Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, but it is the destiny of all things.
One of Jesus’ most famous statements, a statement that has resonated through centuries of church-state relations, was his declaration “My kingdom is not of this world.” The declaration has been variously interpreted throughout history. One of the worst interpretations was the idea that the kingdom of Christ has nothing to do with the physical creation but is all about “heavenly” – read immaterial – things. Yet in context it is clear that what Jesus is saying is that his kingdom is not from this world, and that it does not operate like the kingdoms of this world. The Roman governor Pontius Pilate had just told Jesus that “Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me.” Jesus interprets his own words: “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” (John 18:35-36)
The kingdom of God does not work in the way that ordinary human kingdoms do. It does not use the sword nor does it rely on any other means of coercion. It does not set its sights and goals in light of temporary things that decay or rust. Whatever some Evangelicals may say, one cannot build furniture or institutions or nations “fit for the kingdom.”
But that does not mean the kingdom of Christ has nothing to do with this world, as if Christians will be removed from it and taken to a heaven where they float around fixated on their beatific vision of God and oblivious to their bodies, their fellow human beings, or the things that God has created. No, as Paul makes clear in Colossians 1:15-20, when Jesus died and rose from the dead he reconciled “all things” in heaven and on earth – the same all things that he created. Nothing in this world has its existence apart from Jesus.
That is a staggering thought. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer brilliantly wrote in a Nazi prison shortly before his death, this means that Christians can no longer view anything in the world apart from its future reality in Christ. The world separated from Jesus is an abstraction without existence in reality. Rebellion and the curse have a passing, fleeting ‘existence’, but that is only because of God’s loving forbearance. In preaching and witnessing to the Gospel, we are calling our neighbors to participate in the future of the creation, lest they face God’s judgment in eternal destruction instead.
We have to learn to escape the false dichotomy of making the kingdom so much about the things of this world that we make the world’s methods for transformation our obsession, on the one hand, and the temptation to view the kingdom as so otherworldly that we focus simply on souls in abstraction from the bodies, communities, and struggles within which they live, on the other. The Gospel should not be politicized according to temporal goals and aims, but it does bring redemption to every aspect and every element of our existence. Christ’s kingdom is not of this world and for that very reason it is the hope and future of the world. That is the Good News.