Wednesday, 17 March 2010

First Things First

We are going to be looking at seven firsts in the Gospel of Matthew. They are scriptures that help us understand what should be our priorities in life; ‘First be reconciled to your brother....’ Matt 5.24 ‘First remove the plank from your own eye....’ Matt 7.5 are two examples of what I mean. I will return to them at a later time. The first ‘first’ I want to explore sets the tone for the whole gospel. It is recorded as part of the Sermon on the Mount in Matt 6.33. It is the priority that is the benchmark against which all the others make sense.

But seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added to you.

The scripture comes at the end of Jesus teaching about money and provision that begins in Matt 6.19 till the end of the chapter. We have already explored Matt 6.19-21. In vs22-23 we have some idiomatic speech. Jesus is referring to being generous. This is what it means to have a ‘good’ eye. Generosity of spirit has a way of affecting our entire outlook on life.

The real challenge begins in vs24. We can only serve one master. Serving two is not an option. A choice must be made; God or riches. From vs25 onwards Jesus helps us to see the difference between a person who allows God to be their master and one who finds their security in riches. Three times in the next ten verses the command comes from the lips of Jesus; “Do not worry”, vs25, 31 and 34. It is explicit. It is emphatic. It is not negotiable.

What becomes our preoccupation says a lot about who we are serving. The anxious person worries about life, what to eat, drink and wear; “For all these things the gentiles seek”, Matt 6.32. These people are in effect serving riches. Jesus is direct in His challenge of adopting such a posture. He asks six questions designed to make us to see the total futility of worrying over something that we have very little control over. The first question is telling; “Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?”

The problem with worry and anxiety is that it robs us of life, real living. Jesus came to bring life – life to the full, John 10.10. Food, drink and clothing are vital to staying alive. But we were created for something more than survival. We were created to be ambassadors for the Kingdom. Jesus is pushing His hearers to move into a realm of trust and confidence in God that allows them to truly live and fulfil their destiny.

His next four questions are all framed by an appeal to consider creation, the birds of the air and the lilies of the field; both common everyday realities of life. Notice Jesus’ words; “Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow, nor reap, nor gather into barns”; something all farmers do every year, throughout their lifetime. “Yet your Heavenly Father feeds them”. This statement challenges the view that God has created the universe with natural laws and now sits back and watches it all operate without any intervention. God feeds the birds! That is amazing. He personally intervenes to care for the birds.

Now comes Jesus second question; “Are you of not more value than they?” I find this a very heart-searching question. My own experience and years of pastoral ministry have convinced me that many people suffer from low self esteem. To use the language of Jesus, they do not place a high value on who they are. But Jesus has introduced us to the concept of a Heavenly Father who cares; cares about all of creation and therefore cares about us – the pinnacle of that creation. For we alone bear His image.

To reinforce the point another question is fired off by Jesus; “Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?” A cubit is about 18 inches or 46 cms. Scientists say that a person can begin a day as much as one inch taller than when they went to bed the night before! That is because the spine compresses during the day through the effects of gravity. Lying horizontally allows the spine to decompress and so you can appear to grow slightly. But that’s it. Worry doesn’t do that, physics does and only by an inch. His point? Worrying changes nothing!

The previous verses in Matthew are a reminder that our Father in Heaven sees and rewards us when we do a charitable deed, or pray or fast. God is watching. God is involved. He is not an absent landlord. Matt 6.8 and 6.32 are very similar. Our Father knows what we need before we ask. And in Matt 7.11 a contrast is made between earthly fathers who, despite their brokenness, still know how to give good things to their children and our Heavenly Father who gives good things to those who ask Him.

Two issues emerge. Do we really believe God cares – about us, you and me? Does He place any value on us? And if He does, do we agree with His estimation? Can I value me? For how I see myself in relationship to God will have a direct bearing on whether I can trust him with my life, what I will eat or drink or wear - my future. By the time Jesus has finished talking about the lilies of the field, that can grow and perish in a day, we are left with our forth question, “... will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?” Matt 6.30

And so we face the real challenge. It is actually a faith challenge. Faith has two essential prerequisites according to Heb 11.6. That God is and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him. And to seek Him is to seek His kingdom. God is a rewarder. That lines up with Matt 6. He rewards the one who gives a charitable deed in secret. All of this points to a God who acts like a Father. He cares. He takes responsibility to act. He is involved. But we must position our hearts to trust Him and this requires faith.

