NOT OF THIS WORLD
Friday, July 7, 1992
Location - FNCA 1992
The Bible in general and the Gospels in particular are read in many different ways. One of
the more prevalent and persistent in recent decades has been as a grounding for a concern
for social justice. There is ample material in some of the prophets, particularly Amos,
and certainly there are "anti-establishment" passages in the New Testament. We need only
look at the twenty-third chapter of Matthew. where the Lord accuses the scribes and
Pharisees of oppression and extortion, or to take seriously his association with the poor
and his scathing comments about the rich.
However, any efforts to make social justice a primary concern face serious difficulties.
Not the least of these is the fact that the Gospels do not record any concerted efforts on
the part of the Lord or the disciples to change the system, to overthrow the regime in
power, for example, or to set up a new regime. The closest things to political activism
are the triumphal entry on Palm Sunday and the cleansing of the temple, but the story
clearly indicates that the Lord deliberately refused to make political capital out of the
popular support he had at his disposal. This refusal is summed up in the statement to
Pilate from which my title is taken--"My kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36).
Before we look at this more closely, though, there is something I want to say about the
nature of the Gospels, and about their appropriate use. Thanks to computer technology, the
easiest way for me to do this is to lift most of a paragraph out of a lecture I gave here
in 1990. I was talking then about the early "Jewish Christians," the Ebionites, and their
understanding of Jesus' nature and mission prompted the following:
In fact, Jesus' contemporaries did not know what to make of him. The Gospels testify to a
wide range of opinions, ranging from the sublime to the demonic. The disciples were often
bewildered. In general, as Nicodemus expressed it, they knew (or at least suspected) that
there was some special divine presence involved because no one could perform such miracles
unless God were with him. In typical fashion, Jesus seems to have required even his
closest disciples to figure this one out for themselves. His followers went on trying to
figure things out after his death and ascension, and the history of the Christian church
is full of arguments about the nature or natures of the Christ. We should, I think, regard
the Gospels less as an explanation of the Lord's nature than as material to help us figure
it out for ourselves, less as a didactic treatment of the subject than as accounts of a
very confusing debate.
The history of the Christian church is full of attempts to get back to apostolic
Christianity, to recover a time when the faith was united and pure. Luther's "back to
Scripture" effort was one of the most notable of these, and Swedenborg apparently shared
in the common belief that "heresy" came in only as those who had known the Lord personally
died off. Then philosophical debates about the critical issue of divine and human aspects
of Jesus led to the formulation of creeds that reflected mortal incomprehension rather
than divine revelation.
There is ample evidence that there was no "time when the faith was united and pure." The
disciples were clearly confused during Jesus' lifetime. The resurrection was absolute
proof that this was a unique individual. but the equation of visible, tangible individual
with transcendent deity still was not easy. New Testament scholarship may well be correct
in seeing notions of the Jesus' divinity as gaining strength or even as first arising
after rather than during his lifetime. It is certainly easier for us to say that a remote
Jesus was God incarnate than it would be for us to say the same about someone across the
table from us at breakfast this morning. It was easier for Paul to see Jesus as
transcendent because he had never known him in the flesh, because he had had only the
numinous experience on the road to Damascus. For the twelve disciples, the greatest
obstacle to admission of divinity could have been the obvious physical presence. Once that
presence was gone, it would be easier to reflect on the qualities of soul.
In a small way, perhaps, this often happens for us when someone close to us dies. While
that individual is among us, we are preoccupied with the issues of daily living. This
individual is a little too talkative, or seems a bit distant, or is too conscientious for
our taste. Or perhaps this is someone we love and admire profoundly, who seems always in
demand. In any case, it is almost predictable that when someone close to us dies, we see
that individual's life in a new light. Little concerns fade away, and there is a kind of
big view--a panorama rather than a lot of close-ups.
A corollary of this is that we need not resist scholarly opinions about the gradual growth
of a belief in the Lord's divinity. First impressions are not necessarily more accurate
than later ones, and truth may indeed dawn gradually. Some things may come clearer only at
a distance, only with the perspective offered by the passage of time. Or to put it
negatively, later ideas are not necessarily worse than earlier ones.
Where does this leave us in regard to the "unworldly kingdom?" It leaves us with the
suspicion that we will not find in the Gospels definitive answers to our questions. The
Lord's nature and the Lord's mission are not separable subjects, so if the Gospels do
record a debate about the one, there will be at least implicit debate about the other.
