Priorities: seek first God's Kingdom... (Matthew 6:33)
This article is based on a talk given by David Couchman at Wellsprings Chapel, Taunton, on Sunday 20th January 2008. It may be reproduced in print or on other web sites, subject to the copyright notice below.
As we look at Matthew 6:33, 'Seek first God's kingdom and his righteousness...' we're going to ask three simple questions:
- What is God's kingdom?
- Why do we need to seek it first?
- So what? What do I need to do about it?
1. What is God's kingdom?
A few weeks ago, one of my friends said to me, 'We Christians don't know what to do with Christmas.'
He'd just been listening to a sermon which was all about how Christmas
points forward to Easter. The big issue is not about Jesus being born.
It isn't about God becoming a human being.
The big issue is about Jesus dying on the cross for our sins and rising again. We used to say things like 'He was born to die.'
Now - please listen carefully to what I'm saying here. In one sense, this is right. Christmas does point to Easter. Jesus was born to die. Jesus dying for us is one of the most important things that's ever happened.
But the problem when we say this is that we skate right over Jesus' life. What was he doing in between being born and dying? Doesn't it matter? What was he about during his three years of public life before he was crucified?
Well, he was teaching people. OK, he healed some people and he did some miracles, but the main thing he did was to teach people, and to put together a band of followers who would go on teaching people his message after he was gone.
If you could have asked Jesus or any one of his followers what he was teaching people about, he would have replied 'the Kingdom of God.'
So in Mark 1:15, when Jesus begins to teach, he says:
'The time has come. The kingdom of God is near.'
What do they have to do about it? 'Repent and believe the good news.' Turn back to God.
The phrase 'Kingdom of God,' or 'kingdom of heaven' comes just over a hundred times in the Gospels.
(Just to clear up one small issue, Matthew often says 'Kingdom of heaven' where the other Gospels say 'kingdom of God.' They mean exactly the same thing. Matthew was writing for a Jewish audience. The Jews had so much respect for the name of God that they would not even say it. So 'kingdom of heaven' is just a reverent way, a polite way, in Jewish company, of saying 'kingdom of God.')
And this phrase, 'Kingdom of God,' or 'kingdom of heaven' comes more than a hundred times in Matthew, Mark and Luke.
When Jesus tells his famous parables, they're stories about the kingdom of God. He often begins by saying 'The kingdom of God is like...':
- The kingdom of God is like a man who scatters seed on the ground (Mark 4:26).
- The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed (Mark 4:30)
- The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field (Matthew 13:44)
- The kingdom of heaven is like a king settling accounts with his servants (Matthew 18:23)
OK, you get the idea. In the verse we're looking at here, Matthew 6:33, Jesus says 'Seek first the kingdom of God.'
This verse is part of the Sermon on the Mount, which runs from Matthew chapter 5 to chapter 7. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is teaching about the kingdom of God. So he begins, in Matthew 5:3, by saying:
'Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.'
A few verses later, in verse 10, he says:
'Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.'
In verse 20, he says:
'Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.'
Jesus says in chapter 6 verse 10 that when we pray, we should pray for God's kingdom to come.
OK. This is enough examples. You get the point. What does Jesus teach about? The kingdom of God.
So what does the Kingdom of God mean? Learned theologians have written massive books about it, and as you'd expect from learned theologians, they spend most of their time disagreeing with each other, and making it more complicated than it needs to be.
What is a kingdom? Today in the UK we have a constitutional monarchy. The Queen is the head of state, but she doesn't really decide very much. But in most of history, the king or queen was the person who actually ran the country. What he said went. That defined his kingdom. It was where what he wanted got done.
The kingdom of God really isn't any different from that. In principle, it isn't any more complicated than that. The Kingdom of God is where what God wants gets done.
Obviously, in one sense, God is God, and what God wants always gets done. But he's chosen to let people disobey him for a time and rebel against him, so that in another sense, what he wants doesn't always get done. We have a choice whether to live under his rule or not. Whether or not to be in his kingdom.
One day, everyone will live under God's rule, and we'll be able to say that God's kingdom has come. But we don't see that yet. What we do see is that when Jesus came, in some way, God's kingdom began to arrive. Now it's growing, as more and more people become part of it. And one day, it will be complete.
So that's what Jesus is getting at when he talks about the kingdom of God. It's where what God wants gets done.
And Jesus says seek that first. We could paraphrase that as 'Make what God wants your #1 priority.'
OK. We've looked at what God's kingdom means. Let's move on to ask why we need to seek it.
2. Why do we need to seek it?
Because it's the most important thing there is. If the Christian message is true at all, it can't just be an opinion. It can't just be a hobby. If it's true at all, it's the most important thing in the whole world.
Once you understand just how important the Christian message is, how can it be anything other than the most important thing in your life. That's why being a follower of Jesus is a serious, all-or-nothing commitment.
We have a problem with the word 'believe.' We've been taught:
'Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.' (Acts 16:31)
We like to quote John 3:16:
'God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.'
So we think, 'well yes, I believe that Jesus was a real person. I believe he was the Son of God. I believe he died on the cross so my sins could be forgiven. I believe he rose again - so I must be OK.'
But this just isn't what the word 'believe' means in the Bible.
