SEEKING FIRST THE KINGDOM
Whatever your occupation or profession, you have almost certainly thought about the priorities relating to your work. If you are a schoolteacher, for example, as I have been a great portion of my life, you know there are dozens and dozens of responsibilities you must honor. You have books and professional journals you want to read. You have meetings and conferences you would like to attend. Perhaps you should meet with certain troubled and failing students. In many cases, you cannot attend to all of them. Time will simply not allow it. So you have to make some very important decisions. You may even sit down and list your duties in the order of their importance, at least, to you. We often refer to that process as listing our priorities.
As a thinking and concerned human being, do you meditate on that which is most important in life? I remember the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning in her poem, "Aurora Leigh," book vii. "Earth's crammed with heaven, and every common bush a fire with God; but only he who sees takes off his shoes; the rest sit around and pick blackberries." Are we guilty of stressing the non-essentials in life or do we devote our time and energy to that which has eternal significance? I ask you to think seriously about these words from our Lord's Sermon the Mount. "But seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you" (Mt. 6:33). Our study today will be entitled, "Seeking First the Kingdom."
Our Lord assures us of his constant care. He asked his followers: "Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?" He then exhorts: "Therefore do not worry, saying, What shall we eat?, or what shall we drink?, or wherewith shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knows that you have need of all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Therefore do not worry for tomorrow: for tomorrow shall worry for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof (Mt. 6:30-34).
Men and women in all ages have been concerned—many times to the point of being worried—about what they will eat and drink and wear. In other words, we may be tempted to worry about the physical necessities of life. The Bible does not condemn our making adequate provisions for our families and for ourselves. If we do not have food, drink, clothes and a place to stay, we shall not survive in this world. The Bible makes it very plain that parents have a sacred obligation to provide for their families. "If any provide not for his own, and especially those of his own household, he has denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel" (1 Tim. 5:8). Paul commanded the church at Thessalonica to withdraw from the "disorderly." He explains who the disorderly are. "For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should they eat. For we hear that there are some who walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies" (2 Thess. 3:10-11). The disorderly were those who were not working at all. They were not taking care of their families.
As citizens of this great country, we have duties to our governments—local, state and national. One of our main duties is to learn about the candidates and issues confronting us and then voting our convictions. If we fail to vote, we have no right to complain about what occurs in our communities and in our nation. We also have the responsibility of making sure our political leaders behave in ethical ways. If we allow them to lie, to perjure themselves, to suborn witnesses and to behave in other abominable ways, God will hold us accountable for the moral and spiritual atmosphere in our world. That means we must have the courage of Elijah as he faced two of the wickedest people who ever lived—Ahab and Jezebel. I am aware that one voice may not change the situation, but at least, we know whose side we are on in the battle against evil.
I urge you to examine with me the verse I read to you from our Christ's Sermon on the Mount. Jesus commanded those who would be his followers to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. The word "seek" is present active imperative. Charles Williams renders the Greek: "But as your first duty keep on looking for His standard of doing right." The seeking Jesus had in mind was not a one-time activity. We must keep on seeking God's kingdom and his righteousness. It is a lifetime obligation for those who would have God's approval. If that is true—and you know it is—then salvation is not by grace alone through faith alone. If Christians have any duties, they are not saved by grace alone.
Lee Strobel has written some very valuable books, including The Case for Christ and The Case for Faith. I have profited greatly by reading these books by a former atheist. One of Strobel's books has the title God's Outrageous Claims (Grand Rapids: ZondervanPublishingHouse, 1997). In that book, Strobel has some excellent material on forgiveness, but he takes the Calvinist line on salvation. He asks, "And if God puts conditions on his forgiveness, doesn't that mean I have to convince him how sorry I am by moping around under a mountain of shame?" However, in the very next paragraph, Strobel quotes the apostle John as saying, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (p. 33). God has determined the conditions for alien sinners and for erring Christians to be forgiven. We must meet those conditions to be forgiven.
