But Seek First

Sermon preached on Matthew 6:31-34 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 9/14/2014 in Novato, CA

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
Matthew 6:31-34

But Seek First

Today’s passage is a culmination of a major theme in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In this chapter, Jesus has been challenging us to consider what is our heart’s desire. He has called us to consider what we’ve been seeking. Is our heart fixed on earthly treasure, or heavenly treasure? Is it your delight to serve God or earthly wealth? What is your focus in how you live? Most recently, we saw last week that we need to be on guard against having an undue concern for even our most basic earthly needs such as food and clothing. This all comes to a culmination here in verse 33. What should our heart be fixed upon? What should we be seeking above all else? We are to seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness. This is to be our desire and our pursuit and our ultimate concern in life. This, of course, will be different that what the unbelieving world seeks.

And so in today’s message, I want us to first briefly note what the Gentiles seek after. Second, I want us to consider this seeking that God’s people are to be doing. Third, we’ll consider the encouragement that all the other things will be added unto us who seek like Jesus describes here. Lastly, we’ll tie this all together with the gospel by asking how it is that a sinner would seek such things.

Let’s begin then with considering the seeking of the Gentiles. This is verse 32. To start, let’s make sure we know what a Gentile is. In the most immediate sense, a Gentile is a non-Israelite. At the time, this was a way to refer to all the unbelieving nations that were made up of heathens that did not know the one true God. Bear in mind, that at that time Jesus came to the Israelite people and that they were essentially the visible church at the time. But now, there’s been a bit of a shift here. Now, Christ has sent his disciples out to these nations to proclaim the gospel and to make disciples of Christ. The New Testament goes on to show that if an Israelite rejects Christ and the gospel, they have spiritually become a Gentile — in other words, not a part of God’s people. On the other hand, if a Gentile receives Christ and the gospel in faith, they have spiritually become a true Israelite. So that’s to say that when we see Jesus talk about Gentiles here in verse 32, we should think about this now in spiritual terms. I assume we all here are Gentiles according to the flesh, but not spiritually. So, to talk about the pursuits of these Gentiles here, we should at this point understand the term of Gentiles to essentially refer to heathens. Those who are not a part of God’s kingdom. That would even include Israelites who have rejected Christ. They are not a part of the Messiah’s kingdom because they have rejected the Messiah, and so they are now just a part of the unbelieving nations. That’s why Jesus had his disciples shake the dust off their feet as they left towns that rejected Christ’s message.

So, then, with that background, we see that the unbelieving nations are described by Jesus as seekers of earthly needs. Based on our reflection on this passage last week, hopefully you’ll recall that this included things like food and clothing. What is implied here is that if the Gentiles are seeking these earthly needs, then they are surely worried and anxious about them. The context of verse 31 says we should not be worried and anxious about such basic needs, but rather according to verse 32 we should be encouraged at God’s fatherly care and provision for us. But, of course, these pagans from the nations do not know that God, let alone have our God as their heavenly father. So, we are not surprised that would commonly fret about such basic provisions and put their focus and energy first and foremost into what they believe is most basic to their survival. However, from the perspective of divine wisdom, and in the words of Solomon, this is “vanity”, “a chasing after the wind.” There is something so much more to life than food and clothing, but the Gentiles have not known this, and so they seek first these basic necessities, as if that was the most important thing.

God’s people, however, are called to seek something better. That’s the “but” in verse 33. But, we are to seek something different. And so let’s turn now to consider what and how God is calling us to seek. Verse 33, “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you.” Let’s begin with that word “first.” To say it simply, we’re called to seek God’s kingdom and his righteousness first and foremost. Our religion is to be the priority in our life. It is to have the primacy in all our desires. Our Christian faith and hope is to be the supreme thing in our lives. It is to be the chief end in all that we say, think, and do. And so make no mistake, the call of God to the Christian is to not just have a part of your desires or a part of your allegiances. Your top priority and your supreme allegiance and your complete loyalty must be to God.

When we think of what we seek first, we think of many noble causes that the world has said should be our top priority. Many a pagan has rightly understood that life is more than just earthly wealth. They might instead say that what is most important is family and relationships. And so they seek the cultivation of those first and foremost. Of course family and relationships are so very important, and yet it’s not what Jesus calls us to seek first. Or, you can think of how many sometimes strip very important phrases say from the Declaration of Independence and set them as their first priority. Things like liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I again agree that those are noble pursuits and worthy of our heart’s concern. But they, must not be first and foremost what we seek. And so there are many things that vie to be first in someone’s pursuits. Other things you might hear today are so called pursuits of equality, or pursuit of social justice, or the pursuit of world peace, etc, etc. Many things that people pour all their energies into are for noble causes; many are not. Take any cause people are passionate about, and there is a temptation for it to become first. It might not be even some grand and glorious cause. It might be something more mundane. Like sports: either playing or watching. Or some club you belong to. Or your career. Your reputation. The health of your stock portfolio, or your garden. Who knows? Well, you probably do. If not, God surely knows. And yet none of these things, good, bad, or indifferent, in themselves should be “first” in what we seek.

