by John W. Ritenbaugh
Matthew 6:33 provides one of the clearest of all of Jesus' commands about what our overall goals in life must be: "Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness." In the conclusion of the previous article regarding our greatest problem in seeking God, we saw that, to win the battles of preparation for His Kingdom, the solution lies in resources that can only be provided by God through our relationships with Him.
Seeking God, or seeking first God's Kingdom, is simply another way of phrasing the Christian's fight. In Ephesians 6, Paul describes what a Christian needs in the fight against his carnal heart, the world, and the Devil as putting on "the whole armor of God." This armor symbolizes the virtues and powers necessary to fight both offensively and defensively. Power belongs to God, and He is very willing to empower His children to fight these battles. Seeking Him is the battle we fight in the face of the three major foes that constantly resist, tempt, or allure us.
Matthew 6:33 gives vital, basic advice about what those fighting daily, spiritual battles are striving to accomplish. These goals are often easily forgotten in the confusion of battle. Ordinary, everyday things like housing, food, and clothing are necessary, and the efforts to secure them can produce anxiety and worry. It may be simple advice, but we need to quit worrying and begin seeking and trusting God, as Jesus says in verses 31-32.
His reasoning follows this line: God is real to us, is He not? He visibly provides for things as seemingly unimportant as grasses and flowers, does He not? Since we are so exceedingly more important to Him than grass and flowers, will He not provide the necessary, ordinary things of life for us? Note that Jesus finishes with "all these things shall be added to you." This is a promise to those truly seeking God and His Kingdom.
In this context, Jesus primarily promises that material things would be added, but He certainly implies spiritual things too. Are not the Kingdom of God and His righteousness spiritual in nature? God must provide spiritual powers to His children to move their lives in the proper spiritual direction. In addition, we find elsewhere that God is the source of all powers that He alone can add. This fact is a firm platform for anyone truly seeking God's Kingdom to work from. In Matthew 6:33, Jesus is focusing on priorities so that we can devote our greatest efforts toward the most important goals.
Once a person knows what his goal is, does he not normally lay out a plan for reaching it? For instance, each year we have the goal of keeping the Feast of Tabernacles. So, we have to plan to have sufficient money to finance the considerable travel, hotel, meals, clothing, gasoline, and entertainment costs. We use a calendar to reckon when we will leave and return. We will plot the route for driving to our destination. We may contact friends from other parts of the country to plan activities together. Most importantly, we should prepare spiritually, ensuring that we are in the correct frame of mind to make the upcoming Feast the best possible.
The same general principle is involved to a lesser or greater degree in the accomplishment of any goal. We consciously or unconsciously execute this principle numerous times every day for any number of purposes.
Do we have a conscious plan to reach the goal that is to be our highest priority for the rest of our lives? Since seeking God is to be our major spiritual occupation once He has established a relationship with us through His calling and justifying of us, what is foundational to our plan for seeking Him?
Many of us have probably never actually written a plan down, and even if we have, it is not something we need to consult every day. This plan would simply lay out a kind of map, a sketch of the major things we want to become part of our characters so that our overcoming and growth is accomplished to a far greater degree than if we attempted to do it in a helter-skelter, come-what-may manner.
This article will suggest overall qualities that must be part of a successful plan. These qualities will be useful every day except perhaps for the occasional times when some unexpected occurrence disrupts everything. Why do we need to do this? Establishing priorities is essential to success. Despite the steps we might lay out, we must determine to have and use a number of particular qualities; otherwise, regardless of how precise and appropriate our plan may be, it will not work.
Commitment and Devotion
Perhaps the highest of all priorities is our commitment. No plan, no matter how perfect, is any good at all unless the planner is committed to achieving his goal. As the adage goes, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." Jesus agrees, saying in Luke 9:62, "No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God."
He adds in Luke 14:26-27, "If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple." Clearly, seeking God also requires devotion.
Commitment expresses the idea of obligating or pledging oneself to a certain action, but it does not carry the emotional force of devotion. In fact, Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary defines devotion as "to commit by a solemn act." By definition, then, devotion possesses a quality mere commitment does not have. Devotion includes the idea of consecration, the setting of oneself apart for a higher end; it is commitment plus an intense, loyal attachment.
