Seek first the Kingdom of God…how?

A lot of Christian advice boils down to platitudes with neither moral nor practical content. Sadly, our tendency to speak in airy nothings to one another as a time saving mechanism as stripped many of Jesus’ central ideals of meaning and practical content. An example is, “Seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness and all these things will be added to you.” People will rattle off this advice in a well-meaning fashion in order to overcome the difficulties of telling other Christians, “You’ve gotta get out of debt, apologize to your spouse, discipline your kids, or organize your life.” What does this command mean?

Right in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his disciples and the crowd of potential disciples listening that the trappings of the good life, clothes and food, are not the keys to happiness (remember how Jesus starts the Sermon on the Mount offering the blessed or happy life to those who hear). Instead Jesus says to “Seek first the Kingdom of God and its (his) righteousness and these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).

But what does this mean? Is it a mystical promise that God will do miracles to see to the provision of disciples who literally never seek food, clothing, or money?

I think not.

To understand this commandment, we need to determine what the phrase, “kingdom of God” means.

In my mind, Scot McKnight’s observations are the most enlightening:

Kingdom is-almost always, with varying degrees of emphasis- a complex of king, rule, people, land, and law. Church is also a complex: a king (Christ), a rule (Christ rules over the body of Christ), a people (the church), a land (expanding Israel into the diaspora), and a law (the law of Christ, life in the Spirit) …Slight differences aside, the evidence I have presented in this book leads me to the conclusion that we should see them as synonyms.”[1]

Kingdom of God, in the New Testament is referring to the church under the authority of God.

What does it mean to “seek the kingdom of God”?

This has larger implications, but for now, we’re answering this question:

What does seek first the kingdom of God and its (his) righteousness mean?

If McKnight is right,[2] then seeking the kingdom and righteousness takes on a clearer meaning.

To seek the kingdom of God is to seek:

  1. The well-being of the church family
  2. To use the proper means to spread the word of the kingdom (see the parable of the Sower)
  3. To pray to our heavenly Father (see Matthew 6:9-13)
  4. To be a part of the kingdom’s work of worship (See Hebrews 10:24-25, this is one of the most neglected passages in modern Christendom)

What does it mean to “seek the righteousness of the kingdom of God”?

To seek the righteousness of God (of God’s kingdom) requires a little more context to fully understand[3], but even without the extra explanation seeking the righteousness of which Jesus speaks means:

  1. Seek the character traits about which he had been teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17-20)
  2. Be willing to do deeds of righteousness solely because they are right and to please God (Matthew 6:1-18)
  3. Extend kindness to those outside the kingdom and even those who are opposed to it (Matthew 5:41-47)
  4. Be like God (Matthew 5:48)
  5. Learn to treat others as you wish to be treated (Matthew 7:12)
  6. Base your character, as far as you can and as you understand it, on the teachings of Jesus (Matthew 7:13-28).

What does it mean to seek “kingdom” and “righteousness” first?

The word first probably can be taken metaphorically: seek them as the main priority:

  1. Try to make the church successful, not merely yourself. The financial principle for success known as “pay yourself first” should be “pay the church first” or “pay the Lord first.” In Scripture, this might mean anything from showing hospitality, to feeding the poor, and paying pastors.
  2. When a choice comes between doing the right thing and gaining some other good, choose to be righteous rather than receive good.  [4]
  3. This might be too literal, but start your day off with prayer.
  4. Jesus may also couple kingdom with righteousness here to remind us that the kingdom should only be pursued “righteously.” The ends don’t justify evil means in God’s kingdom.[5]
  5. It means to seek the other things, “not as the gentiles do,” in other words seek clothes, but not obsessively. Seek money, but like Proverbs says, “know when to desist” (Proverbs 23:4). Get property, but use it to bless others (see Proverbs 31).

What does “all these things will be added to you” mean?

In the ancient world, there were competing theories of what caused true human happiness or “the good life.”

For instance, Aristotle thought that we needed good of the body, external goods, and goods of the soul to have true happiness. The Old Testament has a similar picture in that the good life consists in health, family, honor, land, righteousness, and relatedness to God.[6]

The Stoics, on the other hand, thought that the good life/happiness consisted solely in having virtuous character.

Jesus appears to agree with the Old Testament version of the good life here because he uses the bodily and material blessings as motivation for putting righteousness and the kingdom first. Life is more than food and clothes, but it isn’t less than food and clothes.

