What is the Kingdom of God?

Text: Romans 14:14-18

We have been discussing relationships, roles, and authority structures in our ongoing sermon series. Thus far we’ve talked about manhood, womanhood, courtship and families, and the relationship between the family and the church. All of these are good, and yet there is a sense in which each of them are challenged by the gospel. Jesus doesn’t actually come for these things. While He can and should make a positive difference in each of these relationships, He is here to proclaim salvation from sin and guilt, and He is here to bring His kingdom. But what is this kingdom exactly?

On the most basic level, the New Testament identifies the kingdom as the Holy Spirit’s work in and among believers. We believe that it will eventually fully manifest itself in the transformation of all creation, the new heavens and new earth, but prior to that point the kingdom is spiritual and not earthly. We can see that this is the case in that striking statement from the Apostle Paul, “the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” The meal, the ritual itself, is not the kingdom. Instead, the kingdom is the spiritual grace that the ritual ought to be creating and promoting. If the meal is not doing that, then it is not the kingdom.

There are two classic errors that come up in any discussion of the kingdom of God. The first is to make the kingdom of God identical with some earthly institution or socio-political structure, whether it be the family, the church, or the state. The kingdom of God is none of these things, though it interacts with each of them. The second error is in making the kingdom of God simply a state of mind, a private sort of philosophy which may or may not ever make a difference in the world and is really only concerned with getting souls to heaven. This too is an error, and one all too common among American Evangelical. Instead of either of these, we need to see that the kingdom of God is the spiritual renewal of the people of God themselves. It is spiritual, in the sense that it is internal to them, starting with the renovation of their hearts. But it also makes itself public because the heart drives the whole man. As God’s people are spiritually renewed, they begin to live differently, and they have all the fruit of the Spirit by which they can be seen. And yet, it remains true that the only way in which this “kingdom” is built or advanced is on the spiritual level, and we must continually remind ourselves of this fact. It is very easy to get off-focus, spending all our time and energy trying to construct, critique, modify, and perfect the externals. But the kingdom is not eating and drinking. It is not of this world. If we ever allow this to take away from righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, then we have lost the kingdom.

The Kingdom in Romans 14

Surprisingly, the expression “kingdom of God” only occurs one time in the book of Romans, and it happens to be in the middle of a discussion about how fellow believers are supposed to treat each other. This is where we get the famous expression “the weaker brother.” Paul says that those who are strong in the faith should not get into fights about what you can and cannot eat with those who are weak in the faith, but instead they should do whatever they do in faith to the Lord. They should not “quarrel” with their fellow believers. We are told that we should not make our fellow-believers “stumble.” They might stumble because we are eating and drinking around them, or they might stumble because we are arguing with them about what they eat and drink. Either way, Paul tells us to put their conscience above our own beliefs about these secondary matters. In fact, at one point Paul even says, “Do you have faith? Have it to yourself before God” (Rom. 14:22).

Now, Paul is not talking about keeping the gospel private.  We are all commanded to bear witness to that, even unto death. What Paul is talking about are those second-order religious questions, the distinctives as we might call them, which are not the actual gospel message but might exist around it. In the 1st century, the most important of these had to do with food. Many Jewish Christians still wanted to keep torah. Others, however, had invented new food laws, whether vegetarianism or abstinence from alcohol. And what’s interesting is that Paul doesn’t spend a lot of time saying which one of these views is right. He does tell us that he thinks all food and all drink is permissible, if used correctly. But what’s more important for Paul is the fact that those kinds of arguments are mostly beside the main point. They are not the kingdom of God. “The kingdom of God is not eating and drinking.” In the 1st century, this would have meant, “The kingdom of God is not a religious food ritual.” And so instead what does Paul say the kingdom is? It is “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Spirit.”

Since the kingdom is not eating or drinking, Paul argues that we should not “destroy with your food the one for whom Christ died” (Rom. 14:15). In other words, put the most important thing first. It makes no sense to actually tear down the kingdom all in the name of perfecting your religious community. And this also means that our religious community, considered in itself, is not identical with the kingdom. Hopefully it is bringing us into the kingdom and fostering the kingdom in our midst, but our institutions, as good and helpful as they can be, are still not the kingdom.

Other New Testament Definitions of the Kingdom

The New Testament talks about the kingdom a great deal. John the Baptist preached that the kingdom was at hand. Jesus spoke constantly about his kingdom. But there a few occasions where more specific definition is given. For instance:

Now when He was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:20-21)

That passage has two major interpretations. The traditional interpretation is that the kingdom of God is located in the soul, when one believes with the heart and confesses with the mouth he is instantly transported into God’s kingdom. A more modern interpretation argues that the kingdom just is Jesus, wherever He is present. Instead of saying “the kingdom of God is within you,” they argue that the text should be translated, “The kingdom of God is in your midst,” pointing to the Jesus who was speaking the words. These two interpretations are not so different, however, since the converted heart possesses Jesus. By faith and the mystical power of the Spirit, we are united to Christ at all times, and we live and move and find our being in him. There is a real presence of Christ, and a really real one, in all believers.

Another famous passage where Jesus more specifically defines the kingdom is in John 18 at his trial before Pilate.

Then Pilate entered the Praetorium again, called Jesus, and said to Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?”

…Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here.” Pilate therefore said to Him, “Are You a king then?” Jesus answered, “You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” (John 18:33-37)

Jesus affirm that He is a king over a kingdom, but he denies that that kingdom is an earthly one. He goes on to explain what he means by “not of this world” when he says that His servants don’t fight. Jesus’ kingdom is not one defended by weapons or armies, and we are reminded of when Peter tried to defend Jesus by the sword and was rebuked. Instead, Jesus’ kingdom is like the truth itself, known to those who know the truth.

