There’s a dangerous political subtext that runs through New Testament. When Herod slaughtered the children in Bethlehem, it was a political act. He was afraid that, when Israel found out its Messiah had been born, his power and influence would be usurped.
To the magi who had traveled from the east to see the new king, he suggested that he wanted the Messiah’s location so that he could come and worship. In the end, he slaughtered every child under two-years-old. The gospel writers don’t tell us how Herod justified such a horror to the people of Bethlehem, but you know he had to.
Israel’s longing for a Messiah was political, too. They wanted what they had experienced throughout their history, a savior to deliver them from Roman rule. But this time, God’s deliverer would liberate them once and for all time. God would be ruling Israel again, and all other nations would be subservient to them.
Politics on the mount
Jesus begins his ministry with one message: the kingdom of heaven is at hand—the kingdom of God is among you. But the message Jesus is delivering is not the message that people are hearing. They’re looking at Jesus’s miracles as proof that their civic savior had come. There was no stopping them now.
We really miss out on what the sermon on the mount would have meant to a subjected people.
The call to turn the other cheek definitely challenges modern readers, but it would have been devastating to a people who were expecting a messianic warlord to stamp out Rome. The charge to walk a second mile when asked to go one would have been outrageous to Jewish people who could be conscripted into service as beasts of burden to any roman soldier for any reason at any time. The instruction to love your enemy would have hit these Jews like bricks.
Christ was trying to communicate that his mission didn’t look anything like they thought it would. They never really got it. I’m convinced that Judas betrayed Jesus into the hands of Sanhedrin in an attempt to kick start the inevitable revolution. Once the authorities moved on Jesus, the revolution would begin. You see this thinking in Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ betrayal. Without thinking twice, he goes for his sword and draws first blood. This is it; deliverance is at hand.
This is why Peter would go from being a revolutionary willing to fight soldiers one minute, to a man who cowers from a servant girl only hours later. He’s confused. None of this is turning out like it was supposed to. They still didn’t get it.
Meanwhile Jesus is talking to Pilate and reinforcing that he was doing something entirely different.
“My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” John 18:36
If Christ was coming to establish an earthly kingdom, his followers would fight. They’d fight like Peter did to stop his arrest. They’d fight to overthrow anyone who would attempt to dominate them. They’d fight political opponents who cast ballots to elect officials who didn’t fit Jesus’s criteria. If his kingdom was an earthly one . . . it would fight tooth and claw—like every other kingdom that had come before it.
Even after Christ is resurrected, they’re trying to make the movement of God a political one. Here Jesus is filling them with the Spirit, and they’re still trying to fit their experience into their political/revolutionary narrative. “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)
We still don’t seem to get it today
The kingdom that Jesus came to institute wasn’t one of control and coercion. He came to create a “city on a hill.” This kingdom would display its beauty by contrasting itself against the grasping, bickering, and hostile kingdoms of the world. It would be marked by service and love, and not by intimidation and legislation. It is a kingdom that is willing to suffer on behalf of others, unlike earthly kingdoms that are willing to allow others to suffer to maintain power and control.
Paul explains this clearly to Timothy:
” Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer.”—2 Timothy 2:3–4
Does this mean we can’t vote or get involved in politics? Of course not. By all means, do your civic duty, but be very careful that you don’t conflate your political convictions and your kingdom responsibilities. Don’t get so embroiled in “civilian affairs” that you forget why you’re here.
You know you’re too tangled in “civilian affairs” when:
- You hate or vilify people who disagree with your political opinions
- You’re blind to the ways your faith is co-opted by those trying to gain or hold onto power
- You believe legislating your values fulfills your religious obligation
- You find yourself in discussions where being right trumps being reconciled
The kingdom Christ came to institute is a holy kingdom. But “holy” simply means that it is set apart for God’s use. It denotes every individual that has submitted their hearts to follow after the Christ. It’s an amorphous, borderless kingdom. On some level, every earthly empire is Antichrist. The true and holy kingdom of God exists within submitted hearts who have hung all of their hope on Christ for impending peace and reconciliation.
We are in the world displaying the contrast of Christ’s kingdom against the kingdoms of this world. Right now, that leaves us exposed us sheep among wolves, so we need to be wise. As Jesus says, “we need to be wise as serpents.” We need to understand how to think like a serpent so that we don’t fall victim to the serpent’s goals. The serpent wants us to fear our vulnerability and turn us into wolves. It wants us to grow fangs and claws, and to learn to hunt in packs.
The vulnerability of the kingdom of God is its strength. When we become wolves, we may gain power, control, and influence, but we lose the distinct comparative value of the kingdom. We stop being a city on a hill and become just another compromised and bloodied kingdom in the valley.