Seeking the Kingdom First

Dr. Brian Allison

A little while ago, I attended a ministerial meeting. It was a seminar format, and the theme for the morning was "Preaching the Hard Sayings of Jesus;" that is, the sayings of Jesus that challenge us, particularly we who live in a contemporary society in the West at the end of the twentieth century. The hard sayings of Jesus are His words that we either find difficult to understand or difficult to actually live out because we are so comfortable in our present lifestyle. We have become used to convenience and ease; and when some of the sayings of Jesus confront us with their straightforward meaning, we are challenged; and sometimes we react to what we read. We may insist that Jesus is too demanding, and that He requires too much from us; that the expectations are unreasonable.

At the ministerial meeting, we watched a video pertaining to preaching the hard sayings of Jesus; and after the video, we had a discussion. One minister said that in addressing these hard sayings, we must remember that often "we are reading someone else's mail." I do not accept that. Often we 'water down' the Gospel. We come up with countless excuses in order to avoid the demands and claims of Christ; and thus justify our laziness, lack of commitment, and worldliness because we recognize exactly what Jesus is saying, and yet we deceive ourselves by saying, "Jesus really did not mean that," or, "He did not really intend that for us." Well, we are not reading someone else's mail. It is our mail; and Jesus is speaking to us who live in the West and have become used to comfort and convenience.

A hard saying of Jesus

Matthew 6:33 is one of the hard sayings of Jesus, "But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you." The wider context of this verse is that of money and wealth. Jesus has much to say about this area of our lives. Sometimes we do not like hearing His words because they touch us where we live, and it hurts. Money can be a very emotional issue. If there is one thing that can arouse our emotions, and even cause us to feel distressed, it is money, especially when the bills roll in and there is little, if any, money to cover them. We can become very anxious over this whole issue of money, saying, for instance, "Am I going to have enough to look after this expense?"; or "Am I going to have enough to meet that scheduled payment?"; or "How much do we have to bank in order to make up the RRSP?"; or "Are we going to be able to buy these items for the kids?"

Money is an emotional issue, and often it generates much anxiety in us as we wonder how we are going to make ends meet, how we are going to survive. Was money an emotional issue for you this past week? Jesus says, "Do not worry about money." But you may respond, "Yes, Lord, but do You know my desperate situation? Do You know my debt load? Do You know the financial commitments that are right around the corner?" And Jesus still says, "Do not worry about money – do not worry about what you are going to eat, or what you are going to drink, or what clothes you are going to wear. Rather than worrying, you should be seeking." Jesus says, "Unbelievers in the world worry about money – they worry about how they are going to survive, how they are going to make ends meet. They worry about food and clothes and everything else. The unbeliever worries; but as believers, you are not to worry. But rather, you are to seek." We are to seek first God's kingdom, and God's righteousness, and all our physical needs will be met. Do you believe that?

A question of priority

Now, Jesus does not say that we should not seek to secure food, or that we should not seek to secure drink, or that we should not seek to secure clothes, shelter, and all the other necessities of life. What He does say is that we are to seek first the kingdom and God's righteousness. Many professing Christians are seeking first the things of this life – houses, vacations, possessions, fine dining, entertainment, etc. – which clearly reveals their bent for worldliness. Jesus is talking about priority; and He says that our priority is to seek God's kingdom and righteousness.

To seek means to diligently pursue, to endeavour to find something. There are the notions of focus and goal implied in this concept. Further, in order to seek something, there must first be a desire in the heart. It is interesting that as we consider the Sermon on the Mount (in which our text is found), there is a parallel idea in Matthew 5:6, which helps us to understand this concept of seeking, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied." To seek means to deeply long for something, to earnestly follow after something. That is what Jesus is saying in terms of our responsibility with respect to His kingdom and righteousness. Seeking God's kingdom and righteousness should be at the top of our agenda. Is it for you?

God's reign and presence

When we think of the kingdom of God or heaven, we are simply thinking about the reign of God – His sovereign rule. So, when Jesus says that we are to seek His kingdom first, what He is saying is that we are to live in such a way that we acknowledge the sovereign rule of God in our lives, recognizing that He reigns in our hearts; that we are to be fully submitted to His rule; that we should bow the knee to His kingship. God is in complete charge, and in humbly accepting and responding to this truth, we are seeking the kingdom. And, of course, the reality of God's reign over us necessarily suggests that God's presence confronts us daily. If God is on His throne, if He is reigning, and if we are to submit to that reign, what we are saying is that God's presence is here, and we are to acknowledge that presence. In fact, that is the thrust of the Old Testament language which foretells the coming of the kingdom of God. It is God's presence which was to come; and thus the coming of the kingdom is synonymous with the coming of the Spirit of God. With the Spirit's coming, the kingdom arrived – God is indeed among His people. The Spirit makes God known to us, and as God is made known to us, we must respond in submission to Him.