The title "Christ" or "Messiah" means "the anointed one," and this was the title of the
king--the Saul or the David or the Solomon, or even the Jehoshaphat or the Ahab. As a
"king" is meaningless without a "kingdom," and as a "kingdom" is meaningless without a
"king," we cannot understand the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven apart from the
Messiah or the Christ, or the Messiah/Christ apart from that kingdom.
One thing is clear. The Gospel accounts present Pilate as concerned primarily with
political matters. As representing the interests of the Roman Empire, he bore the
responsibility of identifying threats to the government. When he asked Jesus, "Are you the
king of the Jews?", he wanted to know whether Jesus had aspirations to the throne. Jesus'
answer is in this respect perfectly clear, and is consistent with the rest of his life and
words. "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would resist my capture
by force of arms: but mine is not an earthly kingdom." He did not want political position
What we cannot do is move beyond this and claim that he was unconcerned with who did have
political position or power, or especially with how that position and power were used. We
cannot simply ignore the attention he paid to those in authority. "The scribes and
Pharisees sit in Moses' seat, so do everything they tell you to do; but do not follow
their example, because they are all words and no deeds" (Matthew 23:2ff.). "They are blind
leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, they shall both fall into the
ditch" (Matthew 15:14f.).
He spoke parables about the owner of a vineyard and the responsibilities of the men who
worked for him. Think for a moment how many of the parables involve servants--some unjust
or faithless, some diligent and faithful, but all under obligation to some ruler or
There is of course the famous "Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what
belongs to God" (Luke 20:25). This is in the same vein as his injunction to obey the words
of the scribes and Pharisees, even though their example was not to be followed. Once we
reflect on it, it reinforces the general impression that the Lord was less concerned with
who was in power than with how that power was being exercised.
This is precisely an issue of the relationship between the kingdom of heaven and the
kindoms of this world. Each one of us in "in authority" in some realm or other, however
small it may seem. That is, each one of us has decisions to make, and those decisions
affect both ourselves and others. How we exercise that authority depends on our own
Our theology sometimes puts this in terms of a struggle for dominion within us. In fact,
this is one of the first images it offers. When Swedenborg is giving his overview of the
creation story at the very beginning of Arcana Coelestia, he describes the sixth day as
The sixth state is when the person says what is true and does what is good from faith and
therefore from love. The things now brought forth are called the living soul and the
animals. And since the individual is then beginning to act from both faith and love, he or
she becomes a spiritual person, who is called an image [of God]. The spiritual life of
such a person is delighted and nourished by things related to insights of faith and to
deeds of compassion, which are called "food," and the natural life is delighted and
nourished by things related to the body and the senses. This results in conflicts until
love gains control, and the person becomes heavenly.
I would suggest that there is a very close connection between this passage and the notion
of "the kingdom of heaven." It is obscured by the usual translation, which states that
when love gains control, the person becomes "celestial." But the moment we realize that
"celestial" means "heavenly," we have here a statement that heaven is present when love is
in control. When love is on the throne, that is the kingdom of heaven.
This is the issue of our regeneration, and it is the issue of the Lord's glorification.
At the very center of our theology is the insistence that in the person of Jesus there
were two natures vying for dominance, and that through this struggle, through the "combats
of temptations," the higher nature took complete control. The lower nature, the human, was
not destroyed but glorified, with the result that our worship is directed to a "glorified
humanity." In this one instance, when love gained control as a result of the conflicts,
the person became not simply heavenly but divine.
If we take this for a moment as the background of Jesus' statement to Pilate, that
statement takes on new meaning. "My kingdom is not of this world" can be heard as a
statement that he is not ruled by worldly concerns. The worldly and the heavenly have been
wrestling with each other, and the heavenly has won. For Pilate, by contrast, the primary,
"ruling" concerns are worldly. Whatever may be his private priorities, in the exercise of
his office questions of political power come first. Whatever may by the quality of Jesus
as a person, if he has designs on those in office, he is a threat, an evil.
So when Pilate says, "I find no fault whatever in him" (John 18:38), he is not saying that
this is a man of blameless character, a paragon of virtue. He is saying simply that he
finds in him no evidence whatever of sedition or rebellion against the established regime.
He is not in violation of Roman law in this respect.
This is intriguing, because as far as the Jews were concerned, Roman law was unjust.
