Episode 1. Kingdom vs Empire
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Most of us are pretty darned good at looking after our own self-interest aren’t we? So good that we become builders of our own petty little empire rather than builders of God’s Kingdom. So …
Most of us are pretty darned good at looking after our own self-interest aren’t we? So good that we become builders of our own petty little empire rather than of God’s Kingdom. So what’s the difference then between an empire builder and a kingdom builder?
Kingdom vs Empire
The kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, these are terms that Christians wave around rather a lot, and I guess in one sense they’re entirely self-explanatory, and yet in another, I wonder sometimes whether I and others really, really get it. Here’s why
You and I are by and large programmed to be empire-builders. In other words, we’re programmed to look after our own self-interest: Our needs, our wants, our reputation, our influence, our comforts, our dreams. From birth, we’re taught how to become self-reliant, and for 20 years working as a consultant in (I guess) a few hundred organisations round the world, I dealt with many, many senior managers and leaders – thousands of them.
My observation is that 95% or more were empire builders. They were interested in building their networks, their control, their influence, to achieve their ends. Most organisations had a high degree of conflict, and that’s often why I was called in – to navigate the political minefield, so that the boss could get done what he or she wanted to get done.
And very sadly, can I tell you, over the past almost 20 years now since I became a Christian, the vast majority of churches that I’ve encountered aren’t a lot different. There are factions jockeying for control, there are church-splits, there are many people who are hurt by leaders, abused even. Sadly, many-a church is full of empire builders, rather than kingdom builders.
Am I saying that all churches are bad? Of course not, but they’re full of imperfect people like you and me, and one of the ways in which our sin manifests itself (I know; sin’s a stark word, a harsh word, but hey; it’s the right word) … One of the ways that we sin within the family of God is to be a control-freak. We become all tribal; we form teams; we compete against one another. That team has a different theology to our team; that team belongs to a different denomination to our team; that team … You’ve seen it, right? We have to criticise. We have to separate. We have to … well, we have to win, right?
So, today on the program, we’re kicking off a series of messages that’s all about Becoming a Kingdom Builder, rather than an empire-builder. It’s not for the fainthearted. This series is for those who know that they’re imperfect, but those whose heart it is to see more and more and more people around them, and around the world, experience the love and the grace and the mercy and the peace and the power of God, that can only be found in an intimate personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
This series is only for those who want to nail their sin, their empire building, to the cross and discover a new way to live: A new focus, a new priority. It’s for those who want to become kingdom builders, rather than empire builders. So, if that’s not you, I suggest go make a cup of tea or coffee and find something else to do for the next 6 or 7 minutes, and then come back to the radio.
So what’s the difference between the kingdom of God, and the empires of this world that we’re so deeply programmed to be part of? Well, that’s by no means a new question. It’s a question that arose about two thousand years ago, when Jesus started talking about the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven – two terms which, by the way, I take to mean pretty much the same thing.
When Jesus first started talking about the kingdom of God, He had a lot of explaining to do because back in those days, a kingdom was a very specific thing, and it was all about power and control and land and wealth. Nations were by and large ruled by kings, and those kings often went to war over land and wealth and power.
In Jesus’ day, Israel and much of the then-known world was ruled by the Roman empire. Their king was the emperor, and it was a brutal form of rule. Insurrection and rebellions simply were brutally crushed, and yet Jesus came out and said He was here to introduce the kingdom of heaven. Have a listen to this exchange between Jesus and some of the religious leaders of the day. Luke 17:20-21:
Once, Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and He answered: ‘The kingdom of God isn’t coming with things that can be observed, nor will they say ‘Look, here it is’ or ‘There it is’, for in fact, the kingdom of God is within you’.
In other words, this is not a physical kingdom – a worldly empire like the Roman empire, which was at the front of everybody’s mind, but the kingdom of God is something else entirely. The kingdom of God lives in our hearts. It’s not a bunch of chariots and warriors coming over the hill to take the citadel of Jerusalem by storm; it’s a battle that’s fought and won; it’s peace that endures in the hearts of men and women, and children.
What’s a kingdom? Well, plain and simple: It’s the place where a king rules. It’s a place where what the king says goes. It’s a place where the king’s subjects submit to the will of the king. See, back then, kings had absolute power of life and death over their subjects, and the people who were listening to Jesus had one particular kingdom in mind. Well, it wasn’t actually a kingdom; it was an empire – the Roman empire, answerable only to the self-declared deity of the Roman emperor.