Philip Gulley and James Mulholland, two Quaker preachers, have written a book with title, If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003). It would take an encyclopedia to expose all the errors of the book. But I shall mention just one of their grievous errors. They maintain that the grace they had "experienced was not limited or conditional" (p. 11). They do not see the inconsistency of their views when they record these words: "Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother" (p. 204). They also quote these words: "For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men" (p. 210). But they conveniently overlook the next verse: "For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously and godly, in this present world" (Tit. 2:11-12). It is a total repudiation of the word of God to argue that there are no conditions of forgiveness.
Christ demands that we seek "first" the kingdom of God and his righteousness. Dr. D. A. Carson's commentary on Matthew in the Expositor's Bible Commentary series (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984) makes these appropriate observations on the expression, "seek first the kingdom": "In view of vv 31-32, this verse makes it clear that Jesus' disciples are not simply to refrain from the pursuit of temporal things as their primary goal in order to differentiate themselves from pagans. Instead, they are to replace such pursuits with goals of far greater significance. To seek first the kingdom is to desire above all to enter into, submit to, and participate in spreading the news of the saving reign of God, the messianic kingdom already inaugurated by Jesus, and to love so as to store up treasures in heaven in prospect of the king's consummation" (pp. 181, 182).
At the time Jesus spoke these words in Matthew 6:33, the kingdom had not come into the world. Both John and Jesus predicted: "The kingdom of heaven is at hand" ((Mt. 3:2; 4:17). Mark quoted Jesus as promising: "Verily I say unto you, There are some of them standing here, who shall not taste death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power" (Mk. 9:1). If the kingdom has not come—as premillennialists teach— there some mighty old folks still around. But the kingdom has come. It came on the day of Pentecost. That was the reason Paul could tell the members of the church at Colosse: God "has delivered us from the power of darkness, and has translated (or changed) us into the kingdom of his dear Son" (Col. 1:13). Were Paul and the Colossians transferred into a non-existent kingdom?
Christians are to seek God's righteousness, that is, the standard God has set for his people. Charles Williams renders the expression, "looking for his standard of doing right." How utterly impossible it is for me in this limited time to discuss all the Bible teaches on righteous living! But I must stress that righteous living is an absolute requirement of the gospel. But consistent Calvinists must deny the necessity of being righteous to be saved. In his book, The Danger of Cults and New Religions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), Dr. Ron Rhodes has a brief section entitled, "Maintaining Holiness Is not a Condition of Salvation" (pp. 274-275). In other words, we do not have to be righteous to go to heaven.
The word "righteousness" appears prominently in the New Testament. Oddly enough, it is a very controversial term because of the error Calvinists teach on the topic. The Calvinists teach that righteousness is what God bestows on each of us—not what we do. You know the doctrine is not true. If it were, God would add righteousness to every person on earth since he is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34-35). The Bible teaches that many will be lost (Mt. 7:13-14). The reason they will be lost has nothing to do with the doctrine of predestination. They will be lost because they did not work righteousness. If that were just my opinion, it would not be worth considering. I shall show from the scriptures that we must do righteousness.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Christ taught: "Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled" (Mt. 5:6). In that same chapter, Christ said to his disciples, "Except your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Mt. 5:20). If righteousness comes wholly from God, we have nothing to do with its exceeding that of anyone else's righteousness. If our righteousness does not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, that would be God's fault, would it not? Jesus demanded of his people: "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things (the physical necessities) shall be added unto you" (Mt. 6:33).
God blessed the apostle Peter by empowering him to deliver the very first gospel sermon ever recorded (Acts 2). God also sent Peter to the house of Cornelius—the first Gentile convert. Peter told Cornelius and his household: "Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation he who fears him, and works righteousness, is accepted with him" (Acts 10:34-35). I have some questions I must ask you about these verses. Did Peter really mean that Cornelius had to "work righteousness?" The word "works" is a verb. What did Cornelius have to do to be accepted of God? He had to work righteousness. If he had to work righteousness, is it legitimate to teach that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone? It is troubling to me that one of the greatest Greek scholars of all time, the late Dr. A. T. Robertson, completely ignores the expression, "works righteousness." Dr. Robertson is not alone in ignoring what Peter taught at the house of Cornelius. But how can honest scholars overlook what Peter taught about working righteousness? Both verbs "fears" and "works" are present active participles. The verse literally reads, "He who continues fearing him and working righteousness is accepted with him."
