Romans 14: 17&18 “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men.”
There were some frail believers in the congregation in the city of Rome. They thought it was sinful to eat meat and hence they became vegetarians, and also during the course of the year they set apart special days for God and they treated them as sacred days. Commonplace activities were prohibited during those holidays. The majority of the people in the congregation didn’t come from such a background; they had been saved from European paganism and they’d never had a tradition of feast days and food laws to impose on a religion of grace. It was enough for them to keep the Lord’s Day each week and not to indulge in any excesses in eating and drinking, so some of them could be very dismissive of the negativity of these weak church members. Paul is dealing with that attitude in our text. You would expect him to say to the strong Christians, “Be courteous! Be patient! Be kind! Overlook their scruples! Be restrained!’ but he does more than that. Paul reminds them that they are citizens in the kingdom of God, and all that that entails for daily living. There are great virtues and graces which are to characterize the blessed inhabitants of God’s glorious kingdom. If they can only grasp that then it will help them, not only in dealing with fussy scrupulous Christians, but everywhere and every time with all kinds of people and situations. In other words Paul is concerned that they don’t equate living the Christian life with obeying a book of regulations but that it is a whole way of life, an attitude of mind, a sensitive conscience that knows the Bible.
1. ENTERING THE KINGDOM OF GOD.
What is the kingdom of God? “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (v.17). You are getting obsessed with the right diet? Get real! The kingdom of God is not about food prohibitions and arguing about eating and drinking. It’s about righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. What a wonderful kingdom that must be, not like the mythical kingdom of Narnia, a land which was under a permafrost, always winter and never Christmas. God’s kingdom is not like that; it is one of justice, peace and joy. Wouldn’t refugees flee from kingdoms like Narnia to live in such a happy place? O blest inhabitants of God’s kingdom! Where is it, and how can I become one of its citizens?
One of the best little books explaining the kingdom of God has recently been written by the grandson of Billy Graham, a man who is now a Presbyterian pastor in Florida whose name is W. Tullian Tchividjian. The booklet is called The Kingdom of God and has recently been published by the Banner of Truth. Let me wander for a moment . . . coincidentally there is another booklet in that same series named The Invitation System written by Iain Murray the founder of the Banner of Truth Trust. In that booklet he points out the problems that rise from Billy Graham’s method of asking people to show that they’ve become Christians by getting out of their seats and walking to the front at the close of the preaching. Iain Murray’s reasons for questioning this are quite unanswerable – you must read both those little books – and vindicated in a measure by the fact that the old evangelist’s grandson wants his book on the kingdom of God to be published in the same series as The Invitation System. Tchividjian is not offended by Grandpa Billy Graham’s altar call being rejected by Iain Murray as unhelpful to sinners being truly saved. You understand? Even some of the members of Billy Graham’s own family now accept that the invitation system is not good evangelism.
That is a little excursus to commend Tchividjian’s book on the kingdom of God and Iain Murray’s Invitation System, but let me proceed to clear away some of the debris surrounding people’s understanding of how we enter the kingdom of God.
i] You do not enter this kingdom by a physical action. You surely understand that you cannot enter the kingdom of God by moving from where you’re sitting and coming to stand here in the front. Entering the kingdom of God is a spiritual journey not a physical one. If the kingdom of God happened to be a geographical entity then your body would have to travel to it, but there is no location in this world which is God’s kingdom. Standing near this pulpit or sitting at this communion table does not mean that you have entered God’s kingdom. Yet there are multitudes of people who believe that they are in the kingdom of God because they have gone through some overt physical act. The standing up and walking to the front has been equated with the spiritual action of entering the kingdom of God. This is so common a fallacy that whenever there is an outward action – raising a hand, having hands placed on your head, speaking or singing in tongues, getting baptized or getting out of your seat and walking to the front – then automatically people are convinced that the inward spiritual journey of entering the kingdom of God has also taken place. You get all these reports of meetings where hundreds entered the kingdom of God. They are referring to the response to what is often very long and very confused pleas by the speaker that people get out of their seats and walk to the front while the choir is singing and singing and singing.
You understand, I am not denying that when Billy Graham or many other evangelists have preached the gospel of man’s ruin through sin, and his redemption through Christ and his new birth by the Spirit of God that people in the audience have truly come to believe in Jesus Christ. They trust in him and that is when they enter the kingdom of God. Then when the evangelist asks them to get out of their seats and walk to the front some of them actually do that, but that’s got nothing to do with entering God’s kingdom. It becomes a source of confusion. They’ve become true Christians by trusting in the Jesus Christ that has been preached to them. Salvation is trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ as the only Redeemer. No one can deny that, but no one ever entered the kingdom of God by obeying the so-called altar call and walking to the front in a meeting. No one has ever entered the kingdom of God by going through any overt physical action.
