A Kingdom Not of this World
Series: The Gospel of John
We’re all prone to see our own little worlds as a really big deal, but Jesus calls us into not only a bigger and better world, but a kingdom that is not of this world at all.
The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary), D.A. Carson
Expository Thoughts on the Gospel According to John, J.C. Ryle
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I’ve taken a break from social media this year, but I still remember a tweet I read from Jackie Hill Perry, an author and artist, sometime before I got off, with a video and the word “y’all too sensitive.” She said in the video, “If I were to just tweet that the grass is green, people would reply saying, “Not all grass is green. Some people have brown grass. What about them?” When we get caught up in our own little world, our own little world starts to seem like a really big deal, and every perceived threat in it starts to feel like a really big deal. So our baseline level of stress is high, and it doesn’t take much to set us off, whether that be snapping at those closest to us in anger, or spiraling into anxiety about worst case scenarios that are very unlikely to happen. In the section of the Gospel of John we began looking at last week, Jesus is heading to his death. It’s not unlikely to happen; it’s guaranteed to happen. And it’s not a peaceful death; it’s death on a cross under the wrath of God. Yet he’s not panicked, and he’s not fighting back, because his deepest reality is not in his own little world. In fact, it’s not in this world at all, and yours doesn’t have to be either, because Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. In this passage we’ll see that it’s the kingdom of truth, and the world doesn’t want it.
It’s the kingdom of truth
Our story picks up after Jesus has been interrogated by the High Priest. They take him to the house of the governor, Pontius Pilate, but they themselves don’t go in, so that they won’t be defiled, and thereby be unable to eat the Passover. The Passover meal proper had passed already at this point, but the Feast of Unleavened Bread continued for 7 days after it, and the whole event was colloquially referred to as the Passover. There was a tradition at that time that if you entered into the house of a Gentile, a non-Jew, it would make you ceremonially unclean, and therefore if they had entered into Pilate’s house, they would not have been able to eat that day’s feast. Notice the irony. They are handing over the Son of God, the promised Messiah, the one who was their true King, to be crucified, while they made sure not to contract some kind of ceremonial impurity, so that they could still successfully participate in the ritual of the Passover.
Often when people, Christians or non-Christians, think of the world in rebellion against God, they imagine very irreligious people, people who would never set foot inside the door of a church building. Certainly such people exist, but the Bible also teaches us that some of the most wicked people are very religiously observant. We see that clearly here. I think of the end of the first Godfather movie, where scenes of the Corleone family executing their enemies are interspersed with scenes of them going through various rituals at the Roman Catholic church of which they were a part. The priest must be holy, of course, but then, the thinking goes, as long as I go through the priest’s rituals, his holiness will kinda cover for all the ways I’m actively disobeying what God commands. Drug dealers in the neighborhood prey on the weak to get them hooked on drugs, order violence or personally engage in it, but then donate a part of their profits to their church. Perhaps more common is the person who gets drunk and engages in sexual sin on Saturday night, then comes to church Sunday to cleanse their conscience while planning to engage in the same sins later that day. So much of religion in the world serves not so much to make people righteous, as to make them feel righteous, while they live unrighteously. Jesus’ kingdom is not of that world. You aren’t fooling God. Jesus is the truth, he came to testify to the truth, and he knows the truth about you. No ritual can change that.
But these servants of the High Priest were not of the truth, so they took Jesus to Pilate, and Pilate asked them what the charge against Jesus was. They don’t really answer the question, so Pilate tells them to take Jesus themselves and try him by their own law. They say they can’t put anyone to death; at this point in the history of the Roman Empire, only the Romans could try capital crimes. John adds that this was to fulfill what Jesus had said about how he was going to die. Jesus said he would die by being lifted up, and it was the Romans who had the authority to order him to be lifted up on a Roman cross to receive the death penalty. Most kings look to be lifted up on a throne, but Jesus refused when people tried to do that to him, and instead planned to be lifted up on a cross, because his kingdom is not of this world.
