Thursday, October 10, 2013

Kingdom Not of this World

In my last post on John, I mentioned briefly the way in which I understand Jesus's statement about His kingdom not being "of this world." In context, I believe Jesus was describing a kingdom which has an origin that is not of ethnic Israel, and therefore Jesus' own kingship is not of ethnic Israel either, which Pilate had asked Him about immediately before. Jesus' response was to clarify that He is a king, but He is not a king in the sense which Pilate had asked concerning uniquely Jewish character and limitations (i.e. "are you the King of the Jews?"), as though being a descendant of David, the King of Israel, limits is His kingly domain and origin to geopolitical Israel.

In response to this perspective of mine, I imagine that someone reading this post might object, arguing that Jesus spoke of a "world," not a Jewish territory, and therefore Jesus was contrasting this present world in which fallen humanity lives (the cursed world prior to the promised consummation of all things) with another "world" that is not essential to this present world (whatever that looks like). My response to such an objection is two fold: first, I have a difficult time understanding why some christians have a fascination with imagining other "worlds," as though the Scriptures actually talk that way, using the term "world" in the same ways they imagine. I especially find this emphasis upon an imaginative duality of "worlds" to be odd considering the dominating emphasis of Scripture upon restoring this present world. And so, even the concept of "dual worlds" seems, in my mind, to be misplaced and even unnecessary. Second, such a duality of emphasis is not the way John uses the term "world" all throughout his own gospel, nor is that the way Jesus used the term in the immediate context surrounding His discussion with Pilate. 

As we saw a couple posts earlier, Jesus' discussion with Pilate takes place in the center of a much larger narrative, in the center of chapters 18 & 19. In the preceding pericope, Jesus uses similar language, arguing before the High Priest, saying,  "I have spoken openly to the world. I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together" (18:20). Here, I think it is clear that "the world" is intentionally parallel with those meeting places of Jews. Jesus began with a reference to the world, but he clarifies further about where in "the world" and to whom in "the world" he spoke publicly. He spoke "in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together." In fact, as far as John's gospel is concerned, there are very few places where Jesus is not found teaching Jews, speaking in "the world" of first century Judaism. John's gospel just so happens to be the only gospel in which the majority of Jesus' ministry takes place in Jerusalem, and I find it incredibly unlikely that John's audience would not have noticed that. All three synoptic gospels portray Jesus teaching outside Jerusalem and finally traveling to Jerusalem at the very end of His ministry. But John portrays "the world" in which Jesus ministered very differently. In John's gospel, Jesus is portrayed as "tabernacling" among His people in "the world" of Jews, especially in the world's capital, Jerusalem. And in John 18:20, Jesus describes this ministry, primarily located in Jerusalem, and more broadly with Jews, as speaking "to the world." In my mind, "the world" to which Jesus made reference about the origin of His kingdom is directly connected with a very Jewish cosmos.

But still there are those who may argue differently, insisting that I'm missing the point (or some excuse like that). A few recent examples come to mind, actually. Not too long ago, an acquaintance of mine told me that Jesus' kingdom does not presently reign over this fallen world, but instead consists of some qualitatively different reality, a reality that is "heavenly" and reigns over a qualitatively different "world" (whatever that means). One result from this view is that our citizenship in Jesus' kingdom consists of this same duality, a duality which does not actually reign over this fallen world. Indeed, through such a view, the kingdoms of this world are presumed to not become subservient to the Kingdom of our Lord, which seems to me to conflict with the dominating themes of Scripture that speak of dominion and victory in and over this world for the people of God.

In another recent discussion, a christian man told me that Jesus' words to Pilate about His kingdom were referring to where Christians ought to focus their attention at all times. He even went so far as to say that Jesus' words are "all the support needed for where our concern should be." In other words, he believed that according to Jesus' words to Pilate, and only Jesus' words to Pilate, Christians should be concerned with things going on in a location that is not "of this world" (ek tou kosmou). Of course, I questioned the arbitrariness of that interpretation. As far as I understood things at that time, I considered Jesus words to be very similar to words which He has spoken just a couple chapters earlier, in His high-priestly prayer. In John 17:14-16Jesus referred to Himself and His disciples in a similar way as He did with His kingdom before Pilate. There His disciples are said to be not "of the world" (ek tou kosmou). I interpret that as meaning of a "wordiness" akin to the Jews who repeatedly rejected Him throughout John's gospel. Certainly what Jesus did not mean was that His disciples were not located within this present fallen world. That would be absurd because Jesus was in this fallen world as He prayed that prayer. And also, He couldn't have meant that His disciples were to have no direct transformational influence upon this present fallen world, because in the very next verses Jesus prays that they would impact the world in which they are sent. Jesus says, "Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth." Whatever kind of "world" we think Jesus was sending His disciples into, whether it's a particularly Jewish territory antagonistic to Jesus' message or a region encompassing all the earth, Jesus' point remains the same: He sent them into the "world" to have a transforming affect upon it. The earthly emphasis of Jesus is really difficult to avoid, especially given the much larger context of John's gospel. 

But still some might say, 'Well, what about Philippians 3:20, in which Paul says that "our citizenship is in heaven"?'

To answer that question, I will link to a blog post of John Barach which begins with a lengthy and helpful quote from N.T. Wright, and then follows through with some further thoughts about "citizenship in heaven." That blog post can be found here. Enjoy.

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