Not that kind of king: reading about the kingship of Jesus with John Howard Yoder

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May 16, 2013 by jmar198013

Pilate went back into the palace. He summoned Jesus and asked, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

Jesus answered, “Do you say this on your own or have others spoken to you about me?”

Pilate responded, “I’m not a Jew, am I? Your nation and its chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?”

Jesus replied, “My kingdom doesn’t originate from this world. If it did, my guards would fight so that I wouldn’t have been arrested by the Jewish leaders. My kingdom isn’t from here.”

“So you are a king?” Pilate said.

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. I was born and came into the world for this reason: to testify to the truth. Whoever accepts the truth listens to my voice.”

“What is truth?” Pilate asked.

. . .

It was about noon on the Preparation Day for the Passover. Pilate said to the Jewish leaders, “Here’s your king.”

The Jewish leaders cried out, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!”

Pilate responded, “What? Do you want me to crucify your king?”

“We have no king except the emperor,” the chief priests answered.

. . .

Pilate had a public notice written and posted on the cross. It read “Jesus the Nazarene, the king of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city and it was written in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek. Therefore, the Jewish chief priests complained to Pilate, “Don’t write, ‘The king of the Jews’ but ‘This man said, ‘I am the king of the Jews.’’”

Pilate answered, “What I’ve written, I’ve written.”

(John 18.33-38; 19.14-15, 19-22 CEB)

The nature of the kingship of Jesus, especially in regard to Jesus’ statement in the reading above: My kingdom doesn’t originate from this world (older translations have not of the world), has long been a source of perplexity for the church; both in terms of our account of the person and work of Christ and in what we apprehend the social role of the church to be. We suppose that Jesus means that he is a “heavenly” king whose primary business is, I suppose, forgiving our sins and making us feel better about ourselves. Or something. Words like “heavenly” and “spiritual” are typically just catch-alls that we use to sum up things we really don’t understand. I am afraid that we have failed to parse out what Jesus meant when he said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” He means that it is not from the world, not a product of it, and that his kingdom does not function according to the assumptions of the kingdoms of earth. What he assuredly did not mean is that there is a sharp distinction between heaven and earth so that his kingdom is “invisible” and therefore has no visible exercise of Christ’s kingship in confrontation with the world. I am afraid that this misguided understanding of what it means for Jesus’ kingdom to be “not of this world” has led many Christians down the cliched path of “too heavenly-minded to be of any earthly good.”

Misunderstanding Jesus’ claim to kingship as an entree to antisemitism (not to mention heresy and pride)

It is also the case that the widespread conclusion among us that Jesus is some sort of “heavenly,” cosmic ruler on a “spiritual” plane has been the grounds of Christian antisemitism. For we conclude that the Jews were stupid for expecting an earthly Messiah; the unspoken subtext is, had we been there, we would have been smart enough to figure it out. Which more-or-less is antisemitism bound together with gnosticism by a cord of arrogance. John Howard Yoder presents the familiar scenario as follows:

I suppose that most of your background reading and thinking and listening to Sunday School teachers about the hope of the Jews has assumed that the Jews were wrong. Jews usually are wrong in those takes on the story. They wanted a king and Jesus did not want to be a king. He had to struggle and struggle with them to get them to see this point. Finally they killed him for refusing to be the king they wanted. Well, that may be understandable on the Sunday School level, when you have to use words with the meaning that they have for your audience, but if we want to read the biblical literature properly, that is a backward use of language. Jesus did not say he did not want to be king. He said, “I want to be this kind of king.” (In Preface to Theology: Christology and Theological Method [Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2002], 245-46)

We tend to get that Jesus didn’t want to be king in any conventional way, and we fault the Jews for not apprehending this. We tend also to talk, however, as if Jesus’ “heavenly” (as opposed to earthly) kingdom was a completely novel concept. In which case, it’s kind of silly to suppose the Jews were being stupid and obstinate in their hesitancy about and subsequent rejection of Jesus’ mode of kingship. As we shall see, however, Jesus’ description of his kingship was based on concepts that were not novel for the Jews at all. But before we can fully appreciate why this is so, we have to come to terms with a problem that distorts our reading of the text. Namely, that we have bought into a vision of heaven and earth that is not biblical.

