Kingdom or Empire?

The Christian Church began during the time of the Roman Empire. It’s no accident. Christ came to Earth in the fullness of time, at exactly the right moment in history according to the will of the Father. And because the Gospel began to spread during the Roman Empire those who bore witness to Christ had ease of travel due to some remarkably engineered Roman roads. They were relatively safe because the Roman Empire provided pretty good security at the time. God used the Roman Empire as a tool to build His own Kingdom. But God’s Kingdom also stands in stark contrast to the earthly kingdoms represented by Rome.

  • Earthly kingdoms are about glorifying man.
  • God’s Kingdom is about glorifying God.
  • Earthly kingdoms are acquired and maintained by force and violence.
  • God’s Kingdom is peaceful.
  • Earthly kingdoms are marked with pageantry, pride, and accoutrements.
  • God’s Kingdom is marked with service, humility and no promise of earthly wealth.
  • Earthly kingdoms are temporary.
  • God’s Kingdom is eternal.

empire2.jpgThe contrasts go on and on. And so, I’m convinced, it is an act of providence that the New Testament Church was born during the reign of one of the largest and most powerful empires in world history. God’s Kingdom is not of this world and its establishment in the midst of the Roman Empire shows us just how different is the mind of man from the mind of God. The early Christians understood the differences quite well.

Those who followed Christ in the first century refused to “respect” Rome in the manner Rome demanded. They would not worship the Caesars as gods and claimed “we have no king but Jesus.” Because of their stand they suffered persecution the likes of which no modern American can fully comprehend. They were beaten, imprisoned, called traitors, fed to lions, and burned.

Yet, despite all of their trials I sometimes wonder who had it tougher — Christians in the first century or Christians in modern America. Don’t get me wrong, I’m quite pleased that it’s legal to preach and teach in Jesus’ name. I’m thrilled that I’m not threatened with the possibility of prison for my faith in Christ. But at the same time I wonder if we have the proper perspective on what it means to be blessed by God. I wonder if we haven’t so confused God’s Kingdom with our own earthly kingdom that we can’t differentiate between the two — to our own detriment.

The Christians in the first century — and all of our brethren who live or have lived in similar circumstances — have an easier time than we do maintaining a Kingdom focus. We often have trouble making the distinction between God’s covenant people (the church) and the citizenry of the United States. We sometimes forget that God has established His new covenant with the church and not our country. We don’t see our own earthly empire as standing in stark contrast to God’s Kingdom.

empire4.jpgAs is the case with most things, we are much more capable of seeing the problems with others than we are with ourselves. We can plainly see how other earthly kingdoms were contrary to the teachings of Scripture — so, let’s take a look at them.

The Roman, French, and British Empires are among the worlds largest and best known empires throughout history. Rome and France digressed from republics into empires (Britain was a monarchy then an empire). Initially there were benefits to their empires. In the Roman and British instances there was a period known for peace — the Pax Romana in Rome and the Pax Britannica in Britain.

As they expand, however, empires have a tendency to self-destruct in a number of ways. Their leaders become so driven by conquest and world influence that they overreach. When their grip on power begins to tremble they bear down — even on their own citizenry (because they become so paranoid for the maintenance of their own power). Eventually they bankrupt themselves and violate the trust of their people to the point that they crumble from within or are conquered from without.

In the worst case scenario the empire ends up on the dust heap of history, completely ceasing to exist — like Rome. Or, in a better case, the empire retains its name but is reduced to a shadow of its former self — like Britain and France.

Looking back on history it’s easy to see their mistakes. What’s more difficult for us to recognize in America is how we are following an identical path. We have overreached throughout the world (for a list of countries where American troops are currently stationed click here). Our liberties have been attacked from our own government in ways we couldn’t have imagined just a generation ago (see here, here, or here). Historians even call the age after World War II the “Pax Americana” consistent with other empires.

And we don’t see it.

empire3.jpgAt the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 a woman approached Benjamin Franklin as he left Independence Hall in Philadelphia and asked him, “What do we have, a republic or a monarchy?”

Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Unfortunately we’ve not kept it. Oh, we still have the same name and occupy the same land, but like the French and British Empires, we are a mere shadow of what we once were (An extensive outline of just how we are different can be found here).

But the worst part is not the erosion of another earthly empire. Even if we can succeed in reversing America’s plummet toward imperialism the United States will cease to exist one day. It’s an earthly kingdom and it’s temporary. No, the worst part is that Christians all over the United States fail to keep God’s Kingdom a priority. Matthew tells us to “seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and His righteousness…” The question we need to seriously consider is this:

Do we?

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About Chip
Chip is a graduate of Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, AR and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Memphis, TN. He served more than five years on the staff of the State Convention of Baptists in Indiana as Director of Communications and Public Relations, editor of the Indiana Baptist newsjournal, and regular contributor to the Baptist Press, the official news service of the Southern Baptist Convention. He currently earns his living as a writer. He serves his local church as a teacher and deacon and his local Baptist Association as a Seminary Extension instructor and supply preacher.

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