No wonder they were confused, and that confusion goes on still today. We are constantly confusing God’s kingdom with human empires. See, we’re all programmed to build and look after our own personal little empires. Laying them down; taking up our cross; following Jesus … well, that’s a totally unnatural act, right? The apostle Paul put it this way. Romans 14:17:
For the kingdom of God is neither food nor drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
In other words, the kingdom of God isn’t something physical. It’s not a bunch of religious rules. It’s not about things that we can see and touch, as much as it is about the stuff that God is doing in our hearts, and the battle that God wants to win in our hearts (yours and mine) is the battle of our will. John Piper, in his book The Supremacy of God in Preaching, says this: ‘Therefore the goal of preaching is the glory of God, reflected in the glad submission of the human heart’. The kingdom of God is alive and well in the hearts of all those people who worship Jesus, and whose hearts ache to obey Him. The Word says that we express our love for God through obedience, much in the same way that a man and a woman express their love for each other through fidelity. 1 John 5:3:
For the love of God is this: That we obey His commandments.
Empire builders, like the Roman emperor of Jesus’ day, they’re interested in furthering their own interests and power and control. Kingdom builders are interested in laying down their own interests, so that others around them might experience the righteousness and peace and joy of the Holy Spirit that only comes through faith in, and a personal relationship with, Jesus. Empire builders and kingdom builders are two profoundly different kinds of people. Kingdom builders are about sacrificing their interests in order to further God’s interests. The life of an empire builder is totally, totally different to the life of a kingdom builder.
So, let me ask you something: Come on, which one are you? Are you an empire builder or a kingdom builder? Are you someone who’s much more interested in building their own circle of influence and control than laying down what you want, in order to build the kingdom of God? And, which one would you like to be? That’s what we’re going to be talking about over the next few weeks on the program.
A Change of Heart
John Piper is one of my favourite authors and speakers. He has a way of just … I don’t know … hitting the nail on the head. Here’s one of the things that he writes in his book A Hunger for God:
‘If you don’t feel strong desires for the manifestation of the glory of God, it is not because you have drunk deeply and are satisfied. It is because you have nibbled so long at the table of the world, your soul is stuffed with small things, and there’s no room for the great’.
I think he’s profoundly correct. As we talk about the kingdom of God, which Jesus said isn’t a physical kingdom but in fact it’s something that lives in our hearts, we can’t do that without talking about our relationship with God through Jesus.
Back in Jesus’ day, when He was out there talking about the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God, many people were confused, because the only kingdom they had experienced in their lifetimes was the Roman empire, which ruled the occupied land of Israel with an iron fist. So imagine if that’s the picture you have in your head: You’re living under the control of a brutal dictatorship, of an occupying force; that’s all you’ve ever known; that’s the only kingdom you’ve ever experienced, and then the Son of God comes along and starts talking about the kingdom of God. What you start thinking to yourself is that God must be a bit like the Roman emperor – that God has a bunch of rules, and you have to obey them, and if you don’t, then you’re toast; that’s it; God will punish you.
That’s how the Roman empire worked and in a sense, that’s how God’s old covenant with Israel worked. ‘If you obey Me, I’ll bless you,’ says God to His people. ‘But if you don’t, I’ll curse you’. Here it is, from Leviticus 26:3-7:
If you follow my statutes and keep my commandments, and observe them faithfully, I will give you your rains in their due season, and the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. Your threshing shall overtake the vintage, and the vintage shall overtake the sowing. You shall eat your bread to the full, and live securely in your land, and I will grant peace in the land and you shall lie down, and no one shall make you afraid. I will remove dangerous animals from the land, and no sword shall go through your land. You shall give chase to your enemies, and they shall fall before your sword.
Great! But what’s the flip-side of the coin? What happens if they don’t obey God? Well, God tells them. Leviticus 26:14-17:
But if you will not obey Me, and do not observe all these commandments, if you spurn my statutes and abhor my ordinances so that you will not observe all my commandments and you break my covenant, I in turn will do this to you: I will bring terror on you, consumption and fever that waste the eyes and cause life to pine away. You shall sow your seed in vain; your enemies shall eat it. I will set My face against you, and you shall be struck down by your enemies. Your foes shall rule over you and you shall flee, though no one pursues you.
But with Jesus coming to this world to take the punishment of Israel on His shoulders on that cross, and your punishment and my punishment, He wants us to begin to realise that the kingdom of God is really totally different to what they or we would really expect. He tells many, many parables that begin with the words, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like’ … Here’s one of them. Matthew 13:44-46:
The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. On finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
In other words, when we discover the true kingdom of heaven, when we discover how utterly awesome and stupendous it is to have a relationship with God, to be forgiven through Jesus, to be filled with the Holy Spirit, to have peace and joy, to taste mercy and grace, hey; it’s so fantastic, we want to get rid of everything else in order to have what God wants to give us – what Jesus died and rose again to bring us. Do you see the profound difference between the kingdom (the reign) of God in our hearts that Jesus is talking about and the idea that people had in their heads back then of what a kingdom might be? An idea which, by the way, is not a lot different to what many people think being a Christian is all about today! A bunch of rules that ruin your life.