Heaven and earth as God’s history and ours

We Christians have unfortunately tended to buy into an account of what is heavenly and what is earthly that is, in fact, corrupt from a biblical standpoint. The historical contingencies that explain this problem are too complex to unpack in this venue. Suffice it to say, we have oversimplified things. What we have done, historically, is to take “earthly” as synonymous with “physical” and “heavenly” as synonymous with “spiritual,” and drawn a sharp, oppositional relationship betwxit the two. We denigrate the earthly stuff–the stuff of time and place–and magnify the heavenly stuff–the stuff of a hidden eternity. We then conclude that when Jesus said that his kingdom was “not of this world,” he meant something essential but vague about something outside of our reality. I would go so far as to argue that we assume Jesus was saying that his kingdom is an ahistorical  one that does not exist in our places and times, but lies somehow outside them. I think this is a grave error. Again, Yoder:

Characteristic of most biblical language with regard to hope, rule, and the passage of time is a strong emphasis on the meaningfulness of the historical process. This is significantly different from the Platonic worldview in which time is a disadvantage. There, the eternal is genuine . . . Essential reality is the nontemporal, therefore the most essential hope is a nontemporal hope, so it is rather crude to talk about the Christian hope or about the passage of time. Really we want to get out of this time scale into eternity where there is not any time scale . . . [W]e . . . will no longer be temporal when we are free from our bodies and time and enter into eternity. Time really does not matter. It is part of the prison in which humans are lost . . . Alternatively, the Bible tends to speak of temporality and sequence continuing even beyond the present world . . . The dead also wait for history to reach its conclusion. In Revelation 6 we have a picture of the martyrs. What are the martyrs doing? They are not already rejoicing in the heavenly throne room. They are not already sharing in the glories of heaven. No, they are under the altar . . . Those who have died in the faith still wait until the number of their fellow servants is complete. So the meaning of time is so important that we cannot even accept the . . . assumption that when you die you become eternal. No, when you die you are still temporal. You are still waiting for the world to be brought to God’s purposes. No one enters into this fulfillment until the entire universe enters into it . . . Time matters. The historical process matters. It matters so much that even those who are no longer in it still wait for it. (Preface to Theology, 249-50)

There is a dichotomy between heavenly and earthly, but it does not consist of rejecting time and place for an eternity outside of our time. When Jesus says his kingdom is “not of this world,” he meant not that it was “heavenly” and therefore unbounded by the petty trifles of concrete history, but that his kingdom rejected the earthly or worldly modes of authority and dominion, namely violence and coercion. This is why he followed his claim that his kingdom was not of this world with the statement that if his kingdom were of an earthly or worldly origin, my guards would fight so that I wouldn’t have been arrested. He didn’t say, “My kingdom is not of this world. My kingdom is beyond this time and place, in a heavenly eternity.” Okay, look–such a statement might have gotten Jesus laughed out of Pilate’s living room. It would not have gotten him killed. 

Someone may ask, “Why is this important?” It’s important on a couple of levels. One is historical. If Jesus was just some dude proclaiming a a sort of Platonism in Jewish terms, he might have been a curiosity, but it wouldn’t have gotten him killed. And certainly if that were the case, we couldn’t fault his fellows for rejecting him. But our understanding of Jesus’ kingdom as “not of this earth” is even more important on the practical level. In the face of the violence and deprivation, injustice and general meanness that obtains in this world, Christians are often prompted by their fellows not to resist these evils and witness to a better way, but to “look away beyond the blue” to their “mansion just over the hilltop.” We are told that, “this world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through.” These are really just crude ways of talking about being freed of our bodies and our place and time to enter the “heavenly” or eternal realm. We become, again as the old cliche suggests, too heavenly-minded to be of any earthly good. We assume that violence and injustice are simply part of living in the world, and it is a waste of time doing much about them because, after all, this world is not our home, anyway. This is a lie that has been fashioned for us by the powers that be to keep us compliant and out of their way. For they have learned that killing us only raises sympathy for our plight after a while. So this is how they co-opt us so that we are not a threat. Then we are left saying extraordinarily dumb things like, “Jesus is king of my life,” while the world goes to hell in a hand-basket. I assure you, church, complacency is not what Jesus had in mind. And we also need to understand that our complacency in the face of evil is complicity with it.

Jesus’ kingship is exercised over history–the flow of actual events embodied in discernible time and in particular places. His kingdom may not be earthly, or “of this world”–but it is earthy, in that it interacts with and confronts the world and encompasses flesh-and-blood people in their places and times. The question of Jesus’ kingship is not whether it is “earthly” or “heavenly”–it is about heaven touching earth, insurgent, leaking into our times and our places. Jesus was not killed because he claimed to be king of some eternal kingdom beyond our time. That message is a threat to no one. He was killed because he exercised his kingship as a servant, and this way of being king exposed the powerlessness of those who believed that they ruled the world.

Jesus’ vision of kingship was not novel, but historical

Above we observed Yoder’s claim that,  Jesus did not say he did not want to be king. He said, “I want to be this kind of king.” I suggested that the “kind” of king he wanted to be was not an ethereal, cosmic king ruling only an eternal realm “out there.” No, his kingship is embodied in history and based on historical precedent. Furthermore, this precedent would have been well-known to most Jews living in Roman-occupied Palestine. Again, Yoder writes:

[T]he king of King God wants is a servant. Isaiah 42,49,52, and 53, say that the kind of king in whom God is pleased will bring God’s righteousness to the end of the earth. That is the language of Isaiah 42:

He will not cry out or lift up his voice. . . .

