In his foundational vision, Daniel ‘sees’ the heavenly throne room, the invisible centre of divine rule over the cosmos. Heaven and earth are not two realms separated by death, but two sides of a single reality.
In Daniel’s vision, the heavenly court is in session, judging oppressive earthly rulers. A human figure is carried into God’s presence on the clouds, and given God’s authority over all earthly powers. Who is he? Later (7.25-27), we see that he represents ‘the holy ones of the Most High’, those who are faithful to God in the face of oppression. His presence in heaven guarantees their vindication. Despite their weakness before earthly powers, their loyalty will bring God’s reward.
Daniel’s vision is designed to console and encourage his audience. But its meaning is not exhausted by its original message. Jesus used this vision of the human figure in heaven to express his own faith that this ‘Son of Man’ (i.e. Jesus himself) will be vindicated for his faithfulness, and so liberate those who stay loyal to him (Mark 10.42-45). This is a kingship that human rulers may at best aspire to, but cannot achieve.
New Testament: Revelation 1.4b-8
‘John’ is a church leader in Asia Minor in the last quarter of the first century. His letters to the seven churches (Revelation 2.1–3.22) suggest that their loyalty to Jesus is buckling under the combined weight of imperial rule and a culture of intimidation, assimilation and compromise that makes for easier governance. Like Daniel, John is a visionary. His account of his vision of the risen Christ in 1.13-15 draws on Daniel 7, to repeat the point that despite appearances to the contrary, Israel’s God, and not an ephemeral imperial ruler, is truly Lord.
‘Grace’ and ‘peace’ are familiar Christian greetings in the New Testament epistles. But here they carry political weight. The emperor believed that the imperial peace was his gift, the fruit of military supremacy. According to John, the most trustworthy expression of peace on earth flows from its most unlikely source. Jesus Christ, crucified on the authority of Caesar’s representative, is God’s faithful witness. As the firstborn of the dead, his victory reaches into the realm that no earthly ruler can ever enter. However dispirited they may feel, however weak in the world’s eyes, they inherit Israel’s ancient role as a priestly community of God’s new order of holiness, and a kingdom through whom the reign of the crucified and coming one is extended.
Gospel: John 18.33-37
On the verge of execution, Jesus appears before the representative of the imperial power colonising the ancestral lands of his people.
Jesus’ conversation with Pilate raises the question of the ultimate source of authority. Does it lie on earth – Rome or Jerusalem – or in heaven? They may use the same words, but their meanings are worlds apart. Jesus is presented to Pilate as ‘the king of the Jews’, pretender to David’s throne. But he presents himself as one who exercises a radically different rule, because his authority is rooted elsewhere – in the heavenly realm of truth. Jerusalem rules by expediency. Its priests must find some way to have Jesus executed to save their own interests (John 11.45-53). But Rome’s representative is only interested in reminding Jerusalem where real power lies in their holy city. He uses Jesus as a pawn to draw out their shameful admission that ‘we have no king but Caesar’ (John 19.15), before agreeing to his crucifixion.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus keeps his distance from earthly notions of power (John 6.15). His talk of himself as the ‘good shepherd’ resonates with the prophets’ longing for a new shepherd ruler to liberate God’s people (see Ezekiel 34). But Jesus’ ‘good shepherd’ is no warrior king. He lays down his own life for his sheep (10.15). His ‘good shepherd’ leadership models the other-centred divine love that sacrifices itself even as it liberates others (13.1-20; 15.12-17). This is true kingship, and Pilate is not the only one who fails to get it.
The links between the readings
All three readings move between heaven and earth. Daniel’s heavenly vision inspires confidence for victims of earthly injustice. John’s heavenly vision is good news for churches under pressure from earthly rulers. Jesus, before Pilate, seems to be the victim of unjust earthly rule, but his heavenly authority will triumph.