Imagine if you found a treasure hidden in a field: A chest full of gold and diamonds and rubies and emeralds, more precious stones than you could ever imagine, worth so much more than what your current assets are worth. Would you sell everything, in order to buy that field so you could own the treasure? Course you would! So would I! And that’s what Jesus is saying. It’s exactly what the kingdom of heaven is like! That is exactly what accepting Jesus into your heart is all about! It’s so wonderful that the few things you have to give up, the stuff you always knew was wrong anyhow, the rubbish that was always ruining your life anyhow – those few things are so easy to give up because the kingdom of God is worth so much more! That’s what it’s like Jesus is saying, or this parable. Matthew 13:31-32:
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, that someone took out and sowed in his field. It’s the smallest of all seeds, but when it is grown, it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make their nests in the branches.
In other words, the kingdom of heaven is a place where you really, really want to be. Hey, this is fantastic: A place of shade and rest and safety … That’s what the kingdom is all about, according to Jesus.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret here. I’m not perfect; far from it, but a profound thing has happened to me over the past couple of decades as I’ve been journeying with Jesus. His work in my heart through His Spirit and His Word has taken away my desire to build my own empires, and I have to tell you that I used to be an empire builder par excellence.
I’m simply not interested in having my own empires anymore. I’m simply not interested in factions and power-struggles and growing my influence and winning the battles of control. It just … I don’t know … it doesn’t make sense to me. It doesn’t hold any value for me anymore because the joy of seeing lives transformed as the kingdom of God brings yet another heart, and another, and another into glad submission, into experiencing the joy of knowing Jesus, got to tell you: Nothing compares to that. No empire that I could build could ever bring me the joy that playing my tiny part in the kingdom of God brings me.
Why do we trade diamonds for stones? Why do we imagine that building our own petty, despotic little empires of control can be any better than experiencing the love and the peace and the joy of God? I don’t know, but that’s how I lived the first almost four decades of my life, and I am not going back to that. I wouldn’t give up the treasure I discovered in my field for anything. I’m not going to trade my place of safety and security in that tree for living out on that stormy ocean again like I used to.
My friend, listen to me. The reign of God’s love in our hearts is such a wonderful thing. It is so great to be desired. The more we hunger and thirst and seek after a deep, intimate, personal, one-on-one relationship with Jesus, the more God changes our hearts from being focused on our own interests to being focused on His: From being an empire-builder, to Becoming a kingdom builder. It’s just how it works.
A Living Sacrifice
So let’s take all of that and turn it around and look at ourselves through those scriptures and a few others to boot. God’s Word is particularly good for that – it’s like a mirror into our souls, it discerns the thoughts and the intentions of our hearts.
On the one hand, the Kingdom of Heaven is greatly to be desired and yet, it seems that to lay hold of it, we have to let go of the things to which we cling so tightly in this world. Which when you think about, is exactly what Jesus said we should do – a thousand years later: Mark 8:35
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
I’m going to be honest with you here – I can’t live my life that way in my own strength. I don’t have the strength. I can only do it, day by day, as the Holy Spirit works in my heart, to make my heart more like God’s heart.
Father God I pray for each of us who has received your word today. I pray for the battlefield of our hearts, the places where the enemy wants to get a foothold, the places that we’ve been holding back from you, the places where we fail time and time again.
Lord God, we are your people. We want to honour you with all that we are – with everything we have, with every hope and every dream. It’s just that we can’t do it.
So we pray that your Spirit would take this Word of yours that we have heard today and change our hearts, transform our hearts, renew our hearts, empower our hearts so that the attitudes, the aspirations and the actions that flow out of them, will be all about building your kingdom in the hearts of those around us. Make us Kingdom builders we pray. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Now at this point many people say to me – Berni that’s all well and good, but I’m not good enough for this. I know that in my natural being, there is so much rubbish, so much sin. And can I tell you, many people are afraid of God because they think that if they turn to Him, they’ll get clobbered, punished. Listen to me, God hates to punish. He hates to have to let people live out the consequences of their sin and rebellion.
That’s why He sent Jesus to die for you and me. Because God too is a Kingdom builder. He came to usher God’s Kingdom out into the world, so that you and I and countless others can be part of God’s kingdom. But my friend that means denouncing our desire to build our own empires. It means opening every part of our heart to the Kingship of God, to the Lordship of Jesus.
It means admitting that we are completely incapable in and of ourselves of following Jesus and helping to build His kingdom on this earth – it means submitting ourselves to the Word of God and the power of the Holy Spirit for God to work in us and through us. It means being prepared to suffer real loss in this world, in order that the love of Christ can fill the hearts of those around us as well.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1,2)
That’s what it means to be a Kingdom builder instead of an empire builder. Laying down our very lives and all our selfish desires and all our pride and all the things that we know don’t honour God as a sacrifice. It always feels like a sacrifice when we lay down those terrible things that we’ve been clinging to; when we go against the ways of this world, the things all the other people tell us we deserve. But when we do that, we discover that treasure hidden in the field. With all that I am, I’m telling you, I’m imploring you that it’s absolutely worth it. But the only way it happens is when we yield our hearts to the Kingship of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit.