My kingdom is not from this world.
The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over
them are called benefactors. But not so with you.
Luke 22:25 – 26
For the church to be a community that does not need war in order to give
itself purpose and virtue puts the church at odds with nations. . . . The battle
is one we fight with the gospel weapons of witness and love, not violence and
Hauerwas and Willimon
Shortly after Jesus’ arrest, Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (John 18:33). To be a king, one must have a kingdom — a king’s domain — and Pilate wanted to know if Jesus thought the Jews were his domain. It was a straightforward question, requiring a simple yes or no.
But Jesus, typically, did not give the expected response. Rather, he told Pilate that his kingdom “is not from this world” (John 18:36).
Pilate assumed Jesus’ kingdom could be understood on the same terms as every other earthly kingdom — along geographical, ethnic, nationalistic, and ideological lines. But he was mistaken. Jesus’ kingdom is radically unlike any kingdom, government, or political ideology in the world. To appreciate Jesus’ radically unique kingdom, we need to know about the worldly kingdoms it stands in contrast to.
Wherever a person or group exercises power over others — or tries to — there is a version of the kingdom of the world. While it comes in many forms, the kingdom of the world is in essence a “power over” kingdom. In some versions — such as America — subjects have a say in who their rulers will be, while in others they have none. In some versions, subjects may influence how their rulers exercise power over them — for example, what laws they will live by — while in others they do not. There have been democratic, socialist, communist, fascist, and totalitarian versions of the kingdom of the world, but they all share this distinctive characteristic: they exercise “power over” people.
I refer to the power that the kingdom of the world wields as “the power of the sword.” I’m not referring to a literal sword necessarily — though that has often been true — but rather, to the ability of those in power to inflict pain on those who threaten or defy their authority. The power of the sword is the ability to coerce behavior by threats and to make good on those threats when necessary: if a law is broken, you will be punished. Of course, the laws of the different versions of the kingdom of the world vary greatly, but the raised sword behind the laws gives them their power, and that keeps every version of the kingdom of the world intact.
Though all versions of the kingdom of the world try to influence how their subjects think and feel, their power resides in their ability to control behavior. As effective as a raised sword is in producing conformity, it cannot bring about an internal change. A kingdom can stipulate that murder will be punished, for example, but it can’t change a person’s desire to murder. It may be that the only reason a person refrains from killing is because he or she doesn’t want to be imprisoned or executed. Their motives may be entirely self-serving. The kingdom of the world doesn’t really care, so long as the person conforms to the law. Laws, enforced by the sword, control behavior but cannot change hearts.
The “power over” that all versions of the kingdom of the world exercise is not altogether bad. Were the world not fallen, the threat of the sword would be unnecessary. The sword is part of our common curse, yet God uses it to keep law and order in the world. For this reason, followers of Jesus are to be obedient, as far as possible, to whatever government they find in power over them. The apostle Paul puts it this way:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted [tetagmenai] by God. . . . Rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. (Rom. 13:1, 3 – 4)
The government “does not bear the sword in vain,” therefore, for it is a divine means of keeping fallen people from wreaking havoc on each other. God’s intent is to use any given “power over” government as his “servant for . . . good.” This doesn’t mean that worldly governments are created by God or that governments always use their God-given authority as God intended — as though Hitler and Stalin were carrying out God’s will! Paul rather says that God institutes, directs, or stations (tetagmenai) governments. John Howard Yoder’s comment is insightful:
God is not said to create or . . . ordain the powers that be, but only to order them, to put them in order, sovereignly to tell them where they belong, what is their place. It is not as if there was a time when there was no government and then God made government through a new creative intervention; there has been hierarchy and authority and power since human society existed. Its exercise has involved domination, disrespect for human dignity, and real or potential violence ever since sin has existed. Nor is it that by ordering this realm God specifically, morally approves of what a government does. The sergeant does not produce the soldiers he drills; the librarian does not create nor approve of the book she or he catalogs and shelves. Likewise God does not take the responsibility for the existence of the rebellious “powers that be” or for their shape or identity; they already are. What the text ays is that God orders them, brings them into line, providentially and permissively lines them up with divine purpose.2
As he did with nations in the Old Testament (for instance, in Isaiah 10), God uses governments as he finds them, in all their ungodly rebellious ways, to serve his own providential purposes. As Paul describes in Romans 13, this general purpose is to preserve as much law and order as is possible. Insofar as governments do this, they are properly exercising the authority God grants them and are, to that extent, good.
Because of this good function, disciples of Jesus are commanded to “honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17) and live in conformity to the laws of their land as much as possible — that is, insofar as those laws do not conflict with our calling as citizens of the kingdom f God (Rom. 13:1; Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:13 – 17; and specifically Acts 5:29). Whether we find ourselves in a democratic, socialist, or communist country, we are to pray for our leaders and seek to live in peace in that country (1 Tim. 2:1 – 3). We are, in a word, to be good citizens of whatever version of the kingdom of the world we find ourselves in.