So Pilate enters his headquarters again, calls Jesus in, and Jesus goes. Pilate then asks him if he is king of the Jews. Apparently Pilate had heard this charge against Jesus, and a bit of background will help here. The Jews of the day hated Jesus because he claimed to be the son of God, a claim they saw as blasphemous, and we see that in this passage in 19:7. But Pilate doesn’t care about blasphemy; that’s a Jewish law. So the Jews make their case to Pilate in a different way: This man claims to be king, and any claim to be king is a claim that competes with Caesar, the head of the Roman Empire’s, claim to supremacy. It was even the common confession of the Roman world that Caesar is Lord. So Pilate asks Jesus if he is king of the Jews, but Jesus can’t answer that question in a straightforward way. On the one hand, yes, he is a king, but on the other hand, no, because his kingdom is not of this world. And that’s what he tells Pilate in verse 36.
If his kingdom were of this world, Jesus says, his servants would have been fighting, that he might not be handed over to the Jews. If you’re part of a kingdom of the world, you don’t let your enemies just take your king. Like, in a game of Chess, that’s how you lose. We saw last week in the passage just before this one, how one of Jesus’ disciples swung his sword at one of the officials who had come to take Jesus, but Jesus rebuked him, told him to put his sword into its sheath, and no other of his disciples have fought to prevent his being taken. So Jesus is saying to Pilate, “Look, if you’re worried about me messing up Caesar’s chess game, don’t be. I’m playing a different game.” Jesus’ kingdom is not advanced by the sword. There have been times in the history of the world where people have tried to advance their own power interests under the name of Christ, and have used the sword to do it. In the so-called “Holy Roman Empire,” if you conquered a new tribe, and you wanted it to get along with your tribe, you’d force them all with the threat of death to say they were Christians, and then tell them they all had to get along because they all worship the same God. This is one of the reasons the Bible is such a gift to us. We can compare those actions to what is clearly revealed in Scripture and see how far from Jesus’ own teaching on his kingdom they are. Jesus’ kingdom is not advanced by his servants fighting.
On some level, then, Pilate and Caesar had nothing to fear from Jesus. When he was questioned about paying taxes to Caesar, he told his disciples to do it. Citizenship in Jesus’ kingdom is not inherently opposed to citizenship in an earthly kingdom, because his kingdom is not of this world. When Jesus trained his disciples, what did he train them to do? Did he teach them how to obtain positions of power in the Roman Empire, change the laws, and hatch a coup against Caesar? No. He seems totally uninterested in such things. He taught them to do good works, he taught them the truth about God, about man’s condition, about the way of salvation. And in this world, even if it means his crucifixion, he doesn’t fight back. Taxes, titles, earthly victories, the very things with which the kingdoms of this world are consumed, just don’t seem to weigh very heavily on the scales for Jesus. Again, he doesn’t fight them; he says pay your taxes, and even in this passage, he cooperates with the process. His interaction with Pilate later in the passage displays this posture well. There’s a time he doesn’t answer Pilate, and Pilate is kinda like, “Hey, I can like, kill you. You better answer me.” But Jesus says in verse 11 of chapter 19 that he’d have no power unless it were given him from above. So what’s Jesus saying there? Not that Pilate doesn’t matter at all, not that we should become bad citizens of whatever earthly kingdom we’re part of, but that there is another kingdom that matters more, that is not of this world, that empowers a kind of healthy apathy regarding the kingdoms of this world.
It’s kinda how we felt as a church during the mask mandates. Some of us were very passionate about the importance of mask wearing, others were very passionate that we should not have to wear masks, but most of us felt like, “Oh right, the mask thing,” because the main thing we wanted to do was gather to hear the word of God, to address one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, and to have a space where unbelieving people could hear the preaching of the gospel. Our allegiance to Jesus’ kingdom should enable us to be basically compliant citizens because we just don’t care as much about the things the world cares about. In most cases, governing officials shouldn’t be groaning about the Christians. In most cases, they should feel like, “Oh good, here’s a group of people who are basically going to abide by the law, do good to their neighbors, not steal, not destroy property, not instigate violence, pay their taxes, and so forth.” Now, of course, if a government becomes significantly corrupt, if it engages in oppression of its citizens, Christians can and should stand against that, and the government may not like them in that case. And if you’re a professional lawmaker, you need to apply the Lordship of Jesus to your work, which means you will at points disagree with the world. Those of us who are American citizens have a role to play in government, and we can’t leave our faith in Jesus behind when we do that. So there are ways to qualify this, but big picture, if your hopes and joys in life rise and fall with who wins elections or which laws get past, if what really gets your juices flowing is beating the liberals or beating the conservatives, you’re missing the nature of Jesus’ kingdom. It’s not of this world.
