Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence” (John 18:36).
Few of Jesus’ declarations have reverberated over time as His confession of the nature of His Kingdom in John 18:36. Few have also proven as contentious.
Jesus had been betrayed by Judas into the hands of the religious authorities; they had already condemned Him to death as a blasphemer (John 18:1-27). Since they had no authority granted to execute Jesus, they brought Him before Pontius Pilate, Roman procurator of Judea, to issue the final condemnation (John 18:28-32). Pilate asked Jesus if He indeed was the King of the Jews based on what had been said of Him by the religious authorities (John 18:32-35). Jesus declared that His Kingdom was not of this world: His servants were not fighting to foment insurrection or rebellion so as to rescue Him, and such was sufficient evidence to show His Kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). Jesus would go on to identify Himself as a King according to what Pilate himself had said; Pilate found no crime or guilt in Him (John 18:37-38).
But what is Jesus really attempting to say to Pilate by this declaration? As is unfortunately the norm in Christianity, people have often gone to extremes. Some fervently expect Jesus to one day make the Kingdom be of this world, and so they emphasize the idea that His Kingdom is not “now” from here, presuming that at some point in the future that will change. Others so emphasize “not of this world” so that it becomes “entirely of another world,” as if His Kingdom has nothing at all to do with this world.
In the contextual moment Jesus is attempting to “clear the air” about Him and His intentions. From the first century until now it has been all too easy to misunderstand Jesus’ purposes in His Kingdom and to conceptualize the Kingdom entirely in earthly terms. The Jews wanted to make Jesus their king; He escaped from them, for His Kingdom was not to be what they desired it to be (John 6:15). Christians were easily accused of sedition against Rome, declaring that Jesus was King, not Caesar (Acts 17:6-7); so both Paul and Peter strongly urge Christians to remain subject to all earthly authorities lest anyone get the wrong idea (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:11-18). Thus, when Pilate heard that Jesus is being called the “King of the Jews,” he perceived Jesus to be a threat to the stability of Roman rule over Judea, because he is aware of the Jewish expectation that their God would send their Messiah who they imagined would liberate them from foreign pagan oppression and would re-establish a Jewish Davidic kingdom in Jerusalem. And so Jesus clarified before Pilate that His Kingdom is not of this world; it would not be an earthly kingdom vying for territory with a man on a throne in a capital. If it were, His servants would be fighting to make that happen.
Such should be a strong warning to any who would imagine that Jesus’ only concern is one of timing and not substance. Jesus is not saying, “my Kingdom is not now of this world, but it will be at some undetermined point in the future”; the work God was accomplishing in Jesus powerfully demonstrated the error in Jewish expectations. Jesus was the King of the Jews, not just a more improved version of David, but as the One like a Son of Man who would soon be given an eternal dominion from the Ancient of Days (Daniel 7:13-14). The Kingdom He would inaugurate would strike in pieces all of the kingdoms who had come before (Daniel 2:43-45). God would give Jesus all authority in heaven and on earth, over all the powers, not merely over some acres of ground on earth (Matthew 28:18, Colossians 1:15-20). Jesus’ Kingdom is too much of a present reality and far too profound to restrict it to a future earthly hope (Colossians 1:12-20, Revelation 1:9).
Yet it is not as if Jesus’ Kingdom has nothing to do with this world. Neither Pilate nor later Roman authorities were entirely wrong to raise an eyebrow at the claims made by Jesus and His later followers. If Jesus is Lord and Savior, then Caesar is not the ultimate authority. Christian claims of God giving authority to whom He will and of Jesus being over all the kings of the earth stand at variance with Caesar’s claims about himself. Even if Christians seek to honor and obey earthly authorities in all things, their loyalties and ultimate commitment lie in God in Christ and His Kingdom, not in Rome (Philippians 1:27, 3:20-21). Jesus’ Kingdom was not envisioned as an alien force; He reigns from heaven indeed but reigns over both heaven and earth, and all peoples and nations are subject to Him (Philippians 3:20-21, Revelation 5:12-14, 7:9-17). Just as Christians ought not imagine that Jesus’ Kingdom is merely awaiting its earthly manifestation, so they ought not imagine that the concerns of the Kingdom have nothing at all to do with the present world.
Jesus’ Kingdom is neither earthly nor otherworldly; it is transcendent. Jesus is Lord of lords and King of kings; His Kingdom reigns above all other principalities and powers (Colossians 1:15-20, 2:11-17, Revelation 19:16). Jesus’ Kingdom absolutely crushed and shattered the empires of the world through God’s judgments upon them and the work of Christians within them proclaiming the Gospel and glorifying God. The Gospel of Jesus and His Kingdom undermines every tyrant and despotic tendency in government, for fear, shame, suffering, and death, the coercive tools of government, are made devoid of power in the life of the one who trusts in the crucified and risen Jesus (Matthew 10:28). Jesus will return one day and will raise our bodies to be like Himself (Philippians 3:20-21); this energizes all believers in Him to uphold the values of the Kingdom no matter what man may try to do to us. The flower of the glory of empire will fade and die; the word of God, the Gospel, will endure forever, as will those who faithfully participate in the Kingdom of God to the end (1 Corinthians 15:51-58, 1 Peter 1:23-25).
Christians live in the world and do well to honor and obey earthly authorities. Yet we must demonstrate that our true affections and loyalty lie in the transcendent Kingdom of God in Christ. We must live as if we truly do eschew the extremes in understanding about the Kingdom. We must not foolishly believe, as so many do, that Jesus’ Kingdom will be established as an earthly Kingdom some day, or that through our efforts we can establish His Kingdom on earth. The Lord Himself considered such things as a fool’s errand; if He did not do so, who are we as His followers to imagine we can succeed where He “failed”? Thus we have no right to imagine that God’s Kingdom is manifest in any given country or any political platform or ideology therein; we likewise have no right to imagine that we will succeed in bringing the Kingdom to earth through benevolent action. At the same time, the Kingdom does have a word to speak to rulers and citizens and how we should live; we must not foolishly believe that Christians are to be so alien as to have nothing to say or do with those who live in the world. We are not given the right to “monasticize” ourselves, withdrawing from society entirely and/or put most of our efforts into creating some sort of Christian subculture. We must serve God in His Kingdom in the world, knowing that all of the kingdoms of the world will ultimately become the Kingdom of our Lord and Christ (Revelation 11:15), and that His transcendent Kingdom, while not of this world, powerfully reigns over it. May we serve the Lord Jesus in His Kingdom to His eternal glory and honor!
Ethan R. Longhenry