I’ve been thinking about Jesus’ words to Pilate a lot lately.
“If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But my kingdom is not of this world.” -John 18:36, NIV
For years I thought this statement was about location; that Jesus, being on earth, was submitting Himself to earthly authorities and powers, and allowing Himself to be crucified. Thus, if the location would change, from earth to Heaven per se, then the angels of Heaven would rise up and crush the Jews, Romans, and all others who dared raise a hand against the King of Heaven.
I no longer think this way. Jesus’ words were not about location as much as they were about tactics. When we zoom out from this passage we see that chapter 18 of John’s Gospel begins with Jesus’ arrest. John recounts Peter trying to decapitate a member of the Temple guard with a sword. He missed and only lopped off an ear. Peter is immediately reprimanded by Jesus to “Put your sword away!” (18:11). Jesus is on a mission and not even the zeal of His followers will keep Him from it.
Now zoom out a little further. See John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness. His message is a simple one: “Repent! The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:2). Jesus Himself would take up this language proclaiming a Kingdom that was near or “at hand.” (Matthew 4:17). Matthew takes to describing Jesus’ message as “the gospel of the kingdom” (4:23; 9:35; 24:14) and Jesus’ parables are saturated with the phrase “the kingdom of heaven is like…” We learn much about the Kingdom of Heaven from Jesus’ teaching, and one thing is made clear: this Kingdom operates by a different set of rules than any other. In this kingdom the poor, hungry, mournful, meek, and persecuted are considered “blessed.” In the Kingdom of Heaven citizens are expected to return a blessing for a curse, walk the extra mile, turn the other cheek, and love and pray for their enemies. The Kingdom of Heaven is a realm inundated by grace, mercy, and love. The borders of the Kingdom are not physical boundaries, but spiritual, as it is carried in the hearts of her citizens. There are a lot of words that one could use to describe the Kingdom, but the most applicable one is that the Kingdom is something other. It is set apart, different, and “out of this world.” In other words, the Kingdom of Heaven is holy.
When Jesus says to Pilate, “my kingdom is not of this world” He was reinforcing the fact that His Kingdom operates by a different set of parameters. Violent force was not the way of the Kingdom of Heaven. Physical confrontation with pagan regimes was not part of Jesus’ plans for expanding His kingdom. To push the boundaries of the Kingdom would require a Heavenly citizenship that loved their neighbor as they love themselves. No violent overthrows. No political power-plays. No legislating morality into people. Just pure and simple love for our neighbor.
Contrast that with the last several weeks. I have seen brothers and sisters in Christ, whom I love dearly, attack and tear down each other because they have a difference of opinion on who deserves the “Christian” vote. One side demonizes the other, and Christians from both sides join in the dehumanizing name-calling. Yes, we are to love our neighbors, but surely that doesn’t include a “demon-crat” or a “greed-publican”, does it? The American Church has idolized political power, which is evidenced by a spirit of fear whenever “our” party loses. We have confused the Kingdom of Heaven with the nation of man, and are paying dearly for it. We have lost influence, the right to be heard, and possibly an entire generation due to playing politics in the world instead of building the Kingdom of God.
But all is not lost. It never is when you worship a God who brings dead things to life. As America slips farther down the road towards post-Christianity, the Church is no longer the voice of influence over the culture. Instead, she is returning to where she has operated for much of history: the fringes and the outcasts. Perhaps such a shift will teach us to love the less fortunate, the disagreeable, and the rejected. Jesus is calling us to put away our verbal swords. There is a mission to be completed, and we must be careful that our zeal for power does not derail it. Let us return to the values that Jesus elevated in His Kingdom: love, humility, kindness, righteousness, and mercy. In doing so may we remind ourselves that the Kingdom of Heaven is not about where we live, but about how we live.