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The kingdom and the world – Part II (not of this world)

July 18, 2011

Part I is here.

Now, while Jesus’s kingdom is not from this world (18:36), it is not the only thing that is not from this world. Let’s look at some of the other things that are “not of this world” (8:23, 15:19, 17:14,16) in order to get a better idea what the phrase means. First, Jesus himself is also “not of this world”!

He said to them, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. (John 8:23, ESV)

Now, since Jesus is “not of this world”, the phrase cannot mean “non-physical”, since Jesus took on a physical body but was still “not of this world”. Furthermore, the phrase cannot be a way of describing eschatalogical realities that are attainable only in the future, since Jesus wasn’t in the future when said it.

Instead, the verse proposes a dichotomy or contrast between “the world” and “above”: Jesus is not “of this world” or “from below” because he is, instead, “from above.” (Oddly, the ESV translates the preposition “εκ”as “from” in “from below” but as “of” in “of this world”.) The contrast between Jesus and the world appears throughout the gospel of John. For example, in the prologue, John writes:

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. (John 1:9-10, ESV)

In several other places, Jesus is characterized as “from above”, or “from heaven” (6:42), which both mean “from God”. This is one of the major points of John chapter 6, where Jesus says:

For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (John 6:33, ESV)

Furthermore, Jesus not only came from God, but was also sent by God (3:34) into the world. As he says later,

“I came from the Father and have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father.” (John 16:28).

Therefore, the fact that Jesus is “from above” means more than simply that Jesus was a good person: even John the Baptist, who was a prophet, is described as “of the earth” (εκ της γης) and “speaks in an earthly way” (3:31). In contrast with Jesus, who comes from God, other human beings all have a different origin and speak differently: they are said to be “of this world” or “from below” (8:23).

(As an aside here, it may also be worth pointing out that “heaven” does not refer to a non-physical place. The base meaning of the world is simply “the sky”, but if I understand correctly, the word was used as a kind of positive euphemism for “God’s dimension”, or simply God himself. Thus, John the Baptist points out in John 3:27 that one cannot receive even one thing unless one receives it “from heaven”. Here this doesn’t indicate the place of origin so much as the person of origin, namely God. In fact, just as in Matthew’s gospel, which tends to say “kingdom of heaven” where Luke says “kingdom of God”, you can often, but not always, simply substitute the word “God” for the word “heaven”. Try it out! For example, in Matthew 21:25, Jesus asks the Pharisees if the baptism of John comes “from heaven or from man”.

Now, since God created the earth and directs it, we would be misunderstanding these passages if we assume that God’s place was less real or important than the earth. In fact, by being the only one who has come from the Father – from heaven – and can return to Him, Jesus promises to forge a way by which we too can gain access to the Father (John 14:1-6). He thereby offers us a life that is not less real, but more real than the limited physical life that we already have, in that the kind of life Jesus offers lasts forever.)

Anyway, I think this adds one more stepping stone towards understanding what it means that Jesus’s kingdom is “not of this world”: it’s from God, instead. Like Jesus, Jesus’s kingdom is from outside the world, and breaks into the world. Because its from outside the world, it seems reasonable to expect that it might operate differently than kingdoms that are from inside the world.

One Comment leave one →
  1. David Russell Hamrick permalink
    August 10, 2013 8:15 am

    Thanks for these observations. A lot of people (myself included) tend to quote this verse to support a particular point of view, so it is always worthwhile to reexamine more carefully what the words mean. This was a good use of the larger context of John’s language.

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