In a few weeks, my wife is going off on holiday with one of her old army friends. As I stand here today, I 'believe' that the plane she flies on will get her there. In my mind, that's what I think will happen. And that's how we understand 'believe.'
But when she gets on the plane, she will be 'believing' it in a completely different sense. She'll be trusting the plane. She'll be committing her life to it. She'll be risking everything on whether or not it can get her there. (You know the old saying: I'm not scared of flying; I'm scared of stopping flying before we've landed.)
When the Bible talks about believing Jesus, it's this second kind of believing that it has in mind. It's basing my whole life on the truth of it. Trusting him, committing everything to him, risking everything on his reliability. This is what Jesus had in mind when he said 'Make what God wants your #1 priority.'
We don't take Christianity seriously enough. In our worst moments, we're in danger of thinking that Jesus is a sort of spiritual insurance policy. You can cash it in when you die, and you'll go to heaven, but it doesn't cost that much to maintain here and now. And most of the time, it can lie in a box and we can forget about it while we get on with our lives.
I've sometimes wondered if an alien landed on earth, and looked at Christians, what would they see? How would we be different from the people around us?
Perhaps what they'd mainly notice is that on one particular day of the week we go to a particular building where we sing some songs and listen to a sermon. Otherwise, this alien might think we aren't much different from the people around us. We spend our time watching the same films and television programmes and listening to the same music. We eat the same things, drive the same kind of cars, and so on. There isn't much difference.
OK, maybe I'm being just a little bit sarcastic - I'm sorry.
But when we say we 'believe' in Jesus, and what we mean is that we think things about him are true, but this doesn't make much difference to how we live - Jesus wouldn't have recognised this as what he was calling people to. He called people to trust him, follow him, and to make him the centre of their lives - to be totally committed to him.
So in Luke 14:26-27, Jesus says:
'If anyone comes to me and doesn't hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters - yes, even his own life - he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who doesn't carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple...'
Just to be clear, Jesus doesn't really mean that you must hate your father and mother. What he means is that you must love him so much more than your father and mother that your attitude towards them will sometimes seem like hate by comparison.
Some of us are still letting our parents set the direction of our lives, even when we know it isn't how Jesus wants us to live.
When he talks about 'anyone who doesn't carry his cross...' - we sometimes talk about someone who is unwell, or unemployed, and you hear people say 'well, we all have our crosses to bear.' As if a cross is just some kind of unpleasant or difficult situation that we have to put up with.
But this isn't what Jesus is talking about. A cross was a way to execute people. Jesus is saying, 'You want to be my disciple? Right: you have to die to everything else and follow me.'
Just a few verses later (in verse 33), he says:
'In the same way, any of you who doesn't give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.'
People sometimes say that Jesus' words only applied to a particular time in history. Perhaps they only applied to those who lived before he died and rose again. Not so. This is his word for now. It applies to us.
People sometimes say that Jesus is describing a standard for people who want to be specially committed. But you don't have to be a disciple. You can just be a Christian. You don't have to take it too seriously. I want to tell you as clearly and as bluntly as I can that there are no Christians who aren't also disciples.
When we sing 'Jesus is Lord,' we aren't just saying something about Jesus. We're saying something about ourselves too. 'Jesus is Lord' in the sense that he's the Son of God, yes, but also 'Jesus is my Lord,' in the sense that he's my boss. He's the one I obey. What he says goes.
So at the end of Matthew's Gospel, in Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus tells his followers:
'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.'
He doesn't just say 'make believers.' He says make disciples - apprentices, committed followers. He says 'teach them to obey everything I've commanded you.'
So 'Seek first God's kingdom.' We've unpacked what God's kingdom means - it's where what God wants gets done.
We've tried to unpack what Jesus means when he says 'seek first...' Make it your #1 priority. It's the most important thing in the world.
3. So what?
So the practical question is: so what? What do I need to do about it? If I am to make what God wants my #1 priority, what does God want? What does God want in the world? What does God want in my life?
Certainly one of the things God wants is that people all around the world will come to know him and trust him.
But He is also interested in justice and mercy. It matters to him about people who are starving, people who don't have clean water, people who are dying of AIDS, people who are displaced in wars.
He is concerned about the harm we're doing to the natural world. He is concerned about people who don't have freedom of religion.
We mustn't limit our idea of what God wants just to 'religious' answers. God is interested in what happens in the world. He's interested in politics and in what's on television and in science and films and immigration. He's interested in justice and mercy. And where mercy and justice are being done, God's kingdom is at work - what God wants is happening in the world.
Then the second question: what does God want in my life?
God wants you to love him, and love your neighbour as you love yourself. That's in Matthew 22:34-40.
What does this look like? Well, Jesus gave a pretty thorough answer to this in his teaching, and most of it is summed up in the Sermon on the Mount, right here in Matthew chapters 5 to 7.
God wants you to live with integrity. He doesn't want you to cheat on your wife, or to phone in sick to work when you feel like having a day off, or to destroy someone's reputation by talking maliciously about them behind their backs. God wants you to be honest and conscientious and loving and faithful. Where that happens, God's kingdom is at work in your life.
I'd like to invite you to pause for a moment or two, to reflect on this, and to ask yourself three questions about how this should affect your life this week:
- How should it affect what I do with my time?
- How should it affect what I do with my money?
- Is there one specific thing I should do differently this week, because what God wants is my #1 priority?
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