Jesus cited the fact that His disciples were not fighting for His self-defense as the proof that His kingdom was not of this world. When Jesus was facing trial before Pilate as a suspected Jewish revolutionary, Pilate gave Jesus a chance to explain His actions. In response, Jesus didn’t simply proclaim “My Kingdom is not of this world”; He pointed to the non-violence of His servants as proof to substantiate His claim.
Two thousand years later Jesus’s kingdom is still not of this world. But can we prove it like Jesus did? Can we still point to His disciple’s refusal to fight to bear witness to this fact?
Therefore Pilate entered again into the Praetorium, and summoned Jesus and said to Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Are you saying this on your own initiative, or did others tell you about Me? Pilate answered, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests delivered You to me; what have You done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My Kingdom is not of this realm.” Therefore Pilate said to Him, “So You are a King?” Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” – John 18.33-37
What Did Jesus Mean By “Not of This World”?
A commitment to nonviolence is at the heart of Jesus’s definition of His Kingdom. Of course the differences between the Kingdom of God and earthly kingdoms go far beyond whether or not the servants of those kingdoms fight or not. There are many ways in which the Kingdom Jesus preached is “not of this world.”
- Their source of authority is different. Earthly kingdoms are led by men, while Jesus’s kingdom has its authority in heaven.
- Their ability to influence the behavior of their citizens are different. Earthly kingdoms seek to reform behavior by use of outward force, while Jesus’s kingdom seeks to inwardly transform hearts.
- Their boundaries are different. Earthly kingdoms are divided by geographic or racial boundaries, while Jesus’s kingdom is universal in nature.
- Their source of power is different. Earthly kingdoms look to the power of the cross (or other weapons used to impose the threat of death), while Jesus’s kingdom looks to the power of the cross (i.e. the willingness to submit to death).
But of upmost importance, we must not miss the one key difference that Jesus actually points to in His answer.
- Their response to evil is different. “If my kingdom were of this world, then My servants would have been fighting”
When Jesus used the phrase “of this world” He was not speaking of the geographic location of His kingdom, but rather He was referring to the world’s way of doing things. For example, Jesus said He came to testify against “the world” because its deeds are evil (Jn. 7.7). Elsewhere John would say, “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 Jn. 2.15).
The contrast between “of this world” and “not of this world” is referring to a worldly way of doing things and a Godly way of doing things. The commitment of Jesus’s followers to nonviolence is at the heart of this difference.
Jesus Proved It. Can We?
Jesus didn’t just claim that His Kingdom was not of this world. He pointed to the observable fact that His servants were not fighting as proof.
If my kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.
Just a short time earlier He has rebuked Peter when Peter attempted to come to his defense (Jn. 18.10-11).Had Peter, or any of the other disciples been fighting at the time, Jesus’ claim would have been completely meaningless. Can you image Pilate’s response if such had been the case? “What do you mean your Kingdom is not of this world!? Then how do you explain the actions of your disciples!?” But as it was, Jesus’ disciples were not fighting, and Jesus’s teaching stood with the weight of observable truth.
Did Jesus Really Teach Non-Violence?
Did Jesus really teach that his disciples should totally and universally reject fighting? Or did Jesus teach that His disciples should refuse to fight in limited situations, while acknowledging the right of the sword to earthly kingdoms?
The argument goes something like this:
“When Jesus said, “If my kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting”, he acknowledged the right of worldly kingdoms to use violence. By implication, if He and His servants were defending an earthly kingdom, then they would be fighting. Fighting in defense of earthly kingdoms should therefore be seen as at least permissible, and possibly even necessary. As Christians, we are subjects of the kingdoms of this world (Rom. 13.1). Therefore while it is never right to fight for the sake of His non-worldly kingdom, Christians may fight to defend the kingdoms of this world.”
