I grew up hearing the legends of the king. Everyone did.
That is exactly what I thought they were: legends, simple stories parents told children while they worked the fields. The king’s castle was on the highest peak of the kingdom, but no one had ever seen him. On a clear day, you could see it in the distance when taking a break and looking up from your work.
Then I heard wind of a movement. A group of men known to be strong, wise, and brave were going to overthrow the king. The call to join the rebellion whispered across the land.
“He never really did anything for us,” the brave rebels would say in low tones as they passed through the villages. “What gave him the right to be our king and to rule our lives?”
We started by openly mocking any messenger who came from the castle with a royal decree. But it didn’t take long before the attacks became physical.
We didn’t just attack the messengers. We also undermined the messages they brought. We would ask our friends and family why they would be willing to obey the rules of a king they had never seen.
“He could be dead and we would never even know!” our group shouted over the messengers in the village square.
While the king’s edicts and commands were being delivered, we would challenge those listening. They didn’t know this king any more than we did. Why would they follow someone they had never met? Why would they obey a king who never left his castle to punish those who disobeyed?
We tried to show everyone just how little the king really cared by openly defying every decree. If the king made a command to eat steak every day, we would only eat vegetables. Whatever the command was, we would find a way to violate it.
None of my group knew the king, but we all agreed on one point: we hated him.
Then our kingdom was attacked.
Our neighbors to the west were not as strong, wealthy, or equipped as our people. The one advantage they had was numbers. They outnumbered us five to one. When they attacked, they would take prisoners, never to be seen again. Their fate remained a mystery.
Time would go by, we would grieve their loss, and eventually move on with our lives. The edicts and commands from the king would still come to our homes and villages, and we would still respond in mockery, sending the messengers back to the castle bloodied and humiliated. “After all, isn’t the king supposed to be protecting his kingdom?” we would ask, fists clenched. “Maybe we would be better off fending for ourselves.”
Then one day I had a plan. The raiders from the west never got far into the kingdom because they didn’t know the paths. If they really wanted our kingdom, I could walk them directly to the castle. I could give them the best way to challenge the king. I could bring an end to his tyranny and my people could finally rule ourselves.
So I began my journey to the west.
As I approached the first village in the western realm, I was struck by how dirty it was. The filth seemed somehow to seep inside everything. Everything my eye focused on had a tinge of dark brown.
I crossed the first line of huts and walked to the first person I saw. I told him I was a citizen of the kingdom across the river and I had a message for their leader.
They must have misunderstood me because I was immediately attacked by three men who bound me and carried me to the center of the village.
It seemed the entire population of the village came out to see me.
“I know how you can get to the king!” I screamed at them in disbelief. “I came here to help you remove him from the cas-“ I was saying as one of them threw a left hook that connected to my right ear.
As I looked down and saw blood dripping, I thought, These people are too dumb to realize I am here to help them.
No matter what I said, they refused to listen. After enduring countless more fists and verbal assaults, the mob began to get bored. The three men who had carried me to village center all came at me at once. Their hands were covered in blood, though they had no scratches on them. It was all mine.
They picked me up, placed me on their shoulders as if I were a log, and carried me to a cage. After they locked the door, I could see scratches and what looked like teeth marks on the bars. The dirt under the cage was a different hue of brown. It was obviously tinged with the blood of prisoners who had been there before me.
“Tomorrow we will have even more fun with you,” one of my hosts said with a grin as he walked away.
“I am here to help you!” I screamed all night until I lost my voice.
As the sky began to brighten the next morning, I was awakened by a hard kick to my side. My three transporters stood in the doorway. They had apparently neglected washing their hands.
“Time for the fun,” one of them said.
They picked me up again and began carrying me back toward my kingdom. We walked past the dirty shops and huts. I thought maybe they would throw me into the river and perhaps I could escape to home. But then I saw the table. The Table of Death. It was stained redder than the dirt under my cage.
They laid me on the table and strapped me down. I saw them sharpening their knives as a crowd gathered.
Then I heard a voice from the back of the crowd.
“I claim him.” His voice rang clear through the sickening cacophony of people’s excited murmurings.
