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

Responding to “Hot Takes”

Now there were some present at that very season who told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.
And [Jesus] answered and said unto them, “Think ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they have suffered these things? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all in like manner perish. Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and killed them, think ye that they were offenders above all the men that dwell in Jerusalem? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5).

These days it feels as if we are being consumed by the “hot take.”

Between 24/7 cable news stations and the Internet we feel awash with information and news. Information about events is distributed in real time; confusion often spreads before anyone can make any sense of what is transpiring. Since so many have access to both information and the means by which to respond to it, we are often made to feel as if we must respond so that people know we are aware and where we may stand on any given issue. So much seems to happen, and we get overwhelmed very quickly. We yearn for a more wise and reflective view of current events. And yet, most of the time, whatever might be the big news story today is often forgotten about by tomorrow. We are chasing the next big story; those who have to suffer the consequences of the last big story have to sort their lives out as everyone else has moved on.

We might imagine that such things are new to us in our hyper-connected digital age, but “hot takes” and responses to them are as old as humanity. Jesus Himself was confronted with a “hot take” in Luke 13:1, a fresh Roman outrage against the Jewish people: Pilate, procurator of Judea, evidently ordered some Galilean Jewish people to be slaughtered, and their blood mingled with that of the sacrifices offered on their behalf. The Jewish people already did not like Roman rule and felt that the Romans, like the Greeks before them, would attempt to suppress their ability to practice their faith without hindrance. And here is the Roman procurator killing Jewish people offering sacrifices! Was the time not coming when YHWH would deliver His people from these oppressive pagans? Was it not being claimed that Jesus was the Messiah of God? What would He have to say about such things? Surely He would take the opportunity to condemn the Romans for what they had done. Surely He would identify with His people against those who oppressed them!

Yet Jesus is not taken in by the “hot take.” It is not as if He is unaware of what happened, nor is He unaware of His audience’s expectation. In fact, He referenced another recent “hot take,” news involving the death of eighteen people when a tower fell on them in Siloam (Luke 13:4). He does not take the opportunity to condemn the Romans; instead, He spoke to the very basic and primal response to such “hot takes” and news. He asked if these people who have suffered in this way, be it from Pilate’s men or from a terrible accident, were any worse sinners than others. He wanted to make it clear that unless those to whom He spoke repented, they would likewise perish (Luke 13:2-5).

What does that have to do with these events? While we often speak of the Jewish people who live in the time of Christ in different ways than those who lived in Old Testament times, they are all being shaped by often consistent cultural expectations. One such expectation, seen frequently in wisdom literature, is that people get what they deserve. The righteous and industrious are wealthy and blessed; the wicked and lazy are poor and suffer indignity. Sometimes this happens; as we can see in Job and Ecclesiastes, however, sometimes the wicked obtain wealth, and the righteous suffer indignities. Even so, it seems that the Jewish people easily defaulted to the view that people get what they deserve: thus, it must have been that God willed for those Galileans to be killed because they were sinners, and God allowed that tower to fall on those eighteen because they were sinful. It also provides a nice comfortable cushion and barrier between the observer and the observed: since these things did not happen to me, but it happened to them, I must be in a better situation than they are. They must have been worse off; they must have deserved it; I do not, and therefore I will not have to suffer such indignity.

Jesus knew they thought these things, and so Jesus corrected them. In so doing Jesus opened up the very terrifying prospect to them that is all too real: bad things happen to people, and many times it has nothing to do with the type of person they are. Sometimes the righteous suffer and die; sometimes the wicked prosper. People become victims of random violence, the oppression of the state, or calamitous events. It was easier to believe, and hope, that such things happen to other people, and not to “us,” because we do not deserve it, and thus somehow they do. No, Jesus says; they are no worse than you. They did not deserve to have such things happen to them. They suffered tragically; nothing stops us from suffering as tragically.

It has always been almost comically easy to learn of “hot takes” and news about other people and remain entirely disconnected. Such terrible things happen over there to people like them. Such things would not happen here or to people like us. We have to find some reason to explain why they must suffer so and yet we should not; it is very comforting that way. And yet Jesus still says no. They are no worse than us. They did not deserve to have such things happen to them. They suffered tragically, and we could as well. We may live our lives watching bad things happen to “them,” and think it will never happen to us, until that day when “we” become “them.”

