The new believers in Rome had to come to grips with the fact that being citizens of the Kingdom of God is not just about our rights but about our obligations to God and to one another as neighbors. Our “right” is to Kingdom citizenship through our covenant with God on His terms through Yeshua (Jesus), but we do not have the right to be bad citizens – reflecting dishonorably upon our King and His Kingdom. When we look at the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22, we see a list of attributes that we long to see in our own neighbors – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Bad citizens and bad neighbors are self centered, but good citizens and good neighbors are servant-minded.
As I have been writing about Kingdom citizenship, I have come to realize that we can keep many aspects of the letter of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Heaven (the Law) and yet still violate the loving principles it is based upon. In our own countries – we can let our dogs bark incessantly until the local noise ordinance kicks in at 10pm, same with our loud music, we can hold wild parties that are completely legal, we can gossip and we can be rude – and none of that would put us in jail; none of it is prosecutable under the laws of our country. But these things all destroy the peace, the shalom, of the community.
Those “legal” things we do are the very things that bring shame to our King and His Kingdom, by destroying the peace of our neighbors – for whom Messiah died! These are the stumbling blocks that we place in the paths of others. The new Roman believers were not interested in being sensitive to the established modes of acceptable behavior in the synagogue community they had joined, they were obeying the letter of the law but not the spirit and they were causing Jews who did not yet believe in Yeshua to blaspheme His Name. Who would want to follow the Messiah of someone who flouts the basic community standards of decency? Who would want to listen while these newcomers preached about a crucified “criminal” when they don’t even love their Jewish neighbors enough to stop eating the meats and drink sold in the marketplace (that had quite possibly been sacrificed to idols beforehand) – something that to them screamed idolatry and death and, most importantly, a profound hatred and disrespect towards God? In the same way, if we are not willing to forgo our own flesh on behalf of our neighbors today who do not believe as we do, why would they ever listen to us?
Things aren’t exactly the same today – we have different issues – but being a member of a community is a huge responsibility, whether it is secular or religious. We represent our King wherever we go and especially where we live, and the things we do bring either honor or shame, cause Him to be exalted and praised or blasphemed (slandered) and disregarded. To honor Him we must be humble and consider others better (more honorable) than ourselves, we must say no to our desires and forget what we have the “right” to do if it causes another to falter.
Do we break a commandment in order to be a more acceptable neighbor? No, but sometimes we place more stringent restrictions on our behavior so that we can be acceptable to both God and men (Ro 14:19). Indeed, we serve Messiah when we forgo our desires in order to respect our neighbors on their terms as long as their terms do not require unrighteous behavior of us.
It’s my right as an American to let my dog bark all day and tell my neighbors through my actions they have no expectation of a moment’s peace in the homes they paid for or in their yards, even if they work nights and are trying to sleep. It is my right as an American to play my music so loud that they have to listen to it, even inside their own houses. It’s my right as an American to do a lot of things, including say pretty much anything that comes to mind – but once I am in covenant with YHVH through Yeshua, my rights have to disappear into servanthood. My obligations as a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven override my rights as a citizen of the United States of America. God’s constitution is above the US Constitution. I have to allow my rights to die, and I have to realize that my rights were a lie. My rights as an American, to indulge my every legal whim, are nothing but bondage to my own flesh and desires. Speaking from experience, to live according to my desires is to submit myself to a selfish and cruel tyrant – the antithesis of Gal 5:22.
I had to learn to live for the sake of others – for the sake of my King’s witness. The former Roman Gentiles were being told in no uncertain terms to live for their Jewish brothers as well, and to stop living for themselves. We all need to do this, because we no longer represent ourselves. Paul told the Romans not to destroy their brothers on account of meat (Ro 14:15), and we have to be willing to refrain from doing the same. If our rights cause us to become a stench in the eyes of our neighbors, and especially if these rights have nothing to do with our actual needs, then it is in service of Messiah that we remove those stumbling blocks. We are no longer our own and we are our brother’s keeper – not to control how he says the Name, or which calendar he keeps, or what congregation he attends or doesn’t attend, but instead to represent the Kingdom that we are citizens of, and the King that we serve, as worthy of honor in their eyes because we are ourselves are willing to extend dignity and respect towards others. He must increase, and we must decrease.
Spanish version here