You see, each of us today should hear Jesus call in verse 33 and begin to analyze what is “first” in our lives. And this then goes back the previous lesson in this chapter. Whatever you seek first, is really whom you are serving. It is really your god. Just remember the first commandment. You shall have no other gods before me. God says that he reserves himself for first. Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness. And so analyze and assess this again today. Have you sought first God’s kingdom and his righteousness? Or have you tried to get by with God’s things as second in your life? Or maybe third? Or maybe God has fallen to very low on your priority list? If so, are you actually thinking of him as God?

God calls us to seek him and his things first. Time and again we see this in the Scripture. In the Old Testament we see it with the offerings. Give of the first of your dough. Give of the first ripe fruits of the land. Give of the firstborn of the animals. God calls for our devotion in the first, in the highest, in the best.

So then, let’s think about what it means then to actually seek his kingdom and his righteousness. Two things we are told to seek first. Let’s consider first about seeking his kingdom. What does it mean? Remember, we’ve said that the kingdom is a central theme in the Sermon on the Mount. What does it mean to seek first the kingdom? Well, think already and not yet. Already we can seek and find his kingdom. At the same time, there is a “not yet” component to seeking his kingdom. That we will seek it here but not find it fully until “kingdom come,” when Christ returns.

To think about the “already” component to seeking and finding the kingdom, think in terms of entrance into the kingdom. Jesus has been teaching about entering into the kingdom. We’ve said that we do that by hearing the gospel call and believing it and turning in faith to Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. In other words, we enter the kingdom by realizing how we’ve not earned a place in it. We’ve actually earned to be not allowed into his kingdom. But by the grace held out to us in Christ, we receive entrance into his kingdom by faith. So as we seek this kingdom, we find it by grace through faith. Praise the Lord.

But to clarify, even though in that sense the Christian has already “found” the kingdom, we don’t stop here. You see, part of what God’s kingdom is all about, is that God’s kingdom is where his rule and reign is overtly present, particularly through his Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. I think of Psalm 2. There it describes how the nations are not seeking God’s messianic kingdom. They are actually taking their stand against that kingdom. They will fail of course. But Psalm 2:12 tells us that the opposite of such rebellion is to, “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.” And so to seek his kingdom, as a Christian, is not just a onetime thing where you come into his kingdom by grace and then live from then on as if you are not a part of that kingdom. No, not at all. Rather, we continue to seek his kingdom in that we submit to the son of God’s kingship. And our allegiance is in service to his throne. We identify ourselves to the world as one of his subjects. Now that we live as spiritually a part of his kingdom, we are ambassadors of that kingdom to a world that is still in rebellion to his kingdom.

And so we can appreciate why Jesus pairs our seeking of his kingdom with the seeking of righteousness. They go hand in hand. For Christ to be king of this kingdom that we are to seek, it means he is the Sovereign. It means he is Lord. It means he gets to tell us what is right and what is wrong. It means he defines righteousness for us. It means that to seek his kingdom, we are seeking to submit to his laws; to his righteousness. It’s virtually the same thing to say that we seek his kingdom and we seek his righteousness. And yet we can, with the lenses of Scripture, reflect further on what it will look like here and now to seek his righteousness. That is what we want to do in a sermon like this, is to really think through what it will look like to do something like seek his righteousness.

And so, again, I think of an already and a not yet, when it comes to righteousness. As Christians we seek a righteousness that we find right away in Christ. We call this an alien righteousness. In other words, it’s a righteousness outside of ourselves, but is imputed or counted as our own. In other words, when you first become a believer and turn to Jesus Christ, you are seeking to be seen by God as righteous. You are not actually righteous on your own record. You are a sinner; you are unrighteous. But the gospel says that by faith in Jesus Christ, your sin has been atoned for on the cross, and Jesus’ perfect righteousness is now legally counted as your own. This is what legally allows you to be in his kingdom and not a criminal of his kingdom. In God’s legal eyes, we have sought and found righteousness through being united to Christ in faith.

Hopefully then, the not yet aspect of our seeking and finding righteousness is pretty clear. Now, as subjects of Christ’s kingdom we seek not just that alien righteousness, but also personal righteousness. We’ve already described that under the topic of seeking his kingdom. That is something we are to seek here and now, even though we won’t find it perfectly in this life. But God gives us of his Word and Spirit to grow us in the seeking of righteousness. And we look forward to the coming of his kingdom in glory when he will perfect us. Then that seeking will culminate in a final finding of righteousness that will be ours personally and at our core.

And so as we seek his kingdom and his righteousness, first, this then defines our secondary priorities. If our first priority is to God’s kingdom and his righteousness, then we suddenly have a lot of secondary priorities that naturally fall out of that first priority. I know I will have to be hard working and busy about my daily calling because I have sought first to serve King Jesus. Because King Jesus told me to do that! And I recognize the value of things like liberty and pursuit of happiness within the context of God’s kingdom and his righteousness, because my king has taught me the proper way to think about those things. And I can now discern between a righteous pursuit of equality in terms of how God defines equality, versus Gentile thinking that wants to say that certain behavior is equally good and right even though God’s law disagrees. Again, I can discern this because I’ve said I will first seek God’s kingdom and his righteousness. That first priority informs how I think about everything else. It governs all my secondary pursuits in life.