While one can have true happiness without possessions, health, and so-on, Jesus acknowledges that these things are often necessary for life and important for happiness. Thus, he shows that one can have them without making them your main priority in life.[7] Elsewhere, Jesus makes this claim: “And all who leave houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children, or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:29). In Mark’s gospel, two things are added: “persecutions” and “in this life and the life to come” (Mark 10:28-29).

The point seems to be that loyalty to the kingdom of God and participation in the church (a group of people who are trying to care for one another the way Jesus loves us) even when things get hard, will lead to being taken care of. There’s not some mystical hope for magic provisions here (though the Lord can do that). There’s also not a woefully disregarded or infinitely deferred promise to make people happy. Instead, Jesus is saying that the fact of the matter is that kingdom people will take care of each other and virtue often leads to provision, and those facts are part of what makes the gospel good news.

Conclusion

Seeking first the kingdom and righteousness is not just “woo-woo” speech or meaningless Christianese for “being spiritual.”

It is a practical command that has real world application and is meant to be put into practice in our relationship to the church family of which we are a part and to the sort of habits and character traits we acquire for ourselves.

Also, the command is related directly to the human pursuit of happiness by dislodging external and bodily goods from the center of happiness while still giving them due place in the taxonomy of goods that make us happy.

References

[1] Scot McKnight, Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church, 2014, 205-206

[2] He is right and if you request it I’ll catalog his evidence and add some of my own.

[3] Virtues like justice/righteousness in the ancient world were understood to be in relationship to one’s citizenship. Jesus means, “The righteousness appropriate or proper” for a citizen of God’s kingdom. It’s not just “universal righteousness,” but righteousness that can only make sense in the context of living in the kingdom of God now.

[4] Don’t buy into the lie that doing the right thing always has a negative result. That is a whiny mindset that will give you a defeatist attitude and it simply isn’t always true. Goodness is not always a tragic sacrifice.

[5] There are exceptions to this in Scripture, wherein the Lord will use evil people to accomplish good, but when the Bible tells us to imitate God is always about his mercy, holiness, or love. It is never with respect to God’s manipulation of specific historical events.

[6] Perhaps the best book on the nature of happiness in the Bible is R. N Whybray, The Good Life in the Old Testament (London: T & T Clark, 2002). Every chapter is filled with sound interpretive wisdom.

[7] Observe that making food and clothes one’s main priority can jeopardize one’s eternal happiness. The value tradeoff makes no sense.

 

On Weekly Church Attendance and the Gospel in the New Testament

Why Do People Not Go to Church?
It is very easy to find church attendance unpleasant.

I have enjoyed going to church services since my early teenage years, but mostly because my bent has always been toward the philosophical and sermons offer (when done well) a great deal of food for thought.

But I still remember being in high school and finding the singing, the hugs, and the other bits unpleasant. Some people feel that being there Sunday morning is a waste of time, some would rather watch sports, do chores, sleep off a hangover, or make money on Sunday.

Another reason not to go is if church tries to be “cool.” When I’m around people faking being cool I feel embarrassed for them. It’s worse when it is a person doing something that is categorically weird (giving a lecture on a weekend).

Why Might Christians Not Go to Church?
There is an even deeper issue many of us have with church attendance though. Many times the way that the good news of Jesus is explained excludes the church from being a part of the deal. Does this sound familiar:

If you want to go to heaven when you die, then admit to God that you’re sinful, believe that Jesus died for you, and ask God to forgive you. You don’t need to do special good works, you don’t need a priest or church to say so, you’re a Christian.

Now, I have no doubt that the Lord works to redeem us silly creatures with a very minimal or in some cases highly inaccurate understandings of God and God’s will. The point of John 3:16 is that God did everything reasonable, necessary, and possible to make sure that sinners would experience eternal life.

But, the particular way of summarizing the good news of Jesus in question makes church attendance and membership seem utterly peripheral. Thus, if it is boring, then why even go? There is no warrant to treat it as a duty. On top of that, many evangelical teachers claim that duty and ideals are bad things! How could people not be confused about going to church? If church attendance isn’t a duty, isn’t related to being a Christian at all, and has no entertainment value, then why go?

Last Minute Thought: Some people may avoid church due to pangs of conscience like somebody off the wagon who avoids his NA meetings.

The Gospel Message and the Church Community
On the other hand, let us look more clearly at the way the gospel authors summarize Jesus’ message:

Mark 1:14-15 ESV  Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God,  (15)  and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

Jesus’ version of the gospel is that God’s kingdom is at hand. This phrase means a lot when you dig into the rest of Mark’s gospel, but for now, let’s focus on one reality related to kingdoms. To look at it requires two questions: Who is in charge of a kingdom? Who lives in a kingdom? If you answered

  1. King
  2. People

then you are correct.

