The book of John is among one of four gospels in the New Testament, yet it is in a class of its own. While the other three gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are considered synoptic gospels, John is quite a bit different. John frames his gospel to accentuate various teachings not highlighted as much in the other gospels, particularly the teaching of the divinity of Jesus, the Christ. We get a glimpse of this elevation and framing from the very beginning of John’s gospel as we see Jesus, the Word, residing with God and creating the universe. John’s gospel is filled with this elevation and emphasis on the spiritual aspect of the good news of Jesus. While Luke is more the historian with his focus on eyewitness accounts and social/political defense of Jesus and the early church (see “World Upside Down” and “Interweaving Innocence” for discussions of Acts and Luke), John is more the theologian.
Perhaps one of the most beautiful theological exhibitions in the book of John is found in chapter 3. Of course we are all familiar with verse 16, but what concerns us here is not verse 16’s explanation of how our salvation obtains, but rather all that precedes the securing of salvation and instead answers the question, “what is obtained in our salvation?” Verses 3-7 are of particular interest here. They say,
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You[c] must be born again.’
The salvation we see Jesus obtain for us in verse 16 is salvation in that it procures for us entrance into the Kingdom of God by rebirth through the Spirit. We see this promise expounded upon later in John 14, where Jesus tells us that he will always be with us through his Spirit living in us, and through him we will do even greater works than Jesus. Jesus’s salvation offer, then, is an offer of the Kingdom of God by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, through a new birth.
I understand that none of this is likely new to most who are reading right now. However, understanding this “simple” teaching is going to be vital as we move into the crux of this piece. Therefore, I want to flesh out a few more things before moving on from simplicity.
What we see in John 3 is an elevation of the spiritual. This elevation of the spiritual must be distinguished from a denouncing of the physical. Denouncing the physical and elevating the spiritual are two very different things, but are often conflated. One of the most prominent early heresies in Christianity was gnosticism – this idea that the physical was bad. I am not arguing, nor is John saying that the physical is bad. John isn’t telling Nicodemus that he needs a new birth because his physicality is bad. But he is telling Nicodemus that the spiritual is superior. We know this because Jesus connects the Kingdom of God (v. 3, 5), seeing heavenly things (v.12-13), and salvation (v. 15-18) with a new birth that is spiritual (v.3-8). We can also see in other New Testament writings that Jesus had to humble himself to take on flesh (Phil. 2) and that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (I Cor. 15). The spirit is supreme.
Again, the spiritual being supreme does not mean that the physical is bad. God created humanity as physical beings and called his creation “good.” Likewise, we will have bodily resurrections. To be human is to be physical, and that is good. However, the physical component is a tool whereby we live out the spirit. If the Bible isn’t clear enough about this, we see it intuitively in regard to animals. Their physicality is beautiful, but because their souls are of a different kind, or because they don’t have souls, they don’t function as moral creatures who have relationship with God in the same way. Spirit is our connection to God, and our physicality is a tool – mind you, an integral tool – to live out who we are as God-breathed spirit beings called “humans.” We cannot divorce our physicality from our spiritual, nor can we call one component bad. But that doesn’t mean we must avoid creating a hierarchy between the two. We see that hierarchy in John 3, in the rest of the New Testament, and we understand it intuitively.
To help paint the picture more fully, let me refer to an early church document (late 2nd century) called the “Letter to Diognetus.” In this letter, the author says something which I think succinctly summarizes my point so far. He says, “[Christians] live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh.” The author goes on to explain how this governance of the flesh is accomplished by the soul. The body, for Christians, has been appropriately made subservient to the soul.
If you’re tracking with me so far, you’re probably on board with everything I have said, provided I sufficiently allayed your fears that I’m endorsing a gnostic heresy. We’re ready, then, to move deeper into the gospel of John, to the place where we see the Kingdom of God and the salvation envisioned in chapter 3 come to a head, as the ruler of the Kingdom of God comes face to face with a ruler of the kingdoms of man. In this encounter, Jesus declares that his Kingdom is not from this world (Jn. 18:36 NRSV). Unfortunately, Christendom has used this passage to produce a bastardized version of how we interpret the duality of the spiritual and physical, and I want to explore this bastardization now in light of what we have laid out from John 3, John 14, Philippians 2, I Corinthians 15, and the Letter to Diognetus.
Christendom has used Jesus’s spiritual attribution to the Kingdom in order to largely dismiss its implications for implementation. It has dismissed the reality of the Kingdom of God both implicitly and explicitly.
Implicitly, the Kingdom of God has been dismissed by a Christendom which interprets the Kingdom of God as being “of” another world, and therefore separate from ours, which in reality changes the preposition “of” to “for.” Jesus’s Kingdom living and prescriptions are of another world, and therefore for that other world and not for this world. Such an interpretation has given birth to the consequentialist, realist framework that Christendom has run on ever since. “Can I kill my enemy?” Here in this world and in this kingdom, yes. But never in God’s Kingdom over there. “Can I do some evil that good may abound, like in voting for a corrupt candidate who’s better than the other guy, or lying if it produces what I determine is a greater good?” Yes, I can do evil that good may abound in this kingdom, but I’d never do that in God’s future Kingdom over there. For Christendom and most Christian readers of John 18:36 today, God’s Kingdom is a future, spiritual kingdom which is divorced from present, physical application, except where we and our political party want it to apply.