Listen to what the Lord Jesus says in John chapter three; “‘I tell you the truth, no-one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.’ ‘How can a man be born when he is old?’ Nicodemus asked. ‘Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you the truth, no-one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again.” The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’” (John 3:3-8).
If entering the kingdom of God is some kind of a physical act then I don’t need a special inward work of the Holy Spirit so radical and life transforming that it is compared to my undergoing another birth. All I need is the guts to get out of my seat, stand up and walk to the front. I don’t need a birth from God to do that. I don’t need the sovereign Spirit to blow like a wind from heaven on me to do that. I don’t need any spiritual illumination from the third person of the Godhead to do that. I just need some chutzpah, some determination – “let’s all stand up and be counted in decadent days.” But our Lord said that to see, let alone to enter, the kingdom of God is such that no one can do it unless first there is a mighty operation of God called ‘a birth from above.’
Should there be anyone reading these words who’re sure that they are in the kingdom of God simply because something physical has been done to them by another man, or they have done something physical in a religious gathering themselves, then I trust that the Spirit of God will utterly strip this false notion from you this very moment. If you have drifted into this kind of false religious thinking may God be pleased to take his word and use it as a purging influence so that you’ll never think, let alone speak, in terms of equating a physical action with the inward journey of entering the kingdom of God.
ii] But I must hasten on and remove another piece of confusion about entering the kingdom of God. You do not enter this kingdom simply by believing all the things about this kingdom that God tells us in his word. The King is the Lord Jesus Christ. He is God the Son. He was born of the virgin, lived a sinless life, died for sinners, was buried, he rose again and is seated at the right hand of God. Forgiveness of sins comes through his great work alone, and one day he is coming again to judge the living and the dead. His kingdom is his reign of grace over the hearts and lives of all his people. I have told you many truths about God’s kingdom, and many of you may believe that these propositions are true but that does not mean that you have entered the kingdom of God. You may have! But no one ever entered the kingdom of God through merely believing all the stuff about God’s kingdom that’s in the Bible.
I can know everything about North Korea that’s important; I may take a special interest in that sad country, and visit all million sites on the world wide web reading everything there, looking at every picture of the nation I find there. Does that actually take me into North Korea? No. I’m still living in Wales. I have to get a visa and be taken to North Korea by a special flight or I am still here. So too there is one thing essential in order for me to see or enter the kingdom of God. I must have a birth from heaven. God himself must transport me from the kingdom of darkness and confusion where everyone lives into his kingdom or I’ll remain where I’ve been all my life. I can learn what the Bible tells us about the kingdom of God, but that’s not enough. The only thing different within me will be those brain cells that I have charged to retain that special information from the New Testament. Who needs a new birth to assent to the historical facts of the gospel? Just as the average Welshman knows that in 1066 the Battle of Hastings took place and it was won by William the Conqueror defeating Harold, so anyone can do an Alpha course or a Christianity Explained course and learn many facts about the King of kings and the nature of his reign and believe them. That is not entering the kingdom of God. That is a purely mental action. The devils believe all that is written in study courses about Christianity. They can recite all the catechism answers; they are terribly familiar with the narrative of the Bible and the words of every hymn ancient and modern, but they are devils yet.
iii] Again, let me amplify this in one more way, that entering this kingdom of God is not some mystical, private, personal experience. Many people want us to know that they deplore materialism, and that they believe in what they call ‘spirituality.’ In other words they have some kind of vague belief in the kingdom of God, and in a vague kind of way they’ve made a vague kind of commitment to a vaguely known God. “Back off!” they are saying to us as we speak to them about the King of kings, “I have my own private beliefs.” They do, just as long as they’re aware that their beliefs probably have nothing whatsoever to do with the kingdom of God.
This kingdom has a King, and he is not a projection of you; he is not an extension of your own personality at its best. He is utterly different from you. This King is a Spirit infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth. He is a King with a name, a King with a character, a King with a Day, a King with a people, a King with a Book, a King with a Son. You may be in all kinds of kingdoms but if you are in his kingdom then just one King reigns there. He is not some vague King who changes from century to century, and from culture to culture. There is not a king for young people and another king for pensioners. There is not a king for women and another king for men. Black people do not have one king while white people have another. One King! “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (I Tim. 1:17). To enter his kingdom the King himself must give the birth. And wherever this King reigns the result is not mere religion, nor vague ‘spirituality,’ but those who are under his rule all show three great qualities – righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. The apostle says, “anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men.” Those people alone please God and are approved by the church.
