Jesus said, “My Kingdom is not of this world.” Just what, exactly, does he mean by that?
Although the Gospel lections in Year B have focused on Mark, on this Sunday we turn to John. My first concern, then, is to hear what John intended to say to his audience 2000 years ago. Before I try to fit John’s words into the larger picture of New Testament thought, before I work them into my overall theological framework and before I apply them to our contemporary environment, I first need to know, what was John trying to say as he told the story of Jesus in this particular way. In other words, I begin by respecting the integrity of the gospel of John.
I thought I’d share some of my approach as I begin to look at this text.
The first thing I asked myself was this: where else does John discuss kings and kingdoms in his gospel?
There are a few references to kings and kingdoms in John before the beginning of passion narrative. At the beginning of the gospel, when Jesus is calling the first disciples, Nathanael calls Jesus “rabbi,” “Son of God” and “King of Israel” (1:49). In Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus, Jesus talks about seeing the kingdom of God (3:3) and entering the kingdom of God (3:5). Participation in the kingdom requires a new birth (or birth from above) (3:3), a birth of (ex) water and spirit (3:5). Jesus rejects the people’s bid to force the crown on his head after the miracle of the loaves (6:15). The “force” here is aimed at Jesus (harpazein auton = seize him by force), not at the Roman or Jewish armies. They call him a prophet (6:14) but they want him to be a political king.
Additional kingly language is found in John’s version of Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem. In John, it is Jesus’ raising of Lazarus that sparks the crowd’s acclamation and seals Jesus’ fate (11:45-12:11). When Jesus enters Jerusalem for the Passover feast, the crowd that had followed him from Lazarus’ empty tomb pronounces him king (12:13). “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” He sits upon a donkey in fulfillment of fulfillment of Zechariah’s royal prophecy. “Behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” (12:15). John and the synoptic gospels share many details and themes at this point.
The real focus of John’s king language, however, is found in the passion narrative in chapters 18 and 19. First, there is Pilate’s disputation with Jesus at Jesus’ trial, of which the lectionary passage is a part. Following this scene, Pilate baits the crowd by calling Jesus “King of the Jews” (18:39, 19:14-15), and the Roman soldiers mock Jesus with this title (19:3). The chief priests respond ironically as they proclaim “We have no king but Caesar” (19:15). Pilate also proclaims an ironic truth in the sarcastic title inscribed on Jesus’ cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (19:19).
Also worth noting here is that John is the only document in the New Testament to use the word “messiah,” (1:41, 4:25) the semitic equivalent of Christ or “anointed one.” In their original contexts, messiah/Christ and son of God had political connotations (Psalm 2:2,7). Johns also describes Jesus as the good “shepherd,” (John 10) which also has its Old Testament roots in the descriptions of the Davidic monarchy (e.g. Ezekiel 34). John has stripped these words of their political connotations, but they can still be considered kingly language.
Contrast John’s use of kingly language about Jesus with his preference for describing earthly political leaders as “chiefs” or “rulers” (archon) and the highest earthly religious authority as chief priests (archiereus).
John uses the word “world” (kosmos) nearly 80 times. The gospel of John accounts for approximately half of the New Testament occurrences of this word.
The world is God’s creation (1:10) but the world is characterized by sin (1:29). God’s preexistent word was instrumental in the world’s creation and came into the world to bring Light to all people, but the world did not recognize him (1:10) and preferred darkness (3:19). Nevertheless, God loved the world and gave his monogenes son so that the world might be saved (3:16) and not judged (3:17, 12:47).
His crucifixion, however, will bring judgment upon the world and its ruler (singular) (12:31). The incarnate word came into the world as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (1:29). Even though the ruler (singular) of the world has no authority over Jesus (14:30), Jesus will surrender himself to him (14:31). His death overcomes the world (16:33).
Jesus’ origin is not “of this world”; he is “from above” (8:23, 17:16). He came from the Father and is returning to the Father (16:28). Jesus is the bread which came down from heaven and gives life to the world (6:33). Jesus is the light of the world (8:12, 9:5, 12:46).
Jesus will depart the world (13:31) but his followers will remain in it (17:9,11,15). They will share his divine origin, which is not of this world (17:14). They will not see him, but they will receive the Spirit (14:17,19). They will receive a peace that the world cannot give (14:27, 16:33). The world will rejoice at Jesus’ death while the disciples weep, but their grief will be turned to joy (16:20-21, 17:13).