As a result, having devotion suggests that we have an unusually compelling motivation for our dedication, which accounts for its frequent use in relation to the fulfilling of responsibilities to God. Jesus says, "If you love Me, keep My commandments" (John 14:15). Does not the love in this statement also carry an emotional attachment, as in a personal relationship? Thus, devotion includes thoughts of love, whereas commitment often describes the mere performance of duty.
In our impatience, we humanly desire to cut to the chase, to jump straight to the end of a matter, without having to work through all the steps normally required to get there, steps that prepare us for the leadership positions that God desires to give us. Attempting to skip those steps is foolish. God absolutely will not allow us to evade our preparations for His Kingdom.
Proverbs 19:10 describes two similar situations that make interested observers shake their heads in sad wonderment at the waste: "Luxury is not fitting for a fool, much less for a servant to rule over princes." Luxury in the hands of fools will be squandered on dissipation and useless frivolity because they have never learned to control themselves. The second example of inappropriate waste is directly attached to preparation for God's Kingdom. A slave to human nature, having been subject to it all his life, who is then given power to rule, stands every chance of becoming abusively tyrannical. How quickly he forgets the pain of his slavery!
Proverbs 30:21-23 affirms the previous proverb: "For three things the earth is perturbed, yes, for four it cannot bear up: For a servant when he reigns, a fool when he is filled with food, a hateful woman when she is married, and a maid servant who succeeds her mistress." Each of these illustrations describes people unprepared for their new status.
We can be certain that God will not allow this to happen in His Family Kingdom. Those who are in it will be prepared to live, work, and rule at the level He assigns to them. Their responsibilities will be challenging, but they will not be constantly frustrated due to being in over their heads. Nor will their offices go to their heads. Despite having great power, they will humbly serve, exhibiting no abusive authority in the conduct of their responsibilities. They will be balanced in all areas of life.
Most dynastic rulers, like the monarchs of Europe, understand this concept well. Recently, Smithsonian Magazine ran a long article about Marie Antoinette. Her Austrian Hapsburg parents arranged her marriage while she was very young, promising her to the Bourbon family who ruled France. She was to become the wife of the future Louis XVI, also quite young at the time.
Within a year of this arrangement, the Bourbons sent a tutor to Austria to school Marie to become France's queen. The tutor remained her almost constant companion until Marie was married when she was fifteen years old. Prince Charles of England experienced a similar rigorous education. He has been trained since birth to sit on the throne of England. In one sense, especially in his pre-adult years, he had little time for himself.
We might think that this practice has not worked well, but we must not forget that these monarchs lacked the ability from God to discipline their human natures. Nevertheless, God follows the same principle of preparation, and our lives must be devoted to these operations. Thus, we must follow the same basic program laid down for Prince Charles except that our preparations are for the Kingdom of God. Just as Charles must devote himself to learning all the particulars of his kingdom's operations, so must we devote ourselves to learning the ways of God's Kingdom because we, too, are to be kings (Revelation 5:10). God will not allow us to escape these responsibilities.
II Corinthians 6:1, a much-overlooked verse by the Christian world's no-works advocates, comments directly on our part in God's purpose: "We then, as workers together with Him, also plead with you not to receive the grace of God in vain." J.B. Phillips' New Testament in Modern English renders this verse, "As cooperators with God Himself we beg you, then, not to fail to use the grace of God." The apostle Paul warns us against receiving grace with no purpose in mind for making the very best use of God's wonderful gift.
God gives grace to be used by those who receive it. The sanctification process that follows justification requires our cooperation with Him so that the right qualities, understanding, and sensitivities are produced by His creative efforts. This cooperation produces Christian works. We must stop resisting Him through neglectful drifting—thus receiving God's grace in vain.
The combination of commitment, devotion, and cooperation works to produce godly conviction, a strength that is vital to our success in this warfare. More will be written about it in another article.
Vision Is Essential
A second element we must have is vision. Following baptism, we are often dismayed because human nature is still very strong and always with us. In addition, we become distraught because we find ourselves easily distracted by peripheral issues. If we allow ourselves to become discouraged, it takes firm devotion to turn around to focus on the task at hand. These factors amplify why vision is so important in assisting and encouraging devotion.
