A Political Jesus
The first words Jesus uttered in his public ministry were political: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). Today, we don’t always see this clearly because we think in terms of ‘nations’ and ‘governments’ and ‘democracies.’ But the ancients didn’t think that way. If you were a first-century Jew, listening to Jesus by the Sea of Galilee, and you heard him say, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near,” you wouldn’t assume he was speaking about some far-off, immaterial ‘Heaven’ that we’ll experience when we die. You would have thought, this guy is a revolutionary.
And he was. Though not in the way they were expecting.
Those first-century Jews were expecting a warrior-king in the same vein as David who would come, defeat the Romans in battle, and reestablish Israel as an earthly kingdom centered around Jerusalem. Even Jesus’ disciples assumed this was the plan and asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).
But Jesus didn’t intend to reestablish national Israel. He didn’t intend to reestablish any kingdom based on the pattern of Babel.
Jesus was doing something entirely new.
Watch Out for the Ditch on Both Sides of the Road
Unfortunately, some Christians have understood this fact but taken it to the other extreme by spiritualizing everything in the New Testament. In particular, they’ve seized on Jesus’ conversation with Pilate recorded in John 18.
It’s here that he tells Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36a). They’ve assumed that since Jesus said his kingdom was not “from this world” or “of this world”, as the KJV translates it, then that means it doesn’t intersect with this world. But Jesus uses a Greek preposition here that implies belonging or origin. He’s not denying the political nature of his message. He’s only making clear that the Kingdom he is establishing is fundamentally different from all of the other kingdoms and nations of this world.
This is all the more obvious if we keep reading their conversation, “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36b). Jesus is drawing a stark contrast between the two kingdoms. If he was merely establishing another kingdom like Babel, his citizens would fight because that’s what Kingdom of Darkness citizens do. But Jesus’ Kingdom doesn’t gain or maintain power through fighting, killing, or conquest. It conquers through sacrifice and love.
Likewise, if his kingdom was a purely ‘spiritual reality’ then his disciples wouldn’t be called to nonviolence. They could keep one foot in their earthly kingdom and one foot in the heavenly – and never the twain shall meet.
So, the truth isn’t on either extreme. It’s somewhere in the middle. Jesus wasn’t going to reestablish another kingdom like national Israel. Ultimately, that would have been another kingdom in the vein of Babel – a kingdom that exercised power through force. But neither was Jesus talking about a purely ‘spiritual reality’ that had little bearing on a person’s existence now.
Jesus was establishing a true kingdom – just as real today as any modern nation-state – but it is a kingdom that is fundamentally different from all other nations in origin, function, and end.
The Political New Testament
And it wasn’t just Jesus who spoke in political terms.
In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul uses language that mocks the Roman propaganda of his day – drawing an implicit contrast between the Kingdom of Darkness as manifest in Rome and the Kingdom of God as manifest in the Church.
In addition, Paul told the Ephesian Gentiles, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:19). The word ‘citizens’ here was usually used to refer to someone who belonged to a particular city or nation. In Ephesians, Paul is making clear that, through faith, the Gentiles have been fused with faithful Israel into a “new humanity” (Ephesians 2:15). The Gentiles have been made citizens in the Kingdom of God.
Or consider his declaration that God “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.”
Paul uses the phrase ‘Kingdom of God’ – a very politically charged term – throughout all of his writings.
In addition, the author of Hebrews boldly declares that we, as Christians, have come “to the city of the living God”, “to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” and to “a kingdom which cannot be shaken” (Hebrews 12:22, 23, 28). All of these are phrases which point to the political reality of God’s Kingdom. Note also that the word ‘enrolled’ is usually used to refer to a census or registration of a nation’s citizens.
Peter speaks in political terms when he says, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). I would say that Peter couldn’t make his view clearer here, but he does two verses later: “I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11). Peter describes the Christian as belonging to a completely different order than the rest of the nations. And he reminds his readers that, as long as they find themselves in any earthly nation, they will remain aliens and exiles there – again, political terms.
Finally, John writes in the Revelation that Jesus, the “ruler of the kings of the earth…loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God” (Revelation 1:5-6). But he doesn’t stop there, he goes on to write, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15). This is one of the most politically charged statements in all the Bible. John is claiming that God’s Kingdom is going to defeat and consume all of the kingdoms of this world (i.e. nations).
So, What Does It All Mean?
What am I really getting at?
If what I’ve written over the past couple of blogs ( America, A Christian Nation? , American Babylon ) is true and America, like every other nation in the world, is simply another manifestation of the Kingdom of Darkness then our citizenship in God’s Kingdom has huge implications for how we live as ‘Americans.’
Over the next few posts, I want to explore what our citizenship in God’s Kingdom really means and how it should impact our lives.