Scripture can be dangerously misleading if we are ignorant of its meaning and context. Few passages have suffered from such ignorance more than John 18:36. Part of this misunderstanding is based on an unhelpful translation in the Kings James Version which reads, “Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world; if my kingdom were of this world, then my servants would fight that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but my kingdom is not from hence.’” The problem with this translation is the word “of” in the phrase “My kingdom is not of this world.” That is not what the Greek says. The literal translation of that phrase is, “My kingdom is not out of this world.”
But such an observation regarding the Greek preposition ek (which any first semester Greek student would immediately recognize) is helpful only when we take note of another word often ignored in interpreting this verse. That second word we must consider is “this.” What does “this” refer to in the sentence, “My kingdom is not out of this world”? The immediate context of this verse is Jesus’ trial before the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate. The “this” refers to the world as constructed by Rome, which Pilate represents.
Anytime we encounter the word “world” in the Bible we must make a decision as to how to translate and understand the term. “World” can mean the natural world or creation. Since we as humans are a part of that creation, the word “world” would include us. John 3:16 reads, “For God so loved the world. . .” “World” in the sense of creation is affirmed by the Bible as being a product of the will of God and good although suffering from transience and sin resulting from human idolatry and injustice. As Paul says in Romans 8, creation itself eagerly awaits its liberation from death and evil.
The second way the word “world” is used in the Bible would be better translated by what we today might call “system.” Some English versions use the word “system” to translate “world” in John 18:36. World as “system” can be good or evil in theory, but consistently the New Testament understands world as system to be evil, powerful, seductive, and pervasive. The Roman world represented by Pilate certainly had all four of those characteristics. The brutality and injustice of the Roman Empire enslaved the entire Mediterranean world. The arrogance and greed of Rome were sources of immeasurable suffering. The “haves” were a very small minority in this empire. The desperate “have-nots” were beyond calculation. And Rome undergirded its empire with lying propaganda, manipulated religion designed to maintain the status quo, false promises, and militant legions. Pilate, the symbol of this combine of institutional evil, had no possible way of understanding what Jesus could mean by a kingdom that was not based on the assumptions and practices of Rome. There had never been a kingdom that was not like the Roman Empire. As John the Seer in Revelation understood, Rome was only the current “incarnation” of institutional evil. There had been many before Rome, and there would be many after Rome which were all cut from the same cloth. The world has yet to experience a kingdom or empire that is substantially different from the addictive pattern Rome followed.
The Kingdom of God Jesus came to proclaim and incarnate was radically different from the “world” of Pilate and the “kingdom” of Caesar. A kingdom based on love, self-sacrifice, peace, justice, sharing, forgiveness, mercy, compassion, joy, and reconciliation was a non-starter and an impossibility for people like Pilate. It could not be conceived because it had never been witnessed. Jesus understood Pilate, but there was no way Pilate could even begin to comprehend Jesus and his Kingdom. Today, I’m not sure that many Christians in the U. S. (which is also an empire) understand Jesus and his Kingdom. Our empire has also seduced us into believing that its “kingdom” is, if not synonymous with, most often in harmony with God’s Kingdom.
All my life I have heard John 18:36 interpreted to mean that Jesus’ Kingdom is spiritual, and, therefore, the church should never become involved in anything that remotely resembles politics. I would suggest that a proper understanding of this verse says the exact opposite. Most of the time the system of any empire is inherently evil and opposed to God’s will for this world. Arrogance and violence have been the character of every empire in the history of the world. There may be fleeting moments when the glory of something good and helpful shines through the structures of the system, but inevitably every empire falls back into the default all other empires have practiced for over five thousand years. Jesus’ Kingdom is the radical alternative to the world as a greedy, arrogant, and violent system. Such a system must be exposed, challenged, and presented with Christ’s alternative. The reason Jesus was standing before Pilate in the first place was because he had exposed and challenged the system of his day and had presented an alternative that threatened Rome more than any violent revolt ever could. The question facing every generation of Christians is this: Does following Jesus include exposing and challenging the systems of this world while, at the same time, presenting a life-affirming and worthy alternative to this five-thousand-year failure of kingdoms and empires? In the present-day travesty and tragedy of the U. S. Empire, I doubt if there is a more critical question to ask or to answer with courage, faithfulness, and hope.
[John 12:31 reads, “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” In John’s Gospel, God “loves the world” as the cosmos of which humans are a part. But John’s Jesus also sees how the world has been co-opted by an evil system of which Rome is the current incarnation. The “ruler of this world” is an invisible force seen in the invisible values, assumptions, prejudices, arrogance, and greed which destructively take on flesh and blood in the cosmos God cherishes. This is what Jesus is referring to when he tells Pilate that his kingdom does not come out of this world.}