And thirdly, after the resurrection and prior to the ascension we are told:

Therefore, when they had come together, they asked Him, saying, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” And He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:6-8)

Notice that the disciples are assuming that the kingdom has not been restored yet, and so they are expecting something like that, a political shakeup. “Is it time yet?” they ask Jesus. In response, Jesus tells them to wait for “power” from the Holy Spirit. On Pentecost they got exactly that. The kingdom was given to them in that way, through the Holy Spirit and the power which It filled them with to preach the gospel, convert many to Jesus, and spread a spiritual renewal of righteousness, peace, and joy.

So What Does This Mean for Today?

So the kingdom of God is the internal and spiritual renewal of believers through the working of the Holy Spirit in them. This will result in a publicly changed life, and in that sense it will be visible and external, through the acts of righteousness, peace, and joy. But the kingdom is never identical with or reducible to any particular institution or culture in itself. What does this mean for us today in our relationships and for our understanding of the kingdom and its prerogatives?

The first obvious point is that no earthly kingdoms are the kingdom of God. This means America is not the kingdom of God. Europe is not the kingdom of God. The United Nations are not the kingdom of God. This may not seem like a big temptation among conservative Christians at the moment, but we do have to guard our hearts to make sure we are not overcome by political events, news, and contemporary issues to the point of confusing them with the fate of the kingdom. St. Augustine wrote his famous book The City of God at the same time that the City of Rome was falling to the barbarians. One of his major points of emphasis was that even if Rome fell, the City of God would continue. And so it is with us. Should America fall off as a world power, or should our communities, cities, and states die out, the kingdom of God will continue. While we should be good stewards and citizens, making the best decisions for our societies, we can never give our heart away to those societies or place our hopes and dreams in their earthly success. And we might be called to tend to the kingdom, even in strange land and in a foreign culture, even if that strange land and culture shows up right here.

A second point is that the kingdom of God is not any institutional church. This is controversial in some quarters, as many denominations do claim to be the kingdom. The reason for this confusion has to do with the trickiness of defining “church.” There’s a difference between the people and the corporation or government which they form. We use the name “church” to apply to both. Thus, “the church” could be the people gathered to worship, pray, preach, and do acts of righteousness. Or it could be the session meeting. There’s even a third sense in which it could be even be a shorthand for the building and property. But only the people, as moved by the Spirit, are actually the kingdom of God.

John Calvin teaches exactly this view, by the way. Listen as he explains that Christ’s kingdom is internal, the domain of the human heart, and he says this about Luke 17:20:

The kingdom of God… is nothing else than the inward and spiritual renewal of the soul. From the nature of the kingdom itself he shows that they are altogether in the wrong, who look around here or there, in order to observe visible marks. “That restoration of the Church,” he tells us, “which God has promised, must be looked for within; for, by quickening his elect into a heavenly newness of life, he establishes his kingdom within them.” And thus he indirectly reproves the stupidity of the Pharisees, because they aimed at nothing but what was earthly and fading. It must be observed, however, that Christ speaks only of the beginnings of the kingdom of God; for we now begin to be formed anew by the Spirit after the image of God, in order that our entire renovation, and that of the whole world, may afterwards follow in due time.

That last sentence is important as well. We don’t want to be misunderstood. Whatever is in the heart comes out. If your heart is full of hate and anger, you will be an angry and violent person. You will break relationships and cause much pain. If you are an honest and righteous person, you will do good works and eventually bless other people and help create godly communities. And so we don’t want to limit the kingdom to intangible realities. It will become visible among God’s people. But we do want to say that it always starts with the heart, and that it always depends on the condition of the heart.

Making this distinction within the church is essential, because it leads to the next point, the kingdom of God should not be identified directly with our religious culture. Our style of music, our liturgy, the food we eat after the service—none of these things are the kingdom. They should be promoting the kingdom. They should be places where the kingdom can grow. They should even be places where the kingdom can be seen. But they are never the kingdom themselves. This is because “the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17).

Imagine a church with the perfect liturgy. The words are all correct. The music is played perfectly. Their theology is all in order as well. They even manage to give money to charities. But the people do not actually live lives of righteousness, they do not love one another, there is no real peace between them, and they are always joyless. Is this the kingdom? Imagine a “fellowship meal” where all the people in the room dislike each other. That isn’t the kingdom. At the same time, you could have a small and shabby building, with a minimal liturgy, and not many programs or offerings, and yet the people there truly love the Lord and one another and truly live holy lives where they preach the gospel wherever they go. That church would be the kingdom, despite its lowly appearance. It isn’t the kingdom in itself, but in its grace.

Conclusion

Rightly understanding the kingdom is necessary if we can ever hope to seek the kingdom. If you think that the kingdom of God is something earthly, then you will use earthly means to build and protect it. It will also be as vulnerable as earthly kingdoms, and so your hopes will be dashed over time. But if the kingdom is Jesus Himself, made present by the Holy Spirit, then that kingdom cannot fall. And if Jesus’ kingdom cannot fail, we can be confident in all things, at all times, and in all places.

When Paul says that the kingdom is “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit,” he’s only giving us a sort of summary. Remember the other fruit of the Spirit? Galatians 5:22-23 says that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” Are those characteristics you can apply to yourself and your vision of the kingdom?

And so now go out and “build the kingdom” in that way, by keeping in step with the Spirit and spreading the fruit of the Spirit in your life. The kingdom of God is not identical with the things of this world, but it is for this world, and so it can and should show up in this world to change lives and communities. Keep your focus. Seek the kingdom. “Pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another” (Rom. 14:19). And believe that those things are powerful for working out God’s purposes in this world to His glory.

Let us pray.

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