Open Matthew 6:33.
Because we don’t understand the ancient world of kingdoms, Matthew 6:33 is one of the most misapplied verses in the Bible. It’s very popular in journals, study guides, and spiritual formation books. These writers want to make the application as personal as they can for their individual reader. As they understand it, I enter the kingdom through personal faith, and I seek the kingdom through my devotional life and spiritual disciplines. The goal is to encourage me to personally seek God, so his kingdom comes into my heart and his righteousness comes into my life. Great personal goals, but it’s not the kingdom.
Here’s just one example of “kingdom” applied personally. This is what the Word Bible Commentary series says about the command to seek the kingdom (Matthew 6:33):
This imperative means rather that one should make the kingdom the center of one’s existence and thus experience the rule of God fully in one’s heart.
— Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, (Dallas: Word, 1998), 165-166.
The problem with this approach is that it’s really bad exegesis. Jesus’ words are plural. His command was that we collectively seek the kingdom. (ζητεῖτε (seek) is second person plural active imperative). Jesus’ promise is also for us collectively, that all these things will be added to us in community. (ὑμῖν (you) is second person plural.)
This should be obvious. You individually cannot be a kingdom! A kingdom is a collective, a community. The only way to seek community is by connecting with others. So despite all the Christian literature of the last 100 years, you cannot seek the kingdom individually: that’s a meaningless contradiction.
Actually, there is one way you can personally seek a kingdom. If you were the king and the community was under your power, you could say, “I have a kingdom.” If you were scheming to become king, people could say you were “seeking a kingdom.” And this is precisely what’s wrong with the world. If the world were running correctly, everyone would acknowledge God’s kingship, that we collectively are his kingdom. The refusal to acknowledge divine kingship over the earth is what’s wrong, causing people to fight for power that should be in God’s hands.
This was Israel’s distinctive compared to other nations. According to Jesus, the nations seek wealth and power and fame because they don’t acknowledge God as their sovereign (6:32). So among the nations, “seek the kingdom” means nasty things like assassinating rulers or conducting wars of conquest. A couple of examples: one from Livy (Roman historian); one from Plutarch (Greek biographer):
‘My elder brother’ says Demetrius, ‘stands in my way, to whom the kingdom belongs by law and also by our father’s wish. Let him be removed: I shall not have been the first to seek a kingdom by murdering a brother.
[Livy, 40 11.7-8]
His father, as we are told, actually shed tears of joy, and when Alexander had dismounted, kissed him, saying: ‘My son, seek thee out a kingdom equal to thyself; Macedonia has not room for thee.
[Plutarch, Alexander 6.5]
Crucially, Jesus is not seeking a kingdom for himself. He’s seeking the kingdom of God, i.e. the goal he is pursuing is God’s kingship over Israel and the rest of humanity. He is not plotting against rulers like Herod. He is not preparing a holy war to slaughter the ungodly. And neither is he pursuing personal spiritual disciplines as if he could, by that means, get the kingdom within himself.
What he seeks is the restoration of God’s reign. He’s not trying to bring the kingdom: that’s something God does. Neither is he passively sitting by waiting for God to do it. If that were the case, he would not have taught his followers to invite the divine kingship to earth: “Your kingdom come; your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (6:10). He is fulfilling the vocation God gave humans in the first place: to image our heavenly ruler in the communities where we live. And the means by which Jesus does this (outlined in the rest of Matthew’s Good News) is crucial.
Think about the communities you live in: your family, your street, your student group, your sports team, your home fellowship group, your place of work. What would these communities be like if they were running as God intended? What would be different? Who would be included that is currently being marginalized? Who would be cared for that is currently struggling? What is God wanting done that isn’t currently being done?
If the kingdom of God means the human community running as it should under God’s care, then seeking first the kingdom means pouring your life into being the agency through which the community experiences God’s wise care.
Seeking God’s reign is something we do in community. What could you be doing if you prioritized seeking God’s reign in the communities where you live?
What others are saying
Scot McKnight. Sermon on the Mount. The Story of God Bible Commentary (Zondervan, 2013) on Matthew 6:33:
The “kingdom” is Jesus’ shorthand expression for the Story of Israel’s hope for this world coming to completion in Jesus, and it takes place as the society that does God’s will under King Jesus is empowered by God’s redemptive work. As such, it partakes in the Story of Jesus— his life, death, burial, resurrection, and exaltation as King and Judge— and those who enter that Story through repentance, faith, and baptism are those who will enter into that kingdom reality.
R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 270-271:
“Make it your priority to find” (literally “seek first”) God’s kingship and righteousness. …
God’s kingship means God’s people living under God’s rule. …
One must pray for the coming of God’s reign (6:10), because it is God who will bring it into being.
Roger L. Hahn, Matthew: A Commentary for Bible Students (Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2007), 105:
Learning to trust God rather than trying to provide for our own security may be the biggest challenge facing Western Christians today. Our culture teaches us to measure our worth by the possessions and status we can acquire. Making God’s kingdom the priority of our lives feels like we are not doing the things that make us worthwhile. But only such a radical commitment to God’s agenda for the world, as well as for our lives, will enable us to discover the blessing of God taking care of all our needs.
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[next: The kingdom story so far]