So the kingdom of God is entered by a sovereign work of God the Holy Spirit called the new birth or the birth from above. Those who thus enter the kingdom of God come under the reign of God. They are under his protection, guidance and instruction. He empowers them to live as he instructs them, and so in them and them alone the reign of God on earth has begun. Individuals are in this kingdom, the church is in this kingdom and the Christian family is in this kingdom. So what are the chief characteristics of its members? Three things are highlighted by the apostle in our text.
2. LIVING IN THE KINGDOM OF GOD.
i] The kingdom of God is righteousness.
Let me remind you of the basic faith, that the instrumental ground of a Christian’s justification is the righteousness of Christ which is freely imputed to him, but the declarative basis of his justification is the good works for which God has saved him. In other words he lives a life of righteousness as proof that he has been born from God, that he has truly entered the kingdom of God and he is living under the rule of the King of heaven. This is what Paul is talking about here, the righteousness of living according to the rules of Christian discipleship. There is a way of life for everyone who lives in the kingdom of God; there is a road for the man who has left the kingdom of darkness. He is an authentic Christian; he is absolutely genuine and real. He is the right article; he is pure inwardly. We’ve got to ask ourselves are we that? Tried by the standard of the Christian rule and the biblical lifestyle, are we without guile? We can talk the talk, but we also walk the walk.
You consider the Sermon on the Mount where you meet a great description of living in the kingdom of God laid down by the Son of God. Why is it there in Matthew 5, 6 and 7? Is it there to be analyzed and dissected? Is it there to be admired? Is it there simply to stir my conscience? No, says Christ. This is the actual way we’re to go. This the road we’re to tread. This is the authentic lifestyle of all who claim to be in the kingdom. It is the only road that leads to everlasting life. The great thing, Christ says at the end of the Sermon, is not whether you can remember it, but have you gone and done it? Are you building your life on this? Tried by that great standard are you a righteous man?
I am saying to you that the first mark of the kingdom of God is that you become a righteous man; you are straight; you are people of the utmost integrity. You are righteous in the blood of Christ, but you are also righteous because you are concerned about the rights of others and your obligations to them. I am not saying that you have attained absolute ethical perfection, but blameless in this sense that first of all your whole heart is engaged in this business of living in the kingdom of God. You are unreserved and unqualified in your loyalty to your King. So I am searching my own heart and asking whether I am cunningly erecting certain reservations in my life. Have I secretly made a pact that there are points beyond which I won’t go in my devotion to God? Rather, have I renounced all my autonomy, every single right over against God, and made the Lord my own God so that I am utterly dedicated to him?
And I would speak to some of you who are on the threshold of commitment, and especially I would address the waverers, and the undecided, those who limp between two opinions, and I am asking you why are you going on like this, living on the border lands between the kingdom of man and the kingdom of God, temporarily going over into the kingdom of God and spending some time there, perhaps when you’ve heard a particularly inspiring sermon. Then you might go and camp in the kingdom of God for some months. Judas lived like that. He visited the kingdom of God but he never became a full time resident. Many in the last day will discover that they were illegal aliens in the kingdom of God. The King never knew them. Is this how we are going to spend the rest of our lives, not quite loving King so as to spend all our time serving him, and not quite loving the world? Undecided about whether we want to be damned or redeemed? Are we going to get a grip on our fickle thinking and say with the utmost determination, “This matter needs to be brought to a head and I am going to make application for citizenship. No more this dual citizenship, serving mammon and also serving the King of heaven. No, henceforth it will be always, only and ever his. My life is going to be one of total commitment. I am going to leave this kingdom of darkness once and for all, and I am going to own Christ as my King. I am going to live a 24/7 righteous life.”
I am emphasizing this for one reason only, that it is so easy to approach a Christian and rationalize your luke-warmness saying, “If only you knew the circumstances in which I have to live, and the place at which I work, and the atmosphere in which I pursue my calling, then you’d understand how difficult it is to live a righteous life. You’d excuse my little imperfections. If only I had some other men and women, some children my age to support me, then I’d shine for the Lord. So you must make some allowances for my falls and inconsistencies.” I say to you that here is Jesus Christ, and he was righteous in Nazareth as he grew up, and righteous in Galilee as he preached and served God. He was righteous in Jerusalem and righteous in the Garden and during his trial, and he was especially righteous as he hung on the cross. And during all these years no one at all understood him and no one stood by him, not his mother, not his disciples, not the man he loved particularly, but the power and love of God kept Jesus righteous in his loneliness throughout those years, and it can keep you too, despite all the indifference and hostility and antagonism surrounding you. You can live righteously in your environment. The kingdom of heaven is righteousness.
ii] The kingdom of God is peace.