I know of many faithful Christians who sincerely strive to rightly divide the Scriptures who have arrived at an understanding similar to this. In fact, I myself once held to this limited nonviolence view, and I did so with a most sincere faith. The considerations I wish to offer must not be read as “judgmental” towards anyone who holds that view or had acted upon that view. I wouldn’t want to have my faith unfairly judged by any of my brothers or sisters, and I assure you, that is not the intent of these considerations. Due to my belief that my Christian brothers and sisters who hold this view do so out of a love for truthfully understanding Scripture, I invite you to wrestle with some of these objections.
If you can answer these objections with satisfaction, you will continue to hold your view with even more confidence. If such is the case, I hope you will share with me your counter-objections so that I too can continue to strive for a better understanding.
If perhaps you cannot think of a good answer for these objections, for the sake of truth, I hope you will continue to ponder and meditate on these verses with a humility that will accept whatever truth is to be found therein.
- Jesus did not express approval for fighting for earthly kingdoms
The argument is based upon an unproved assumption: that it is right for all servants of worldly kingdoms to fight for those kingdoms. The argument acknowledges that it would be wrong to fight for the kingdom of God. In this argument, the rightness or the wrongness of fighting depends on the nature of the kingdom being defended.
However, if the text is studied carefully it is seen that Jesus was making a clear distinction between the nature of His kingdom and the kingdoms of the world, between the servants of His kingdom and the servants of the Kingdoms of the world. He simply stated, without approval or disapproval, the recognizable fact that servants of earthly kingdoms fight for those kingdoms, while His servants were not fighting for His kingdom. If it is right to fight in the defense of worldly kingdoms, that position must be proved elsewhere in Scripture. It cannot be assumed from John 18.36.
- The servants of Christ of whom He spoke were also subjects of an earthly kingdom
The argument holds the position that Christians are right to fight for earthly kingdoms because of their dual citizenship and dual allegiance to both the kingdom of God and to their earthly government. Therefore since they are in both kingdoms, they have responsibilities towards both kingdoms. Just as Christians stand in defense of the Kingdom of God, so they should also stand in defense of their earthly kingdom.
Yet we must remember that the non-fighting servants of Jesus also had earthly citizenship in the nation of Israel, yet they still refused to fight. They were “in the world” (Jn. 17.11), but they were not “of the world” (Jn. 17.16). The distinction between Jesus’s servants and the servants of earthly kingdoms remained despite the fact that they were subjects and servants of an earthly kingdom. If we were to draw any implications from Jesus’s words, we must say “The servants of the kingdoms of the world (with the exclusion of Jesus’s servants, who though “in the world” are not “of the world”) fight for those kingdoms.”
- The thing that makes Jesus’s kingdom “not of this world” is the character of the servants
We cannot say that it is wrong to fight for the kingdom of God because of its spiritual nature, but it is right to fight for earthly kingdoms because of their physical nature. When Jesus drew a distinction between His kingdom and worldly kingdoms, the distinction did not rely on the nature of the kingdoms themselves, but rather on the nature of the servants of those kingdoms.
The spiritual nature of God’s kingdom does not prevent anyone from fighting for it. Theoretically, if someone decided to use violence in defense of the principles of God’s kingdom, they could. They could easily pick up a gun and fight against someone in the name of defending spiritual principles of justice, righteousness, feeding the hungry or limiting the spread of evil in the world. In fact, people fight for Godly ideals such as these all the time. That doesn’t make it right, but it is certainly possible to fight for the principles and ideals of the kingdom of God. The nature of the Kingdom of God and its spiritual principles does not prevent anyone from fighting for it, except to the extent that its nature has changed the nature of its servants.
Christians love their enemies (Mt. 5.43-36), leave judgment to God (Rom. 12.17-21), pursue “peace with all men” (Heb. 12.14), and follow in the nonviolent steps of Christ (1 Pet. 2.21-24). This character does not change when they are called to defend a kingdom of an earthly nature. That is because their commitment to Christ never changes. If anything, they see the threat of earthly enemies as an opportunity to make the distinction between earthly kingdoms and God’s kingdom even more profound.
Jesus’s kingdom is not of this world. Can we prove it?