Enemies to Righteousness, Part 1: Worldliness, Matthew 6:19-24
We’ve been arguing that the theme to this great Sermon is the theme of righteousness, and that the key to this message is found in 5:20: “For I say unto you, That except your righteousness exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” It is about this righteousness without which no one will enter into the kingdom of heaven, a righteousness that is rooted in the heart (Beatitudes, 5:3-12), guided by the Law (5:13-48), and motivated by the glory of God (6:1-18).
We now come to a new section in this sermon. In the remaining verses of this chapter (6:19-34), our Lord deals with what I am calling the “enemies of righteousness,” those things that will kill the pursuit of righteousness in the heart and life. The enemies of righteousness are many, but our Lord deals with perhaps the two most deadly: worldliness, or a matter of misplaced loyalty (19-24) and anxiety, or a matter of misplaced trust (25-34). It is well worth noting that righteousness does indeed remain the theme in these verses; it is summed up by our Lord in verse 33 in the words, “But seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” However, no one seeks first the kingdom of God and his righteousness who does not first deal with these matters of worldliness and this lack of faith that we call anxiety. In other words, worldliness and anxiety are enemies to the pursuit (“seeking first”) of righteousness.
Righteousness is the word our Lord uses, but it has many other names: holiness, obedience to God’s word, keeping the commandments, and so on. What the Lord says in 5:20 the author of Hebrews essentially says in Heb. 12:14, “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.” Grace not only forgives sin, it frees us from sin’s foul bondage. It not only rids us of the guilt, but enables us to say “no” to sin. I love the way Paul puts it in Titus 2:11-12, “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world.” Grace kills the dominion of sin in the life of the believer (cf. Rom. 6:14).
Now I glory in the fact that our sins are forgiven freely through Jesus Christ. It is our only hope. We do not have to merit God’s favor because we are accepted in the Beloved (Eph. 1:6). Recently, I was reading again in Psalm 103, and these words landed on me with great force and joy (especially verse 10): “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy. He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger forever. He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us” (8-13). God does not deal with us after our sins! That is grace.
But we have to be careful, lest we fall into the category of people who say, “Let us sin that grace may abound” (Rom. 6:1). Grace is not glorified in the lives of believers who claim to be forgiven and yet who remain under the grip of sin. Grace is glorified in the lives of those it has freed from the power of sin. The grace of God is magnified when it takes an unrighteous person and makes him/her a righteous person both through the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit in their life. And it is vain for a person who lives in unrighteousness to claim the righteousness of Christ (1 Jn. 2:29; 3:7-10). Or, as our Lord put it, unless our righteousness is more than external piety, unless it is real and springs from the heart, we will never be saved. So it is important to seek first the kingdom and righteousness of God. And so it is important to repent of those attitudes of the heart that would keep us from doing this very thing. Which brings us to the text.
Now I claim that this text is about worldliness, even though that word isn’t used here. So what do I mean by “worldliness?” Biblically, the “world” is not a reference to the earth, per se, as it is to humanity in opposition to God. “He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not” (Jn. 1:10). “And we know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness” (1 Jn. 5:19). Thus, when our Lord says, “God so loved the world” (Jn. 3:16), the point, as D. A. Carson is wont to put it, is not so much that the world is so big but that the world is so bad. Thus, worldliness is the property of being like the world (just as godliness is the property of being like God), and since the world is in opposition to God and lies in wickedness, it means sharing the characteristics of those who, by their thoughts, attitudes, and acts, show that they are hostile to God. It is no wonder then, that James tells us that those who are friends to the world are enemies to God (Jam. 4:4).
Worldly people are therefore primarily concerned with the things of this world, not with the things of God. They are ruled by Mammon and not Christ. Their focus is on the things of this world and they are blind to the beauty of the things of God. They live for earthly treasures because they cannot image anything more important than those. God does not have their heart, the world does. And that is worldliness.
Worldliness is not, therefore, a lack of religion. This is not a text directed at atheists, or to those we would nowadays term philosophical materialists. Remember that this sermon was preached to people who were generally religious. We are all in danger of worldliness. It’s why our Lord preached this sermon to them (and to us). It’s why the apostle John wrote to Christians, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 Jn. 2:15).
