These words are spoken by the Lord Jesus Christ, and they are profoundly disturbing. Jesus envisions an entirely different relationship for his disciples to the world in which they live than is commonly understood. He states that those who follow him are not a part of this world, just as he is not of this world. His vision is not the integration of his disciples into the world around them; rather he is acknowledging their separateness. Jesus’ statement is altogether more remarkable when one realizes that the world of his disciples was the Jewish world, a world tutored by some of the most ethical and moral laws known to man: the Law of Moses. Why should his disciples see themselves as separate from this world?
This later statement by John helps us towards an understanding of Jesus’ view. The natural inclinations and philosophies of living developed by the world of our birth are in conflict with God’s thoughts on these matters. This is fully understandable given that many have no knowledge or concern for God’s views. The reason Jesus does not envision his disciples being a part of the world is that the things the world loves and works for are not the same as what God wants us to love and work for. God tells us why he does not want believers to see themselves as part of the world in which they live. He says,
This is the basis, then, on which Jesus asks his disciples to desist from the ways of the world around him or her. It is a conscious, deliberate response to the call of God to receive in a humble heart what God reveals to be the right ways of living and thinking. Jesus does not ask his disciples to be hermits isolated from the world of their birth; he simply asks that they not be “of” it. He does not ask for his disciples to be taken “out of the world” but rather asks that they are protected from the ungodly thinking of their surroundings and taught to follow God’s ways of thinking instead.
These are difficult words for anyone who wishes to be a disciple of Christ: What exactly does this mean in our lives? How is it that we live within the world but not as part of it? Does this new way of living influence our relationship to the country or community in which we now live? Does it affect our political, social, or religious associations? It is to these questions we now turn and seek the guidance of scripture.
The Disciple’s Relationship to Political and Governmental Systems
The successful functioning of any “State” or country depends on four things – some kind of governance structure, a system to administer and enforce the laws, provision for protection and defense and a system to support and maintain the State.
In a democracy, duties within each of these areas must be undertaken by the citizens; they are, in the ideal democratic function, extensions of the State.
Consider for a moment just what obligations are placed on citizens in a democratic institution:
There can be no argument about the obligation of all citizens in a democracy to participate in the support and maintenance of their State. The question that confronts one wishing to follow Christ really comes to this: should a disciple consider himself obligated to the country in which he was born as a citizen? Or should he consider himself to be separate, a citizen of an altogether different State?
Principles Concerning God and His Kingdom
When God called Abraham to come away from the place of his birth, He led him to a land He promised to make Abraham’s own. Yet Abraham never received that Promised Land. All his life he lived as a “stranger and sojourner,” not as a citizen in the land. Having embraced God’s promise of a better country, one set up by God on His principles, Abraham understood that he could not lay claim to that future State and to the present world at the same time. He therefore never made himself a “citizen” of the countries in which he lived. He remained a stranger and alien despite living with these people his entire life.
Why should a disciple of Jesus be concerned with Abraham?
Those who become part of Christ are counted as the seed of Abraham, heirs with him of the promise made to him. Like Abraham, they await the setting up of the Divine city (i.e. the governmental system established by God) to be established on land promised by God. Then they will have their own homeland and State. But for now they too confess they have no country of their own; they are but strangers and sojourners in this present world till God fulfills what He has promised.
In another passage, the apostle Paul affirms this trait of the man of God. He tells the Ephesian believers:
One who is a stranger, foreigner or sojourner in relation to an organized government or state cannot at the same time be a citizen of that state. By natural birth Gentiles have no relationship to God (“without God”), His State (“estranged from citizenship”), or His Promises (“no hope”). The only rights and privileges of citizenship we can claim are those belonging to this present world and to whatever state into which we are born. And the same is true for those who have been “born into” Christ Jesus in baptism! We become fellow-citizens of God’s government, members of His family, and heirs of His promises (see Galatians 3:29), and now strangers and foreigners to the present world, its lands and its organized governments (as per Hebrews 11:13).
This principle explains the somewhat enigmatic words Jesus spoke to Pilate, the Roman governor that seemingly held the power of Jesus’ life in his hands:
Christ’s kingship and kingdom are different and separate from the ruling systems of this present world. Christ’s disciples, described here as “servants/attendants of the king,” cannot therefore be extensions of two conflicting systems. We either serve the rulers of this world or our Lord Jesus Christ; we cannot be “attendants” in both kingdoms.
How do we live in the world if we are not “of” it?
A disciple’s attitude towards the governments and ruling authorities of the country of their residence is completely defined by this principle of living as a stranger and sojourner. But rather than using this separation as an excuse for insubordination and rebellion, the Bible counsels believers to live peaceably with their neighbors:
These passages provide a powerful introduction to the second principle that governs the relationship of Jesus’ disciples to the world of their birth.
Principles Concerning the Life of Jesus
“Do not resist evil,” Jesus taught his disciples: do not oppose evil by responding to personal insult with personal insult; by responding to legal vengeance with legal defense; by responding to State enforced servitude with civil disobedience; by responding to the one in need (even your enemy) with contempt and disdain. And, “love” even your “enemy”: Always seeking what is best for them; returning good for evil; being willing to risk a second insult in an attempt to heal the relationship; being willing to give more if taken to court; overcoming one’s natural anger by going beyond State-imposed hardships and giving even more than required; giving to those who cannot or will not give to you in return.
Such is the powerful challenge issued to all disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. Does such teaching affect how our relationship to the governments and military systems in the states in which we live? The answer to this is found in the application of this teaching to Christian living found in the writings of Jesus’ Apostles. We are told,
This is why God called Abraham, the “father of the faithful,” when he became a stranger and sojourner in his world. We are called to live our lives on the same principle. As Gentiles outside of Christ we have no relationship to God, His family, or His world. We are born citizens of this present world and age: our citizenship is here and now. But in Christ this whole relationship is changed. We now become citizens in God’s world; our citizenship belongs to God’s city, our allegiance to His government and laws. And our relationship to this present world becomes just like Abraham’s, strangers and sojourners.
Likewise, because the principles on which this present world is established are in conflict with the principles of God’s world, our behavior will differ markedly from our neighbors. Where anger, hatred and revenge prevail in the one system, compassion, love and good prevail in the other. Where human rights prevail in the world of our birth, human needs—that is, the needs of others—command attention and effort in the other.
Given these marked differences, how can one wanting to be a disciple of Jesus participate in the administration, enforcement or defense of the country or state in which they now live? And, given the status of being a stranger and sojourner in this present world, would not participation in the political systems by means of voting or political action raise the question as to which citizen you really claimed citizenship in?
God is calling us to a better citizenship, one in His Kingdom. He is calling us to participate in His government by submitting to the rules and laws He has established for living. But while we are waiting for the complete fulfillment of this Kingdom at the return of His son, God has told us we must live as strangers in this world. We are to submit to the authority of those He has allowed to rule in the present day by living peaceably as “sojourners” within their jurisdiction. But it is always to our heavenly citizenship that we lay claim. We should strive to be like Jesus, who even though he was a king, submitted to the rule of this world’s authorities for a time, allowing himself to be unjustly crucified even though he had to power to stop it from happening. He did not seek to impose his authority now, but rather suffered being taken advantage of in the present because he knew there was a different Kingdom to come. It is in this coming Kingdom that he will claim to his rights as a full citizen and be established king. And it is in this hope that we, like the faithful man Abraham, place our faith, allegiance and hope.
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