Thus we do well to learn Jesus’ lesson: we do better to identify with those who suffer than to try to find internal reasons to keep them at arm’s length. We are not guaranteed to go through life without suffering tragedy or becoming the next “hot take.” What happens to the other today may happen to us tomorrow. Our trust must not be in our righteousness or good fortune but in God in Christ. May we all change our hearts and minds to align our will to God’s so they we may not perish but obtain eternal life in the resurrection!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Rage of the Nations

Why do the nations rage, and the peoples meditate a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together against the LORD and against his anointed (Psalm 2:1-2).

It is a pressing question in almost every generation: why are the powers that be opposed to the purposes of God?

The Psalmist envisions the day of conflict between YHWH and His Anointed One with the rulers of the nations (Psalm 2:1-12). The land of Israel was a tempting target for all sorts of nations: the neighboring Ammonites, Arameans, Canaanites, Edomites, Moabites, Phoenicians, and the Philistines would certainly enjoy more territory and tribute from Israel, while the greater nations of Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, and others understood its value as the main land connection between Egypt and Mesopotamia. The Old Testament is full of discussions of wars between the Israelites and their neighbors both near and far, and how God would often give the king of Israel and/or the king of Judah victory over their enemies.

All of these conflicts and battles are only the shadow of which the reality would be realized in Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah of God. Herod the Great conspired against Him at His birth (Matthew 2:1-18). His death brought together Pontius Pilate, Roman procurator of Judea, and Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee, who had formerly been at odds with each other (Luke 23:1-12). The cry for His crucifixion came from Jewish men and women who were willing to cry out that their only king was Caesar (John 19:15). The Roman power would fulfill their request (Luke 23:13-49). They all might have thought that such would be the end of Jesus of Nazareth and His mission, but they were quite wrong. God raised Jesus from the dead, and triumphed over the authorities, not just in the flesh on earth, but also the spiritual powers of darkness (Colossians 2:15).

Even though Jesus obtained the victory, His followers continued to understand the conflicts caused by their witness to Jesus in terms of Psalm 2:1-12. After Peter and John were cast into prison and castigated by the Sanhedrin, they and the other Apostles prayed the very words of Psalm 2:1-2 before God, connected it with Jesus before Herod and Pilate, and asked for continued boldness to advance Jesus’ purposes in Jerusalem (Acts 4:24-30). John sees a vision of Jesus being born and then taken to heaven where He rules with a rod of iron (Revelation 12:1-6; cf. Psalm 2:9). John then sees the contest between the people of God and the beast, the world power arrogating against God as empowered by the dragon, the Evil One, and the ultimate victory of the people of God over the forces of evil through Jesus (Revelation 12:7-14:20). When it is all said and done, God is praised, for while the nations raged, His wrath came, and the judgment came: the saints are rewarded, and the destroyers are destroyed (Revelation 11:18).

Opposition to the Kingdom of God is to be expected; the claim that Jesus is Lord, by its very nature, demands that those who would like to presume the highest authority for themselves are not. The kings of Babylon and the Caesars of Rome may have passed on, but nations still seek to be seen as all-powerful and deserving of all loyalty, and they chafe at the idea that people’s loyalty should fully and always be with the Lord Jesus (Matthew 10:34-39). Time would fail us if we were to tell of all the persecutions experienced by the people of God when they dared to stand up for Jesus as Lord against kings and nations who sought glory and honor for themselves. It continues to this day!

The kings of the earth plot against the purposes of God; the nations often rage against Him and His purposes. Their ultimate failure is guaranteed; the Lord Jesus has won the victory (Revelation 1:8, 17-18). Therefore, we should not be afraid of the nations. Sure, they may persecute us, perhaps even to death, but they can never extend the hope of resurrection and eternal life as Jesus has. Let us trust in Jesus as Lord and proclaim His Lordship boldly come what may!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Good Confession

Fight the good fight of the faith, lay hold on the life eternal, whereunto thou wast called, and didst confess the good confession in the sight of many witnesses. I charge thee in the sight of God, who giveth life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who before Pontius Pilate witnessed the good confession; that thou keep the commandment, without spot, without reproach, until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 6:12-14).