The world will hate Jesus’ followers as it hated him (15:18-19, 17:14). The one who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal (12:25).
The Spirit will also convict the world concerning sin, righteousness and judgment (16:8). The unity of believers will help convince the world that the Father sent Jesus (17:21,23).
After looking at how John uses “kingdom” and “world” in his gospel, I next look at the specific language of the text in question. I focus my attention on John 18:36.
The phrase “is not of this world” is not a simple genitive construction. John uses a preposition ek (or ex): ouk estin ek tou kosmou toutou. The preposition indicates a point of origin in place, time or causation. One could literally translate it “out of” or “from.”
The KJV properly notes that John does not repeat the phrase “of this world” at the end of 18:36, even though many versions translate it as though he does. John uses the adverb “hence” (enteuthen), an indefinite reference of place.
The word translated “servants” in 18:36 is huperetes, which almost literally means “underling.” One might translate it: subordinate, assistant, lieutenant, deputy, number 2, official, representative, executive agent, underling, or officer.It seems to be a technical term for officers of the Jewish ruling authorities. In John 18:3 the huperetai of the chief priests help arrest Jesus. It is not one of the more common Christian words for servant: douldos (slave) or diakonos (table servant). Still, there is nothing in John to indicate that he understood Jesus to be referring to angels militant. Jesus is simply using the political word in an ironic sense. Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world and it does not have political functionaries.
The word translated “fight” is agonizomai, which means struggle, compete, contend, endeavor or labor strenuously. It is not a military term; rather, it comes from the world of athletic contests (agon). It carries no direct implication of armed conflict, but can describe any sort of struggle or contention.
Of course, John has just described one armed confrontation between Simon Peter and on of the chief priest’s slaves in 18:10. In 18:11, Jesus responds, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (Moving outside the framework of John’s narrative, for a moment: could Simon have carried a sword without Jesus’ knowledge? In John’s view, is Jesus condemning Peter’s carrying of the sword, or its use in this particular instance? John’s only comment on this detail concerns Jesus’ mission, not violence or the use of force in general.)
Jesus says that if his kingdom were of this world, his officials would be striving to set him free. This is a 2nd class conditional sentence, as indicated by ei with indicative in the protasis, and an with aorist or imperfect in the apodosis. This is sometimes called the “condition contrary to fact” construction. (In English, this is the subjunctive mood). The imperfect tense suggests ongoing action.
Taken together, I have adopted “if my kingdom were of this world, my officials would be striving” to be the most appropriate English translation of this phrase.
Some things I take away from this brief review include:
John primarily uses spatial language to describe Jesus’ distinctive way of being. John is unique in the New Testament in this regard. Other New Testament authors speak primarily in reference to time rather than space. Somehow, both ways of approaching the gospel come out with a similar point of view: God’s good creation has been ruined by sin, but God has provided for its salvation in Jesus. And while the spatial metaphor predominates in John, John still seems to accept the common eschatological framework of the New Testament (6:39, 11:24).
The source of Jesus’ kingly authority and power is not found in this world; it has a spiritual origin and power. In John’s spatial language, it belongs in another realm, although it is clearly connected to this one. On the first Passover visit to Jerusalem recorded by John, Jesus drove out the merchants and money changers (2:12ff) from the Temple. In his last Passover trip to Jerusalem, the king came riding into Jerusalem on a donkey in a prophetic-political demonstration of his authority.
Jesus’ kingly authority contrasts with that of the world’s rulers. Earthly rulers put Jesus to death, but the real authority belongs to God. They don’t have as much authority as they think they do (19:10-11). Jesus’ conflict, however, is as much with the Ruler (singular) of this world as with the rulers of this world (14:30).
As Jesus faced his own unjust death, he believed that this was not the occasion for armed resistance or other this-worldly endeavors. Sit-ins or protests marches are just as much agonizomai as any armed conflict. Jesus would not let his death become just another political struggle in the world’s long history. The means for him to perform his unique mission did not exist in any earthly political strategy. In his death, he exercises his kingly authority as the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. No earthly political effort could ever accomplish that feat.
There is a lot of overlap in John’s understanding of Jesus as king, light, life, way, word, lamb, Christ/messiah, truth, bread, living water, good shepherd, etc. John uses a variety of imagery drawn from the Old Testament, as well as Jewish life and thought, to describe Jesus.