Jesus gives us a clear priority: "seek first His kingdom and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). We generally understand “righteousness”: I shouldn’t do bad things. “Kingdom” is a little less clear, especially for those of us living in a democracy with no experience of kings and kingdoms.
Jesus links kingdom and righteousness together, so we need to understand them together. Maybe understanding more about God’s kingdom will help us understand righteousness. Maybe refining our understanding of righteousness will shed some light on the meaning of the kingdom.
Earlier in His sermon, Jesus gives a model for prayer, and the kingdom is mentioned there as well: “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). The kingdom is where the King reigns, where things are done the way He wants things done. God’s perfect reign in heaven is the model of what His reign on earth should look like. We are supposed to be praying for the arrival God’s kingdom. We can recognize earthly evidence of that kingdom when we see God’s will done. The perfection of heaven shows us what to look for.
An unrealistic goal? A practical impossibility? A theological incongruity? Maybe so, but Jesus tells us to pray for it.
When we look around us “on earth”, we see things we don’t expect to see in heaven: wars, starving children, people who ignore or reject God’s love, selfishness in our own heart. All of these conditions are the results of the Fall, when God’s initial perfection on earth was disrupted. “Thy kingdom com” is a prayer for the restoration of God’s perfect reign on earth as it is in heaven. The corrupted realities “on earth,” from the most “minor” secret sin deep in my heart, to the most horrific mass murder, are violations of God’s perfect will. All fail the standard set by Jesus, “As it is in heaven”.
But this is exactly what we are to pray for, that God’s will on earth will be carried out to the heavenly ideal. This is what we are to seek: His kingdom and His righteousness. All of our personal and social shortcomings – anything short of the heavenly standard – are the targets of our prayers and our pursuit of righteousness.
The righteousness we are to seek certainly includes personal holiness. The basic standard by which I must judge my own actions and innermost thoughts is: “Would this be appropriate in heaven?” Would my attitudes and behaviors fit in the kingdom? What parts of my life on earth does not reflect God’s desire “as it is in heaven”? Seeking His kingdom and His righteousness certainly starts with “in my heart as it is in heaven.”
But God’s will is broader than my heart and my personal conduct. His kingdom and His righteousness are not just about my attitudes and behaviors. God is the God of the whole earth, and the whole earth is the arena of His Kingdom. Jesus’ model prayer is for everything “on earth” to reflect His kingship, the righteousness of His heavenly rule.
If we believe that heaven will not include bitterness toward another person, then we must seek to reconcile relationships here on earth. If we believe that God’s will in heaven does not include the killing of the innocent unborn, we must seek that standard on earth. If we believe that God’s will in heaven precludes exploitation of the weak, or gang violence, or poverty, then these practical realities must be targets of our search for righteousness. Righteousness is “rightness”, God’s perfect standard, “The Way Things Ought To Be”.
“As it is in heaven” is not an achievable man-made utopia. Jesus illustrates a realistic perspective of the kingdom in some of His parables, such as the tares and the dragnet. In explaining the Parable of the Tares, He describes the separation of the weeds from the wheat as, “[At the end of the age] the Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness.” Whatever progress is made in the kingdom “on earth” will finally be completed by the forcible removal of the elements which fail to measure up “as it is in heaven.” Likewise with the Parable of the Dragnet, the current reality of the kingdom is imperfect, including good fish and bad, which will be separated when, at the “end of the age, the angels will come forth and take out the wicked from among the righteous.” In both of these parables, there is evidence of a real but imperfect expression of the Kingdom. Jesus emphasizes that this imperfection will be ultimately remedied. We know the full expression of the kingdom will only come with the arrival of the King, when Jesus returns, when He and His angels finally remove the elements that contradict His perfect will. Our role, our commission in “Seek first…” is to pursue that kingdom to whatever degree is possible in the present. The ultimate impossibility of the goal should not blur the clarity of Jesus’ command to pray for and seek the kingdom.
The essential connection between His kingdom and His righteousness reveals the continuity between personal holiness, evangelism, and social action. Different groups typically focus on one or two of these factors. Conservatives have a reputation for focusing on personal holiness and evangelism, while social action is usually left to “liberals.” The contrast leads to competition and criticism and mistrust among Christians stressing these different perspectives. But the different emphases are different facets of the same gem: God’s kingdom. A sin in my own life, an individual without the gospel, a jobless teen who can’t read, all are consequences of the Fall. All fall short of the heavenly standard. All fail to measure up to The Way Things Ought To Be. Our command is to seek His kingdom and His righteousness in all these areas: to remove the sin from my own life, to bring the gospel to my neighbor, to help the teen. All of these imperfect situations need to be conformed to “as it is in heaven”. Holiness, evangelism and activism are the “salt and light” Jesus called us to. Each has the kingdom as its goal. Each seeks His will on earth as it is in heaven.
Perhaps this understanding also sheds additional light on the sequence of the Beatitudes. We are to recognize our spiritual poverty (Matthew 5:3), and to mourn that spiritual bankruptcy (v. 4). This process should cause us to grow in humility (v. 5), and to hunger and thirst for the missing righteousness (v. 5). If our appetite for righteousness extends beyond our personal piety, mercy (v. 6) is critical. The offense of the earthly reality that falls so short of the heavenly standard can elicit a zeal, even a righteous anger, that must be tempered with mercy. Even as we seek His kingdom and His righteousness we need Christ-like mercy for those who are victims, or even perpetrators of unrighteousness. Our hunger and thirst for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven must include mercy and compassion in promoting that righteousness. There must be a continual self-examination, remembering that our own purity in heart (v. 7) is our starting point of that will on earth. Ultimately we are to be peacemakers (v. 8), seeking and promoting the Shalom of God’s kingdom, that richness and abundance of life (John 10:10) that reflects The Way Things Ought To Be, His will on earth as it is in heaven.
A military metaphor may be helpful. We are God’s agents in extending His control in hostile territory. We understand that the ultimate victory, God’s complete domination, will only be accomplished with His final invasion. Our role consists of the small, incremental battles, the house to house fighting wherever we find the enemy or his work. We are to liberate areas from the adversary’s control and spearhead the reign of the coming King. Pockets of enemy resistance (in our heart, in unbelievers, in our culture) are targets for extending His reign
When we seek His righteousness we must understand that righteousness in the context of His kingdom because Jesus linked them together. We are to pray for His kingdom to be reflected in His heavenly will accomplished on earth. We should work to see that reality, The Way Things Ought to Be, in our hearts, in our neighbors, and in our society.
Copyright 2005 by Michael Wiebe