So what is it, then? Pilate asks for clarification: So you are a king? Jesus kinda says, “Sure, if that’s what you want to call me. But this is how my kingdom advances: I bear witness to the truth, verse 37. And here’s how subjects are added: Those who are of the truth listen to my voice and become my subjects.” Jesus’ kingdom advances, then, not by the sword, but by the proclamation of the truth. That’s what Jesus came to do. It’s a rule in the present age, not over physical space, enforced by a physical sword, but over the hearts of people whose allegiance is to the truth, the truth to which he came to bear witness. Jesus came to bear witness to the true God and to the true condition of man. He testified against the world, that its works were evil. He told them that they were slaves to sin and that they must be born again. He told them that God had sent him to lay down his life and take it up again, so that whoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life. He said that he was the bread of life, the light of the world, the way, the truth, and the life. And those who loved the truth, who wanted to live in accordance with it, listened to his voice and followed him.
In saying, then, that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, it does not mean that we are to be passive in this world. Jesus was not passive in this world; he willingly came to this world, in order that through him the world might be saved. He bore witness to the truth in this world, and he has given his Spirit to his church, in order that we might bear witness to the truth in our generation. We do that when we come together and confess the great truths of our faith together, when we sing the truth together, when we proclaim the truth of His Word in the preaching of the Word, when we invite others to hear that, and when we proclaim it ourselves to others in our neighborhood, over lunch, in our workplace. The truth we bear witness to is ultimately the truth concerning Christ, the truth of salvation in his name, and the kingdom we call people into is a kingdom not of this world, an offer not of power and a crown in this world, but of service and a cross in this world. Consider, then, how this should affect both your aspirations and how you handle disappointment in this world. There are the selfish, worldly aspirations of a prestigious title in your company, the fancy house, and the great vacations. If those things seem like a big deal to you, consider: Why don’t they seem like a very big deal to Jesus?
Consider even the better, more selfless, but still this-worldly aspirations: To solve gentrification, restore public sexual morality, abolish racial injustice, eliminate abortion, end poverty. Everything I’ve just listed is a good thing, and a worthwhile aspiration, but none are ultimate, and none can be simply identified with Jesus’ kingdom, because they are all, ultimately, “this world” goals, and Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. We cannot say, then, that the church needs to be doing these things at the expense of bearing witness to the truth. It’s possible to give good solutions to the world’s problems, but still have your agenda fundamentally set by the world. We cannot let the world dictate to us what’s important, because we are an embassy of a kingdom that is not of this world. The world finds things like evangelism, conversions, baptism, sanctification, worship gatherings, prayer meetings, spending time with that member of your church others seem to ignore, taking that suffering member a meal, sending missionaries, and listening to sermons boring. We must not let them become boring to us. They’re unimpressive to the world because they are works of a kingdom that is not of this world. Our aspirations, however, should be directed by this kingdom that is not of this world.
