Biblical Perspective: Unwordly Peace; Peace that Transcends Worldly Understanding–By Paul Anderson
We do not follow Jesus because it is practical. It may cost us a great deal in fact. We follow the way of Christ because it is true. As Jesus said to Pilate: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to My voice” (John 18:37).
The origin of Jesus’ Kingdom is not of this world; therefore, His servants cannot fight to protect it. It is not a matter of permission, but a function of reality. One cannot further Jesus’ Kingdom by violent means. Rather, violence sets it back. Just like, truth never triumphs by force; it always persuades by convincement. Lasting good can never be accomplished though evil means. The character of the means always affects the complexion of the outcome.
Human kingdoms and empires can never be equated with the eternal Kingdom of God. Neither nations nor institutions are sovereign; only the truth of God will abide at the end of time. And only truthful and righteous means can further it.
This teaching is all the more striking when set against the backdrop of Jewish and Christian relations with the Romans. While John was probably not finalized until the 80s or the 90s of the first century, Christians had already undergone several waves of persecution by the Romans. Most notoriously under Nero in the 50s and 60s, and under Domitian in the 80s and 90s, Christians had been fed to lions, nailed to crosses, and burned alive for their commitment to Christ. Many times, they must have been tempted to “defend” themselves, or at least to strike back and maintain some sense of dignity—as did the Jewish Zealots. The rendering of Jesus’ teaching here however, must have been aimed at countering such inclinations. But notice the approach. Rather than presenting a pacifistic legalism, the biblical text portrays Jesus as getting to the very heart of the matter.
The origin of Jesus’ Kingdom—and the locus of His followers’ aspirations—is eternal. This is why His true followers do not, and cannot, fight.
Jesus is indeed a King, but His government is one of truth. In John 18 we have a classic confrontation between true authority and power and their false imitations. One would think Rome’s authority and that of its representatives would be absolute, but Pilate is portrayed ironically as being held hostage to the whims of the masses. He tries to set Jesus free, but the crowds will not let him. He claims to have authority to release or to crucify Jesus, but he is presented as then begging the crowd to allow him to let Jesus go, to no avail. Pilate is thus portrayed as the impotent potentate. Finally, the very religious leaders who feel they must put Jesus to death, accusing him of blasphemy, reduce themselves to idolatry, chanting “We have no king but Caesar!” (John 19:15). Nowhere is irony used more powerfully in John than here.
Just as the origin of Jesus’ Kingdom is from above, so is the source of all true authority. Jesus declares to Pilate, “You would have no power over Me if it were not given to you from above” (John 19:11). The real source of all power and authority is neither structural, nor organizational, nor charismatic, nor popular. It is truth, and this is the character of Jesus’ government.
Finally, everyone who abides in the truth hears the voice of Jesus. Again, the noncomprehending statement of Pilate—“What is truth?”—alerts the reader to the writer’s scandalizing use of irony. Here, Pilate is exposed as failing to “hear” the voice of Jesus, as are the Jewish leaders. The meaning of abiding in the truth is clarified against the sharp relief of its alternatives. Clinging to conventional means of power, yearning for the approval of the populace, putting confidence in human-made religion, lusting for notional certainty—all of these are exposed as bankrupt idolatries that hinder one’s ability to attend, and to hear, the living voice of Jesus. Conversely, all who abide in the truth, and who live out of that reality, hear the voice of Jesus and contribute to His Kingdom.
Jesus promises peace to His followers, but His peace is not of this world—either in its origin or its character (John 14:27). In the world, followers of Jesus will face tribulation, and those offended by Jesus will also oppose His true followers. However, His peace is with us and within us. His peace is not the cessation of outward strife, but the victory of love and good and forgiveness over hatred and evil and domination. It is a reality neither worldly force nor violence can touch. From the perspective of the cross all threats lose their teeth; the power of the resurrection puts to death the sting of death itself. In Christ there is peace, for He indeed has conquered the world (John 16:33).
Therefore, in calling His followers to a counter-violent existence, Jesus not only demands we do no harm; He gives us the keys to a new way of being that not only overcomes the world but also transforms it. But for that to happen, we need not only the conversion of the world … but the conversion of the Church. In Jesus’ teachings on peace, Jesus poses an ethic for all Christians, not just an idealistic few. If all or most of Jesus’ followers would follow His counter-violent way fully, that would indeed make a realistic difference in the entire world!
Written by Professor of Biblical and Quaker Studies, Paul Anderson (George Fox University)