Hey everyone, it’s Josh. I’ve talked a lot in my past videos on how it’s important for us to view the words of Jesus and really the entire New Testament in general through a first century Jewish apocalyptic lens. Meaning that Jesus is drawing on ideas, language, and concepts and had a vision for the future that was shaped by the Law and the Prophets and that was thoroughly familiar to Jews in the first century. With 2000 years of separation between a modern western Christian and a first century Jew, there’s usually a pretty big disconnect that we bring when we read the words of Jesus, and so I want to look at one specific passage that may already be familiar to many, and that’s Matthew chapter 6, starting in verse 30. Jesus says:
But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 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. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.
So this is part of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ famous “sermon on the mount” where his primary audience is Jewish people in first century Israel. Life back then was quite a bit more difficult than the average American or European experiences today. We’ve got supermarkets, air conditioning, clean water, good medical care, internet, and cell phones, but first century Israel was primarily an agricultural society where most would have to rely on the rhythm of the seasons and the weather for their basic necessities. The political world was utterly corrupt, taxation was exorbitant, and injustice and unrighteousness were all too common. As I’ve mentioned in several of my past videos, the first century Jew was looking forward to what God had promised them through Moses and the Prophets and were asking the question of when and how those covenantal promises would come to pass. The gospel, for them, was apocalyptic - meaning that they were anticipating the day when God would send the Messiah to reign from Jerusalem, to bring them back to the land, to defeat their enemies, and to usher in a new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells. Unlike the gospel that the typical Christian preaches today, they weren’t asking the question of how they could be forgiven of their sin and live a shame-free life before they went to heaven. This is important to understand because we tend to import our culture, our ideas, and our definition of specific terms onto Jesus’ words, rather than first hearing them through the ears of his original audience.
So what does that mean for Matthew 6? Well I want to focus on the specific phrase in verse 33:
But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
For a first century Jew, the kingdom of God was not a “spiritual” thing, it wasn’t a realm or an arbitrary “reign of God” that was breaking in secretly through the ministry of Jesus, nor was it a synonym for “the church”. It was a term developed in the prophets in passages like 2 Samuel 7, Isaiah 9, Isaiah 11, and Daniel 2 and in second Temple literature before the time of Jesus to refer to a real geopolitical kingdom ruled by Israel’s messiah from David’s throne in Jerusalem. A real, earthly king would execute justice and provide for the poor, the needy, and the oppressed, and he would defeat the nation’s enemies and cause them to dwell in safety and security. Now the other phrase from Jesus here is “his [or God’s] righteousness”, and this is certainly a pretty popular or common term since Luther and the protestant reformation. And it’s really odd how in a lot of Christian understanding that this came to be commonly understood as a substance that God just smears on somebody, so that when God looks at somebody covered with the substance, he says “oh look, I don’t see so and so, I see Jesus”. And it’s just weird that people came to understand righteousness that way because it’s not inherent in the Bible - it’s Martin Luther’s framework. The phrase “the righteousness of God” had an existing meaning before Luther, and we can see this in the prophets. I’ll just mention a couple passages. First is from Isaiah 46 verse 13:
I bring near my righteousness; it is not far off, and my salvation will not delay; I will put salvation in Zion, for Israel my glory.”
And the second is from Isaiah 51 verse 5:
My righteousness draws near, my salvation has gone out, and my arms will judge the peoples; the coastlands hope for me, and for my arm they wait.
In both of these passages, the larger context is an end-time deliverance of the nation of Israel - this grand finale of God doing everything he said in the covenants he made with them. So there’s this parallelism going on: “I’m bringing my righteousness near” and “my salvation will not delay” - the idea here is that “righteousness” and “salvation” are synonyms. Now “righteousness” in this context is a relational word, it’s not abstract nor is it talking about a gas or a substance that covers somebody here. Like if I were going to act “righteously” toward someone, I could also say, I would act “correctly” or “appropriately” toward them. But because this is a relational word, acting righteously or appropriately toward someone random would look different than me acting “righteously” toward my wife. Why? Because “righteousness” is relational, it depends on your relationship with someone. So the “righteousness of God” toward Israel, or stated differently, his “appropriate behavior or actions” toward Israel depends on the covenant he made with them - that’s the relationship. Him bringing salvation, and not forgetting and forsaking Israel is how God is righteous, this is how he brings near his righteousness. In other words, he’s saying: “This is my righteousness, when I do what I say. I am acting rightly or appropriately or correctly according to our relationship.” We see that same thing from the other passage, Isaiah 51. So if we were to paraphrase that so that it makes a little more sense, maybe a helpful thing to insert when thinking about God’s righteousness is “God’s saving acts”. And in the context of the prophets and their words to Israel, God’s “saving acts” are what he’s promised to do for them in the covenants he’s made with them.
So back to Matthew 6: when Jesus says to a bunch of first century Jews “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness”, especially with what he said in the verses just prior to it, he’s saying “don’t be anxious, don’t give so much emotional energy to worrying about if your crops are gonna grow or where your clothes are going to come from. Don’t you know that God faithfully and mercifully takes care of the grass and the birds? Will he not act righteously or act appropriately to his own people with whom he made a covenant and brought out of Egypt and provided manna and water and for 40 years your clothing didn’t even wear out? Will he not make good on all his promises? Because he really will do that, give your attention to what he’s promised to do, keep your eyes set on what’s to come, a king really will rule with justice as God has promised, so seek first what God is going to do on the last day. He knows you need everything else, so he’ll give it to you.”
For us as 21st century Gentile disciples of the Jewish Messiah Jesus, though we aren’t in covenant with God like the Jewish people, we too are children in Abraham’s family by faith, and we have very real promises to cling to of future blessing, of resurrection from the dead on a real day in our future to inherit eternal life on a new heavens and new earth, ruled by the Jewish messiah, when all the nations will be served and taught by the Jewish people. God has promised that the Gentiles will see his righteousness and so in the midst of all the uncertainty in the world today, when all the peoples are clamoring for justice and there’s oppression and wickedness and pestilence and wars, may we too heed Jesus’ words to truly fix our eyes and our hope on the certainty of his return and may we be clear and bold about this hope to others. This is far more than a message of forgiveness and having a church family. What we endure today, whether it be persecution or sickness or imprisonment or the loss of goods or money or reputation or whatever, may we see it as a momentary and light affliction that will be far outweighed by the glory that awaits us in the age to come when the God of Israel does everything that he’s promised. Friends, this is where we ought to draw our confidence. Life won’t go the way we want it to in this age, but God is a good shepherd and has given the Holy Spirit even to us as the Gentiles to help us persevere on the narrow road which leads to life. May we not give up, no matter our circumstances in this age, because God has proven with certainty that he will do all he spoke in the scriptures.
Amen. If this was encouraging, drop a comment below, hit that thumbs up button, share it with your friends, and subscribe for more. I hope these short videos spur you to anchor your hope in what God has said and done and what’s he promised for the future. God bless, and maranatha.