After all, Rome had conquered the land by force and controlled it through an army of
occupation. While a certain amount of religious freedom was allowed, the central
contention that God intended Abram's descendants to be a great (and obviously independent)
nation was, under Roman law, illegal. For Pilate to find no fault in Jesus is tantamount
to saying he found Jesus accepting this unjust state of affairs.
Let me put the issue as baldly as I can. There are clear indications in the Gospels that
Jesus did care about social injustice, that he was offended by the misuse of political and
economic power. There is a pervasive strand, then, that his kingdom was not "otherworldly"
in the sense of paying no heed to outward concerns. There are equally clear indications,
though, of a tendency to accept the hierarchy that was in place, to advocate civil
obedience even to officials whom he described as inwardly corrupt. They "sit in Moses'
seat," the seat of absolute authority (cf. Exodus 20:19, Deuteronomy 5:27f.), so do
whatever they command.
As I suggested early on in this talk, I do not think that we will find statements in the
Gospels themselves that will resolve this. The behavior of the disciples once they became
apostles is perhaps the clearest indication, the fact that they did not set out to
establish a new earthly regime, but there is always the possibility that they missed the
point, and their behavior was not so uniform as we might assume. For an appreciable time,
there was a bishop in Jerusalem, the beginning of a religious establishment intended to
replace the temple. This bishop was not one of the twelve disciples, but James, the
brother of Jesus. James was succeeded after his death by a cousin, who in turn was
apparently succeeded by another relative. There is a strong suggestion that the intent was
some kind of hereditary succession from the line of Joseph and Mary.
However, this movement was exclusively religious and explicitly non-political. These were
the Ebionites, the "Jewish Christians," and they took a negative view of the monarchy
itself. In their view, the generations between Moses and Jesus had added their own
traditions to the original law. They had instituted a monarchy in which the king became a
substitute for God. This idea has its roots in the past, and is clearly represented when
the people ask for a king and God tells Samuel, "They have not rejected you, they have
rejected me." In Ebionite tradition, Jesus is never referred to as the son of David, and
there is no hint of royal attributes. He is strictly and solely the new Moses--a leader
out of captivity, yes, but first and foremost a lawgiver. They took literally, though,
Jesus' statements about his imminent return, and expected him to take political control at
that time. They were not in the least "otherworldly" in this respect.
The Gospels can certainly be read to support this view. It is refuted not by any
particular verses, but by the inescapable fact that Jesus did not return and take
political power. It was this rather than any theoretical considerations that began to give
definition to the statement, "My kingdom is not of this world." The failure of Jesus to
return cut the ground out from under those who believed that the kingdom of God was about
to be established on earth, and correspondingly strengthened the position of those who
understood Jesus' mission as primarily spiritual. If you wish, we can regard this as an
instance in which things became clearer with the passage of time, in which the later
interpretation was the more accurate.
By no stretch of the imagination, though, can we claim that the overall direction of the
church was toward spirituality. Quite the contrary, most church historians would insist
that the church became so preoccupied with temporal power that it was seriously
compromised in its loyalty to the Lord's teachings. When Christianity became the official
religion of the empire, the situation was so radically different from that of the original
twelve disciples that it was doubly difficult to draw direction from the Gospels.
Elaine Pagels has done a characteristically delightful job of highlighting one major
aspect of this change. In Adam, Eve, and the Serpent she outlines very clearly how the
initial interpretation of the Adam and Eve stories had nothing to do with any doctrine of
original sin. Quite the contrary, the main message was one of human freedom and
accountability. Even in the Garden, in the very presence of God, Adam and Eve were free to
make their choice. They rebelled, and while they were punished, they were not destroyed.
As long as Christianity was being persecuted, Pagels argues, Scripture was interpreted to
support the right of the individual to make decisions. It was in that sense taken as a
textbook for civil disobedience. The villain of the piece was the secular, or rather
idolatrous, state, and it was the duty of the Christian to reject its claims on personal
But the moment Christianity became the religion of the state, any such interpretation of
Scripture became subversive. Augustine's radically new theory of opriginal sin was adopted
in considerable measure because it stressed the corrupt nature of humanity. Because of
original sin, people were constitutionally incapable of truly Christian behavior, and only
by yielding their own wills to the wisdom of the church could they be saved. The Bible
became a textbook for civil obedience.
