Starting Place for Christian Public Theology

“My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36).

For Christians, any public philosophy begins with the figure of Jesus bar Joseph, hanging on a cross upon which are written the words, “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews” (John 19:19). The death of Jesus Christ was the most horrible and demeaning Roman justice could inflict—a sign of humiliation and defeat. He died with the words, “It is finished” on his lips (John 19:30). His life was over. His disciples fled, fearing for their lives (Mark 14:50; Matthew 26:56). In the hours that followed his death, the Jewish Rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, was buried in a borrowed tomb (Matthew 27:57-59; Mark 15:43-46: Luke 2350-53; John 19:38-40). Remarkably, three days later, his disciples began proclaiming his resurrection from the dead and status as the long-expected Messiah of Israel—the true successor of King David. Rome was a great power, but it turned out that a greater power was manifested in Christ.

Only a week earlier, Jesus had entered Jerusalem on a donkey, as had Solomon and other kings of Israel, a symbol of his intention to serve ordinary people. The crowds enthusiastically welcomed him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (John 12:13). This directly threatened the religious establishment of his day. They wanted to find a way to do away with Jesus but feared the common people (Mark 14:37;). As the week progressed, Jesus disappointed his followers and the crowd as it became increasingly apparent that he did not intend to raise an army and defeat the Romans. He even referred to his immanent death (Mark 14:3-9). Eventually, Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve disciples closest to Jesus, went to the authorities and offered to betray him (Matthew 26:14-16; Mark 14:10; Luke 22:2.).

On Thursday evening, the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, he had a final supper with his disciples (v. 12). During the meal, Judas left early to arrange Jesus’ arrest (John 13:30). After the meal, in which Jesus again referred to his death (Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:15-20; I Corinthians 11:23-25), he instituted a rite his followers would continue to observe—what we call “the Lord’s Supper.” After dinner, he and his remaining followers went to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he prayed (Matthew 26:36-46; Mark 32-42; Luke 22:39-41; John 18:1). After his time of prayer, soldiers arrived with Judas, and he was betrayed and arrested (Matthew 26:47-56; Mark 14-43-52; Luke 22:47-53; John 18:2-12).

The scene moved to a secret nighttime preliminary hearing at the home of Caiaphas, a former High Priest and father of the current high priest. At this preliminary trial, the religious authorities declare that Jesus is guilty of heresy—the heresy of declaring himself to be the Son of God—and determine that he must die (Matthew 26: 66; Mark 14:64; Luke 71). As soon as daylight appeared, the Sanhedrin, the highest body the Romans permitted the Jews to have, was called into session. He was again convicted (Matthew 27:1-2; Mark 15:1; Luke 22:66-71). The religious rulers of the people of God had spoken; now, it was time for the worldly powers themselves to speak.

Jesus was led to Pontius Pilate, the representative of the Roman Empire. Initially, Pilate seems to have wanted to avoid having to pass judgment upon Jesus. He viewed the problem as a strictly Jewish religious problem. Recognizing that Jesus was a Galilean, he initially sent Jesus to King Herod, hoping to read himself of the problem (Luke 23:6-12). It did not work. Jesus was returned to Pilate, who interrogated Jesus and found no civil crime for which he could be convicted (Luke 23:13-16).

As far as Pilate was concerned, when Jesus declared, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), he removed himself from the jurisdiction and practical interests of the Roman Empire—and also from contemporary categories of political theology interested in political power and the application of Christian faith and theology to the realm of practical politics. [1] Rome cared less about any ideal otherworldly eschatological kingdom, and neither did Pontius Pilate. Pilate cared less about heavenly kingdoms; he cared about Rome, its empire, and his own position and power.

Ultimately, Pilate bowed to the desires of the religious authorities and the crowd they gathered to condemn Jesus. Reluctantly, he has Jesus scourged and crucified. He dies a terrible death and is buried. It would seem that the story is over. However, it was not. On the third day, women visited the tomb to embalm the body further and discover that Jesus was no longer dead. He has risen from the dead (Matthew 28-1-8; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-13; John 20:1-13). A new age has begun, the Messianic age, but it is not the age his disciples expected. It is also not the Messianic age for which we long a good bit of the time. Jesus’s messianic age involves his followers experiencing what he experienced in sharing God’s love with others.

The difference between how Jesus acted before the Pilate and the Sanhedrin reflects his understanding that his kingdom was not to be in the earthly kingdom (John 18). The difference in Jesus’ behavior before Pilate compared to before the priests and Sanhedrin should cause those interested in political theology to be sensitive to the potential that political theology conflates two different kingdoms. Jesus defers to Pilate, but he confronts the religious leaders.

Apostolic Realization

As the Apostles, New Testament writers, and early Christians meditated on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, they came to understand Jesus not as a worldly messiah but as God in human form—embodied Divine Love. One of the earliest names for Christians was “those who belong to the ‘Way'” (Acts 9:2). Jesus showed his disciples both a way to fellowship with God and a way of life. The Beatitudes are a beautiful description of that Way. This Way of Jesus involves serving and leading others with a gentle, other-centered, sacrificial love. There is a technical word for God’s willingness to serve creation at its deepest point of need. The word is kenosis, which means “to empty.” It comes from the words of Paul:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11).