And that can also, then, temper our disappointments. When we see evil continue in this world, we should not rejoice in it. In fact, we should fight it by bearing witness to the truth, speaking the truth, living in accordance with it, and calling others to the one who is the truth, Jesus Christ. We do that insofar as it is the agenda of our king, not because the world tells us we should be. But we also recognize that because his kingdom is not of this world, we don’t expect evil to be eradicated from the world until this world is eradicated, and his kingdom comes down to remake this world. So though we fight ongoing evil with the spiritual weapons he’s given us, and though we grieve its ongoing presence when we see it, we do not grieve as those with no hope. The kingdoms of this world are fleeting, but we are citizens of a kingdom that is not of this world. And that helps even when the disappointments are less significant, when it’s just the job you didn’t get, the life plans that didn’t go the way you’d hoped, the problems with your house. My wife and I always try to remember when we have house problems, that one day, the whole house is coming down. That’s where this world is heading, but we have a kingdom that is not of this world. So what do we need to do? We need to keep believing the truth that is in Jesus, and to continue faithfully bearing witness to it in the world, whatever the cost. And there will be a cost. Precisely because Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, precisely because it is the kingdom of truth, the world doesn’t want it.
The world doesn’t want it
You might think that wouldn’t be the case, given what we’ve said thus far, right? You wouldn’t think Jesus would be hated, right? I mean, what’d he do after all? He healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, made a lame man walk, fed 5000 people with a few loves of bread and fish, turned water into wine at a wedding (who wouldn’t like that guy), and even raised the dead. Now here he is, in front of a Roman government official, basically saying, “Hey look, I’m not trying to fight against your government. You can have this world.” And yet, throughout this passage we see evidence after evidence that the world really, really did not like him, and our passage ends with this very Roman official handing him over to be crucified.
We see it in Pilate’s response to Jesus’ statement to bear witness to the truth. You might think he’d say, “Oh good; I’m glad you aren’t here to overthrow the Roman Empire; you’re just here to tell the truth. Could you teach me what’s true?” Instead, he dismissively responds, “What is truth?” in verse 38, and after he says that, he simply goes back outside. This is still the response of many today, especially the wealthier members of society. They hear Christians claim to bear witness to the truth, and they don’t so much level objections against it; they simply dismiss it. What is truth, anyway? The Christians say one thing, the Muslims another, the Buddhists another. Even within Christianity, Protestants say one thing, Catholics another. So they go on never committing to any truth outside themselves, simply knowing “their own truth,” living in the comfortable world of, “we can never know,” a world so comfortable because it means I can always act on my desires; there is no truth that imposes itself on me. But disagreements about the truth do not prove that the truth cannot be known. Jesus’ promise, in fact, earlier in John 8, was that if you abide in his word, you will know the truth. Don’t take the lazy way out. Jesus came to bear witness to the truth. Seek the truth, and he will show it to you.
We see another evidence that the world doesn’t want Jesus’ kingdom in the response of the Jews to Pilate when he goes back out to them and tells them that he found no guilt in Jesus. He offers to release Jesus, but instead they ask for Barabbas to be released. Barabbas was a robber, and the word there indicates that he was more of an insurrectionist, so probably a violent one. Crime in general is something most people don’t like, but violent criminals are especially opposed most of the time. Wouldn’t you feel safer in your neighborhood if you knew a violent criminal was behind bars? Yet they would rather have a violent criminal released than have Jesus released. They feel safer with him than they do with Jesus. Why? Because, in a very important sense, they are more like him than they are like Jesus, and by nature, we all are too. Jesus wasn’t trying to overthrow the Romans, Jesus wasn’t trying to take up arms and fight anyone, he was a threat to no one’s physical safety, and in fact, he did good to everyone he met. But there was this one thorny feature of Jesus: He told the truth. And that means he testified against the world, that its works are evil, as Jesus said in John 7:7.
Now think about that: If you are evil, but you don’t want to admit it, who would you rather hang out with? The person who is going to tell you you are, or another evil person, who kinda makes you feel comfortable with the evil in you? Who do you fit in better with? The people chose Barabbas because the people were Barabbas, and so are all of us by nature. By our first birth, we are born into this world, not the kingdom that is not of this world. That’s why we’d rather hang out with other sinners than with the person who will tell us we are sinners. The difference, then, between those who follow Jesus and those who reject him, between the church and the world, between those Jesus says are “of the truth” and those who are not, is not that one is sinful and one is not, nor even that one is the “religious type” while the other is not. Remember in this passage we’ve already seen that the religious types were the ones handing over Jesus to be crucified. They’re just as much of this world as the irreligious types. The difference, then, is between those who are willing to admit the truth of their sinfulness, and those who insist on denying it entirely or covering it up with religion. So later in a letter John wrote, he says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).