Jesus’ very message entailed that there would be a community of people who lived under God’s rule and reign in Israel and indeed, in the whole world. To believe the gospel message that Jesus preached is to believe oneself a citizen of God’s kingdom and thus, in later New Testament lingo, a member of the church.

Grace and Form
So evangelicals who are zealous to explain how God saves us by grace and not meritorious works, need to learn to explain that the message of grace is given in order to create a community.

Here is a concept that might help. Grace, like any other gift must be received as it is. Grace has form.

To Illustrate: If I am offered a gift card for a burger, and I go in and demand free lasagna, I have misapprehended the form of the gift. To receive the free gift, I must receive that gift. Similarly, if I try to accept God’s grace of salvation, but do not accept the form in which it is offered (entrance into a community), then am I really receiving it? God, in his graciousness, forgives us of many misunderstandings, but if God’s grace is meant to make a “people of his own possession, zealous for good works (Titus 2:14),” then receiving God’s grace without being part of such a community seems like a questionable proposition. Surely it can and has been done, but why try?

Many popular preachers define grace as “unmerited forgiveness.” A better definition of it is “unmerited gift.” Even then, this short-circuits its meaning in ancient culture. Grace by definition was offered freely, but receiving grace came with an expectation of loyalty or at least of thanksgiving in return (see DeSilva Honor, Patronage Kinship, and Purity). As Dallas Willard would say, “Grace is opposed to earning not to effort,” or in this case grace is opposed to earning, not to responding and receiving.

Now, the form of grace  that Jesus offers in the New Testament is an invitation to be Jesus’ disciple with Jesus’ people. One could also say that grace is offered as an invitation to believe Jesus’ message because it comes from Jesus, who is completely trustworthy. So, to receive the grace Jesus offers is to receive Jesus. To receive the message of God’s kingdom is, by implication, to accept the invitation to become citizens of God’s kingdom or members of God’s family.

Conclusion
Reframing the gospel message to include what Jesus and the gospel authors say about the gospel is very important for helping people to understand why going to church is important. Church attendance is important because we believe the gospel message. The gospel message offers entrance into a kingdom filled with God’s people. No people, no kingdom; and no kingdom means, no gospel. The people of God meet for church services every week to offer praise to God and to build one another up. The church is and does more than weekly services. But the church is not less than it’s services. To believe the gospel is to agree that barring impossible circumstances, we will be with God with his people regularly.

Body of Christ

Nick posted about the Body of Christ. His chief insight, which is true, is that Jesus himself, though head of the church, is a member of the church. This is because the head is a member of the body. It reminded me of how a man I work with prays. He prays, “In the name of our older brother, Jesus.” Sometimes people mention to me that that find this unusual. So I point them to these passages (ESV today, didn’t feel like translating this morning):

Mat 12:48-50  He asked the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”  (49)  Then pointing with his hand at his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers,  (50)  because whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Rom 8:29  For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that the Son might be the firstborn among many brothers.

Heb 2:10-18  It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering as part of his plan to glorify many children,  (11)  because both the one who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified all have the same Father. That is why Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers  (12)  when he says, “I will announce your name to my brothers. I will praise you within the congregation.”  (13)  And again, “I will trust him.” And again, “I am here with the children God has given me.”  (14)  Therefore, since the children have flesh and blood, he himself also shared the same things, so that by his death he might destroy the one who has the power of death (that is, the devil)  (15)  and might free those who were slaves all their lives because they were terrified by death.  (16)  For it is clear that he did not come to help angels. No, he came to help Abraham’s descendants,  (17)  thereby becoming like his brothers in every way, so that he could be a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God and could atone for the people’s sins.  (18)  Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

Conclusion
Without any in depth exegesis, it can be seen that from the point of view of the gospel writers, of Paul, and of the author of Hebrews (Paul according to Dave Black) that Jesus is our brother and we are his. He is not less our Lord for this, but he does look after us as an old steward who ensures that those within the family of God remain in good graces with the Father of the house. In other words, if we wish to know how to be the beneficiaries of the house, is should look to Jesus. If we want to know what the beneficiaries receive, we should look to Jesus. If we want to know how to deal with sufferings and persecutions, we should look to Jesus. If we wish to know what to do when our household memberships are in conflict, we should look to Jesus. Jesus is the head of the church, but not merely in the authoritarian sense. He is the head of the church in the sense of being its first member, of being the older brother of those who are members, and in the sense of being the paradigm for membership.