The Kingdom of Heaven
The Jews of the first century were focused on a “Messianic Expectation.” They believed that the time had come for God to send His Messiah who would throw off Roman chains and restore the kingdom of Israel to its glory years under David and Solomon. The Messiah would be like King David—a great warrior who would destroy the enemies of God. He would also be like King Solomon—exercise great power and exude great prestige. When John and Jesus began to preach “The kingdom of heaven is near” (Matt 3:1, 4:17), the Jews assumed that the time of revolution and conquest had come.
What do Christians today believe when they are told “The kingdom of heaven is at hand?” Many Christians long for a time when we elect Christian people who will effect godly laws so that our country can be the Christian nation it was meant to be. Has America (or any nation) ever been a Christian nation? Is that even possible? Christians are those who follow the teaching of Christ—teachings like “turn the other cheek.” Can any nation really do that? Granted, America’s tendency to rebuild countries that attack us-- after we bomb them back into the Stone Age-- is kinder and gentler than many conquering countries in history. But is it Christian? Political, economic and military power is part of the kingdoms of men, not the kingdom of God.
In our reading for today, Jesus draws a contrast that forever remains fixed between the kingdom of God and kingdoms of man. These two kingdoms operate on totally different principle, and those seeking to live in the Kingdom of God must be extremely careful. Here’s what Jesus says in Matthew 20:25-28.
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
The principle that drives the kingdoms of man is POWER. Kingdoms use power to protect its interests, to punish those who would violate its interests, and to enforce its will to secure its own selfish interests. We heard a lot of talk about “punishing evildoers” as we invaded Iraq, but we also heard a lot of talk about “protecting the interests of the United States.” There were plenty of evildoers in Rwanda, but we invaded Iraq because of our own selfish interests--OIL. Hey, I’m not suggesting that this was wrong— but it isn't Christian. The use of POWER is a characteristic of the kingdoms of man.
The principle that drives the kingdom of God is SACRIFICE. In God’s kingdom, you don’t kill for yourself but die for others. Greatness is not about using power to protect one’s own self-interest; it’s about serving others even when that puts you at a disadvantage. The one who is greatest in the kingdom of God is the one who looks the most like the Messiah of God. The use of power is simply not a characteristic of the kingdom of heaven.
Does this mean that Christians shouldn’t serve in the military, serve as police officers, run for public office or get involved in political action at the local, state and national level? David Lipscomb thought that is exactly what it means. I don't think so. What did John the Baptist tell soldiers who came to him asking what to do to prepare for the kingdom of God. John answered, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay” (Luke 3:14). In other words, don’t abuse your power. Christians in positions of power must understand that power is a fundamentally part of the kingdom of man and incompatible with the kingdom of God. The historian Lord Acton once said, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." William Pitt, who knew something about power as Prime Minister of Great Britain (1766-1778) agreed that, “"Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it."