But the truth to which Jesus came to bear witness was not only the truth of our sinfulness. It was also the truth of the love of God for a sinful world, a love that moved him to give Jesus on our behalf, so that we, though sinful, could be forgiven. And we see it here in what he is willing to go through on our behalf. The servants of the high priest wouldn’t enter Pilate’s house because they didn’t want to become unclean, but Jesus, the one who was truly clean of all sin, willingly went into Pilate’s house and became unclean for us. The crowd wanted Barabbas instead of Jesus, and Jesus willingly gave himself up to death, while Barabbas went free, so that we, who are so like Barabbas, could go free. The Roman soldiers mocked Jesus, and put on him a crown of thorns and a purple robe. And he who was truly their king willingly wore that crown to bear their sins. Multiple times, despite Pilate’s half-hearted attempts to let Jesus go, the crowd yells, “Crucify! Crucify!” and as we’ll see next week, Jesus was willingly crucified for them.
So this is not the guy who tells you you’re evil and then oppresses you for it. This is the guy who tells you you’re evil and then dies in your place to set you free from your evil. So what’s stopping you from admitting the truth of your sinfulness? Jesus is the ultimate truth, and he came into the world to save sinners. Believe in him, and he will forgive your evil, and set you free from it. This death we are reading of is a death he died to do just that. What would stop you from believing in him? I’ll close with two things we see in this passage that stopped the world from believing in him, even as he prepared to give himself up for the world. The first we’ve already alluded to and see it in verse 7: The Jews finally tell Pilate their charge against Jesus: He has made himself the Son of God. Certainly simply calling oneself a son of God could not be considered blasphemous; the Jewish scriptures themselves refer to the Davidic king that way. But they recognized what any honest listener to Jesus must recognize: When Jesus called himself son of God, he wasn’t just claiming to be a son of God. He was claiming to be the Son of God, one in being with the Father, the only begotten Son, and in so doing, he was claiming to be God, a claim they considered blasphemous. But he really was God, so of course the claim wasn’t blasphemous. Why, then, the hatred? Because religious types don’t really want the real God. The real God is a God you must love and obey; he’s a God with authority over you. Religious types don’t want that. They want to keep doing what they want to do, and they want the idea of a God with some rituals to help them feel good about it. Jesus wouldn’t do that, so they didn’t want him. And as long as what you really want is to feel righteous more than you want to be righteous, to live in your constructed world rather than in the true world, you won’t want Jesus, the true God, who came to bear witness to the truth. Let go of that, and come to the truth.
Pilate, on the other hand, sought to release Jesus, verse 12 tells us, but ultimately didn’t. Why not? Because the Jews scare him. They say in verse 12 that if he does this, he’ll be an enemy of Caesar, and this is another reason you might not come to Jesus, or that those of you who are in Christ might be tempted to wander from him. You want to fit in with the powerful in this world, and Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. It doesn’t make you a jerk to those people, but those people may choose to be jerks to you, and they have power in this world. If you believe the truth of Jesus, you must then bear witness to that truth, and sometimes simply publicly professing your faith in Christ, identifying yourself as a Christian, can lead to the powerful and even those closest to you rejecting you. But if Jesus really is the truth, don’t keep living a lie just to please them. Believe the truth and bear witness to the truth to them in hope that they too will believe. Bear witness to the truth when you see corruption among the powerful, even when it costs you. Bear witness to the truth about the sins of the world, even those the world is intent on affirming them. That’s where we often find ourselves today, right? The world hates Christians often not because Christians are violent and threatening toward people, but because Christians are simply willing to tell the truth about sin. When that happens to you, bear witness to the truth of forgiveness of sins in Jesus as well, and set your hopes on a kingdom that is not of this world. Submit to its king; don’t get bogged down fighting the kings of this earth. We have a better kingdom, the kingdom of truth, the kingdom over which Jesus is king, and it’s only that kingdom that will never be shaken.