Jesus’ Transcendent Kingdom

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

Worldly Wisdom

This wisdom is not a wisdom that cometh down from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish. For where jealousy and faction are, there is confusion and every vile deed (James 3:15-16).

James, the Lord’s brother, wrote to exhort his fellow Jewish Christians in the Diaspora regarding their conduct in Christ. Having encouraged them to avoid showing partiality (James 2:1-13), to manifest their faith in their works (James 2:14-26), and to give heed to how they speak and avoid hypocrisy in so doing (James 3:1-12), he then challenged the “wise” among them to demonstrate their wisdom through their lives full of good deeds (James 3:13). Wisdom “from above,” from God, is pure, peaceable, open to reason, full of mercy and good works, and is without partiality and hypocrisy; those who are wise make peace and in so doing sow unto a harvest of righteousness (James 3:17-18). But those who have zelos (jealousy or envy) and eritheia (strife, selfish ambition) in their hearts are not truly wise, and they should not glory and lie against the truth (James 3:14). Such people are motivated by a different kind of “wisdom,” that which is of the earth, of this life, and demonic; such wisdom leads to confusion and wickedness (James 3:15-16).

How can there be two different types of wisdom? Is not wisdom automatically good? By no means; wisdom is simply knowledge that “works.” Wisdom can be good; it can be evil. We may want to believe whatever wisdom that “work” must come from God, but it does not take much investigation to recognize just how terribly correct James is about the different sources of wisdom. In the experience of mankind, “might makes right” or “the ends justify the means” certainly seems to “work”: those with power tend to make the rules to benefit them and marginalize others, and not a few terrible deeds have been justified because of the perceived benefits of the outcome. In fact, most of what passes as wisdom about “getting ahead” in life all derives from the two base impulses identified by James: jealousy/envy and selfish ambition. While we may be able to find some morally exemplary persons among the wealthy and the elite, most of them have obtained their wealth because they were driven by jealousy and selfish ambition. It seems almost axiomatic that every ruler, those who actually rule and those who strongly desire to do so, are almost nakedly ambitious in life. Most give lip service to the moral superiority of love and humility, but when it starts hitting the power base or the pocketbook, it is all about fear and winning.

It is crucial for Christians to recognize the contrast between the wisdom from above and “worldly” wisdom, to not confuse the two, and in every respect to purge ourselves of “worldly” wisdom and pattern our lives on the wisdom from above. Christians are easily tempted to use a bit of the Devil’s ways against him; after all, they “work,” and if they “work,” then what would be the problem? James never denied the efficacy of “worldly wisdom”; instead, he pointed to its ultimate fruit. Wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there is disorder and vile practices (James 3:16). If there is jealousy and selfish ambition in the home, there will be fights, distress, stress, and the children will not be able to be fully raised in the Lord’s discipline and admonition and will have much to overcome as adults. If there is jealousy and selfish ambition in the church, there will be strife, divisions, and all kinds of ungodliness, hurting Christians and giving the Gentiles reason to blaspheme (e.g. 3 John 1:9-10). Our culture, society, and nation are under the control of the god of this world; we should not be surprised to see such terrible partisan bickering and division since there is so much jealousy and selfish ambition (2 Corinthians 4:4). We can understand how all of these situations come about, yet we recognize that none of them are really good or truly healthy.

For good reason did our Lord and Master draw a very strong and solid line between the “ways of the Gentiles” and the way it should be among His people in Matthew 20:25-28: the Gentiles live by the earthly, this life, demonic wisdom of this world. It should not be so among us. Christians must live by the pure, peaceable, reasonable wisdom from above, from God, full of good works and mercy, without partiality and hypocrisy. We will be tempted to use the world’s ways of doing things; after all, they “work,” and we do not want to be fully left behind. We will be tempted to use Satan’s tactics to tell people about Jesus, using manipulation, coercion, judgmentalism, or bait-and-switch tactics; such is not pure and peaceable, but derives from jealousy and selfish ambition, and is condemned. Many wish to judge the effectiveness of the Lord’s people in their efforts based on the metrics of the business world; we do well to remember that the business world is motivated entirely by jealousy and selfish ambition, and be very wary of whatever “wisdom” someone wants to derive from it. Whenever God’s people get involved in the economic and political world, they enter a realm dominated by jealousy and selfish ambition; if they are not careful, God’s people may end up finding themselves commending the unjustifiable and approving the unconscionable so as to obtain power or standing, compromising all that is good and lovely on account of fear and/or a will to power.