Notice how frequently Hebrews 11 mentions vision as a quality that assisted the heroes and heroines of faith in past ages:
» Verse 13: These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.
» Verse 20: By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau concerning things to come.
» Verse 21: By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph; and worshipped, leaning upon the top of his staff.
» Verse 22: By faith Joseph, when he was dying, made mention of the departure of the children of Israel, and gave instructions concerning his bones.
» Verses 24-27: By faith Moses, when he became of age, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt; for he looked to the reward. By faith he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured as seeing Him who is invisible.
On and on the testimonies to the vision of these heroes of faith are recorded. Like us, when they were called, they faced difficult circumstances within the world around them. They obviously evaluated their situations and made serious choices to go God's way rather than one that was more easily available to them.
Do we seriously consider the vast difference between what God offers us—His royal children—as compared to the hopelessness, violence, and confusion this world has produced since Adam and Eve? How much evidence does it take to convince us that this world's system is going nowhere but to destruction? Do we soberly ponder where today's events are headed? With what or whom are we—as judged by the pattern of our lifestyles—casting our lives and futures?
Perspectives of Time
A third high priority in our spiritual plan has to be time management. Overall, how do we, as Christians, perceive time? Every day we are witnesses to its progression. Daylight comes and passes, and night arrives only to be followed by daylight again. We can look at a clock and see that its hands are moving. But how—in what manner—is time moving? Ecclesiastes 1:3-11 provides an intriguing insight into the movement of time:
What profit has a man from all his labor in which he toils under the sun? One generation passes away, and another generation comes; but the earth abides forever. The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it arose. The wind goes toward the south, and turns around to the north; the wind whirls about continually, and comes again on its circuit. All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full; to the place from which the rivers come, there they return again. All things are full of labor; man cannot express it. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. That which has been is what will be, that which is done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which it may be said, "See, this is new?" It has already been in ancient times before us. There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of things that are to come by those who will come after.
As a culture, the Greeks have become known as a people sensitive to the rhythms of time, and this, though written by Solomon, a Hebrew, is a decidedly Greek view of life and of time's movement. This perception of life and time—their acute awareness of things like the perpetual ebb and flow of tides, the continuous cycle of the four seasons, and the constant repetition of weather patterns—became a major building block of Greek philosophy, leading them to develop the concept that time is cyclical.
They concluded that man's life is lived within a series of continuous, changeless recurrences. To them, time works like a wheel turning on an axis, and the events that mark time's progress repeat themselves endlessly. They believed that nothing could be done about it because such events will happen eternally. Thus, a person is born, lives his life on a stage, and when his part is done, he exits. Such belief inexorably leads to a fatalistic view of life.
Notice verse 8 especially. The Soncino Commentary opines that Solomon is saying that this inescapable repetition in life is such weariness that he lacked the words to describe it aptly. Despite what Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes 1, the general Hebrew outlook is decidedly different. The Hebrew concept of time greatly benefited from God's revelation. In Jude 14-15, the apostle quotes an Old Testament personality, Enoch, whose pre-flood prophecy deflected Hebrew thought about time in a far different direction:
Now Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied about these men also, saying, "Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of His saints, to execute judgment on all, to convict all who are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have committed in an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him." (Jude 14-15)
This quotation shows that the Hebrews who believed God knew that time was headed on a very different path from the Greek view. Events do not just happen in a vacuum; they are moving in a definite direction. Enoch is warning that a time is coming when men will have to answer for what they have done during their lifetimes.
Even so, he is nowhere near the earliest indicator that time and the events within it are moving in a specific direction. Notice Genesis 3:14-15:
So the Lord God said to the serpent; "Because you have done this, you are cursed more than all cattle, and more than every beast of the field; on your belly you shall go, and you shall eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel."
God had revealed Himself to the Hebrew descendants of Abraham, and some among them, like Moses, believed what He said. Thus, they knew that time was not cyclical, as the Greeks perceived it, but linear: The Creator is moving time and all that happens within it in a definite direction.
The prophet Amos receives credit for giving that "sometime" a general title, or at least the term is first used within his prophecy. He called it the "Day of the Lord." Generally, he appears to mean the time when God will intervene with a strong hand in the affairs of this world—an act that is definitely not repetitious.
