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RELIGION, OUR FIRST AND GREAT CONCERNMENT.
But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and Ids righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.—Matt. vi. 33.
IN the latter part of this chapter, our Saviour doth, in a long discourse, caution his disciples against an inordinate care about the things of this life, which he concludes with a strict charge to make religion their first and great concernment, and above all things to take care to secure to themselves the happiness of another life; “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness,” &c. In the handling of which words, I shall do these four things.
First, I shall explain what is here meant by the “kingdom of God, and his righteousness.”
Secondly, What by seeking of these.
Thirdly, I shall lay down some necessary and plain directions, which if we observe, we cannot miscarry in this matter.
Fourthly, I shall set before you some of the most proper and powerful motives and encouragements to the minding of this great interest and concernment: among which, I shall particularly consider the argument or encouragement here used in the text, “and all these things shall be added unto you.”
First, I shall explain to you what is here meant by “the kingdom of God, and his righteousness.”129
I. What is meant by the “kingdom of God.” And there are two famous acceptations of this phrase, and both of them very frequent in the New Testament. Sometimes it is used to signify the state of the gospel, or the Christian religion, which by the Jews was called the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of the Messias. (Mark i. 15.) “The kingdom of God is at hand;” that is, the state or dispensation of the gospel is now approaching, and ready to take place. (Luke xvii. 20.) The pharisees demanding of our Saviour, “when the kingdom of God should come?” that is, when the reign of the Messias should commence; he answers them, “The kingdom of God cometh not with observation;” that is, not with any temporal pomp and splendour, so as to draw the eyes of people after it, as the Jews did vainly imagine; but “the kingdom of God, ἐντὸς ὑμῶν ἐστιν, is among you,” not within you, as our translation hath improperly rendered it; the kingdom of God (he tells them) is already come unto you, the Messias is among you, and ye are not aware of him. In the like sense this phrase is used, Matt. xxi. 43. “The kingdom of God (that is, the gospel) shall be taken from you, and given to a nation, bringing forth the fruits thereof.” And so likewise the phrase of “the kingdom of heaven” is used, Matt, xi. 11. where, speaking of John the Baptist, our Saviour saith, that, “among them that were born of women, there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist;” that is, there was no greater person than he, under the Jewish dispensation; “and yet he that is least in the kingdom of heaven,” that is, under the dispensation of the gospel, “is greater than he.”
Now, though this sense of “the kingdom of God” be not wholly excluded in the text, yet there is 130another sense of this phrase very usual likewise in the Scripture, and which is more agreeable to the scope of our Saviour’s argument and discourse; and so it signifies that future state of happiness and glory which good men shall be advanced to in another world, in opposition to this life and the enjoyments of it, which our Saviour had before forbidden his disciples to be so solicitous about. “Take ye no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or what shrill we drink? or wherewithal shall we be clothed?” And then it follows in direct opposition to this inordinate and solicitous care about worldly things, “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness.” That is, be not so solicitous about the conveniences and necessaries of this life, as about the happiness of the other, and the means to it. And this sense of this phrase of “the kingdom of God” is so very frequent in the New Testament, that I shall not need to give particular in stances of it.
II. What is meant by righteousness; “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness.” Righteousness, in the strictest and most proper sense of the word, signifies the particular virtue of justice; and very frequently in the Old Testament it is used for charity to the poor, or alms-giving: (Psal. xxxvii. 25, 26.) “I have been young, and now am old, yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread; he is ever merciful, and lendeth;” and, (Psal. cxii. 9.) “He hath dispersed, he hath given to the poor, his righteousness endureth for ever.” But righteousness, in its largest and most extended sense, comprehends all the virtues of a good man; and so it signifies here in the text, and in many other places of Scripture.131
So that “the kingdom of God, and his righteousness,” comprehends the whole business of religion our last end, which is eternal life and happiness in another world, and the way and means to this end; which is righteousness, or that universal goodness which God requires of us, and whereof he himself is a pattern and example to us; for which reason it is called “his righteousness.” And in this sense of our last end, and the way and means to it, the kingdom of heaven, and righteousness, are used in another place, even of this sermon of our Saviour’s upon the mount: (Matt. v. 20.) “Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven;” where righteousness is made the necessary means and condition of eternal life. I proceed, in the
Second place, to explain what is meant by seeking “first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness/ And this signifies the greatest intention of mind, and earnestness of endeavour about the business of religion, in order to our attaining of eternal happiness, such a seriousness and earnestness of endeavour as earthly-minded men use about the things of this world. “For after all these things (says our Saviour, immediately after the text), do the gentiles seek;” τὰ ἔθνη ἐπιζητεῖ, which words signify an intense care and vigorous endeavour; “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness;” that is, be ye, who profess yourselves Christians, as intent upon the business of religion, and the salvation of your souls, as the heathen, who are in a great measure ignorant of God and another life, are about the things of this life.
