“My kingdom,” said Jesus, “is not of this world” (John 18:36).
It was good enough for Pilate, so, naturally, it belongs on a T-shirt like the one I saw at a Christian retail show.
The question is, do we know what these words mean?
For some, the phrase “not of this world” draws a line of demarcation between the “spiritual” and “secular” worlds. The assumption being that spiritual is good, while secular is bad.
A letter from the apostle John (the same John who recorded Jesus’ “not of this world” statement) is sometimes quoted in support of this idea:
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If you love the world, love for the Father is not in you. For everything in the world — the cravings of sinful people, the lust of their eyes and their boasting about what they have and do — comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.
Along similar lines, some think the phrase “not of this world” indicates a heavenly, eternal life — as distinct from this earthly, temporal life. Which may be why some Christians like to sing, “This world is not my home / I’m just passing through…”
But what if that’s not what “not of this world” means? What if this world is our home and we’re not just passing through?
Come to think of it, “the world” referred to by John has to be something different, unless the psalmist was wrong when he wrote:
The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it…
(Incidentally, Paul uses this psalm to argue that early Christians were free to eat meat sold at the public market — meat that likely had been sacrificed to a pagan god before being sold to the masses.)
The concept of separating sacred from secular (and spiritual from physical) is not new. During the early days of Christianity, it was called Gnosticism. The New Testament writers and early church fathers rejected this separation as heresy.
But there is an even older idea than Gnosticism; it’s the notion that God made the world good. It is as old as creation itself. In the opening chapter of the Bible, God sees that his creation is “good” not once, but seven times. In the Jewish context, the use of the number seven is anything but arbitrary. The number seven indicates that creation is good in a complete and total sense; it is exactly as God wants it to be. And no amount of sin and darkness can completely erase that kind of good — the kind that comes from an all-powerful, all-loving God.
If this world and everything in it belong to God, like the psalmist believed, then it doesn’t seem right to make a distinction between “sacred” and “secular.” It’s all God’s, so it’s all sacred.
So what does it mean to be “not of this world”?
Let’s go back to the context of John 18. What is Jesus talking about? His kingdom.
Who is he talking to? Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea.
What prompted Jesus to say his kingdom was “not of this world”? Pilate asked him if he considered himself king of the Jews.
What’s more, Jesus went on to say, “If [my kingdom were of this world], my servants would fight to prevent my arrest.”
For Jesus, the contrast is not between sacred and secular; it’s not between physical and spiritual. It’s between the powerful and the powerless. Between the violent and the nonviolent. Between those who rule at the expense of the poor and those who serve on their behalf. Between those who deify human power (as the Romans did with their emperors) and those who recognize God is the only one with any real power.
What makes Jesus’ kingdom “not of this world” is precisely the fact that his servants will not fight to prevent his arrest. They will not use their power against others; they will not resort to violence. They do not swallow the Roman ideology of “peace through victory” but instead pursue peace through justice, salvation, redemption, and mercy.
When John warns us against the love of the world and all that comes with it — the cravings of sinful people, the lust of their eyes, and boasting about what they have and do — maybe what he’s warning us against is the love of power. The addiction to our own self-importance and our ability to control others.
Maybe, in the end, we are called to love the world. Not the world as it is now, but the world as God sees it and means it to be.