On any great topic there are times when we learn more by looking at what a thing is not than by what it is. In Paul’s writing about the kingdom he makes two powerful statements about what the kingdom is not that should have a closer look. The first of these is in I Corinthians 4:20. It says, “For the kingdom of God does not consist in words but in power.” This whole chapter has been about the slanderous things that have been said about Paul by some of the false teachers who have made themselves at home in Corinth and among the believers there. He started by saying that he wasn’t really concerned about the judgment of other people that he didn’t even judge himself but left all judgment to the Lord who will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and disclose the motives of people’s hearts; “Then each man’s praise will come to him from God.” (Verses 1-5). He used some sarcasm in pointing out the suffering that he and the other apostles were going through while these false teachers were being treated like royalty. He pointed out that while they may claim many things with regard to the church there, none of them can make the claim of being their father in the gospel but Paul.
In verse 18 he begins the paragraph with out key statement. “Now some have become arrogant as though I were not coming to you. But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I shall find out, not the words of those who are arrogant but their power. For the kingdom of God does not consist in words but in power. What do you desire? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love and a spirit of gentleness?”
What do you suppose was the reaction of these false teachers when they read this? What about the church who had been hindered and even led astray by these teachers, honoring them even when they were declaring that Paul’s gospel wasn’t complete and that he wasn’t really an apostle of Christ. It is obvious that these teachers were good with words. Paul never claimed to be an eloquent speaker. That claim went to Apollos. So with their flattery and eloquence they had actually persuaded many in the church to believe that Paul’s gospel, by which they were saved and through which they became part of God’s kingdom, wasn’t for real. He had performed all kinds of miracles among them and had given them miraculous abilities to the degree that he said they didn’t lack in any spiritual gift. Yet they believed these teachers who were all words and no power. If you ever deny the power of words you need to take a second look at this whole occasion.
God’s kingdom isn’t just about words. It isn’t just smooth talk that makes people feel good even when they aren’t doing right. The kingdom came into the world with power from the Holy Spirit as God poured out his Spirit in baptismal measure on the apostles in Acts 2. They spoke languages they had never learned with clarity to proclaim the gospel. It should be noted that the gift of tongues wasn’t to perform and get admiration or applause. It was a tool which allowed them to preach the message of the kingdom to lost people and bring them to salvation without having to study and learn new languages to teach them. When the Corinthians had seen Paul’s miracles and experienced the power to perform miracles themselves because he and given them that gift, it is amazing they would determine that he wasn’t for real but these men with slick words were, when they couldn’t do anything powerful except speak. It does remind me of some today that have crowds flocking to hear them tell the people they are great just where they are and there is no need for repentance or conviction of sin. Where the gospel of the kingdom is preached lives change. People quit sinful habits and turn from lives of addiction and immorality. It isn’t about them feeling good while living in the sin.
Paul’s second such declaration is found in Romans 14:16-17. “Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil; for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” This context is about matters of conscience that aren’t right or wrong in themselves. Many felt things like eating certain foods or drinking wine or even the observance of certain days were vital to kingdom living. Paul points out that in the kingdom none of these things matter at all. Do what seems right to you in such cases. But be careful not to do anything in a way that will offend the weaker brother and lead them away from God. Also he made the huge point that in such matters we are not to judge each other but leave that to the Lord. We will all stand before him in judgment one of these days.
When we make the kingdom of God about little things that are insignificant such as what we eat or drink or what days we observe we are taking God’s kingdom in a direction it was never intended to go. Do what seems right to you and don’t make a show of it. Care about others and what will hurt them. Don’t cause a brother to be lost for whom Christ died. God’s kingdom is about righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Think about these there things for moment. Righteousness is about living right. It is certain we can’t do right all the time and we need a savior whose righteousness can be placed on our account. But we are to be people who grow more like Jesus all the time and who strive to live right regularly. We are to be a people of peace. Where did the notion come from that kingdom living was about being able to out argue anyone else? We have multitudes of people who think they are right because they can win the arguments. It never seems to dawn on them that winning an argument while losing a soul is dead wrong! God’s kingdom is about joy in the Holy Spirit. Instead of our faith making us sad and down all the time, it should fill us with joy unspeakable and full of glory. Where the Holy Spirit dwells he brings joy.
Notice the next two verses in Romans 14 as they apply the principles laid down. “For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another. Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food.” As we launch into a new year one of my resolutions is to pursue things that make for peace and the building up of other people. There is an adequate supply of those who will tear down anything that doesn’t fit exactly what they feel right about. God will be the judge for them and he doesn’t need my help. I see far too many people who are struggling, hurting and discouraged in their pursuit of God.
Remember this above all, God’s kingdom isn’t about words, or about food and drink or anything else that is of little concern. Pharisees and Sadducees can put their time and energy into mint, dill and cumin. I choose to work on the weightier matters of justice, mercy and faith. (Matthew 23:23) May God help us all to be about building his kingdom this year.