Saturday, August 6, 2016

Matthew 6:25-34. Enemies to Righteousness: Unbelief



When God’s word repeats something three times, you had better listen up.  When God wanted to vocalize his commitment to holiness, he had the seraphim repeat the Trisagion: “Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isa. 6:3).  And Isaiah listened: this moment turned out to be a turning point in Isaiah’s life and ministry.  In the same way, in our text, our Lord repeats important truths to underline their importance.  We saw last time that our Lord warns his disciples against the dangers of worldliness, and he does this three times using three different metaphors.  In the passage before us, we see this threefold emphasis again.  This time, the indicator is a phrase which is repeated three times: “Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought . . .” (ver. 25, 31, and 34).

This phrase, which begins with the word “therefore” also governs the structure of the text.  “Therefore” points to the argument that has gone before and draws a conclusion from it.  Our Lord does this three times.  The conclusion is always the same: “Take no thought,” but the reasons from the preceding verses are different.  The Lord is not just giving us one reason, but many.  It points to his love and concern and patience with his disciples.  If we will not listen the first time, maybe we will listen the second time!  It also points to our Lord’s skill as a teacher.  A good teacher doesn’t just say it once, he says it multiple times, in different ways, from different perspectives.  Thankfully, our Lord is a master teacher, and we see it come through in the verses before us.

So the structure of the text goes like this: we are given an argument in verses 19-24 and then our Lord draws a conclusion from it in verse 25a: “Take no thought.”  We are then given a second argument in verses 25b-32 and a conclusion: “Take no thought.”  The third argument is given in verses 33-34, and the conclusion is, of course, the same: “Take no thought” (34).

Now what does our Lord mean by this?  Admittedly, our Lord is not saying that we should not give thought to the present or future.  When the KJV was translated in the 17th century, “take no thought” meant something different than what it means today.  Modern translations correctly translate this passage, “Do not worry” or “Do not be anxious about. . . .”  Our Lord is therefore arguing against worry.  Or another way to put it, our Lord is arguing against unbelief, for worry is at the root a problem of unbelief, a failure to really take God at his word.  You see this in our Lord’s rebuke to us worriers at that end of verse 30: “O ye of little faith.”

And we can readily see that, just as with worldliness, unbelief is an enemy of righteousness.  You cannot follow Christ if you don’t believe that he will keep his word and never leave you or forsake you.  You have to believe that God does not invite you to the battlefield only to abandon you to do battle on your own.  Yes, Jesus our Lord does not tell us to “Go,” he tells us to “Come and follow me.”  But he is not only the Great Example, he has promised to be with us to the end.  And it is faith in that promise that has energized saints throughout history to remain faithful to the end (cf. Heb. 11:13).

The great problem is that, as Lloyd-Jones put it, we are quite willing to believe on the Lord Jesus, but we are not willing to believe him.  In other words, we are willing to believe that he will forgive our sins and take us to heaven when we die, but we have a more difficult time believing the promises he has made to us that he will never leave us, that all things work together for good, that he will not allow anything to happen to us that does not first come through his loving hands.  And so the problem is not so much that we lack any faith, but we lack a robust, comprehensive faith, one that embraces all the promises of God, even in the midst of hardship and suffering.  In other words, the problem of unbelief is not so much a problem of the total absence of faith, but the problem of a lack of faith in all areas of life.  Little faith!  And it is the problem of “little faith” that stands behind a failure to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (33).  It is therefore important that we arm ourselves with reasons to battle the enemy of unbelief.  And, thank the Lord, he has given us many in this text.

The first is given to us in verse 25.  When we come to this verse, the first thing I notice is the word, “Therefore.”  You cannot just pick up at this verse and ignore the verses before.  Jesus is drawing a conclusion from the argument of the previous verses.  Remember that the point of verses 19-24 is that you cannot serve this world and God.  You will either serve one or the other.  Therefore, don’t worry about your life.  In other words, being anxious about this present life (eating, drinking, and clothing) is a product of laying up treasures upon the earth – having your heart fixed upon the world.  If we cannot love, focus on, serve this world, then it follows we should not be anxious about it.  A soldier on the battlefield isn’t worried about the stock market.  You cannot despise this world and worry about it at the same time.

Thus, the first reason that our Lord gives us against worry is that it is inconsistent with our devotion to God.  Worry over our worldly belongings is probably a sign that we care too much about them.  Our Lord’s attitude toward worldly possessions is illustrated in Luke 12, when a man come to Jesus and asked him to arbitrate between him and his brother who was refusing to split up the inheritance in an equitable way.  Jesus answered: “Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you?”  He went on to say both to him and to his disciples: “Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.”  Behind worry hides the more sinister evil of covetousness, which springs from a false belief in the value of our earthly possessions, and is itself just another form of idolatry (cf. Eph. 5:5).

Does that mean that it is wrong to possess things?  No.  Wealth is not wrong.  Poverty does not make one holy.  It’s not money itself that is evil, it’s the way we possess money and possessions.  If it possesses us, and consumes us – if it is what we value and in which we find our value – then we are covetous.  And it is no wonder that people who place their value in their things worry over them.  And such worry is not a weakness, it is a sin.