However, it remained for the Christian church to define time and its right usage for its members. The church's conception of time blends the cyclical concepts of the Greeks and the linear concepts of the Hebrews. It is true that many things in life—things like wars, economic depressions, and political revolutions—do recur in an inexorable manner. Yet, as the New Testament shows, much of this happens as a result of man's self-centered nature. In other words, they do not have to happen, but they do happen because man's choices make them happen. Man continually makes bad choices because his nature is unchangingly anti-God.
Thus, in general, the Christian view is that time indeed contains stressful, repeating cycles, as Solomon describes, yet the New Testament calls these cycles "evil" (Galatians 1:4). However, it also shows that time is moving in a definite direction and that God Himself is orchestrating many of the events within its progress toward the return of Jesus Christ, the Day of the Lord (the seventh one-thousand-year day), and the establishment on earth of His Family Kingdom.
This led the church to develop, under the inspiration of Jesus Christ, an overall concept of time management unique to church members. It has its roots in the Old Testament: Isaiah 55:6 urges us to "seek the Lord while He may be found."
Why should we seek Him? Because He has the power and the willingness, if we will trust Him, to give us a completely new nature, breaking the vain, frustrating, repetitious cycle. Isaiah 61:1-2 adds helpful understanding:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, because the Lord has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God.
This is a prophecy that Jesus partially quoted as He began His ministry in the synagogue in Nazareth where He grew up (Luke 4:18-19). These passages suggest an element of movement toward something soon to happen. Isaiah 55:6 suggests we seek Him urgently because the Lord is moving on, and if we do not seek Him now, it will be too late. Time and events within it are moving. Isaiah 61:1-2 is similar: Now is an acceptable day for those called of God. If we wait, the acceptable day will pass, and the day of vengeance, even now moving toward us, will be here. It will be too late to avoid its destructive powers!
Recall that, in Solomon's complaint about time, God was nowhere mentioned. Events just go around and around endlessly, effectively describing Solomon's frustration. However, in the prophet Isaiah's description, God is involved in the movement of events that impact directly on His people's lives.
We are therefore Christ's ambassadors. It is as if God were appealing to you through us: we implore you in Christ's name, be reconciled to God! Christ was innocent of sin, and yet for our sake God made him one with human sinfulness, so that in him we might be made one with the righteousness of God. Sharing in God's work, we make this appeal: you have received the grace of God; do not let it come to nothing. He has said: "In the hour of my favor I answered you; on the day of deliverance I came to your aid." This is the hour of favor, this the day of deliverance.
These admonitions to "seek God now," "now is an acceptable time," and "do not let it come to nothing," all indicate a passing opportunity. The Christian is dealing with a specific period during which events are working toward the culmination of some process, and if he does not take advantage of the present opportunity, it will never come again. The parable in Matthew 25:6-13 illustrates our need to make the most of this opportunity now:
And at midnight a cry was heard: "Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him!" Then all those virgins arose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, "Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out." But the wise answered, saying, "No, lest there should not be enough for us and you; but go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves." And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding; and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, "Lord, Lord, open to us!" But he answered and said, "Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you." Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.
This parable's major lesson is that both life and time are moving. The precise time of Christ's return is unknown, so He urges us to take advantage of the knowledge and time we already have in hand. Those who reject His advice will find their way into the Kingdom blocked.
Recall that II Corinthians is written to Christians. Paul's message is a call to strike while the iron is hot! Both Jesus and Paul remind us that our calling is rife with possibilities, so much so that we can consider each moment as big as eternity. That is how important this "day of salvation" is to us! The New Testament's instruction to Christians is, "Now is the time!" Everything is in readiness for success. It is as though the New Testament writers are saying, "Don't be like the slave who refuses when presented with freedom, or the diseased person who rejects help when offered healing. God's door is open to us! Charge through it by cooperating with Him!"
Time Is Precious!