And here are two things to be explained.132
I. What is here meant by seeking “the kingdom of God, and his righteousness;” and,
II. What by seeking them in the first place.
For the first: A sincere and earnest seeking of “the kingdom of God, and his righteousness,” does imply in it these four things.
1. A fixed design and resolution as to the end; that we do not only propound to ourselves the eternal happiness and salvation of our souls, as our chief end, but that we be immoveably fixed upon it; and always have it in our aim and design; that here we set up our resolution, if it be possible, to be happy for ever; that we have this end always in our eye, and be firmly resolved to do all that we can towards attaining it.
Not that we are obliged always actually to think upon it; but to have it frequently in our minds, and habitually to intend and design it, so as to make it the scope of all our endeavours and actions, and that every thing we do be either directly and immediately in order to it, or some way or other subservient to this design, or however not inconsistent with it; like the term and end of a man’s journey, towards which the traveller is continually tending, and hath it always habitually in his intention, though he doth not always think of it every step that he takes; and though he be not always directly advancing and moving towards it, yet he never knowingly goes out of the way. And though he bait and lodge by the way, and does many other things which do not directly set him forward, yet they are all subservient to his journey, or in prosecution of it; or at least no wilful deviations from it. Thus it should be with us, while we are so journing in this world; our fixed aim and design 133should be to get to heaven, and thither we should he continually tending in our desires and endeavours.
And if this resolution he deeply rooted and fixed in our minds, it will govern all our actions, and keep them steady to their main end. Whereas, if we he uncertain and unresolved upon our great end, and be divided between the happiness of the next life, and the present enjoyments of this, we shall be fickle and unsteady in all our motions. He that hath two ends, can pursue neither vigorously, but while he is moving towards the one, he leans and inclines to the other; and, like a needle between two loadstones, is always in a doubtful and trembling condition; inclines to both, but is constant to neither: and this is the meaning of that aphorism of St. James, “the double-minded man is unstable in all his ways.” He that is unresolved as to his main end hath two minds, and ran prosecute nothing vigorously: but if our mind be once fixed and resolved, that will determine and govern all our motions, and inspire us with diligence, and zeal, and perseverance, in the prosecution of our end.
2. Seeking “the kingdom of God, and his righteousness,” implies incessant care and diligence as to the means; that we make religion our business, and exercise ourselves in the duties of it, both in public and private, at proper times and seasons, with the same seriousness and application of mind as men do in their callings and professions, for the gaining of wealth and preferment; especially on the Lord’s-day, which God hath taken to himself, and set apart for the duties of his worship and service. Not that we are excused from minding religion at other times; but that those, who are pressed and straitened by the necessary cares of this life, may 134be sure to mind it then, and may have no colour of excuse for the neglect of it at that time, which God hath allotted for that very purpose, and which it is unlawful to employ about our worldly affairs. God expects that we should serve him at other times, that we should live in an habitual sense of him, and (as Solomon expresseth it, Prov. xxiii. 17.) “Be in the fear of the Lord all the day long;” so as to be careful not to offend or transgress in any thing, and so as to redeem all opportunities for the exercise of piety and devotion; but this day he peremptorily challenged! to himself, and expects we should employ it in his service, and dedicate it to religion, to the contemplation of God and heavenly things, and the care of our immortal souls, with the same seriousness and diligence as we do, upon other days, “labour for the bread that perisheth;” and the less leisure we have upon other days for this purpose, the more entirely should we devote and consecrate this day to the purposes and duties of religion.
