I’m sure you’ve seen this verse before:
“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” – Matthew 6:33
American Christianity has plastered this verse everywhere; on bookmarks, on mugs, and all over the internet. But are we really using these precious words of Jesus appropriately? Or are we promoting a selfish, feel-good agenda with a statement not often thought twice about?
The Importance of Context
Think about the last book you read. It might have been a novel, a scientific study of something, or maybe a new inspirational book. But whatever kind of book it was, you read all of it, right? Nobody picks up a book, flips to a select few pages, glances through them, and goes with whatever they happened to see there. In order to understand fully what the author wants to communicate, the entire book must be read, and then critiqued and thought about as a whole.
Imagine picking up a really popular book that all your friends say is amazing. You open to a random page and read the words, “This simply isn’t the case! Nothing will ever come of selfish endeavors for wealth.” Your first reaction might be that this statement is not true. If you looked at the motives in a lot of rich people’s lives, you would see that many who have undeniably selfish endeavors are gaining a lot of money. Therefore, this idea that “nothing” will come of selfish endeavors is incorrect, and the author of this book must not be trustworthy.
Now, we all know that the above situation is ridiculous. If you read the paragraph or two before the statement about selfish endeavors, you’d probably see that by “nothing,” he means nothing righteous and holy. Therefore, in light of the context, what the author is really saying is that nothing good will ever come of selfish endeavors for wealth. This is a much better statement, and if it is clear within the context that this is what the writer wants to propose, then we must treat it as such.
Let’s say you were talking to someone and you said, “I just don’t see it happening. I can’t imagine how it would work.” Then the person you were talking to said, “Of course you can’t see it happening, because it’s not happening right now.” This is obviously not what you meant. Now imagine that no matter how you try to explain it, he won’t interpret your words any differently, even though you know this is not what you intended to get across. Sound frustrating? It is. That’s because the listener is not receiving what we are wanting to give them in communication. This is a major problem with reading and listening to words out of their original and intended context.
“All These Things”
This is what happens with the Bible on a regular basis. It’s not exactly a short book, so a lot of what it says is taken out of context and used for purposes not intended by God. One example of this is the above mentioned verse, Matthew 6:33. Take a look at the context. And please, do read all of it.
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” – Matthew 6:25-34
Doesn’t verse 33 make a lot more sense now? The words, “all these things” refer to the basic needs of food and clothing. Did you catch that? They are not referring to that raise you want, or that gadget that would make your life easier, or that person you think you can’t live without. They refer to very basic needs of the human body. Jesus’ point is that we should not worry about where we’ll get food and clothing to survive. We should simply seek God’s kingdom in all we do, and trust Him to provide for us. But how often do we interpret Matthew 6:33 like this? I think a lot of times we take “all these things” to mean “all that we currently have on our mind,” and when we see that these will be “added to us,” we think, “Oh, that’s cool. Jesus will give me what I’m thinking about right now as long as I seek His kingdom first.” This is not true! It’s absolutely absurd to think this, but many of us just forget how ridiculous this is, and accept the fuzzy feelings that come with this verse’s often misinterpreted promise.
I’m not saying that this is how everyone interprets Matthew 6:33, but I do believe that a lot of people accept this false conclusion. Part of the reason for this could be that the verse sounds so hope-giving and “deep” by itself. Many recognize this and present it without the context, resulting in a lot of confusion as to what the verse is actually promising. This leads others to misinterpret the verse, and incorrectly suppose that it is an unfulfilled promise in their lives, building up their distrust of the Bible. This chain of events does not glorify God, and should be avoided at all costs. It is far better to present an inspiring, but easily misinterpreted verse with its context, or not at all, rather than risk misunderstandings and dishonorable use of God’s Word.
The same concept applies to theological beliefs. Let’s say, for example, that your family believes in one way of undergoing baptism, while you think that another way is correct. This is ok. But make sure that your difference in opinion is based on what you truly believe is the most accurate and honest understanding of the different sections of the Bible that talk about baptism. This can be difficult, but a lot of possibly harmful preconceptions and ideas can be successfully disposed of by a careful reading of the context around the different verses in the Bible about baptism. Try to avoid selecting just one or two verses in order to come to a conclusion about a certain doctrine. You could potentially be taking a statement out of its intended context, rendering its words useless in the overall scope of what the Bible says about that idea. This is not helpful at all in the process of trying to understand exactly what God wants us to understand about the Bible. We must be wise and discerning when studying God’s Word, and context is an indispensable part of that.
The practice of attempting to take every verse in the Bible in its true context is rare nowadays. So many pastors, teachers, and authors twist and manipulate the Bible’s words, either unintentionally or for selfish reasons. But no matter what the motive is behind the misuse of Scripture, it reaps harmful effects that lead many astray. We must take a stand for the immovable truth of the Bible by striving to use its words accurately in our personal lives, and by helping others to see the importance of honest, thorough study of God’s Word. So whether you’re sharing a verse on the internet, or analyzing a doctrinal issue, remember to take everything in its proper context, and treat the Bible with the fearful respect it deserves.