Confession is one of those concepts that many people think they understand but often miss different aspects of what is involved. Most of the time, when we think of confession, we think of someone making known their transgressions. We might imagine a criminal confessing his crimes before a police officer or judge, or a person declaring their sins before God.

The Greek word for “confession” is homologeo; its parts literally mean “to speak the same thing (as),” and thus a confession or profession. It is used in passages like 1 John 1:9 to describe confession of sin, but it also maintains another powerful meaning in the New Testament, as we see in 1 Timothy 6:12-14: the “good confession” of Jesus and Timothy.

What is the “good confession” of which Paul speaks? In the Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus does not say much to Pilate, save “Thou sayest” as a response to the question of whether He was the King of the Jews (Matthew 27:11/Mark 15:2/Luke 23:3). Jesus’ statement is not meant as disrespect; in Greek a statement and a question feature most of the same words with vocal inflection marking the difference between the two. Jesus declares the substance of Pilate’s words to be true.

John reveals a more substantive conversation between Pilate and Jesus. In John’s account Jesus declares that He has a kingdom, and it is not of this world (John 18:36); He is a King, and He has come to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37). In any event, Pilate’s inscription placed above Jesus, declaring Him the King of the Jews, makes it clear that there was little ambiguity involved (John 19:19). Before Pilate Jesus declared that He was a King, the King of the Jews; to any observant Jew, this meant that before the Roman authorities Jesus claimed to be the descendant of David, the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ.

Therefore, Jesus as the Messiah is the good confession which Jesus made before Pilate. Early Christians insisted on every believer making a similar confession before others: many ancient versions record the Ethiopian eunuch doing so (Acts 8:37), Paul speaks about it to the Romans (Romans 10:9-10), the Hebrew author has something similar in mind (Hebrews 3:1, 4:14, 10:23), and Paul here speaks of Timothy’s confession (1 Timothy 6:12-14). As Jesus confessed His identity before Pilate, so believers are to confess Jesus’ identity before others as well.

This confession is not the confession of sin or that one is a sinner; this is “speaking the same thing” as Jesus before Pilate, that He is the Christ, the Son of God (cf. Matthew 16:16). As Jesus spoke His confession before Pilate, so we are to speak our confession before others.

Today this does not seem very controversial or challenging for most people; very few of us have endangered ourselves to any degree by declaring that Jesus is the Christ, especially when doing so before other Christians. Nevertheless, in the first days of Christianity, as well as in some places around the globe to this very day, to declare Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, could easily lead to arrest, torture, and death. For generations many Christians have bravely declared Jesus’ Lordship in the face of oppression and tyranny to the point of death. We should all maintain that level of boldness in faith if we are called upon to do so (cf. 1 John 3:16).

Yet it is evident from what Paul is saying– as well as the Hebrew author’s use of the idea of confession– that there is more to this than merely declaring before other Christians that Jesus is Lord. The expectation is for all of us that what we declare orally we believe firmly in our hearts and minds. All we may say in our confession is, “I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.” Yet how much is really said in such a confession! If we believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, such demands that we trust in Jesus as Christ. It demands that we adhere to the teachings of Christ of which we learn in Scripture from the Apostles. This adherence to the teaching is not merely an intellectual exercise; it must be practiced, observable by all.

We have good reason to believe that Timothy’s confession took place over twenty years before Paul discusses it in 1 Timothy; a similar period of time (or perhaps even longer) is true for the Hebrew Christians to whom the Hebrew author writes. Their confession was something they were expected to remember; it was part of the moment in which they committed to the cause of Christ. Timothy declared before others that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; it is right for Paul to remind him of that declaration in terms of encouraging him to fight the good fight of faith, to hold firm to the commandment, and to continue to take hold of eternal life.

Merely declaring Jesus as the Christ means precious little, as Matthew 7:21-23 and James 2:19 attest. Instead, we must make the good confession of Jesus as Christ as a statement of confidence and trust, one whose implications we seek to work out throughout the rest of our lives. By confessing Jesus as the Christ, we confess our allegiance to Him and to His standard; by confessing Jesus as the Christ, we confess that we seek to be Christians striving to fight the good fight of faith, keeping His commandments, seeking to lay hold of eternal life. The good confession is as much a call to action and rallying cry as much as the declaration of Jesus’ identity. Let us make the good confession and make good on that confession throughout our lives!

Ethan R. Longhenry