We do well to remember that God did not save us through economic prosperity or through the power games of the political realm; God has saved us through His Son Jesus who lived, suffered, died, and whom God raised from the dead because He proved willing to bear the shame and the scorn and proved obedient to the point of death (Philippians 2:5-11). We must have the mind of Christ, the wisdom from above; we must love where there is fear, we must remain humble where there is arrogance, we must show mercy where there is judgmentalism, we must remain content where there is jealousy, and we must seek the best interest of the other where there is selfish ambition. This world’s wisdom has not brought lasting peace; it is incapable of doing so. Christians, however, have access to peace toward God through Jesus who Himself killed the hostility by suffering on the cross (Ephesians 2:11-18). Peace does not come through any form of the wisdom of this world; it does not come through fear or projections of strength; it comes from humility, purity, a willingness to show no partiality, and righteous living under the Messiah. If we really believe Jesus is who He says He is, then we shall willingly give up our jealousy and envy, finding contentment in Him, and renounce all selfish ambition, and live for Him (Romans 12:1-2, Galatians 2:20, Philippians 4:10-13, 1 Timothy 6:5-10).

We live in a world saturated with demonic earthly wisdom. We must recognize it for what it is, but as Christians we must not capitulate before it. We cannot advance the Lord’s purposes with the Devil’s wisdom; we cannot will ourselves to power through the wisdom of demons, but must in every respect become the slave of Jesus so His reign can be seen through us. May we seek to purge ourselves of all jealousy and selfish ambition, the wisdom of this world, and find contentment and true life and identity in Jesus the Christ, and obtain the resurrection in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Making Mention of the Name

Now know I that YHWH saveth his anointed / he wilt answer him from his holy heaven with the saving strength of his right hand.
Some trust in chariots, and some in horses / but we will make mention of the name of YHWH our God.
They are bowed down and fallen / but we are risen, and stand upright.
Save, YHWH / let the King answer us when we call (Psalm 20:6-9).

How could Israel be saved?

The land which YHWH gave to Israel was a good and prosperous land, yet one that just so happened to lie right in the middle of the ancient world and its empires. Wars had been fought between Egypt and Mesopotamian powers for hundreds of years before the Israelites entered the land; wars have been fought over that land ever since. During times when Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon were experiencing internal decline or turmoil, Israel and its neighboring nation-states could assert independence and expand their territories; when these larger powers were strong enough to exert their force, these smaller nation-states were in danger of losing everything.

These larger nations all trusted in their military forces; at the time, the best battlefield technology involved horses and chariots. If Israel trusted in their horses and chariots they would not last very long! Israel’s salvation and continued integrity in the land would have to be grounded on something else. David writes so Israel would continually remember in whom they should put their trust: not in horses and chariots, but in making mention of the name of YHWH their God (Psalm 20:7).

Egyptian-Chariot

In the first half of Psalm 20 David blesses the people, asking YHWH to hear them in their times of trouble, to accept their offerings, and to give them what they desire (Psalm 20:1-5). David then turns to the ultimate hope of Israel: YHWH will save “His Anointed” (Psalm 20:6). Israel must trust in YHWH, not horses and chariots; those who trust in their military will be bowed down and fallen, but YHWH will make His people stand upright and rise (Psalm 20:7-8). David ends by asking YHWH to save and to let the King answer when they call to Him (Psalm 20:9).

David’s exhortation and warning was appropriate for Israel during the time of the kings. The Israelites did not obtain the land through their strength alone but through the power of YHWH; they could only preserve their hold upon it through the same means. In the historical chronicles of Kings and Chronicles we see kings who trusted in YHWH and prospered; we also see when kings turned away from YHWH, trusted in their own military might or in their treaties with foreign powers, and were humiliated. Ultimately, Israel thought she could stand against Assyria by the power of its own strength and its alliances with others; Assyria conquered and exiled Israel from its land (2 Kings 17:1-23). A few generations later Judah trusted in its military strength and its alliance with Egypt against the Babylonian forces; the Babylonians conquered and exiled Judah from its land (2 Kings 25:1-21). They did not trust in YHWH; YHWH gave them over to what they trusted; they were lost.

After the Exile the Israelites would put their hope in YHWH that He would send His Anointed One who would provide them victory; Jesus of Nazareth was the Anointed One, the Messiah, whom YHWH would save in the resurrection and through whom YHWH would save all mankind (Romans 5:6-11, 1 Corinthians 15:20-58). All people can now call upon YHWH, praying to the Father in the name of Jesus the Son (John 15:16).