The crowd split as a man, a man I had never seen, walked forward.
“He is a citizen of my kingdom and he belongs to me,” the man said.
I tilted my head to get a better view, straining against the bonds around my chest.
He wasn’t part of my family. He wasn’t one of my rebel comrades. I had never even seen him before.
“I am his king and you will not kill him,” the man said.
My king, the man I had crossed the river to betray, was the only thing standing between me and the people who seemed to want nothing more than to end my life with as much pain as possible.
“He belongs to us. He came here willingly,” the man with bloody hands said.
“I know,” my king replied somberly. “I listened as he tried to convince his family they could rule themselves as he ruled himself. I saw him defy every edict from my messenger with the same delight you have taken in beating him. I heard him scream until his throat was raw that he was here to help you overthrow me.”
“Then why come here for him?”
Just then his eyes narrowed and he lifted his head triumphantly as he said, “I am not just the king from across the river. My domain extends to everything under the sun. You cannot understand my ways. This man is a citizen of my kingdom and I give myself to that table in his place.”
I expected the crowd to be shocked into silence as I was. They cheered instead. Obviously, they knew something I did not.
Then it hit me. The king I had betrayed willingly and openly volunteered his life for mine.
I was unstrapped and lifted from the Table. He was thrown onto the table. They didn’t even tie him down. Instead, he lay there willingly.
I ran. I was too much of a coward to watch my king die in my place. I ran until I got to the river. There was no way I could ever go back to the kingdom. I was now a man without a home.
A man on a horse found me where I sat dazed on the muddy riverbank. He looked somewhat familiar, but his scarred face made it hard to recognize him.
“Come home,” he told me. His voice… he was one of the king’s messengers I had beaten so long ago.
I couldn’t express to him what had just happened. I couldn’t tell him how I had betrayed our king. My king.
“Your king still has commands to be carried out,” the messenger said.
My own history played as a terrible nightmare inside my head. I remembered hearing all the proclamations of the messengers. I remembered both publicly and privately being proud of my rebellion.
As my rebellion became more and more clear to me, my king’s commands also sharpened. I could no longer see them as burdensome and difficult. They were now beautiful and desirable. It wasn’t just that I no longer hated them; I hungered to know them and follow them.
“I think I love the king’s law,” I told the messenger.
“Do not confuse love for the king’s law for love of the king,” he replied. “We messengers love the law, but it is only because we first love the king. And we can only love the king because he first loved us and gave himself for us.”
“How could he have died for you? I just saw him murdered for me!” I didn’t mean to confess. And hearing it pour from my lips made me fall to my knees. “I caused his murder.”
“He willingly laid down his life for you. You did not cause his death, and neither did those who threw him on the table.”
“I wish I could tell him I am sorry. I wish I could see him,” I whimpered.
“Come home,” the messenger said picking me up.
I passed into our home village. I saw those I had taught to defy the king teaching others how to rebel. I saw the fields where I had spent so many hours growing in hatred while staring at the castle. Everything was the same, but everything was so different.
The messenger led me up to the highest peak and we stood before the door of the castle. Never had I been this close. The door was marked with countless holes. But there, at my eye level was a new edict dated today. It had my name at the top and read, “All betrayal and traitorous deeds are hereby paid for by the will, the decree, and the blood of the king. Long live the king.”
“But the king is dead,” I said in unbelief.
“The king died for you, yet he lives,” the messenger said.
I then heard a sound on the other side of the door and the hinges began to squeak. The door opened. Out stepped my king.
“I am the author of life. I willingly lay down my life for my citizens and am able to pick it up again. You have been forgiven. Now you are my messenger to make me known in my kingdom.”
This is what I wanted to do. I felt as one who had lived under water and was for the first time breathing fresh air. I wanted to tell others where they could find this air and breathe in life.
And this is why I am telling you the story of my king. He knows your betrayal. He knows your rebellion. And still, he willingly laid on the table and ransomed your life for his. But he did not stay on that table. He defeated the westerners. He defeated betrayal. He stood atop the table and defeated death so that you and I may live for and with him now.
This is no mere legend. This is the story of my lord, my liege, my king.