Episode 14: For Christians, nothing should be more important than seeking first the kingdom. Episode fourteen will take a deeper look at what it means to “Seek first the kingdom of God” from a Jewish perspective. Viewers will learn that the kingdom of God is the Messianic Era. To seek first the kingdom is to obey the teachings of Jesus and do the will of God while always leaning on God’s grace. The Sermon on the Mount is the long answer to what it means to seek to enter his kingdom.
The Lesson: The Mystery of Seeking First the Kingdom of God
What is it to seek first the Kingdom of God? We’ve learned from previous episodes of this program, that the Kingdom of God is actually the Messianic Era, not “going to Heaven.” It’s the Kingdom that Jesus will establish upon his second advent into our world, where he will rule and reign over Israel as her King, and as King of all the nations of the Earth.
But let’s take a closer look at an important saying of the Master from Matthew 6:31-34 using the Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels translation to begin to address this mystery:
Therefore, do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For the Gentiles request all of these. Does your Father who is in heaven not know that you need all these? But seek first the kingdom of God and his tzedakah, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry for itself. It is sufficient for trouble to come at its time.
As always, First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) teacher and author Toby Janicki tells his audience that we may be led into error if we do not look at these scriptures from the original linguistic, historical, and cultural context, the context of the audience for whom Matthew wrote his gospel, the context of the audience of Jesus and his Sermon on the Mount. This is the lynchpin that holds together FFOZ’s interpretation of the New Testament and folds it into the overall Jewish context of the entire Bible.
Toby says that Jesus is telling us we are not to focus on our immediate, material needs, but rather to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. Toby summarizes the Kingdom using material presented in previous episodes:
- The Kingdom of God is Messiah’s rule over the earth upon his second coming.
- The exiles of Israel, the Jewish people, will be regathered to their nation.
- God will defeat all of Israel’s enemies.
- Messiah establishes a rule of peace over all the Earth.
- The Torah will go forth from Zion.
- Everyone will be filled with the Knowledge of God through the Holy Spirit.
I immediately thought of my conversation with my Pastor last week. Part of our discussion included a quick summary of the Book of Revelation, and I noticed that Toby didn’t touch on the “rapture of the Church” to Heaven with Jesus for the seven years of tribulation. I suppose that will be a topic for another time, although previously, Toby mentioned that “the Church” would be raptured with Jesus to Jerusalem. I suppose that means “the Church” won’t be “off planet” for the seven years of woe and judgment, but that’s a topic for another time.
Toby said that the Sermon of the Mount is the overall context for today’s lesson and that Matthew 5:20 is the key to understanding the Sermon. It functions like a thesis statement, and not correctly understanding this single verse will lead to misunderstanding the entire sermon.
I found this terrifically compelling, because Pastor and I got “hung up” on this very verse last week. I was presenting my understanding of the terms “abolish” and “fulfill” we encounter in Matthew 5:17-19 based on the previous episode of the show: The Torah is Not Canceled (see my review of that episode for more details).
However, verse 20, as I mentioned, was a problem:
For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
The context of verses 17-19 discuss the Torah and how Messiah did not come to disobey (abolish) the Torah, but to obey (fulfill) it. Pastor says that “fulfill” can’t possibly mean “obey” in context because of verse 20. No amount of obedience of the mitzvot can lead to saving righteousness. The only answer I had to give was that Jesus was contrasting Torah obedience with faith, essentially saying that the scribes and Pharisees were depending on what they did to save them, and, as important as obedience is relative to Jews and the Torah, it’s only faith that saves. I was trying to pull a rabbit out of my hat, so to speak, thinking “theologically” on the fly.
So I was hoping that Toby was going to offer a link from verse 20 back to verses 17-19 and give me a more “fleshed out” explanation. What ultimately happened was unexpected.
Toby forged a direct connection between Matthew 5:20 and Matthew 6:33
For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
As I’ve said in the past, it would be helpful to know the source for making such connections in the Bible. A bibliography for each episode would enhance my ability to understand. But we have arrived at our first clue:
Clue 1: Make it your top priority to enter the Messianic Era.
But there’s another part to all of this. While we can grasp the meaning of the Kingdom of Heaven, what does “righteousness” mean in these contexts? Seek first the Kingdom of Heaven and his righteousness. You might think you know what “righteousness” is, but remember, this show is all about presenting familiar parts of the Bible as seen through the historical, cultural, and linguistic lens of first century Judaism. What does “righteousness” look like when you put those glasses on?
To learn the answer, the scene shifts to FFOZ teacher and translator Aaron Eby in Israel. Aaron teaches us (and I apologize for the poor spelling of the transliterations) that “righteousness” can be mapped back to two Hebrew words: “Tzeddik” and “Tzadakah”. “Tzeddik” gives us the sense of “justice,” “correctness,” “equitability,” and “uprightness.” It’s an abstract concept and is more about being righteous. “Tzadakah,” on the other hand, is a more “hands on” term, according to Aaron. It’s more about doing right things, doing the correct thing, and doing righteousness rather than being righteous.
