The cross: The kingdom of God in power

Triumphant crucifixion

In this edition of Everyday Theology, Dr Michael F. Bird unpacks the significance of Good Friday, explaining how the cross displayed the coming of the kingdom of God in power.

I have always been perplexed by the words of Mark 9:1: “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power” (NIV).

This is uttered after Jesus accepts Peter’s confession of him as “the Messiah.” But Jesus then explains that this “Messiah” is also the suffering and rejected “Son of Man,” and following him requires disciples to “take up their cross and follow me” (Mk 8:34). This juxtaposition of (a) Messiah = Son of Man who suffers with (b) Kingdom of God in power, means that somehow, even cryptically or mysteriously, God’s kingdom comes in the Messiah’s crucifixion.

It is in the midst of Jesus’s own powerlessness that we see the kingdom of God in power!

The kingdom of God is the coming of God as king, revealing his kingly power to rescue and redeem his people. But how can a crucifixion, paradoxically that of God’s Messiah, possibly be the vehicle for the display or the enactment of God’s royal power?

We must remember that Mark’s narrative of Jesus’s death is dominated by the theme of Jesus as king. The word “king” is used six times in Mark 15 and exclusively of Jesus (vv. 2, 9, 12, 18, 26, 32).

The mocking title “King of the Jews” placed above the cross expresses a stark irony since Jesus, as Messiah, is Israel’s true and anointed king. Yet, he is found here in the midst of powerlessness, in the zenith of degradation, death, and despair. Across Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is proclaimed the kingdom of God, yet what we find placarded above him at the end of the story is the mocking announcement of the kingship of the crucified.[1] Pilate’s taunting gibe is designed to warn off any would-be royal claimants, anyone bold enough to declare themselves as “king” in Israel or over Israel. But it testifies to an important claim: Jesus is the King and this is how the Kingdom comes! In the midst of Jesus’s powerlessness, we see the kingdom of God in power!

Remember too that at the cross, the Roman centurion who saw Jesus die hailed him as the “Son of God” (Mk 15:39). This is more than, “Gee, what a brave and noble guy,” as the title “Son of God” was a designation for a king in both Jewish and Roman contexts. On the Jewish side, the Davidic ruler of Israel was celebrated as Yahweh’s own son to highlight his role as one who represents God to the people and the people to God (see 2 Sam 7:14; Pss 2:7; 89:26-27). In addition, “Son of God” or something like “Son of the divine Augustus” was common political fare on Roman coins, inscriptions, and propaganda.

It is by renouncing power to save himself that the power to save others is unleashed with formidable force.

Moreover, Mark narrates the crucifixion in such a way as to make deliberate parallels with a Roman triumphal procession, a public parade of sorts where a conquering general, consul, or emperor would return to Rome after a victorious campaign, to much pomp and pageantry, with booty and prisoners in tow, with sacrifices offered and celebrations made. Looking at Mark 15, we have the salute by the praetorian guard, the purple robe Jesus wears, the long drawn-out journey along the Via Dolorosa (‘the way of suffering’), the requisition of a bystander to lead the sacrificial victim, the co-regents on either side of the triumphant, and the acclamation of Jesus as Son of God by a centurion. These parallels would be provocative and patently obvious to Graeco-Roman readers and prove that the crucifixion of Jesus is, in fact, the triumph of Jesus as king and a manifestation of God’s kingly power.[2]

In the words of Australian historian Paul Barnett: “Mark wants us to understand that, incredible as it may seem, ‘the kingdom of God’ actually begins with the crucifixion of ‘the king of Israel’”.[3]

But how is this power? Jesus is the one who “came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45). It is by renouncing power to save himself that the power to save others is unleashed with formidable force. This is why Jesus, despite being tormented by the priests, chooses not to come down from the cross and save himself (Mk 15:31-32).

The same power that pillaged the demonic realm and stilled the storm on the Sea of Galilee is now displayed in the apex of human weakness and suffering, under the weight of evil, and amid barbarity and cruelty. In a strange irony, this power is revealed in Jesus’ outright refusal to save himself, with an awesome display of heavenly power that will implement the salvation of others by ransoming their sins. It is also this very salvation that proves that Jesus is King.

Jesus suffered under evil in order to liberate those gripped by evil.

For those disciples who stayed loyal to Jesus, who followed him around Galilee, Judea, Jerusalem, and even to Golgotha, what they saw there was what Jesus promised. Not a mere martyr; not just another example of Roman brutality; not a cause for a Jewish uprising; not another instance of religious fanaticism combined with a quest for self-destruction. They beheld the kingdom of God in power, God’s king saving his people from evil, not with legions but with love; not with violence but as a victim. Jesus suffered under evil to liberate those gripped by evil.

God’s kingdom centres on the cross of Jesus as the epitome of power-in-powerlessness. It is the power of promises made good, redeeming love, self-renunciation and self-giving, and service for others.

That is the Easter story.

God’s Kingdom, redemption for many, power-in-powerlessness, a royal procession, and the cross of Jesus.

Rev Dr Michael F. Bird (@mbird12) is Academic Dean, Director of Research, and Lecturer in New Testament at Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia.


[1] M. Eugene Boring, ‘The Kingdom of God in Mark’, in The Kingdom of God in 20th Century Interpretation, ed. Wendell Willis (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987), 144.

[2] Thomas E. Schmidt, ‘Mark 15.16-32: The Crucifixion Narrative and the Roman Triumphal Procession’, NTS 41 (1995): 1-18.

[3] Paul Barnett, ‘Mark: Story and History’, in In the Fullness of Time: Biblical Studies in Honour of Archbishop Donald Robinson, eds. David Petersen and John Pryor (Homebush West, NSW: Lancer, 1992), 34.

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