Christians today also do well to heed the message of Psalm 20:6-9. Many in the world continue to trust in “horses and chariots,” military might and the power of the political process. It’s tempting for each generation to do so, but David is correct: ultimately all who trust in the ways of this world will be destroyed by those ways and will become bowed down and fallen. Nations rise and fall. Laws are enacted and struck down. Popular opinion may be for you one moment but then against you the next. If we put our trust in these worldly forces we will be consumed by them. The only way we can stand is by making mention of the name of God in Christ, putting our trust in Him and in His Word, for they will endure forever (1 Peter 1:24-25).

Deliverance will not come from a military, a legislature, or an executive; deliverance comes from God in Christ. May we put our trust in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

God’s People

But ye are an elect race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that ye may show forth the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light: who in time past were no people, but now are the people of God: who had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy (1 Peter 2:9-10).

The wall had come tumbling down.

For two thousand years God worked with a specific group of people: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their descendants. The Israelites were uniquely the people of God (cf. Hebrews 11:25). They were given the ability to stand before the One True God, the Creator God, YHWH (Isaiah 43:15). They were very proud of this distinction– probably too proud (cf. John 8:31-58)!

Everyone else, however, was excluded. If you were not an Israelite, you were without Christ, without the state of the people of God, without the covenant with God, without hope, and without God (cf. Ephesians 2:12). It was a distressing place to be.

And then, in Jesus the Christ, everything changed.

When Jesus died on the cross, He killed the hostility between the Jews and the Gentiles by abolishing the law that separated them, thus allowing Him to bring both together in one body (cf. Ephesians 2:11-18). Jesus’ death was not effective only for the sins of the Jews, but for all people (cf. Acts 10:34-35, 11:17-18). The Kingdom of God was not limited to any particular nation or ethnicity (Galatians 3:28)!

Peter eloquently describes exactly what this means for believers today in 1 Peter 2:9-10. He cites many passages from the Old Testament that refer to physical Israel– Israel the “chosen race” (Isaiah 43:20 LXX), Israel the “royal priesthood” and “holy nation” (Exodus 19:6, 23:22 LXX), Israel the “people of God’s own possession” (Deuteronomy 7:6). Peter also cites the passages in Hosea where the prophet had spoken of how God would cast off the Israelites and receive them back again in Hosea 1:9-10, 2:23.

But, as Peter indicated before, these prophets and messages were designed to benefit us (1 Peter 1:12). Whereas physical Israel had been God’s chosen race, royal priesthood, holy nation, and a people for His own possession, now these benefits are bestowed upon Christians. Whereas God once placed His Presence in the Temple in Jerusalem with priests and sacrifices, now God places His presence with Christian believers who represent the Temple, the priests, and the sacrifices of the new covenant (1 Peter 2:4-5; cf. Romans 12:1, 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:19-20, Ephesians 2:19-21, Hebrews 13:15).

We are the people who were once not a people (Ephesians 2:11-12). We are the people who were once without mercy (cf. Titus 3:3). But now, through Jesus Christ, we are adopted into the family of God and have become His people (cf. Romans 8:15-17). In Jesus Christ we have found mercy (Ephesians 2:4-9). We are now God’s “chosen race,” His “royal priesthood,” His “holy nation,” and His “people for a possession.”

Despite what many may say, this definitively indicates that Israel according to the flesh has no more standing before God than anyone else. The Israel that will be saved is the spiritual Israel, not Israel according to the flesh (Romans 11:1-32). The destruction of Jerusalem and the obliteration of any hope of ever truly observing the Law of Moses that came as a result was God’s definitive judgment on Israel and the end of that covenant (Daniel 9:24-27, Matthew 24:1-36). Those of physical Israel have as much opportunity to become believers in Jesus Christ and His obedient servants as the Gentiles (cf. Ephesians 2:1-18, Galatians 3:28). Therefore, we ought not make distinctions based on nationality, as it is written (2 Corinthians 5:16).

Did we deserve the opportunity to become God’s people? By no means! If physical Israel found itself cast off because of disobedience, we in the spiritual Israel should not expect preferential treatment (Romans 2:5-11, 1 Corinthians 10:1-12). Instead, we should be thankful for the opportunity to become God’s people, and to never take that privilege for granted. We ought to serve God with all of our hearts because of what He has done for us (Romans 12:1-2, Galatians 2:20, Ephesians 2:10). Let us represent God’s people and do His will on the earth, representing Him and His values in all things!

Ethan R. Longhenry