The kingdom of God is…

I belong to a denomination which proudly calls itself part of the Holiness Movement. Without getting into the details of our history, this means that we emphasize the message that Jesus came to save us from sin itself – not just its consequences – and regular people can – indeed, must – be holy in their daily lives. It is, in my estimation, the single greatest message and aspiration in the universe. Every time I think of it, my heart soars and my soul leaps for joy because it is a promise that I can be more like Jesus every day than I was the day before. As have countless men and women before me, I love it. But I am also keenly aware that we in the Holiness Movement have long harbored a dirty little secret: in our passion for holy living, we have often struggled to find a balance. Sometimes, we sway toward the way of grace, determining that it’s not so much about what, exactly, we do or don’t do, but primarily a matter of the heart. More often, though, we tend to swing toward the way of legalism, drafting oft-unspoken rules and regulations, rites and rituals which are then substituted for true, Biblical holiness. In other words, we start trying to draft an extensive – no, exhaustive – list of things we can and can’t, must and mustn’t do as believers to qualify for the title “holy.” In Romans 14:17, though, the apostle Paul warned the church at Rome against that very thing with these words which strike me today as profound: “for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

Let me break that down just a moment. First, I must recognize that the “for” at the start of the verse is building on the stuff that came before. In particular, Paul had just spent the entire first 16 verses of Romans 14 explaining that there would always be someone attempting to define holiness as obedience to a particular set of rules and regulations. Specifically, he cites some of the Romans’ and early believers’ tendency to emphasize observation of the Sabbath on a particular day. I suppose the rule went like this: holy Christians had to observe the Sabbath Saturday by getting all dressed up, going to church, and doing nothing all the rest of the day. Their reasoning was that, if you deviated from this formula of behavior on any given Saturday, you were a heathen sinner condemned to die. Certainly, you were far from holy.

The only problem was that, while the Jews celebrated the Sabbath on Saturday, the last day of the week, the Christians had long gathered for worship on Sunday to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus on the first day of the week. So there were some who would argue that the Sabbath needed to be observed on Saturday, with the Jews (because God did rest on the seventh day, not the first!). There were some who would argue that the Sabbath needed to be observed on Sunday, with the Christians (because Jesus rose on the first day, not the seventh!). And then there were some who just threw up their hands and argued that, so long as you made a point to spend time in rest and worship, the precise day was of little consequence.

And there was another situation going on in Rome: with pagan religions, particularly emperorism, rampant in the city and empire, there was a never-ending supply of meat which had been sacrificed to a wide variety of gods available in the meat markets. Generally, this meat was cheaper than the non-sacrificed alternatives because there was so much of it. It was almost always of a higher quality than the non-sacrificed alternatives because you gave only your best to the gods, whoever they may be. And it was really only “gently used.” As though there is such a thing. So there was this huge debate in Rome and elsewhere raging over whether or not it was appropriate for believers to buy and eat this meat sacrificed to idols. On the one side, you had the people who insisted that, because it was sacrificed to idols, the meat was sinful. On the other, you had those who held that the meat, in and of itself, was not sinful. Indeed, the religions which had sacrificed them were meaningless. So it was perfectly fine. In fact, it was better financial stewardship!

Yes, legalism has been around since the days of Paul and the early church. It’s not something that just appeared in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, or even 00’s. I don’t know why we perpetually struggle with it. And I don’t know that it will disappear before Jesus returns.

But I do know this: legalism is a serious joy robber.

If I am constantly obsessed with satisfying the requirements of an endless list of rules, I will inevitably grow disillusioned and discouraged when I realize that I’m not really meeting the requirements of these rules, or I will become proud when I start to think that, however poorly I may be doing, I’m doing better than the next guy.Or, in all likelihood, I will become both.

But if I listen to what Paul says: “the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking” – i.e., it’s not about the Sabbath or the food regulations – but rather, it’s about “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

I need to be perfect in my motives. If my life and actions are driven by that love Jesus talked about so often, and I am constantly doing my God-enabled best to make that true, then His grace will take care of the rest. Somehow, that realization frees me from both the disillusionment and the pride. And somehow, that opens me up to live a life that is truly righteous, experience a real peace, and know an actual joy.

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