s life is taken in an accident. Juliet takes her own life on the same day Sam’s life is taken. And as Sam re-lives this one day again and again, eventually she is moved to try to keep Juliet from killing herself.
At first, Sam tries to untangle some of the family dysfunction and the bullying that has led to the depression and which triggered Juliette’s suicide. But still at the end of this terrible day Sam dies and so does Juliet. Then Sam tries to be kind, befriending Juliet. But it simply isn’t enough. At the end of the day Sam dies and so does Juliet.
Finally Sam finally comes to understand only one thing will save Juliet. She follows Juliet late that evening and they come to the edge of the busy road with cars speeding up and down it. She realizes that Juliet intends to throw herself in front of one of the vehicles. In an effort to stop her, Sam winds up on the road with Juliet. As a truck bears down on both of them, Sam pushes her out of the way, and instead of Juliet’s life being taken, Sam’s is taken. Sam finally dies to wake up no more. And Juliet goes on to live–her own life now transformed not by the fixing of some family dysfunction, not by nice acts of friendship, but transformed by the self giving sacrifice of another.
What’s happening here on the cross is that story but to a degree infinitely larger. The king of us all giving his life so that we might live. The king of us all dying on that cross, suffering for us, so that we might live.
The writer of Hebrews explains it like this:
But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. (Heb. 2:9 ESV)
Jesus suffered death, he tasted death, for us, on our behalf. Our own sins made us worthy of death. But Jesus tasted that death. He suffered our death for us.
Peter writes this:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit (1 Pet. 3:18 ESV)
Jesus suffered the death of an unrighteous person even though he was a righteous person. In so doing, we unrighteous people can be treated by God as righteous people. Jesus is a king who suffered for us.
N.T. Wright tells of an archbishop who was hearing a confessions of sin from three hardened teenagers in a church. All three boys were trying to make a joke out of it so they met with the archbishop and confessed to a long list of grievous sins that they had not committed. It was all a joke. The archbishop, seeing through their joke, played along with the first two who ran out of the church laughing. But then he listened carefully to the third boy, and before he got away told the young man, “Okay, you have confessed these sins. Now I want you to do something to show your repentance. I want you to walk up to the far end of the church and I want you to look at the picture of Jesus hanging on the cross, and I want you to look at his face and say, ‘You did all that for me and I don’t care that much.’ And I want you to do that three times.”
And so the boy went up to the front, looked at the picture of Jesus and said, “You did all that for me and I don’t care that much.” And then he said it again, but then he couldn’t say it the third time because he broke down in tears. And the archbishop telling the story said, the reason I know that story is that I was that young man. There is something about the cross. Something about Jesus dying there for us which leaps over all the theoretical discussions, all the possibilities of how we explain it this way or that way and it grasps us. And when we are grasped by it, somehow we have a sense that what is grasping us is the love of God.
Jesus is born king. He is a king who suffers with us. He is a king who suffers for us. Have you named him as your king? Are you still naming him as your king?
 (Leon Morris The Gospel According to Matthew, 36)
 (Craig Keener A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 102)
 David Sturt, Great Work (McGraw Hill, 2013), page 139
 Keener, 674.
 Keener, 674.
 Keener, 680.
 Witherington, 514.
 Keener, 680.
 Silence, Shusaku Endo, 203.
 Adapted from N.T. Wright, “Grasped By the Love of God,” N.T. Wright Online