Our actions prove that we implicitly interpret Jesus’s words as making the Kingdom irrelevant for our lives (at least where it’s convenient to make it irrelevant). But Christendom also explicitly interprets John 18:36 as making God’s Kingdom irrelevant. How is it that we uphold kings and presidents as legitimate rulers rather than usurpers of God whose power and foundation are Satan, the one who offered to Jesus these very kingdoms of the world? We do it because we declare Jesus’s words in John 18:36 as proving God’s kingdom is not a threat to Caesar’s Kingdom. We can serve God and mammon, Caesar and the Christ. Jesus proved the potential for this dual allegiance in John 18, Christendom says, in declaring that his Kingdom doesn’t conflict with Caesars because there is room for a kingdom in each world. Yet somehow nearly every Caesar and every ruler from Jesus until now has either sought to persecute Christians as a threat or co-opt them as a tool and prevent them from being a threat. Christendom explicitly interprets Jesus as making his Kingdom irrelevant for the kingdoms because we take the co-opting route and like the power of sword.
I told you earlier to make sure you grasped our less controversial discussion on John 3, so let’s connect John 18:36 back up with our earlier discussion. When we looked at the spiritual birth of John 3, we explained that this spiritual birth was supreme to the physical one. The physical birth is necessary and it is integral to who we are as humans, but the fleshly birth is a corruptible one which can’t inherit the Kingdom of God (I Cor. 15). Though the spiritual birth is supreme and what’s in view for our salvation and new birth, the spiritual birth cannot be separated or divorced from our bodies. Rather, the spiritual birth being of a supreme nature transforms the physical. It will not only transform our physical bodies to become like Jesus’s perfected body, the first fruits of our resurrection – but it also transforms our physical desires and actions now. This is why a new birth makes us new creations. It’s why James declares that physical acts of service and love will accompany spiritual rebirth. Though the physical and spiritual are distinct, and though the spiritual is supreme to the physical, yet you cannot have the spiritual rebirth without the physical birth. And when you do have a spiritual rebirth, the physicality of the person responds in accord with the new spiritual man.
It seems to me the same concept should carry over when we are interpreting John 18:6 as we use to interpret John 3:1-8 (born of the Spirit) and John 1:13 (children born of God, not of natural descent). God saves through spiritual rebirth which is from another world, yet this spiritual rebirth recreates and reshapes the physical. It forms that which is formless and void, and that which is saturated in darkness, into new creations formed by the light of the world – the light of all mankind – by his very Word. We get this theological truth when we see Nicodemus come to Jesus in the flesh. Why, then, when we see Jesus’s interaction with the kingdoms of the world – the kingdoms in the flesh – do we bifurcate the spiritual and the physical? Why is Jesus’s Kingdom that is from another world practically irrelevant in relationship to Satan’s kingdoms of the world?
No, Jesus wasn’t giving Caesar a head nod, telling him not to worry about any competition from Jesus. If we read John 18 like we read the rest of John and the rest of the New Testament, Caesar should have been shaking in his boots, for what Jesus was declaring was that his Kingdom was far more relevant and powerful than the physical kingdoms of the world. Jesus’s kingdom transformed the spiritual, which, in turn, terraformed the physical. The hearts and minds of the Kingdom of heaven were made new, which led the early church to make society anew as the Kingdom of God spread. Jesus’s Kingdom being from another world and of the Spirit made it more meaningful than Caesar’s. Jesus didn’t want to establish just another one of humanity’s authoritarian kingdoms governed by the sword. He established a Kingdom governed by the Spirit, formed by the testimony of Jesus which is the sword of his mouth, and built on the Word.
Just as it was good news to Nicodemus that the new birth was spiritual and he didn’t have to crawl up inside his mom’s privates again and be defiled, so the spiritual composition of the Kingdom is good news for us today. We don’t have to crawl all up inside the corrupt political structures of domineering, sword-wielding, consequentialism which lords power over others like Gentiles rather than being servants like Christ. Just as Jesus offered a new birth to Nicodemus, so can we be reborn without having to defile ourselves through compromise.
I want to close out this piece with an extended quote from the “Letter to Diognetus,” as I think a number of the ideas we have discussed are embodied in this excerpt. First, the author of Diognetus recognizes the supremacy of the soul/spirit and the subservient role the body plays. At the same time, the author recognizes that it is through our physical bodies that our souls engage the world. To simplify, the Spirit transforms our souls which reform our bodies and physical actions, and through our physical actions we touch other physical human beings whose souls are then touched through the reception of our service (Spirit –> our soul/spirit –> our physical actions –> another’s physical needs –> another’s soul/spirit).
Second, while Diognetus doesn’t explicitly touch on John 18, I would argue that he implicitly shows us how he viewed the Kingdom of God (and I’m also importing what I know his ante-nicene contemporaries believed). Christians are not citizens of Rome, but rather, citizens of heaven. There is not dual allegiance and the Roman kingdom is not left untouched by the Kingdom of God. Rather, the physical Roman kingdom is invaded by the Kingdom of God – the Kingdom which is from another world and spiritual. This invasion of the Kingdom transforms Christians into Rome’s soul. As Diognetus discusses in the quote below, Christians have been transformed to be the soul of the world.Being the Kingdom of God doesn’t make one seek to take control of the kingdoms of the world, nor does it make one irrelevant to them. Rather, just as John 3’s new birth makes us more alive and more human, so living out the Kingdom transforms the world and changes it to be antithetical to what it once was. If the Kingdom isn’t in opposition to the kingdoms – if the soul isn’t warring against the flesh to subdue it – then the Kingdom is being co-opted and controlled by the kingdoms, and the soul is being controlled by the passions of the body.
So in closing, hear the words of the author of “The Letter to Diognetus.”
[Christians] live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law…To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen. The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.
The Kingdom of God is for this world because it’s from another one.