The second reason our Lord gives us against worry is found in verses 25b – 30.  In verse 31, we read, “Therefore take no thought, saying . . .” In the verses between 25 and 31, our Lord asks us to consider and behold his creation, the birds and the flowers.  He tells us that our heavenly Father feeds the birds, even though they don’t sow, nor reap, nor harvest crops for food (26).  He then adds: “Are ye not much better than they?”  Then he moves to the flowers of the field.  Even though Solomon on his best day could not compare with the beauty of these transient flowers, yet God clothed them.  Will he not much more clothe those who belong to him (29-30)? 

The argument here is not that we shouldn’t work for our food!  It is the argument from the lesser to the greater.  If God takes care of the birds and the flowers, and you are of more value than birds or flowers, will he not much more take care of you?  The conclusion is this: Being anxious about this present life is an indication that we do not really believe this, that we do not believe what the Scripture has to say about God’s love for us.

And our Lord illustrates the love that the Father has for his children in two ways.  First, he argues that it is seen in the value that he places upon his children.  The argument, as we’ve been saying, is that we are “more than,” “better than” the beasts and the birds.  Our life is more valuable than the food we consume.  We are “much better than” the birds God feeds.  God will “much more” clothe us than lilies, whose adornment outshone Solomon on his best day.  Why?  Because it is God who values us as more than what we eat, better than birds, and more beautiful than the lilies of the field.

I find that the fact that God values his children as of more value than the rest of his creation is a truly ennobling doctrine.  It is the secular and pagan world that teaches that a man is what he eats, that he is just another animal, and in some cases with fewer rights than other animals!  The appeal that our post-Christian culture has to people is the so-called liberty that it offers.  No God to answer to.  But oh at what a price!  It promises liberty, but simultaneously strips this freed man of all dignity.  He is free to be autonomous, but he is a free man with no value in a universe empty of meaning.  Christianity, on the other hand, teaches that the God who is there loves us, that he cares for his children, and that to him we are not just another rock.  “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.” 

But Christianity is also truly freeing in this respect.  Those who are in bondage to the spirit of this age spend much of their time fretting over external appearances, because our culture places more worth on appearance than in valuing a person for who they are.  But those who embrace God’s love for them need not be enslaved to the skin-deep expectations of others.  I appreciate John Piper’s comments on the passing of Elizabeth Elliot.  At the end of his appreciation of her life, he wrote, “Finally, I loved her because she never got her teeth fixed. I would still love her if she had gotten a dental makeover to pull her two front teeth together. But she didn’t. . . .  She was captured by Christ. She was not her own. She was supremely mastered, not by any ordinary man, but by the King of the universe.”  Those who belong to Christ need not seek the approval of others.  Why?  Because they already have the approval of the King of the universe.

But our Lord not only underlines the love the Father has for his children in terms of how he values them, but also in the care he provides for his children.  He not only values his people, he protects and provides for them.  He feeds the birds, clothes the flowers – will he not much more do so for his children?  God cares for all of you, body and soul.  We are taught to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” because God cares about our daily bread.  He loves to provide for his children because he is a good Father.

You see it also in the words of verse 27.  Now I have to disagree with KJV translation here, even though technically speaking it is lexically possible to translate it this way.  However, no one thinks that by worrying a person can add 18 inches (a cubit) to their stature.  So what is our Lord driving at here?  Since the word “stature” can also mean “age,” the word “cubit” is probably used in a metaphorical sense.  Thus, the ESV translates this verse, “And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” 

Our Lord is addressing those who live in constant fear of death, who are always struggling to find ways to prolong their life.  His point in this verse is that this is a futile effort.  Our life is in the hand of the God – it is enough to trust in him.  We may not be able to extend our life, but our Father is sovereign over all things and we can trust in him.  Our Lord is telling us not to worry about something we have no control over, but to put our trust in the God who is truly in control.  He is our refuge and help in time of trouble.  We can therefore be still and know he is God (Ps. 46).

Here again, we come up against the distinction between the Christian faith and the cultural worldview.  There are two prevailing views of life in our culture: contingency and determinism.  The Christian view of life is distinguished from both contingency (the idea that everything that happens to us is by chance) and determinism (the idea that everything that happens to us is inevitable in the sense of being the product of an immutable series of cause and effect).  The Christian view is one of certainty (the idea that God is sovereign and stands over with wisdom and power and love all that comes to pass).  Some would try to make the case that certainty is no different from determinism, but there are miles between them.  The difference, of course, is the purpose of God.  In fact, both contingency and determinism have in common the fact that they both lack purpose behind events, and both are in fact compatible with atheism. 

One can see why those worry who look at life from the perspective that there is no rhyme or reason to what happens to us.  But it is no different for those who embrace determinism.  You can’t control what is going to happen next, but because there is no loving purpose behind it, you can only wonder what will happen next.  It may be good and it may be bad.  Either way, there is no good and loving intention standing behind what is happening or will happen.  And so you worry.