Not but that our whole life, and all the actions of it, should be under the government of religion, and directed by the laws and rules of it; and it should be our continual care and endeavour to please God in all things; and we should take as much pains, and be as heartily concerned to be good men, as the men of the world are to grow rich and great in this world; nay, so much more, by how much it is a better and nobler design to improve in grace and virtue, than to prosper and thrive in our temporal estate; and we do not in good earnest “seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” if this be not our great study and endeavour, to subdue our lusts and govern our passions; and, in a word, to reform whatever is amiss in the inward frame and 135temper of our minds, and in our outward conversation. And, indeed, nothing does require greater diligence, and attention, and care, than for a man to become truly and thoroughly good, to be meek, and humble, and patient, and contented, and resigned to the will of God in every condition; to be peace able, and charitable, and placable, and ready to forgive: these are great and difficult things, and what ever we think, not the work of a wish, or the effect of a sudden resolution before the receiving of the holy sacrament; no, nor the fruit of frequent and fervent prayer, without the hearty concurrence of our own care and endeavour to render our lives such, as we pray God by his grace to assist and enable us to be.
3. Seeking “the kingdom of God, and his righteousness,” does further imply zeal and earnestness in the pursuit of this design; and this is a degree above diligence; for zeal is an ardour and fervency of mind in the prosecution of a thing for which we are greatly concerned, and which we vehemently desire to obtain; it is the hottest and most intense degree of our affection towards any thing of our desire and love, mixed with anger at every thing that stands in our way, and hinders us from obtaining what we seek after; such a heat as ambition doth commonly inspire men withal, in the pursuit of power and preferment. Such ought to be the temper of our minds, and the edge of our spirits, in “the kingdom of God,” as does usually men in seeking the kingdoms of this world and the glory of them. We must remember, that it is a kingdom which we seek for, and aspire after; not like the unstable and tottering kingdoms of this 136world, but “a kingdom which cannot be shaken,” as the apostle calls it.
So that the greatness of the design, and the excellency of what we seek after, will justify and warrant the highest degree of a discreet zeal and fervour in the prosecution of it; and therefore no wonder that the Scripture, in this matter, useth words that import the greatest vehemency and earnestness, bidding us to “strive to enter in at the strait gate,” to labour and watch, to run, and wrestle, and fight, and, in a word, to “give all diligence to make our calling and election sure.”
Lastly, Seeking “the kingdom of God, and his righteousness,” does imply patience and perseverance in our endeavours after them, and that we never cease our pursuit of them until we have obtained them; and this, notwithstanding all the difficulties and discouragements, the opposition and persecution, that we meet with “for righteousness’ sake:” for this we must expect and reckon upon beforehand, to encounter many difficulties and find many discouragements in the ways of religion; for “strait is the gate, and narrow is the way that leads to life,” as our Lord himself hath told us: nay, we must count to be grievously “persecuted for righteousness sake,” and, if God see it good for us, to pass through many tribulations before we shall “enter into the kingdom of God;” and therefore we had need to be armed with a great deal of patience, and a very firm and obstinate resolution, to enable us to bear up, and to hold out against all these; for this is a necessary qualification for our seeking “the kingdom of God, and his righteousness.” So our Lord hath told us, (Matth. x. 22.) 137“he that endureth to the end shall be saved;” if we hope to receive the “crown of life,” we must “be faithful to the death.” (Rev. ii. 10.) And to the same purpose, St. Paul declares, (Rom. ii. 7.) that they only shall be made partakers of eternal life, “who, by patient continuance in well-doing, seek for glory, and honour, and immortality.”
You see what is meant by “seeking the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; that is, let this be your main and principal design, so as to take place of all others in your esteem and affections, in your aim and endeavour; in comparison of this, mind nothing else, not the comforts and conveniences, no, not the necessaries of life, “what ye shall eat, and what ye shall drink, and wherewithal ye shall be clothed.” These, you see, our Saviour instanceth in before the text, as not to be regarded and taken care of, when they come in competition with “the kingdom of God, and his righteousness.” And our Saviour tells us elsewhere, that not only none of the comforts and necessaries of life are to be valued against him and his religion, but that even temporal life itself, as dear as it is to us, is to be parted withal, and given up, rather than to quit the profession of his truth and religion. (Matth. x. 37, 38.) “He that loveth father or mother more than me, is not worthy of me; and he that loveth son or daughter more than me, is not worthy of me.” He instanceth in the nearest relations, those towards whom we have the most tender and relenting affections, and yet he tells us, that the consideration of his truth and religion ought to take place of these, nay, even of life itself; for so it follows, and “he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.” St. Luke expresseth it more strongly and 138vehemently; (Luke xiv. 26.) “If any man come to me (that is, take upon him the profession of my religion) 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.” When these come in competition with our religion, and the great interest of our eternal salvation, we are to regard and value them no more than if they were the objects of our hatred; but to set aside all consideration of affection to them, so far as it would tempt us from constancy in our religion, and the care of our souls.