We must take care not to imitate the poignant moment portrayed in The Shawshank Redemption, when the timid inmate, played by James Whitmore, was released from prison after about 25 years of incarceration for a foolish moment of passion in which he committed murder. Upon his release, the prison provided him clothing, an entry-level job as a supermarket bagger, and a small sum of money to live on for a while. But the world was now far different from what it had been when he entered prison. He soon found that he missed the familiar, repetitious, and relative security of the prison, and out of fear he committed suicide.
What is the Bible's advice? The familiar Ephesians 5:14-17 urges us to "make hay while the sun shines":
Therefore He says: "Awake, you who sleep, arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light." See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is.
Notice the encouraging reason Paul gives to wake up and carefully mind how we live: "Christ will give you light." This is an outright promise that He will give us the help to do what we must do. Backed by this promise, we are to redeem the time "because the days are evil." If his days were evil, what would Paul think of ours?
This passage reveals how the early church regarded time as it applies to a Christian. For us, all days—every period in which God's people have had to live their lives by their God-given understanding, thus by faith—are evil. God's truth has always run counter to the course of this world. Thus, the truth adds a peculiar, stressful difficulty to life regardless of when it is lived. Moreover, since each called-out individual has only one opportunity to lay hold on eternal life, and must overcome, grow, and prove his loyalty to God during that time, he must make use of every experience.
Galatians 1:3-4 confirms this perspective: "Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father." In terms of growing and overcoming, living in a particular period in history gives a Christian no advantage. Every era, every age, is against him, and within it, he must make the most of his calling. The times have always been evil.
To the church, then, because it must operate responsibly toward God within a highly specialized understanding of life and its purpose, every age is full of the cyclical, frustrating, repetitious events that Solomon called futile vanities. Such events lead nowhere and produce a discouraging fatalism.
However, a Christian also knows that God is directing time and events to His desired end. Thus, the church's view of time is an elegant combination of both realities, realizing that it has a work to accomplish as an organization and that each individual Christian must grow and overcome within it. So, as Christians, we must face the evil of repetitious vanity produced by sin, which history clearly records, with faith in the hope of a glorious victory for God's called-out ones, which God's Word prophesies.
Thus, Paul advises in Ephesians 5:17, "Therefore . . . understand what the will of the Lord is." As we live our lives each day, we should never let what God says slip from our minds. His point is that we need to make the most of every opportunity because time is inexorably moving toward God's desired end, and it will not stop and wait for us. We do not want to be left behind! No occasion is too insignificant to do the right thing. Time is precious! We, like God, must take it very seriously.
We must not make the mistake of relegating Christian living to a mere couple of hours on the Sabbath. Christianity involves every aspect of life. Personal study and prayer are times of clarifying God's will. But we must not neglect the doing of His will as occasions arise—and they will arise every day. Woe to us if we disregard them, for they comprise the very circumstances that challenge us to overcome and grow in our seeking of God.
Proverbs 4:7 advises, "Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom," excellent counsel about what to do within the time given to us. This verse is a proverbial way of instructing us to seek God, as seeking wisdom is very similar to seeking God, only more specific. Wisdom is the practical application of the knowledge of God, and we can attain it because we understand such knowledge, believe it, and choose to use it. We can achieve these things because we use our relationship with God to reach the right results.
Proverbs 2:1-12 amplifies two basic instructions. First, finding understanding and wisdom will not come easily. Seeking them will become a lifelong search. We will need conviction, vision, and focused time management to find them. We must seek them as a prospector would seek gold and silver. Solomon's emphasis is not on obtaining gold and silver due to their value, but on the hard work required to obtain them.
Second, the passage instructs us on why we should seek them: their many valuable benefits. They are almost unimaginable—seemingly too good to be true—but they are indeed true.
Taken together and applied, these elements tend to produce conviction, the certainty that what we believe is true. Conviction produces fervency, a passion for using our knowledge of God so that our faith rises above the merely intellectual. Proverbs 2 presents us with a time-consuming activity—in fact, a lifetime occupation—in seeking wisdom and thus seeking God. In summary:
1. To seek God, our foundation must be commitment combined with personal devotion to Christ.
2. To have an inspiring, correct vision, we must evaluate this evil world and its imminent destruction against what God promises.
3. To make proper use of the time that remains to us, we must be acutely aware of its passage and manage it effectively.
There is not a moment to waste. Strike while the iron is hot!