What I want to do next briefly is consider the encouragement given at the end of verse 33. Jesus says if we first seek these things he tells us to seek, then “all these things will be added to you.” He’s talking about the things like our basic needs that the Gentiles seek. Things like the food and clothing that he assured us that we don’t need to worry about, because he as our heavenly father knows that we need them. How are we to understand this promise? Well, let me start by saying that we should not understand it in some simplistic way. The health and wealth preachers of prosperity theology tend to do that. They will tend to take a promise like this and in some simplistic way say that if you but focus on Christ, you will not have any needs in this life. Though I can appreciate wanting to take this in a simplistic way, we need to interpret Scripture with Scripture. With just a few moments of reflection, several other passages help to inform this. Think for example of Mark 10:29-30; there Jesus assures us that Christians who have made sacrifices in this life for Christ’s sake will receive back a hundredfold. He even distinguishes between the here and now in this life, and what we’ll receive in eternity, namely eternal life. But when Jesus talks about the blessings that will come in this life, he adds the note “with persecutions.” So, yes, Christians can trust in God’s provisions, but not in such a simplistic way that would rule out the various troubles in this life. Surely, there have been many Christians who’ve gone without their daily provisions. Just take the Apostle Paul for example. He describes his trials as a Christian Apostle in 2 Corinthians 11:27 that it included at times being in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and nakedness. In other words, Paul experienced nakedness, hunger, and thirst, while seeking first God’s kingdom and his righteousness! Do you see how this prevents us from taking a simplistic view of this promise in Matthew 6:33?

And yet, the promise that all things shall be added unto us in Matthew 6:33 is actually meant to encourage us. It’s not meant to be a promise qualified so much that it loses its value to encourage. How then does it encourage us? Here and now, one thing we can surely affirm is what Paul says in Philippians 4 which we read earlier: faced with either hunger or plenty, he learned that he could do all things through Christ who gave him strength.

In other words, if our first priority is the kingdom of heaven, how can a momentarily loss of earthly provisions keep us from that goal? No, rather, they strengthen our connection to God’s kingdom. They grow us to show the fleeting nature of the world, that any sustenance I take in here and now, can only satisfy for a fleeting moment, and ultimately leaves me more hungry. In the times of plenty and in the times of want, God will use them to strengthen the Christian. To wean us off of a reliance on the here and now. To long all the more for the kingdom to come in its glory.

In other words, the promise of verse 33 is a true encouragement. God will see to our ultimate well being. God has the big picture in mind. Even if for now, God gives you times of hunger and thirst and nakedness, maybe even because you bear his name, know that “all these things shall be added unto you.” In the end, our relatively “light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” And so let the promise of “and all these things shall be added to you,” let it deeply encourage you. But don’t take it in some superficial, earthly, material thing. If you hold on to it in such a superficial way, I would wonder if you have actually sought first the kingdom of heaven. That’s where this is all headed: the kingdom of heaven coming to bring us to glory. Be encouraged that all our seeking first of his kingdom and righteousness will have the added benefit of eternal provision. In part even here and now with persecution. And in the full in glory, with no more persecutions or tribulations of any sort!

So then, dear friends in Christ, how is it that we sinners have been able to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness?” How have we been able to seek this in the past, and how will we be able to continue to seek this? How is it that a sinner, with a depraved mind, would want to seek such? Isn’t that even the concern of passages like Romans 9:11, that there is none who seeks after God? And yet here we are today, in our imperfect ways, seeking these things. How is that us Gentiles according to the flesh, no longer seek the things that the Gentiles do? Oh, it’s all by the grace of God. That Christ first came to seek and save that which was lost. Christ had to seek first us, in order for us to be able to seek him. He first sought us by coming to earth and going to the cross. And then he first sought us by his Spirit coming to us to draw us to him in faith.

So then, as we have first been sought by God, let us now seek him, and his kingdom, and his righteousness. But I urge you to learn a lesson from the past. In Romans 9 it talks about how the Jews fell into the trap of trying to seek righteousness by works, and they stumbled because of that. Instead, they needed to seek that by faith. May we too keep that in the forefront then of our seeking the kingdom and his righteousness. May we never think it’s something we earn. May we seek instead these things by faith. That as we receive them, we’d see it as a gift from above. Seek them then by faith to receive them as a grace of God. And that is what it’s all about. None of us could earn our way into the kingdom and none of us could be righteous enough on our own. If we seek first these things by our own works, we’ll never have them. If we seek them in faith to be received as a gift of God in Christ; because of Christ who earned them from us, then be assured that these are yours. Yours already and yours to come even more fully at glory. And so let God be praised even in our seeking! Amen.

Copyright © 2014 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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