So that when our Saviour bids us “first to seek the kingdom of God, and his righteousness/ his meaning is, that religion, and the concernments of our souls, and the eternal happiness of them in another world, should be our first and chief care; and that all other things should be made subordinate and subservient to this great design, and be no farther minded by us than they really are so: for that which is our great end, will subdue all other things, and bring them into subjection to it, and will reject them, and throw them aside, if they be inconsistent with it. If heaven be our utmost aim, and in order to that, it be our great study and endeavour to be righteous and holy, this resolution and design, sincerely entertained, will overrule all other considerations, and make all the things of this world to stoop and give way to that which is our chief end, the eternal happiness and salvation of our souls. And thus have I done with the second thing I proposed; namely, what is meant by “seeking the kingdom of God, and his righteousness;” and what by “seeking them first.”
I proceed, in the third place, to lay down some 139plain rules for our direction and furtherance “in seeking the kingdom of God, and his righteousness;” that is, in the great business of religion.
First, Let us always live under a lively and powerful sense of another world: that we are placed here in this world but for a little while, and that wholly in order to our preparation for a better and happier life. Let this thought be often in your minds:—that eternity is the most considerable duration, and the next world the place of our everlasting abode, where we must dwell and continue for over; and, therefore, our present state is but of little moment and consideration to us, but only in order to our future and everlasting condition. We may please ourselves here, for a little while, with toys and trifles, with dreams and shadows of pleasure and happiness, and may be exercised with some troubles and afflictions for a short space, “for a moment,” as the apostle calls it; “our light afflictions, which are but for a moment;” and so, indeed, it is, compared with all eternity: but the substantial and durable happiness or misery remain for men in the other world, and will certainly be their portion, according as they have demeaned themselves in this world.
Now, the serious consideration of this cannot fail to put us upon vigorous preparations for another world, and to make us wholly intent upon our eternal concernments, and to resolve, whatever becomes of us in this world, to take effectual care that we may be happy for ever. He that firmly believes the immortality of his soul, and a life after death, which will never have an end, must needs take into consideration his whole duration, and bend all his care and thoughts how he may avoid the greatest and most 140lasting misery, and secure to himself an immortality of bliss and happiness.
Secondly, Let us always be under a conviction of the absolute and indispensable necessity of holiness and righteousness, as the only way and means whereby the kingdom of God is to be attained, and that holiness and happiness are not to be separated, the one being a necessary condition and qualification for the other; and, consequently, that it is the vainest thing in the world for any man to hope to enter into the kingdom of God, without endeavouring after his righteousness; there is so strong a connexion between them, that a man may as reasonably expect to be well and at ease without health, as to be happy without holiness; for this makes us like to God, and our likeness and conformity to God, is that alone which can make us capable of the blessed sight and enjoyment of God. We must be partakers of the Divine nature, in order to our participation of the Divine blessedness. And the consideration of this will effectually engage us to seek the righteousness of God, without which we shall never enter into his kingdom; and to follow holiness, “without which no man shall see the Lord.”
Thirdly, Let us always remember that righteousness is of a great extent, and comprehends in it all goodness; it takes in all the duties of religion, and the practice of all of them; it is a complication of all graces and virtues, of all the parts and ingredients, of all the duties and offices of a good man., To denominate a man righteous, all causes must concur; all the essential principles and parts of religion and goodness must meet together; knowledge and practice, faith and good works, right opinions and real virtues, an orthodox profession and a holy 141life, abstaining from sin and doing of righteousness, purity of heart and unspotted manners, godliness and honesty, the bridling of our tongue and the government of our passions, “and, above all things, charity, which is the bond of perfection.”