In other words, you can be very religious and yet in the truest sense of the word remain godless. You can go to church and be involved in church, read your Bible, witness to others, and so on, and yet have your heart enthralled with the things of this world. The key to killing worldliness is not a matter of being religious. It’s not a matter of doing this or that. It’s rather a matter of the heart. It’s why our Lord said, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
Nor is worldliness necessarily determined by the things one possesses. Your godliness does not necessarily plummet as your financial successes rise. Poverty does not guarantee piety. This was the mistake of many in the monastic movement. They were governed by the idea that the path to godliness was the path of poverty and separation from the world. Wall yourself off from lower things. Spend your days in quiet alone with God. But that is not the path away from worldliness. You don’t stop worldliness invading your heart by removing yourself from the world or by selling all your possessions. It’s a heart issue, not a location issue or an issue with the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
We find the key to battling worldliness again in those words of our Lord in verse 33: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” What is first in your heart? Who or what is the priority of your life? Who do you love above all else? What has your attention above everything else? Where does your loyalty lie? In some sense, God requires every one of us to have such a heart for him so that if he were to tell us, as he did the rich young ruler, to sell all that we have and give to the poor, we would do it. We are to love him with all our heart. We are to love him more than our dearest friends: “If any man come to me and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple. . . . So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26-27, 33). We should note that clearly our Lord was not telling children to forsake their parents in an absolute sense. In another place, he rebukes the people of his day for making an excuse (and a religious one at that) for not honoring and providing for their parents (cf. Matt. 15:1-9). His point is that we are to so love him and loyal to him that compared to that our affection for others – including our own family – is like hate. He is to be first, even before our own selves. Our problem is not this stupid notion that we don’t love ourselves enough. Our problem is that we don’t love God as we ought.
In our text, the Lord Jesus gives three different metaphors that underline the sin of worldliness. In verses 19-21, he uses the metaphor of treasure, and tells us that we cannot value both heaven and earth at the same time. In verses 22-23, he uses the metaphor of sight, and tells us that we cannot focus on both God and the world. In verse 24, he uses the metaphor of slavery, and tells us that we cannot serve both God and Mammon. In other words, it comes down to a matter of love (who or what has your heart), a matter of sight (who or what has your attention), and a matter of service (who or what has your loyalty). In each case, God is to be preeminent. If he is not, we have fallen into the clutches of that enemy of righteousness: worldliness.
Now why should we do this? Here we see the condescension of our Lord. He could have simply told us to love him above all others and all things. But he gives us reasons. He didn’t have to do that, but he does it because he loves his people and he wants to give them every help they need to fight sin and grow in grace. And in our text, I see at least five reasons to turn away from worldliness and to give our heart completely and unreservedly to God and Christ.
First of all, he reasons from the temporary nature of the things of this world: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal” (19). In the first century, fashions didn’t change much, and clothes were passed down from one person to another. And yet, old clothes had a tendency to be eaten by moths. “Rust” was not just a reference to ferric oxide, but to the effects that mice and moths had in general on one’s belongings in a first century Judean home. The things that we possess eventually break down or die. The word “corrupt” does not just refer to something becoming less attractive or useful – it could be translated “destroy.” Things break and stop working. We have to throw them away or get rid of them. And this is true of anything that belongs to this earth. As the hymn puts it, “In all around change and decay I see.” Nothing that we have or own that is from this world will last forever.
Why then would we want to “lay up treasures upon earth?” Of course, it does make sense if this is all there is. But we know that this life is only a prelude to the next. In the age to come we will bring nothing of this earth with us. And when I die, it will not matter in the least what kind of home I lived in, what kind of clothes I wore, what kind of car I drove, how much money I made, or what people thought of my accomplishments. Everything is fading and corrupting and will be destroyed. This is the logic of the apostle Peter in his second epistle. He reminds his reader of the “day of the Lord” which “will come as a thief in the night: in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up” (2 Pet. 3:10). Now notice the deduction that Peter draws from this: “Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness, looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat?” (11-12). In other words, don’t lay up treasures that are only going to be burned up. Rather, pursue godliness.
Now again, our Lord is not reprimanding people for having possessions or even for saving for a rainy day. Rather, as Stott put it, “to ‘lay up treasure on earth’ does not mean being provident (making sensible provision for the future) but being covetous (like misers who hoard and materialists who always want more).” Note how our Lord puts it: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth.” In other words, don’t be selfish with your belongings. Remember that all that you have ultimately belongs to the Lord. Use them wisely under his Lordship over your life. Use them to glorify his name and to advance his kingdom in this world. Don’t live for yourself, live for Christ – even at the level of your possessions. That is what he is saying. Own your possessions; don’t let them own you. Christ must have your heart, so don’t give it to things.