This is why the prayer he taught his disciples to pray is a kingdom prayer. It doesn’t begin with us and our needs. It begins with our Father in Heaven and how worthy He is of our worship. Not only that, it is corporate – ‘Our Father’. We are in this together. We believe together. And if you have nothing I will share what I have with you, for this is Kingdom living. And this is how it worked out in the early church in Acts 2. People sold houses and lands to provide for others in the community who lacked. They were living out the Sermon on the Mount.

Now we are approaching our key text. But before we get there Jesus gives us some direction. In effect He is telling us to change our language, to change our confession. Stop saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” That is the language of people who don’t know they have a Father in Heaven. It is the language of unbelief. It is the language of anxiety. It is the language of serving riches. It is the language of fear. God’s people are to be different. It comes by establishing a different priority based on a different view of God.

“But seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you”. This contains both a challenge and a promise. The promise is that everything you are concerned about and are anxious over is known to God. He knows what you need before you ask. He will provide. “All these things shall be added to you”. They will be the bonus in the pay check. Our focus will be different to that of unbelievers. It will reflect our trust and confidence in a Father who wants to reveal Himself to people.

So our preoccupation is; “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness....” That is the challenge. Let’s unpack that in the light of all we’ve learned so far. God’s Kingdom is about God’s rule and reign. Let’s go back to that Kingdom prayer Jesus taught His disciples; “Your Kingdom come, your will be done here on earth as it is in Heaven”, Matt 6.10. When God reigns His will is done. He reigns in Heaven and so His will is perfectly expressed there. But He wants it expressed in the earth. He wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth, 1Tim 2.4. This is His will.

To seek first the Kingdom is about seeing God’s reign expressed on earth and the test for this is to see if His will is being done. The church is meant to be a body of people who model to the community around them what it means to live under God’s rule. It should look attractive because we are not anxious about the things that preoccupy them. We have a different agenda. We serve a different master. We have a different set of priorities – Kingdom priorities.

But there is a danger here. We may confuse our righteousness with God’s in this process. Earlier in Matt 5.20 Jesus spoke of our righteousness needing to exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees. Their righteousness focused on externals to be noticed by men, Matt 6.2, 5, 16. God’s righteousness changes the heart, the root of all our problems. Six times in Matt 5 Jesus uses the phrase, “You have heard that it was said.........But I say to you.....” He is referring, not to the Torah - the law, which He upholds in the same chapter, Matt 5.17-20; but to the oral tradition of the rabbi’s. Years later this would be collected together and form the Talmud.

Oral tradition had a long history in Jewish culture. It was a way of interpreting and understanding the scriptures that sometimes robbed them of their real potency. At times it focused on externals that allowed people to become proud and self-righteous. Jesus deals with six issues in Matt 5, anger, lust, marriage, promises, justice and mercy. He shows that they are all issues of the heart. Murder and adultery don’t begin with an action they begin with an attitude of heart. If we do not follow through with the action we may have less consequences socially, but we are still in danger of judgement before God. He sees the heart.

Righteousness is a heart issue. Jesus came to change people from the inside, Matt 23.25-26; to change their hearts. This is the uniqueness of God’s righteousness. It comes by faith, Rom 10.3-4. It is found in Christ and not the law. It is given by grace and not earned. It changes us on the inside first so that faithfulness in marriage is not just the absence of having an affair, but a loyalty of heart. This is the kind of righteousness we should seek when we look for God’s rule. It repudiates our own self effort to gain right standing with God and trusts in a righteousness that is given freely, through faith in Christ.

One final word. Jesus said we should seek for God’s rule and righteousness. In Matt 7 this concept forms part of His encouragement to believers. He gives us the assurance that we will receive what we ask for; we will find what we seek and doors will indeed be opened. To seek for something is to commit to a process. It is to be willing to go on a journey. To seek implies we develop patience until we find what we are looking for. And when we have found it expressed in one area we seek to see it expressed in another. The journey continues.

We are talking about a habit of life that, over time, demonstrates who we serve, where our heart is and what we treasure. It says something of our belief in a God who is good; who is involved in all the details of our lives and the value He places on us – His people. Perhaps it’s time for you to put first things first and take on a new agenda for your life; God’s Kingdom and His righteousness.