The phrase “emptied himself or “made himself nothing” (ekenosen) reflects the reality that when God reveals the nature of a perfect ruler, he chooses to reveal it through one who, though above all things, is willing to empty himself of power, take on humanity, live in obscurity, and die a terrible and lonely death on behalf of not just his friends and followers, but also for his enemies.

After the crucifixion, disciples came to terms with the fact that the messianic hope of Judaism was misplaced. Their messianic hope was always of a true son of David, who would reestablish the kingdom of Israel and defeat its enemies. That is why Acts records them asking, “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom? (Acts 1:6). The disciples, like us, had to accept that God does not act according to our presuppositions about how he should act. In particular, they had to come to grips with the fact that God did not intend to reestablish David’s kingdom militarily.

The Old Testament gave clues to the potential that the Jewish messianic hope of the kingdom of God was, in fact, a vision of an earthly kingdom led by an earthly ruler who would use worldly means to seek, acquire, and gain power. It was not a vision of a “New Heaven and A New Earth” in which peace reigned. Their misunderstanding drove the disciples to ask Jesus if now was the time he would reestablish David’s kingdom.  This misunderstanding is why at least one of his disciples (Peter?) carried a sword on the night that Jesus was betrayed: He still thought in a traditional way about the Messiah and his kingdom (Matthew 26:51-52; Mark14:47; Luke 22:49-50; John 18:10—11).

Jesus, on the other hand, constantly warned the disciples against their culturally induced presuppositions about what the Messiah would be like and what his kingdom would be like. Luke, on several occasions, Jesus says something like the following: “Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (Luke 24:26). Over and over until the very end of his time with the disciples, he reiterates that he is a suffering messiahship. [2] The Son of God had to be rejected, turned over to authorities, and crucified so that a kingdom entirely different from the material kingdom with which they (and we) are familiar could be transformed by means entirely divorced from power as we (and they) conceive it.


Christ reveals the limitless, vulnerable, self-giving love of God. In Christ, God serves the greatest need of human beings and creation by emptying himself of overt power to redeem them. The message of the Cross is that God is the One who gives himself without limit, without restriction, without any holding back for the sake of his broken creation and his sinful people.[3] This is what Christians mean when we say, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). The love of God patiently bears with us, even as we presume upon the mercy of God. The love of God endures our sins, shortcomings, and brokenness as the Spirit works patiently and in love to redeem and restore. The love of God forgoes all power, becoming powerless in the ultimate act of saving love.

As Christians confront contemporary society and the gradual replacement of enlightenment culture by what we sometimes call postmodernism, it is essential to remember the self-giving love that Christ showed on the cross. Why? Because in a world dominated by the search for power and influence, Christians will be gradually seduced by the of our time if they do not center themselves upon the core revelation that God is a kind of self, giving love. When the Messiah appeared on the scene, he embodied the same self, giving love.

This means there may not really be a Christian public philosophy as it is so often practiced. [4] If political science is nothing more than the search for, acquisition of, and exercise of power, then it is clear that there cannot be a Christian public philosophy or public theology. A God who gives up power is not a hopeful role model for those who crave it.

Christians are committed to the notion that there is a greater, eternal, and uncreated power of which our human expressions are only a poor reflection. Christians believe the true reflection of how power should be acquired and exercised is found at the cross, where God in human form disclaimed any earthly, physical, political, military, or economic power and instead suffered and died for the human race. It isn’t easy to bring this revelation into harmony with any search for earthly political power. This is the beginning of all Christian reflection on public theology.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs,

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[1] The importance of Jesus’ reply to Pilate’s inquiry, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” (John 18:36) cannot be overestimated. How exactly this works out in practical theology will be a subject to be covered in this year’s essays.

[2] The number of incidents that support this is so numerous that they cannot be put in the body of the text. For a few examples, see Matthew 16:21-28, 17: 22-23, Mark 8:31-33; 9:30;1032-33; Luke 9:22-27, 24:6-8, 25-27, 46-47. It is a central teaching of Jesus that the Messiah had to suffer, be crucified, die, and rise from the dead.

[3] See W. H. Vanstone, Love’s Endeavor, Love’s Expense the Response of Being to the Love of God (London, UK: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1977). See also John Polkinghorne, ed, The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 2001) for a deep analysis of how creation reflects the One who is love and became love incarnate to redeem and restores his handiwork.

[4] I have in mind here the kind of political theology recommended by Reinhold Niebuhr and by many liberation theologians of various stripes. The strategy of both schools seems to be “grasping earthly power for heavenly purposes.” This does not, however, mean that these theologians are completely misguided for many of their recommendations can and should inform Christian thinking about politics. This will become clearer as these blogs evolve.