Now there is the objective peace that we have with God through the finished work of Christ. Being justified by faith we have peace with God; there is harmony and unity between the head and his body. In the kingdom of God there is no subversive movement. The King does not have a network of surveillance cameras capturing all the wrong doing. The jails of God’s kingdom aren’t full of political prisoners. There is peace with the King. He has taken our sins and freely pardoned us – all past sins, all present sins, all future sins. They are all forgiven; there is no condemnation. We mere Christians who are also living in this dark world of sin yet have peace with heaven. The terrors of law and of God with us can have nothing to do. Our Saviour’s obedience and blood hide all our transgressions from view. We have peace with God through Jesus Christ.
But there is also an inner peace that comes from trusting the promises of the Lord. In the Upper Room the Lord said to his disciples, “Let not your hearts be troubled,” and they must have looked at him with astonishment because he has just told them that he was going away and leaving them. He had burst into their lives and summoned them to follow him. They had left their work; hurt their families; gained a reputation for fanaticism and now he says, “Good-bye.” They are staggered, and then he says, “Let not your hearts be troubled. I forbid you to be distressed.” But he doesn’t merely mouth those familiar words, he continues with marvelous eloquence to pour forth great reasons why they should not be troubled, great theological reasons. One; you believe in God. Two; you believe in me. Three; I am going away to prepare a place for you. Four; I will come again and receive you unto myself that where I am there you may be also.
Christ said to them, “You know those massive theological doctrines. I have been teaching them to you for three years, but I want you not only to know them, I want you to apply them. I want them to give you peace, to calm the storm in your souls.” They were deeply troubled men; it was making them alarmed as they glanced with fear at one another at the thought of Jesus leaving them. Christ is saying, “All this is because you are not applying to your situation the theology of the kingdom of God with which you are so familiar.” It is one of the great fallacies in the Christian church to imagine that the man who is the competent expounder of God’s Word is himself is going to be inevitably controlled by what he preaches and teaches. It’s a great delusion. This is the peril facing the leaders of the church. We can tell you what the teaching of the Bible is. We can tell you what it means in terms of particularities and in dealing with opposition and heresy and our own doubts and fear. Yet on many a day it can be invincibly difficult to bring my own life under the control of the glorious realities. I have lost my peace! The doctrines are not controlling and regulating the way that we live and how we feel.
Christians don’t do justice to the New Testament’s description of the kingdom of God. If you are in this glorious kingdom then you are inevitably a person of peace. Of course if you are in the kingdom of God you don’t murder, and you don’t steal, and you don’t blaspheme, and you don’t lie. If you were accused of any of those sins you would be horrified. Yet we don’t seem to be concerned about the absence of peace from our hearts, about being discontented, and being anxious, and being melancholic, and being restless, and being vengeful. Yet the Bible says that in the light of fundamental evangelical reality our lives must be characterized by peace. Isn’t the Lord our Shepherd who will supply all our needs so that we will not be in want? Doesn’t he promise to work all things together for our good? Doesn’t he say he’ll never leave us nor forsake us? Doesn’t he say that his grace will be sufficient for us? Then the King demands that these truths control us in every aspect and area of our lives.
We have peace with God, and we are people of inward peace, but we are also those who live at peace with all men, our fellow Christians, our neighbours, and even our enemies. How important is this? It is all important, that as much as lies within me I try to live at peace with all men. This is a mark of all who are in the kingdom of God. We are people of peace, self-integrated and gracious towards all men. We’re not to live our lives on the extremes. Kingdom life is to have no imbalance; there is nothing essential missing. We know the doctrines about the kingdom of God; we obey the commandments and we are also men of peace. We are constantly bringing all our emotions under the authority of the word of God. Living in the kingdom we are contented and trusting, strong and peaceful. We are well-rounded and well-developed and our spiritual lives are in the right proportions. They have all the necessary ingredients in the right balance and mixture. There is a marvelously appropriate combination; kingdom life combines the intellectual and the emotional, a life that is good in people skills as well as in faithfulness to the truth.