For righteousness is our conformity to the law of God, as unrighteousness and sin is the transgression of it. Now this, if it be real and sincere, will be uniform and universal, equally respecting all the laws of God, and every part of our known duty, and will not content itself with an especial regard to one or two precepts of the law, though never so considerable, and then allow itself in the neglect and violation of the rest; no, nor with the observation of the duties of one table of the law, if it overlook the other; no, nor with obedience to all the commandments of God, one only excepted. St. James hath put this very case, and determined it, that “he that shall keep the whole law, save only that he offend in one point, is guilty of all;” that is, he is not sincere in his obedience to the rest; and therefore, if we seek the righteousness of God, our righteousness must be universal; as he that hath called us is holy, so must we be holy in all manner of conversation, in the tenor of our actions, and the whole course of our lives: and anyone reigning sin and vice, any gross and notorious defect in the virtues of a good life, will spoil all our righteousness, and will effectually shut us out of the kingdom of heaven.
Fourthly, Let us wisely subordinate the several parts and duties of religion to one another, according to the intrinsical worth and value of them, that so we may mind every part of religion in its due place, and according to the true nature and importance of it. Knowledge and faith are in order to 142practice, and a good life; and signify nothing unless they produce that; the means of religion, such as prayer and fasting, diligent reading and hearing the word of God, reverent and devout receiving of the blessed sacrament, are of less account and value than that which is the end of all these, which is to make us inwardly and really good, and fruitful in all the works of righteousness, which, by Jesus Christ, are to the praise and glory of God. And therefore, the means of religion, which I have mentioned, are to be regarded and used by us in order to the attaining of these ends, without which they are mere formality and hypocrisy; and, instead of finding acceptance with God, they are an abomination to him, and his soul hates them.
And so, likewise, the circumstances of religion are less considerable than the substantial means and instruments of it. And, therefore, all rites and ceremonies are, in religion, of less consideration than the substance of God’s worship, and ought always to be subordinate to it. In like manner the moral duties of religion, comprehended under the two great commandments, of the love of God and our neighbour, because they are of eternal and in dispensable obligation, are to be preferred to matters of mere positive institution; and where they cannot stand together, that which is positive ought to be set aside, and to give way, for the present, to that which is moral and good in its own nature, and not only because it is commanded and enjoined; for, in this case, God hath expressly declared that he “will have mercy and not sacrifice.” Upon which ground our Saviour declares, that the law of the sabbath ought to give place to works of mercy. Upon the same account peace and charity are to be valued 143above matters of nicety and scruple, of doubtful dispute and controversy; because the former are unquestionably good, the latter doubtfully and uncertainly so.
All these things ought to be considered, and are of great moment to make a man sincerely and wisely religious. For men may keep a great stir about some parts of religion, and be very careful and diligent, zealous and earnest about the means and instruments of religion, and in the exercises of piety and devotion, and yet be destitute of the power and life of it, and fall short of that inward, and real, and substantial righteousness, which alone can qualify us for the kingdom of God.
The fifth and last direction I would give is this—That we have a particular regard to the great duty of charity, or alms-giving, this being very frequently in Scripture called righteousness, as being an eminent part of religion, and a great evidence of the truth and sincerity of our piety. And this our Saviour particularly directs to, as the way to the kingdom of God. (Luke xii.33.) After this general exhortation to seek the kingdom of God, he instanceth in charity, as the direct way to it: u Give alms, provide for yourselves bags that wax not old, a treasure in the heavens which faileth not.” And else where our Saviour speaks of this grace and virtue, as that which, above all others, will make way for our admission into heaven: (Luke xvi. 9.) “I say unto you, make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness, that, when ye fail, they may receive you (or ye may be received) into everlasting habitations.” And St. Paul calls it, “laying up in store for ourselves a good foundation; or (as the word may better be rendered in this place) “a good 144treasure against the time to come, that we may lay hold on eternal life: (1 Tim. vi. 19.) St. James speaks of it as a main and most essential part of religion, and the great evidence of a true and sincere piety. (Jam. i. 27.) “Pure religion, and undefiled before God and the Father, is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction.” Finally, our Lord instanceth in this, as the very thing which will admit us into, or shut us out of, heaven; by the performance whereof we shall be absolved, and for the neglect whereof we shall be condemned in the judgment of the great day. (Matth. xxv.) So that this part of righteousness or religion, ought, in a more especial manner, to be regarded by us, because, upon the performance or neglect of this duty, our eternal happiness doth so much depend.
The fourth and last thing only remains to be spoken to; which is, to set before you the most proper and powerful motives and encouragements to the minding of this great interest and concernment. But this will be the subject of another discourse.145
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