Second, our Lord reasons from the enduring nature of our heavenly possessions: “But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through and steal” (20). Treasures in heaven refer to that which is rewarded the believer in the age to come for the things that he/she has done for Christ in this life. Our Lord has already said that those who endure persecution for his name will receive a great reward in heaven (5:12).
Now that does not mean that this reward is merited. Every gift from God to us whether in this life or the next is exactly that: a gift, freely given by grace. The faith behind a righteous life, the grace and strength to remain faithful to Christ and to live for him – all this is done by the grace of our Lord. Without him, we can do nothing. With him, we can do all things. The amazing thing is this: in the age to come, though he receives the praise, yet he gives us the reward. There is no contradiction in heaven between grace and reward.
And this reward is something nothing in earth or hell can touch. No moth or rust can corrupt or destroy it, no thief can break through and steal it. Blessed be God, we have been born again to a living hope by Jesus Christ, “to an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you” (1 Pet. 1:3-4).
And it is a treasure. It is something infinitely valuable and to be desired, not only because it lasts forever, but because every reward in the age to come is a reward in a place where God manifests his glory most fully to bless. Things on the earth begin to become corrupted in our hearts long before they become corrupted in themselves. And even if an earthly possession could last forever, it would become corroded in our enjoyment of it. But not so our enjoyment of God in the age to come. Our enjoyment will only increase, not decrease, because the object of our joy – the Triune God – is an infinite and inexhaustible treasure.
Third, our Lord reasons from the idolatry of worldliness: “for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (21). Not only is it common sense to pursue treasure in heaven rather than treasures in the earth, but it is sin. If your treasure is of the world, then the world is going to have your heart. And that is idolatry. Idolatry is not just bowing down to a statue. Idolatry is valuing anything above God. It is worshiping and serving the creature rather than the creator (Rom. 1:25). In other words, worldliness is breaking the First Commandment.
Then, fourthly, our Lord reasons from the fact that worldliness corrupts our perspective (22-23). I like the way the KJV translates this passage. The ESV translates this as: “If your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.” As far as it goes, that is a good translation. But the translation “if thy eye be single,” is also a good translation, and I think brings out the meaning a little more clearly. What our Lord is saying is that our focus is to be on the Lord, and that if we try looking at both the Lord and the world at the same time we are going to be like someone with double vision, or worse, like someone with no vision, a blind man. Jesus is saying that the man who “divides his interest and tries to focus on both God and possessions . . . has no clear vision, and will live without clear orientation or direction.”
You simply cannot focus on this world and see true realities clearly. You will be blind to truth and the value of spiritual things. You will not be able to direct your paths in the right way (cf. Prov. 3:5-6). We begin to value the temporary over the eternal. This is what happened to Demas. How can someone like Demas, who traveled with the apostle Paul and saw miracles and heard the gospel preached from a truly inspired man, how can he fall away? The answer lies in Paul’s words to Timothy, “For Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world” (2 Tim. 4:10). His eye was no longer single, and he lost sight of what is most important. Consequently, he fell in love with the world, and so he departed the apostle’s company and the service of Christ. How tragic!
Finally, our Lord reasons from the impossibility of dividing our loyalty between this world and God: “No man can serve two masters” (24). It’s impossible, you cannot do it. Neither this world nor God are satisfied with a divided loyalty. They are not like employers, whom you can work for part time, but they are masters who claim entire ownership.
The reason is that they are opposites. You cannot be in the light and in the darkness in the same way at the same time. If you love one you will hate the other. They are incompatible. You cannot walk on both sides of the road at the same time. God will have all of you or he will have none of you.
And so our Lord reasons with us to abandon our love of the world and to embrace God who is the true and lasting and deeply satisfying reward and treasure. Where do you stand this morning? Who has your heart, your attention, your devotion? My friends, do not be like the rich young ruler who, when confronted with the choice of following Christ or remaining devoted to worldly wealth, chose to walk away from Christ. Follow Christ! He is your Lord, your true Master, and he is the one who saves from God’s just wrath against us for our treason and loving this world above him. May we all be drawn to him with a heart united to love, trust, and serve him.