By Dawn Rutan
As I was reading through the Sermon on the Mount this week, I noted Matthew 6:33 in particular: “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (ESV). While we often hear sermons about seeking the kingdom first, I don’t recall ever hearing anyone explain what it means to seek His righteousness.
The first Scripture that came to mind when I asked myself that question was Philippians 3:8b-9: “in order that I may gain Christ, and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”
It’s probably natural that when we hear an instruction to “pursue righteousness,” our first thought is how to avoid sin and be a better person. I can attest to the fact that that can only take us so far. We might clean up a few obvious sins, but that doesn’t really change who we are. The apostle Paul points out that the righteousness that comes from obedience to the law doesn’t really save us. The righteousness that we need is Christ’s perfect righteousness, which is only received by faith. Paul reinforces Jesus’ statement that it is God’s righteousness we are to be seeking, not our own self-righteousness.
Looking at the context of both the Sermon on the Mount and Philippians 3, there are other notable parallels between Jesus’ words and Paul’s words. Jesus says:
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. … Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all” (Matthew 6:19-21, 31-32).
Paul then elaborates:
“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ, and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith — that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and may share in his sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:8-11).
It seems that Paul took Jesus’ teachings quite literally. He not only gave up his possessions and status, but he counted them as rubbish. He didn’t spend time worrying about where his next meal was coming from (and indeed went hungry at times), but he willingly walked into dangerous situations in his pursuit of the kingdom. He suffered for Christ and died knowing that it was worth every minute of pain (see 1 Corinthians 11:24-28 and Philippians 1:21).
It’s tempting to take Matthew 6 out of context and say, “Okay, I’m going to try really hard not to be anxious but to seek God first in my life.” But that’s a pretty anemic response to the greater context of Scripture. Just a few verses later in Matthew 7 Jesus warns that many so-called Christians will be told in the end, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness” (7:23). Then in Matthew 10 Jesus says that persecution will come and “whoever does not take his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me” (10:38). Paul’s life is a pretty good example of the commitment that’s required. (The A.D. television series has at the very least been a good reminder of what opposition really looks like.) Christianity in 21st century America may seem far removed from the experience of the early church, but I think we’re beginning to get a sense of the danger that could be in store for us when governments are actively promoting non-Christian values, when terrorists seek out Christian targets, and nominal Christians are leaving the church in droves. Those who remain faithful to the end will learn what it means to “seek first His kingdom” and “share in His sufferings.” Some day in the not-so-distant future, it won’t be about choosing not to worry about the fashion trends or saving for retirement, but about choosing to follow Jesus against every logical argument for taking the easy way out. It’s happened before and it will happen again.
“Choose this day whom you will serve … but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).