He will faithfully bring forth justice.

He will not fail or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth.

It is a political figure, a kind of king, but a suffering king. Of course, in the New Testament this came to be one of the most striking prefigurings of Jesus’ own servanthood . . . Jesus makes clear . . . that the coming king is the Suffering Servant. Yet he picks up the Messianic expectation. He does not tell the Jews, “You were expecting a king and you should not have because what you really need is something else.” No, he says, “You do right to expect a king, but expect a different kind of king. He claims that this is the fulfillment of the Messianic expectation rather than its rejection. He states that God will conquer, but not by restoring David . . . Jesus claims he fulfills the promises. He is the son of David. So Jesus answers the question, and does not dodge it, when he says, “The kind of ruler I came to be is the servant.” We have dramatic statements of this in Matthew 20 and Luke 22:

The kings of the nations rule over them,

but you shall not do that,

you shall be one another’s servants,

because I came as a servant.

This is a redefinition of the meaning of kingship. He did not say “king” is a bad word. He says it is a concept some people have misinterpreted . . . Jesus did not say he did not want to be king. He said, “I want to be this kind of king.” That fulfillment was relevant, for instance, to the Zealots who were looking for a king and from whose ranks he found many disciples. It involves a new way of living. In Luke 4, Jesus begins his public ministry by proclaiming, “The kingdom of God is at hand: now you are going to live differently. The law will be fulfilled–the law of jubilee. And this will mean you will handle money, sex and marriage, conflict, and power differently from the way people generally do.” The coming of Christ as King is the fulfillment of a social hope. (Preface to Theology, 244-246)

I find that one mistake we have made as the church is to assume that “the hope of the Jews” was a monolithic one. Sure, there were many who wanted to see a return to the Golden Age of Davidic dynasty in the form of a conventional monarchy. But there were also many who would have–and obviously did–recognize in Jesus the model of God’s king as Servant, as foretold in Isaiah. More to the point: many of those who expected Jesus to restore the Davidic throne in a literal sense were counted among Jesus’ disciples. And yes, they needed to have their concepts refined and redirected. But Jesus wasn’t telling them, “Oh, you know–my kingdom is really just a spiritual reality, out there in eternity, beyond this world.” No, he redirected them to see him as a servant in history. The people who killed him–Pilate and the high priests and the Jewish elite–did not do so because they expected him to restore David’s throne and he disappointed them. No, Jesus was killed by people whose hope was not the restoration of Israel, but merely to be comfortable and secure and get along.

The kingship of Jesus and the task of the church

Jesus’ form of kingship–the Suffering Servant–is meant to be expressed in the lives of his followers, in the life together of his church. This is one of the ways in which his reign is extended and confirmed. Yoder observes:

Jesus makes clear . . . not only that this is the kind of king he will be [a Suffering Servant] but that his disciples are to be this kind of servant as well. This is the way, not to renounce greatness, but to be great. “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave.” This is not a rejection of the vision of power that the Israelites had. It is a redefinition of it, and it is more than a matter of language. It also has to do with our contemporary discussion about the political. Did Jesus take a nonpolitical or apolitical position? Or did he take a properly defined political position? That he uses the word “king” and parallel terms, and then redefines them, seems to make it most appropriate to say that he tells us what a proper political position is, rather than that he takes an apolitical position. (Preface to Theology, 245)

In other words, when Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world,” he is not saying that he is king of an eternal, spiritual realm beyond our time, so we ought to just let go our discontent and wait patiently to go home. No! We have work to do, now. We have peace to make and forgiveness and reconciliation to proclaim. We have a world to serve. Whenever we are reconciled to those with whom we are in conflict rather than insulting and killing them; when we are faithful to our marriage covenants; when we tell the truth without equivocation; when we repay evil for good and love our enemies–all these practices of service Jesus called us to, what we are really doing is confirming by our lives that Jesus, the servant, is king. To proclaim that the Suffering Servant Jesus is king is a political claim–though one that runs counter to the assumptions of the kingdoms of the world. This is why Jesus said, My kingdom doesn’t originate from this world. Jesus was sent from heaven into the world to establish a kingdom within the world that lives in contrast to the kingdoms of the world. This is also a word of censure to those who want to somehow use the kingdoms of the world to advance the lordship of Christ through earthly means of violence and political coercion. Jesus is lord of history, but his kingship is in the form of a servant. He is lord of history, but he did not try to control the world during his time on earth. Neither should we. We are called to serve the world–not to run it.


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