Seeking means repenting

Now, when we think of God's kingdom – His manifested presence – the chief characteristic that we have in view is that of holiness. Now, I want to emphasize this because it relates to what is involved in seeking the kingdom. God's kingdom is characterized by holiness, because God Himself is characterized by holiness. Practically speaking, what does it mean, therefore, to seek His kingdom, in the light of this truth? We seek His kingdom through repentance. Recall that when John the Baptist began His ministry, we read that he preached, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Mt. 3:2). John said, in effect, "There needs to be a radical change in lifestyle so that your lifestyle corresponds or correlates to the very character of the kingdom." It is a kingdom of holiness, therefore we must repent from our sin (i.e., be separated from evil) if we are to enter that kingdom. Recall that after the baptism and temptation of our Lord, we read in Matthew 4:17, "From that time Jesus began to preach and say, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.'" If we are to seek His kingdom, then we are to live a life of repentance.

Some of us, as professing Christians, do not believe that we ought to be daily repenting, daily examining our lives to see where we stand before God, opening ourselves up to the search light of the Spirit of God so that He might reveal to us the remaining sin that dwells in our flesh; and that we might be confronted by that sin, humbled by that sin, and, by God's grace, turn away from that sin and turn to God. If we are to seek His kingdom, then we are to pursue repentance. In our repentance, we are seeking the kingdom. Recall the teaching of our Lord in Matthew 18:3, in which He says, "Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven." The kingdom is already here, yet it is that into which we are still to enter; and a radical change of behaviour is the door way into that eternal kingdom.

Of course, when we think of repentance and conversion, the notion of humility is prominent. We continue on in Matthew 18:4, "Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." Humility, as opposed to pride, is essential for kingdom participation. But more than that is required. Matthew 19:23 reads, "Jesus said to His disciples, 'Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.'" What is Jesus saying? To seek the kingdom requires undivided, undiminished devotion to Him. The kingdom has to be our first love, our first commitment – not our job, not our family, not our wealth, but the kingdom, God Himself. Jesus says that if there is something else that takes our first love, our first commitment, then we will fail to enter the kingdom. Are you seeking the kingdom first? Are you endeavouring to live your life under the sovereign rule of God, submitting to His absolute reign? Is your life characterized by repentance? Did the Spirit try your heart this past week and reveal your sin; or did you come to the end of another week, thinking that you are okay, that you did not commit many wrongs, and that you really have nothing to confess, nothing to repent of?

Righteousness and obedience

Not only are we to seek the kingdom first, but we are to seek God's righteousness first. These two concepts are two sides of the same coin. In seeking righteousness, we are to earnestly endeavour to conform to God's law; we are to diligently embrace the truth of His Word. When we think about seeking God's righteousness, we are simply thinking about pursuing His moral will for us, that is, what is the right thing to do. Or to use similar language, we seek God's righteousness when we endeavour to live a life of absolute, pervasive obedience, striving to be just like Him, reflecting His moral character – the law of God is a transcript of His moral character. As we endeavour to conform to the commandments of God, as we endeavour to embrace and obey the teachings of Christ, we are pursuing righteousness; and we are to do this first, not as an afterthought, not something we think about just before we go to bed, or something we momentarily turn to when we wake up. Consider Matthew 7:21ff., "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day [the day of judgement, the final day of human history], 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy [preach] in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?' And then I will declare to them [those who did not do the will of God], 'I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS [or unrighteousness].'" Seeking righteousness means submitting to, and carrying out, the will of God.

Matthew 5:20 reads, "For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven." As believers, we must have more than merely an external righteousness, simply conforming to some rigid code of ethics. Jesus is saying that our righteousness has to touch, and flow from, the very core of our being; that we must have an internal, spiritual righteousness that goes beyond simply appearing to do the right thing. There are many people who appear to do the right thing, but all they have is a religious or formal righteousness, a righteousness of 'the scribes and Pharisees'. Jesus says that the righteousness that we need to pursue is a righteousness that concerns the heart – we must have clean thoughts, pure desires, and right motives. Unless we have a righteousness that touches the heart, a spiritual righteousness, we will not enter into the kingdom.

Did you earnestly pursue the righteousness of God this past week? Were you really concerned about what you thought, how you felt, and what you desired? Did you take pains to bring your heart into conformity to the will of God, taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ? Were you disturbed when you had that evil thought, or when you had that carnal desire? Did it break you? My friend, if it did not disturb you, if it did not break you, then you may not have a righteousness of the heart; but rather, you may have a Pharisaical righteousness, a mere external righteousness; and thus you will not enter into the kingdom.

All physical needs met

Now, if we pursue God's kingdom and righteousness with all our heart, Jesus says that He will look after all of our physical needs, both now and in the future. We will not have to worry about putting our money into RRSP's; we will not have to worry about putting in overtime in order to secure extra funds for household expenses (though God's blessings do not simply fall out of the sky; He does expect us to work). Our heavenly Father knows exactly what we need; and He owns the cattle on a thousand hills, there is absolutely nothing too difficult for Him; and He will bless and multiply your efforts. Many Christians do not believe this; and that is why they have been 'sweating it' this past week; and they have not believed this for awhile. Jesus says that the only thing that we need to be concerned about is pursuing God's presence and pursuing to be just like Him; and then God will look after everything else for us. His Word is true; and so, I leave you with the question: Have you pursued His kingdom and His righteousness this past week?