But the believer is cared for by a loving Father, who is the Sovereign of the universe.  He is the one “whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom is from generation to generation: and all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and he doeth according to his will in the army heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou?” (Dan. 4:34-35).  Do you believe that?  You cannot believe that and at the same time be gripped by worry.  It is because we let our circumstances preach to us instead of God’s truth that we become anxious.

Verse 32 also points back to verse 31 as an underlying reason for the conclusion our Lord is pressing upon us.  Why should we not care about food and clothing?  It is: “for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.”  There is deep meaning in almost every word in this verse.  Recall, the fact that our Lord describes the Father with the word “heavenly” is meant to remind us that God’s rule is all-encompassing, that he is in control.  We have no need to worry that anything could ever happen to us that is too big for God to handle.

And the entire sixth chapter is about the relationship of the disciple of Jesus to God as Father.  God is our Father.  Of course, this is not about the universal Fatherhood of God.  These words are not meant to comfort everyone.  They belong to those who follow Jesus.  Those who received him are given the right to become the sons of God (Jn. 1:12).  But if we have received Jesus as Lord and Savior, and thus relate to God as Father, we have no need to wonder if he will take care of us.  It’s not as if he can deliver us but just doesn’t want to.  No, he loves his children, and he is the perfect Father.

He knows our needs.  As we’ve already pointed out, this is not just a bare knowledge.  It is the knowledge of love and intimacy.  God intimately knows our needs.  In fact, our Lord says, he knows all our needs.  So why should we worry?  Our trust is in God who is also our Father, and he is powerful, loving, and all knowing.

And it underlines again the fact that God’s concern for us extends to present needs.  Do we believe that?  Of course it doesn’t mean that life will be all roses, but it does mean that he will never leave us or forsake us, and that even behind our trials stands God’s good purpose.  I love the picture given in Mark 4:35-41.  There the disciples and Jesus are in a ship on the Sea of Galilee, and Jesus is asleep.  “And there arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full.”  The ship was clearly in danger of sinking and there was Jesus asleep.  Or so it seemed.  They go to him, and awaken him with the expostulation: “Master, carest thou not that we perish?”  Then “he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still.  And the wind ceased and there was a great calm.  And he said unto them, Why are ye so fearful?  How is it that ye have no faith?”  His question clearly implies that they should never have doubted even for a minute that he would take care of them – even though he was asleep.  Their fear was unjustified, even though they had been in a terrible storm and it didn’t seem like he was aware of the situation.  But of course he was.  They were never in any real danger.  In the same way, our Lord has promised to be with us, as truly as he was in the boat with the apostles.  And “when the storms of life are raging” and it seems like Jesus is in the back of the boat asleep, let us hear his words: “Why are you so fearful?  How is it that you have no faith?”

The final reason our Lord gives us against worry is in verses 33 and 34.  The first part of verse 33 reminds us again of the incompatibility of serving God and worry.  If we seek first his kingdom then we are not going to be anxious about our lot in this life.  And this in some sense is just repeating what he has already taught in verses 19-24.  But in the second part of verse 33 there is a further reason: “And all these things shall be added unto you.”  If you seek first the kingdom, God will give you what you need.  “Take therefore no thought for the morrow. . .” (34). 

What is the argument here?  I think it is this: being anxious about this present life is incompatible with being satisfied with God’s provision.  Those who seek first the kingdom believe that God will provide for them what they need for their good and God’s glory, even if it isn’t what they wanted.  They are content with God’s care of them.  On the other hand, if we seek “these things” like the Gentiles and neglect God’s kingdom, we are likely to miss both contentment now and life in the age to come.  But if we seek first God’s kingdom, we will have true life now and in the age to come.

Then the follower of Christ is not only thankful for what God gives, but also when he gives it: “Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.  Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”  Now on one level this is just common sense.  Why worry about tomorrow when it isn’t even here yet?  You can’t do anything about it.  Worry is just borrowed trouble, most of which will probably never materialize.  But another implication of our Lord’s words here is that we are satisfied with both the amount and the timing of God’s provision for us.  So often we are tempted to worry and to fret and to doubt God’s goodness towards us because a prayed-for mercy hasn’t materialized and we just don’t think we can go on any further if we don’t get help right now.  But this is not faith.  This is not believing the word of God.  It is allowing our emotions to control us instead of our thinking which is grounded in the gospel. 

“Blind unbelief is sure to err, and scan God’s works in vain;

God is his own interpreter, and he will make it plain.”

What then do these verses teach us about the cure for worry and anxious thought?  They teach us that it is a matter of right thinking.  Faith is not a mystical emotion; it requires thinking. Worry is partially the result of letting our feelings control us, when we should be reminding ourselves of the promises of God.  Then it is a matter of priorities.  Worry stems from the fact that we care too much about this world.  Finally, it is a matter of contentment.  Can we say with Paul that we have learned in all things to be content (Phil. 4:11-13)? 

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