First Things First
by David Faulkner
Each of my children, but Jonathan in particular, likes to tease me about my age. They act as if I grew up in the Stone Age. Well, in some respects they are right. I did grow up in the Stone Age of contemporary Christian music. In 1970 my home church hosted a band from Grand Rapids. They were telling the gospel story with secular music. There simply weren’t any quality Christian rock songs around. What passed for Christian Rock was folk/pop stuff by Ralph Carmichael. Larry Norman and Andre Crouch were still a year away from stardom.
By the time I got to seminary in 1974 this had changed. I recall Dr. Richard Lovelace setting up a pair of Bose loudspeakers in the main lecture hall and doing a whole evening of Christian bands such as Love Song and Lamb and 2nd Chapter of Acts, not to mention Crouch, Norman and many other solo artists. In Spring 1975 the youth group three of us led raised almost $1,000 to bring in a band out of Chicago for a week. We did outdoor concerts and concerts in the schools. A long time later I figured out that the band we brought in was to become “Rez Band,” the group that, along with Petra, dominated Christian rock in the late 70s and early 80s.
So we didn’t have, in college, all those worship songs you love so much. We mostly sang choruses and simple, folksy songs, often based on Bible verses. The one that stuck around the longest (there are probably still people singing it) was made up of four verses from Matthew. It was titled,”Seek Ye First,” and its first verse was Matthew 6:33; “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.”
If you think about it, that’s a tall order. We like the promise the verse contains. I once heard Charles Stanley preach on this verse. He titled his seermon, “How to Get Your Needs Met,” and getting our needs met is what most of us focus on most of the time. But the first line of the verse is where the trouble is. How do we seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness?
That Jesus links “kingdom of God” and “righteousness” is important. We like to talk about the dominant characteristic of God’s kingdom as being love. Jesus says it is righteousness. What does “righteous” mean? It means to stand in a right relationship with God and others. Jesus puts us into a right relationship with God. Because of His work on the cross we are declared “Not guilty” of sin and have His righteousness credited to our account. Jesus was in right relationship with God because He always did what God said.
Jesus also stood in a right relationship with others, even when warning them or correcting their erring views. For us, the word that best describes the way we can stand in right relationship with others is “morality.” Too many today limit the meaning of this word to sexual behavior. The truth is “morality” describes every aspect of our relationships with others. It is as moral not to kill or steal from our neighbor or to pay taxes as it is to refrain from premarital or extramarital sex.
The Bible, particularly in the Law of Moses, puts moral strictures in negative terms. In addition to the six “thou shalt nots” in the Ten Commandments, there are hundreds of laws, especially in the “Holiness Code” of Leviticus 18-20, that begin with that formula. That is why we tend to assume that morality is essentially a negative concept, it defines all the things we should not do to our friends and neighbors or to others in general if we are to lead righteous lives. It is not surprising, then, that humanity, rebellious by nature and determined to go its own way, defines our faith in terms of a set of rules that tells us all the things we can’t do.
But often the Bible, especially in the New Testament, puts moral commands in a positive light. It focuses not on what we shouldn’t do, but on what we should do. Jesus was, so far as we know, the first one to state the “Golden Rule” positively. Before He lived everyone had said, “Don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you.” Jesus made it positive; “Do to others what you want them to do to you.” All the great commands, “Love the Lord your God,” or, “Love your neiighbor as yourself,” or, “Love one another,” or, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other,” are stated positively.
Now, while it is true that we are forgiven by God’s grace, having received that grace we have placed ourselves under an obligation to do our best to obey God. This is the part of following Jesus that people nowadays don’t want to hear about. While it is true that our responsibility to be as righteous in our relationships as Jesus was, in the past this obligation was too often preached without grace. These duties—there’s another word people don’t like—grow from the gifts of grace and forgiveness God has given us. We can’t earn those gifts, but we must respond to them by doing our duty to God and others (Luke 17:10).
While we have general duties to everyone; loving and sharing the Good News with them, respecting them as creatures made in God’s image, we are also given or take on special duties to others. Among the duties we are given is that to honor our parents. The special duties we take on include those required when we marry, have children and join a fellowship of believers (a church). I love the old Presbyterian wedding ceremony because it defines so well the duties of husbands and wives: “By his apostles He has instructed all those who enter into this relation to cherish a mutual esteem and love, to comfort each other in sickness, trouble and sorrow, in honesty and industry to provide for each other in temporal things, to pray for and encourage each other in the things that pertain to God, and to live together as the heirs of the grace of life.”
In my experience, most people today enter into relationships based on what they can get from them, not what they can put in. Then they wonder why they still feel so needy. I think this was true of my generation. If you are a college student reading this I would say it is even more true of yours. Instead, when we enter relationships, whether they be of friendship, marriage or church membership, we should ask ourselves what we can put in. What duties do we lay on ourselves by beginning some new relationship?
That shows what a radical Jesus was. It also puts Matthew 6:33 in a whole new light. Jesus is telling us to build friendships, marriages and churches on our willingness to do our duty to others. When we do that, he says, we will get our own needs met! We may have better music now than when I was in college, but the need to “give everyone what you owe,” (Romans 13:7), is as great or greater now than it was then.