Again, such a reversal of understanding is possible because there is no way to find a
definitive answer in the Gospels. They record a debate rather then a conclusion. While I
mentioned earlier that I believe Swedenborg was in error in assuming a primitive
Christianity where the faith was united and pure, this is simply a matter of history. In
what is much more important, in understanding how the debate can best be resolved, I think
he offers the only coherent way.
This is the way that sees the outward world as "secondary but essential" to the inward
one. It is secondary in that the spiritual world is the world of causes tnd the natural
world is the world of effects. It is essential in that as long as we are in it, it is the
arena of our decisions. We do not "regenerate" by mental concentration, but by behavioral
decisions. Our potential marriages of affection and thought become actual when they are
"ultimated" in deeds. The kingdom of heaven, which is the rule of spiritual concerns over
worldly ones, does not become actual in us except as it descends to earth.
Jesus' attitude toward political power becomes intelligible, and his various statements
become consistent, if we assume that he was concerned not so much with who was in power as
with what was in power within the people in power. This involves the issue I dealt with at
some length on Thursday, the issue of the hierarchy of our own loves. Love of self is hell
when it rules and only
when it rules. We don't often reflect on a corollary of this, namely that there must be
something like a love of the neighbor and a love of the Lord that still exist in us even
when love of self is ruling. They would be the loves that we exercise when they don't make
problems for us, or when they are actually to our advantage. They may even feel genuine.
In other words, the kingdom of hell is "not of this world," too, at least in one respect.
It is essentially not a particular set of acts, but a particular hierarchy of loves. At
the same time, it is a "worldly" hierarchy in that it sets selfish and worldly concerns
first. It is the hierarchy represented by Pilate's agenda--bearing in mind that this may
not have represented Pilate's personal priorities.
The Lord's kingdom, then, is "not of this world" in two respects. It is essentially an
internal hierarchy, and it is a hierarchy which sets the spiritual higher than the
natural. What is absolutely necessary beyond this is the recognition that any such
hierarchy is meaningless without the subordinate loves. Swedenborgians have resisted the
label "mystic" for Swedenborg in part because it connotes a kind of other-worldliness that
is directly contravened by the writings themselves. N. 528 of Heaven and Hell is perhaps
one of the more familiar statements of this principle:
Some people believe that it is hard to live the life that leads to heaven, which is called
a spiritual life, because they have heard that you have to renounce the world and give up
the desires people associate with the body and the flesh, and "live spiritually." All they
understand by this is rejecting worldly concerns (especially concerns with money and
prestige) and going around in constant devout meditation about God, salvation, and eternal
life, spending one's life in prayer and in reading the Word and devotional books. . . .
But people who renounce the world and "live by the spirit" in this way acquire a mournful
life, one that is not receptive of heavenly joy. . . . Rather, in order to be receptive of
heaven's life, we should by all means live in the world and be involved in its duties and
business. In this way, through a moral and civic life we accept a spiritual life. There is
no other way spiritual life can take shape in us, no other way our spirits can be prepared
One of the most distinctive features of our theology, one which we perhaps ignore by
reason of its familiarity, is the earthiness of Swedenborg's heaven. Our senses there will
be far more acute than they are here. Everything will be more solid, more vivid. Sights,
sounds, smells (and Swedenborg's spiritual world is full of "odors") and textures will be
richer both in themselves and in their meaning for us. I am more and more convinced that
this is of critical importance for our theology, and lies behind the wealth of "Memorable
Relations." It is one thing to understand doctrines about the Lord, the Word, and the
marriage of good and truth. This will be theoretical knowledge only until it dawns on us
that now and for eternity we are called to bring this knowledge down to whatever earth we
In the context of Pilate's question, the Lord's statement "My kingdom is not of this
world" is unambiguous. The risk is that we take the statement out of that context and use
it to escape from wrestling with the knotty problems of this confusing world. How do we
spend our time? What do we say to each other? What company do we seek out, and what
company do we avoid?
Browning wrote, "A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" That is,
if our ideals are not higher than our actual behavior, the prospects of growth are nil.
This is a necessary tension, part of that conflict between higher and lower that
Swedenborg noted at the outset of Arcana Coelestia. We can evade that tension by denying
the higher, yes, but we can also evade it by denying the lower. The Lord's kingdom is not
"of this world," but as long as we are here, it must for us be in this world, because if
it is not in this world now, it will not be in the other world after death.