In his letter to the Romans, Paul teaches about God’s kingdom: It is that which we experience internally, and it is not a question of external matters. God’s kingdom is righteousness, peace, and joy.
On the street of the water gate, a wooden pulpit was constructed. The congregation gathered unanimously to hear God’s word. The priest Esra brought the Bible, and Jerusalem’s first summer services began. The speakers in addition to Esra, were the proconsul or governer Nehemia and servants of the word Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, and Pelaiah, They read God’s word verse by verse, from the Bible, and at the same time, they explained and taught it. The motto for those summer services was “For the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
This depiction of the summer services at the street of the water gate is in the eighth chapter of the book of Nehemiah. The Bible does not actually call the happening summer services, and those services did not have an official motto. But according to the Bible, those services’ main message was: “For the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:10).
The depiction of this ancient service worship speaks to me greatly. The dwellers of Jerusalem had returned from forced migration in Babylon along with the people of Judah just over a half year before this. The city was still mostly in ruins. It’s walls had only just been rebuilt with great effort, and the new temple was only a pale shadow of the temple of Salomon. There was immense work ahead of them, and the worldwide political situation was not stable. In that situation, the dwellers of Jerusalem felt that the most important matter in their lives was that they could hear God’s word and it’s explanation. This is why they organized these services.
The fact that the servants of the word exhorted the people to rejoice, despite all the outward difficulties and threats, especially speaks to me. The basis of this joy was that the Lord was their strength. I think that in the midst of those outward difficulties, those ancient listeners of the word were able to own in their hearts the treasures of God’s kingdom. Paul even writes about these to the Roman Christians hundreds of years later: God’s kingdom is “righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost” (Rom. 14:17). They owned these treasures, and thus they rejoiced.
We love our weak dear ones
In his letter to the Roman Christians, Paul teaches what God’s kingdom is. Paul’s teaching refers to a topic that was timely in those days, the question of ritually eating unclean meat. Some Christians felt they could eat this type of food with a good conscience, when others could not eat it because of their conscience. Paul exhorted the Roman Christians to watch that they would not lead their friends in faith to stumble and fall. Trusting in the Lord Jesus, Paul surely knew that there was no food that was actually unclean. But he also knew that if someone holds something to be unclean, it truly is unclean to that person. This is why he taught: “But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably.” He warned against using food to bring ruin to the one for whose sake Christ has died. In connection to this, he then reminds: “For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost” (Rom. 14:13-17).
Paul’s teachings actually include two important core messages. First of all, he taught that God’s kingdom is not a question of temporal issues such as food or drink. God’s kingdom is something that we experience internally: righteousness, peace, and joy. Secondly, he taught, that because this is so, no outward issues should become the point of disagreement. Instead, love guides us to notice our weak dear ones and to be careful that we would not, through our own decisions, make him “stumble” and give up faith. So if some of our temporal habits offend another Christian, it is better to give up that habit for the sake of the love of this dear one. In this way we are not leading our dear ones to perdition, for whom Christ died, in the same way that He died on our behalf.
The Righteous will receive the call to heaven
To become and remain righteous is life’s most important matter, because righteous people will receive the call to the heavenly kingdom on the last day (Matt. 25:34). Righteousness means that God has accepted mankind into his fellowship. When a person is righteous, there is nothing that can separate him from God. When we are righteous, we are without fault, and therefore can stand before the face of God.
But the truth found in the Bible is that not one living person is righteous in the face of God (Ps. 143:2). We as people would willingly try to become righteous through our own assistance, but our own righteousness is not acceptable to God. This self-driven aspiration is like filthy rags in God’s eyes (Isa. 64:4-5). Paul borrows from the Old Testament when he notes that among mankind there is not one who is acceptable to God (Rom. 3:10-12, Ps. 14:1-3, 53:2-4). As humans, we cannot be righteous in ourselves in the face of God, but God must make us righteous.
According to the Augsberg confession, God makes one to be righteous, or accepts man into his fellowship when a person believes his sins forgiven for the sake of Christ. The treasure of God’s kingdom is found when the Holy Spirit creates faith in us sinful ones. Through this faith, we own Christ’s righteousness and the forgiveness of sins prepared by him. The owners of this righteousness will receive the call to the everlasting kingdom on the last day.
The peace and joy given by Jesus
According to the Bible, peace is a state in which we feel secure and are not lacking anything essential. In God’s kingdom, peace is the heart’s tranquility which this world cannot give. Our Redeemer through his suffering, dying on the cross and resurrection, has prepared this peace, which cannot be comprehended by us. It drives away all sadness and fear (John 14:27). It brings us security, not only with other people, but also in the face of death and God’s judgment. From this comes the fountain of joy, which at one time held together the fellowship of the Christians in the early congregation (Acts 2:42-47).
Remaining in the fellowship of Christ makes the joy of the child of God perfect and leads us to love one another (John 15:11-12). The greatest joy is that which we receive from the Redeemer’s prepared salvation. Already in this life, we can rejoice over the forgiveness of sins and that our names are written in the book of life (Luke 10:20). One day, we can rejoice eternally, when the Lord Almighty has taken the kingship and the wedding celebration of the Lamb will begin (Rev. 19: 6-7).
The holy spirit makes us owners of a treasure
The treasures of God’s kingdom cannot be bought with money or earned through a good life. Only through the influence of the Holy Spirit can we receive these treasures as our own. The small Catechism teaches that without the living working Holy Spirit, we cannot believe or approach Christ. The Holy Spirit calls us through the gospel and creates faith and new life. The Holy Spirit gives us Christ with all his gifts and all the treasures of God’s kingdom. It also protects us in the one true faith.
So living in God’s kingdom is not living according to man-made rules and bans, but new life in Christ. This new life also includes struggles. We can live with free hearts as God’s children, and this is why we want to fight against sin which takes us from this freedom. On our own, we are weak sinners, and we need to confess that despite our struggles, we sin every day in thought and word, deeds and failures.
From God’s kingdom, we can hear the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins which heartens us to believe all our sins forgiven through Christ’s perfect atonement work. If some special sin is left bothering our hearts, we can confess this in confession and hear the freeing word of absolution. We do not become righteous through our own strife, but as believers of Christ’s redemption work, we can live each moment acceptable to God. We can believe that the Lord is also our strength, as he was to the dwellers of ancient Jerusalem thousands of years ago.
Text Jukka Palola
Translation A. H.
Published SRK:n vuosikirja, Ajankohtaista 2012 / Jumalan valtakunnan asukkaana
Julkaistu englanninkielisessä kieliliiteessä 11/2014.
Tulevana sunnuntaina vietetään kynttilänpäivää. Evankeliumi kertoo Jeesus-lapsesta, valosta, jonka Jumala on antanut loistaa kaikille kansoille. Tämän valon toivoisi yhä loistavan myös Suomen kansan keskellä.