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The kingdom and the world – Part I (world)

April 18, 2011
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In attempting to determine what the “kingdom of God” means, we must consider John 18:36:

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. 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.” (ESV)

But what does it mean that Jesus’s kingdom is not “of this world?” Is it merely an otherworldly or “spiritual” kingdom? Is there another world in view – perhaps the “next world” or the “spiritual world” or the “other world”?

N. T. Wright thinks that Jesus’s kingdom is “for” this world, even though it is not “of” it. In support of this view, he claims that the translation of John 18:36 should read “not from this world” instead of “not of this world.” Why might this be? The phrase in Greek is “εκ του κοσμου τουτου (“from the world this”), where κοσμος is the source of our English word “cosmos”. The middle two words “του κοσμου” (“the world”) are in the genitive case and, if they occurred by themselves, could be translated as either “of the world” or “from the world”. But the preposition “εκ” is supposed to clarify this and means, roughly, “from”. Thus far N. T. Wright and, I think, basic Greek.

However, a more thorough examination might be enlightening. To begin with, what does “world” mean? And what does Jesus mean by speaking of “this” world? A lightning overview of what the gospel of John says about the world helps to clarify this:

  • God made the world (1:9-10), loved the world (3:16), and sent his Son into the world (6:14).
  • Jesus takes away the sin of the world (1:29), is the Savior of the world (4:42), gives life to the world, is (or was) the light of the world (8:12), and seeks to save the world (12:47).
  • The world does not know God (1:9-10), has sin (1:29), hates Jesus (7:7), cannot receive the Spirit of truth (14:7), hates Jesus’s followers (15:18), has Satan as a ruler (16:11), rejoices at the death of Jesus (16:20), is a place of trouble and suffering for Jesus’s followers (16:33), and is not large enough to contain books describing every one of Jesus’s works (21:25).
  • Jesus is not of the world (8:23), he came into the world (9:39), he tells the world what he heard from his Father (8:26), has judged the world (12:31) by casting out its ruler (16:11), and has overcome the world (16:33). He is no longer in the world (17:11) but has sent his followers into the world (17:18).

We see here that the world can refer to the universe or cosmos created by God, but that it refers more frequently to the humans who inhabit that cosmos and the world order that they (or their “ruler”) have created (See 1:10). These verses do a great job reflecting the strange tension between God and the world: the world rejects God, but God loves the world.

Interestingly, John speaks of “the world” in about 57 verses. In about 10 of these, he adds “this” in addition to “the”, but there is no difference in meaning. In fact, the phrase “this world” refers to the same thing as the phrase “the world”. For example, in John 15:19, Jesus speaks about “the world” and “this world” quite interchangeably; the ESV simply doesn’t translate the word “this”. Furthermore, in John, there is never any mention of “the other world” or “the next world” or “the spiritual world”. Therefore, I think that the word τουτου (this) serves at most to emphasize that the world is here (i.e. “this here world”) and does not serve to indicate which world is being referred to. I hope this puts to rest any idea that there is a contrast in John between two worlds, the physical world and a non-physical “spiritual” world. In John there is just one thing called “the world”.

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