God Save the Queen?
Here in Australia, the queen remains the official head of state. We’re technically a parliamentary constitutional monarchy (Say that three times fast!), but in actual fact, even lip service to the monarch is rare. We don’t even sing ‘God Save the Queen’ anymore and it wouldn’t surprise me if she forgot we were down here from time to time.
Most of us would say that ‘in this day and age’, the very notion of monarchs and kingdoms appears far too old fashioned to our ‘sophisticated’ mindsets.
Get With the Times, Jesus
So when Jesus talks about the ‘kingdom of God’ (and Jesus talks about the ‘kingdom of God’ a lot. Almost exclusively, in fact), we’re understandably mystified. Dealing in such crude and outmoded political concepts, Jesus is clearly out of touch with our enlightened democratic ideals.
We’ve therefore devised an elegant resolution to this dissonance: Jesus wasn’t talking about an earthly ‘kingdom’ at all! He had no interest in politics, either ancient or modern. He never envisioned that his kingdom should impact upon emperors, governments, or nations and their citizens. He was inaugurating a spiritual kingdom, or as some have put it, ‘a kingdom of the heart’, one that addresses our inner life and moral behaviour. And of course, he came to expedite our post-mortem trip to heaven, far away from this wicked world.
It’s a solution that yields two predictable outcomes:
This tidy compartmentalisation allows us to serve two masters, one civic and one sacred. We can pledge allegiance to a political establishment, a flag, or a constitution on the one hand, and confess complete loyalty to Jesus on the other without feeling conflicted. Nationalism and religious devotion can occupy the same space at the same time with minimal discomfort.
Membership in a wholly spiritual ‘kingdom’ lets us ignore the plight of the present physical world (Remember, we’re soon to be whisked away from this world anyway!). Problems of poverty, hunger, Third World debt, environmental degradation, and gender inequity, among others, are neatly boxed up as ‘left-wing political issues’ (not ‘Kingdom of God issues’) and discarded. We don’t have to concern ourselves with the wellbeing of our neighbours, apart from showing at least a few of them how to claim their tickets to heaven.
Not From the World, but For the World
This outlook on God’s kingdom seeks a scriptural foundation in John 18:36, a verse often translated ‘My kingdom is not of this world’. There it is! Just as we suspected, it’s not an earthly kingdom at all.
However, apart from ignoring the narrative setting of this verse (Jesus is here confronting Pilate, the representative of the ‘ruler of this world’), this translation fails to capture the essence of the Greek ‘ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου τούτου’. Jesus is essentially saying, ‘My kingdom doesn’t arise from the world.’ It doesn’t draw its power from the same source as the world’s kingdoms – but from a much greater source!
As N.T. Wright has wisely written about this passage, Jesus’s kingdom may not be from this world, but it is for this world.
Western Philosophy or Biblical Theology?
The whole concept of a divided ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’ is foreign to scripture. It’s the brainchild of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who found a renewed voice in the writings of the European and American Enlightenment. In classic Judaism, the separation of heaven and earth was the problem, not the answer to a problem. The biblical prophets dreamed of a future in which heaven and earth were united under the rule of YHWH, whose very real kingdom would ‘extend from sea to sea’ (Psalm 72:8, Zechariah 9:10), bringing true justice and peace to all peoples (Isaiah 2:2-4). And Jesus and his earliest followers continued in this eschatological vein.
In fact, those followers died for it – unless we think they faced martyrdom for teaching people to be good and telling them how to go to heaven. No, they stood boldly before the civic and religious leaders of the day and asserted that Jesus, crucified and risen, was now the one true ruler of the world. Their confession, ‘Jesus is Lord’, directly mimicked the standard pledge of the Roman world that ‘Caesar is lord’ and was therefore a revolutionary statement. And the Romans took great pleasure in violently punishing revolutionaries.
Yet they continued to follow their Lord’s command to pursue the kingdom* with everything they had. We too can take steps in this direction! The first witnesses humbly defied governors and emperors, because they refused to give their allegiance to anyone or anything but Jesus and his kingdom. Can we dare to do the same? These believers fed the hungry and served the poor, the sick, widows and orphans. We have the resources to do the same. They envisioned a kingdom in which citizen and foreigner, slave and free, rich and poor, female and male would all be equally welcome and empowered by the Spirit. It’s time we did the same.
And we can begin with the prayer that Jesus taught them (and us) to pray: Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
* Pursuing the kingdom does not mean ‘getting saved’. That interpretation makes no sense in the light of Jesus’ teaching on the subject.
- G. Younghusband; C. Davenport (1919). The Crown Jewels of England. (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
- My sons at the Magic Kingdom in Disney World, Orlando, Florida