There are some Christians with massive intellects and yet they don’t seem to be moved by the gospel. There are some Christians who are quite effusive in their exultations and yet they lack doctrine; they have no mental involvement in the faith. Living on one extreme or the other is something we must avoid. There must be the inward life of the soul and the outward church life of relationships and the various church meetings. The real Christian lives a life of righteousness and peace; there is a balance between the various aspects of the Christian life. The Christian life is one of righteousness and also of peace.
iii] The kingdom of God is joy in the Holy Spirit.
A kingdom of joy! This is no worked up, artificial, manufactured joy; it is the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Right next to ‘love,’ which has pride of place, the second in the list of the fruit of the Spirit is joy. It is as important as that. God’s kingdom is one of joy. Paul tells the Philippians absolutely categorically, with no qualification whatsoever – “Rejoice in the Lord always” and he even repeats it. If I am in the kingdom of God then there cannot be in my life any occasion, any external situation, any set of possibilities, any conceivable circumstances in which I cannot find some ground for joy. There is nothing whatsoever in the objective and external world that could possibly take the joy of the Holy Spirit from me. I will rejoice in the Lord, and I am able to do this so effectively that I can do it always, whatever my circumstances might be.
You remember the incident recorded in Acts 16 which had taken place shortly after Paul had arrived in Philippi. He and Silas had been unjustly arrested, whipped savagely and cast into prison, even in its very bowels. Their feet have been locked into the stocks, and yet despite all the injustice, the horror, the darkness, the pain, the frustration and uncertainty you’ll remember that at midnight Paul and Silas were rejoicing in the Lord. That illustrates his teaching so perfectly. Their circumstances were so adverse, and yet their emotional condition bore no relation at all to their actual providential situation. It was not the injustice that determined their feelings. It was not their bruised aching backs. It was not the stocks. It was not the uncertainty of the future. None of those things determined the way they felt. Their joy was altogether independent of their objective situation. It was joy in the Holy Spirit.
It was the same when Paul was writing letters from prison in Rome. He was there for some time. Before him was a trial, and then a fearful sentence if he were found guilty; they were all uncertain of the outcome. The time in prison was not easy. There was rigour, and a total lack of privacy; there was inconvenience and discomfort. He was unable to do what he had been called to do and loved to do – go about and preach the gospel to the Gentile world. Yet in that situation he rejoices. His imprisonment is not controlling his emotional situation. You go right through the life of the apostle, he tells us that he was often abased, disinherited by his parents at the moment he committed himself to Jesus Christ. He was persecuted by the Jews, and he carried the cares of all the churches. He endured the hostility of many Christians, and the contempt of false prophets and apostles. Still he rejoices in the Lord. Paul endures all the hardships of his missionary journeys, shipwrecks, imprisonments, whippings, hunger and thirst and nakedness, and yet none of those things succeeded in taking his joy away from him. His rejoicing was utterly independent of his own objective situation.
Now surely we can apply all this to ourselves today, because it is laid down here as a great principle that if we are in the kingdom of God we will know the joy of the Holy Spirit. If you read the diaries of the martyrs the night before they were led to the stake to be burned they testified of a joy that came to them from heaven. That is normative Christianity. If we are in the kingdom of God we are men of joy. We have been translated from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of God’s dear Son. The living God has become our heavenly Father. We are on our way to spend eternity in his glorious presence. Our sins – O the bliss of this glorious thought – our sins, not in part, but the whole, have been nailed to the cross and remembered no more. We cannot but know a joy in the Holy Spirit when God has done all this. We have come to him as weary and heavy laden men and women and have found rest. This living Saviour has now become our protecting Shepherd, and he is always with us, leading and guiding. He is working all the things that happen to us for our good. That is our Christian position. This past week I was visiting the local hospital. There was a believer there who was desperately ill, in fact the day after I saw him he was moved to the Intensive Care Unit where he still is today, stable but not out of danger. He is not an old man, but he is a righteous man, and from a simple accident he has been plunged into this life-threatening condition. As we talked and prayed together he said to me that he had peace with God – this peace Paul is talking about here – and that as Paul could say in his prison that everything that happened to him did so for the furtherance of the gospel that he could also rejoice that what was happening to him would work to the same end. Here are the marks of being in the kingdom of God, righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Are you serving Christ in this way? If you are then you are pleasing to God and approved by men. This is what Paul says in our text (v. 18). So you will neither have the desire nor the time to be absorbed with grumbling about weak Christians’ diets and the way they keep special days. Back to basics! On to kingdom living! Let our watchwords be righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Let our lives reflect such grace from heaven!
19th November 2006 GEOFF THOMAS