I have been searching the writings of Calvinist scholars and have found none that deals with John's emphasis on doing righteousness. John affirmed: "If you know that he is righteous, you know that everyone who does righteousness is born of him" (1 John 2:29). The same apostle writes: "Little children, let no man deceive you: he who does righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous...In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever does not do righteousness is not of God, neither he who does not love his brother" (1 John 3:7, 10). We must keep on doing righteousness to have God's approval.
How do we apply what we have learned about seeking the kingdom and righteousness? Does it mean we must constantly be knocking on doors and telling the lost of salvation in Christ? There is certainly a time for that kind of activity. When we have special meetings, we must invite as many people as possible to those meetings. Let me tell you a true story. Many years ago in West Texas an older man was walking to the services of the local congregation. He passed by a group of boys who were playing marbles. He asked the boys if they would like to go to services with him. One of the little boys said, "Let me go ask my mama." His mother gave him permission to go with the older man. Eventually the young man obeyed the gospel, attended a Christian college and preached the gospel for many years. In addition, he did mission work overseas, wrote an excellent book on personal work and taught many young men to preach. How many people will be in heaven because an older man invited Otis Gatewood to attend an evening service of the church?
There are cultic groups that demand almost constant evangelization by their members. They argue that the fruit of the Spirit demands almost fulltime work for the congregation. Sometimes the cultic leaders control the lives of their followers. I know some cases where college young people had to get permission from the leaders to date, to take certain college courses and to visit their parents. The members were told how long to sleep and when to do their homework. That is contrary to good sense. Many of those young people experience burnout and quit those oppressive movements. They are usually bitter when they do leave the cultic movements.
Did you know that some preachers and other church workers believe they have to teach, to visit and to study 60 or 70 hours each week? If they are single, it may not be healthy, but they may not be depriving their wives and children of the companionship of a father and husband. But is not taking care of one's family a way of fearing God and working righteousness? My sons are diligent workers in the church—thanks to a great extent to their godly mother—but I wish I could go back and spend more time with them and with their mother. Both of my boys were drummers in their high school band. I was so busy I did not get to attend all of their games and concerts. Molly sometimes wanted to take a vacation, but I was too busy doing my work. Neither my boys nor Molly ever complained about my being gone or too busy, but I am the one who has missed so much. Please do not make that mistake. After all, taking care of your family is one way of fearing God and doing righteousness.
Molly and I made sure our sons always attended all the services of the local church. Both boys were active in music, in plays and in other school functions. For example, the drama teacher at their high school wanted our younger boy to be Oliver in Charles Dickens' story, "Oliver Twist." He told his teacher that he would be in the play, but he could not practice until after Bible study on Wednesday nights. She had practices on Wednesday nights, but excused our Danny until he returned from Bible study. We wanted our sons to know what seeking first the kingdom of God meant.
I was involved in business for many years. We kept our stores open late in the afternoon. But our customers knew we had to leave early on Wednesday evenings so I could teach my Bible class. I had learned from my father not to allow any activity to interfere with our worship of God almighty. We Claiborne children grew up on a strawberry farm. When strawberries get ripe, they have to be picked. I have picked berries on Sunday afternoon, but never on Sunday morning. We went to the church services and then picked berries after lunch. Could my father's example be one of the reasons all ten of my brothers and sisters who reached maturity obeyed the gospel and lived for God?
God does not promise anyone financial prosperity and good health, in spite of what the "health and wealth" preachers teach. He promises us blessings that are far greater. For example, when we repent of our sins and obey the Lord in baptism, we are forgiven of our sins and are on our way to heaven. God also promises continual forgiveness of our sins when we walk in the light as Jesus Christ is in the light (1 John 1:7). I close with these wonderful words from the great book of Revelation. "And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away: and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things have passed away. And he who sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful" (Rev. 21:1-5).
The International Gospel Hour
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