A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 6:25-34. True or Christian Ambition: God’s rule and righteousness.
2. Seeking first God’s righteousness.
It is not clear why Jesus distinguished between *his kingdom* and *his righteousness* as twin but separate objects of our priority Christian quest. For God’s rule is a righteous rule, and already in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus has taught us to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be willing to be persecuted for it and to exhibit a righteousness greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees. Now we are told to *seek first* the righteousness of God in addition to seeking first the kingdom of God.
Let me make a tentative suggestion about the difference between the two. God’s kingdom exists only where Jesus Christ is consciously acknowledged. To be in his kingdom is synonymous with enjoying his salvation. Only the born again have seen and entered the kingdom. And to seek it first is to spread the good news of salvation in Christ.
But God’s ‘righteousness’ is (arguably, at least) a wider concept than God’s ‘kingdom’. It includes that individual and social righteousness to which reference has been made earlier in the Sermon. And God, because he is himself a righteous God, desires righteousness in every human community, not just in every Christian community. The Hebrew prophets denounced injustice not only in Israel and Judah, but in the surrounding heathen nations as well. The prophet Amos, for example, warned that God’s judgement would fall on Syria, Philistia, Tyre, Edom, Ammon and Moab because of their cruelty in warfare and other atrocities, as well as on God’s people. God hates injustice and loves righteousness everywhere. The Lausanne Covenant, framed at the Congress on World Evangelization in July 1974, includes a paragraph on ‘Christian social responsibility’ which begins: ‘We affirm that God is both the Creator and the judge of all men. We therefore should share his concern for justice and reconciliation throughout human society.’
Now one of God’s purposes for his new and redeemed community is through them to make his righteousness attractive (in personal, family, business, national and international life), and so commend it to all men. Then people outside God’s kingdom will see it and desire it, and the righteousness of God’s kingdom will, as it were, spill over into the non-Christian world. Of course the deep righteousness of the heart which Jesus emphasizes in the Sermon is impossible to any but the regenerate; but some degree of righteousness is possible in unregenerate society – in personal life, in family standards and in public decency. To be sure, Christians want to go much further than this and see people actually brought into God’s kingdom through faith in Jesus Christ. At the same time, we should not be shy of maintaining that outside the circle of the kingdom righteousness is more pleasing to God than unrighteousness, justice than injustice, freedom than oppression, love than hate, peace than war.
If this is so (and I do not see how it can be gainsaid), then to *seek first his kingdom and his righteousness* may be said to embrace our Christian evangelistic and social responsibilities, much as do the ‘salt’ and ‘light’ metaphors of Matthew 5. In order to seek first God’s kingdom we must evangelize, since the kingdom spreads only as the gospel of Christ is preached, heard, believed and obeyed. In order to seek God’s righteousness we shall still evangelize (for the inward righteousness of the heart is impossible otherwise), but we shall also engage in social action and endeavour to spread throughout the community those higher standards of righteousness which are pleasing to God.
What, then, is our Christian ambition? Everybody is ambitious to be or to do something, often from early years. Childhood ambitions tend to follow certain stereotypes – e.g. to be a cowboy, astronaut or ballerina. Adults have their own narrow stereotypes too – e.g. to be wealthy, famous or powerful. But ultimately there are only two possible ambitions for human beings. So far we seen how Jesus contrasted a false with a true ambition, a secular (‘Gentile’) with a Christian, a material with a spiritual, treasures on earth with treasures in heaven, food and clothing with the kingdom and righteousness of God. But beneath and beyond all these there is a contrast more fundamental still. In the end, just as there are only two kinds of piety, the self-centred and the God-centred, so there are only two kinds of ambition: one can be ambitious either for oneself or for God’ There is no third alternative.
Ambitions for self can be quite modest (enough to eat, to drink and to wear, as in the Sermon) or they may be grandiose ( a bigger house, a faster car, a higher salary, a wider reputation, more power). But whether modest or immodest, these are ambitions for myself -*my* comfort, *my* wealth, *my* status, *my* power.
Ambitions for God, however, if they are to be worthy, can never be modest. There is something inherently inappropriate about cherishing small ambitions for God. How can we ever be content that he should acquire just a little more honour in the world? No. Once we are clear that God is King, then we long to see him crowned with glory and honour, and accorded his true place, which is the supreme place. We become ambitious for the spread of his kingdom and righteousness everywhere.
When this is genuinely our dominant ambition, then not only will *all these things … be yours as well* (i.e. our material needs will be provided), but there will be no harm in having secondary ambitions, since these will be subservient to our primary ambition and not in competition with it. Indeed, it is then that secondary ambitions become healthy. Christians should be eager to develop their gifts, widen their opportunities, extend their influence and be given promotion in their work – not now to boost their own ego or build their own empire, but rather through everything they do to bring glory to God. Lesser ambitions are safe and right provided that they are not an end in themselves (namely ourselves) but a means to a greater end (the spread of God’s kingdom and righteousness) and therefore to the greatest of all ends, namely God’s glory. This is the ‘Supreme Good’ which we are to *seek first*; there is no other.
Tomorrow: Matthew 7:1-12. A Christians relationships: to his brothers and his father.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.