It will be righteousness for us if we are careful to observe all this commandment before the Lord our God, just as He commanded us. (emph. mine)
–Deuteronomy 6:25 (NASB)
Aaron explains that the word “righteousness” or “tzedakah” used in this verse speaks of doing the correct thing, which here is performing particular Torah mitzvot. The concept of righteousness and doing right are completely fused. One cannot be righteous without doing righteousness. This should remind most Christians of the following:
But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.
–James 2:18-24 (NASB)
Over time, the meaning of the word “tzedakah” has changed. It is commonly thought of today as specifically giving to charity, but Aaron says that it did not lose its previous meaning in taking on a more modern way of being understood. The underlying concept of the word is doing kindness to others, kind treatment of others. When God shows us His righteousness, he is being kind to us. When we show others righteousness, we are doing good things for them. Although Aaron and Toby didn’t say this specifically, I think we can link tzedakah back to being a tzeddik (a righteous one). You cannot be righteous without doing righteousness. Let’s look at Matthew 5:20 again.
For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. (emph. mine)
So, given all that we’ve learned up to this point, are Aaron and Toby telling us that entering the Messianic Era, the Kingdom of God, is dependent on how much kindness we do for other human beings? But how can we be more “righteous” than the scribes and the Pharisees, who set the bar pretty high?
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.
–Matthew 23:23 (NASB)
While the scribes and the Pharisees were all about doing “righteousness,” that is, acts of kindness and justice (the two can’t be separated in our understanding of tzedakah) toward others, still, they had problems, and these were problems Jesus brought to light. They were hypocritical (or some of them were). They taught righteousness but didn’t do righteousness. This is why Jesus told his disciples to do what the Pharisees taught but not to emulate their actual behavior (Matthew 23:1-3). There was nothing wrong with the teaching of righteousness of the Pharisees, but in many cases, they didn’t “walk the walk”. Jesus seems to be telling his disciples (and us) that our righteous deeds must exceed those of the Pharisees if we are to enter into the Kingdom of God.
Let’s refactor the two scriptures that Toby says are key to our understanding of today’s mystery:
For I say to you that unless your good deeds surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
–Matthew 5:20 (NASB)
But seek first His kingdom and His good deeds, and all these things will be added to you.
–Matthew 6:33 (NASB)
Returning to Toby in the studio, we have arrived at our second clue:
Clue 2: Righteousness = Acts of the Law; Good Deeds of God’s Torah.
Toby says that if Jesus has to give this instruction, it begs the question of whether or not some disciples of the Master will not enter the Messianic Era. He offers the following as an answer:
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’
–Matthew 7:21-23 (NASB)
Toby’s coming really close to saying that all disciples of Jesus who do not practice the Torah mitzvot, or at least those that command acts of kindness and charity to others, will not enter into the Messianic Era. In other words, they “practice lawlessness.” However, Toby was quick to point out that this isn’t a matter of salvation. Even if you do no acts of kindness, you can still be saved by the grace of Jesus Christ through faith (though if you have faith, then why aren’t you performing tzadakah?). But this brings up a critical question. How can you be saved but not enter the Messianic Age? Where will you be if you’re not there?
Oh, and this is the third and final clue:
Clue 3: Not everyone will enter the Messianic Era.
Toby again tells us that not entering the Kingdom and not performing acts of kindness and charity to others does not negate the free gift of grace through Christ. But the Messianic Era is a span of historical time in which all those resurrected and all those who are born in it are in that Era. How can you not enter a span of history unless you’re dead…but if you’re saved, you’re not dead?
What Did I Learn?
Linking last week’s review to today’s, let’s have another look at a key passage of scripture:
“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
“For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
–Matthew 5:17-20 (NASB)
Here I see that, at least from FFOZ’s point of view, my response on verse 20 was wrong. Putting all this in one basket, the FFOZ perspective is that Jesus, having been criticized and accused of not living out and teaching the Torah correctly by the scribes and Pharisees, uses this opportunity to clarify his position. He has not come to abolish (disobey) the Torah, but rather to fulfill (obey) the Torah. Any Jew (his intended audience in this context was Jewish) who annuls even the least of the mitzvot (in contrast to Jesus who says he doesn’t) will be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven (the Messianic Age). Anyone who keeps and teaches the Torah mitzvot will be called great in the Kingdom (and since Jesus was the only person who kept the mitzvot perfectly, this implies that he will be the very greatest in the Kingdom).
(I should note at this point, that Aaron chose to interpret the term “righteousness” we see in Matthew 5 and 6 as “tzedakah” rather than “tzeddik.” If it could be either/or, it would be helpful to understand on what basis “tzedakah” was selected over “tzeddik” … on the other hand, as I mentioned above, can we really separate these two words … can one be a tzeddik without performing tzedakah?)
Continuing to address his audience and building on what he’s just said, Jesus instructs that unless their good deeds according to the performance of the Torah mitzvot, exceed those of the scribes and Pharisees (who later Jesus accuses of teaching well but not performing well), then they will not merit entering the Kingdom of Heaven (the Messianic Age).
On the one hand, a person who annuls the least of the mitzvot and teaches others to annul them will be in the Kingdom of Heaven but will be least there, and on the other hand, unless a person’s performance of the mitzvot related to good deeds does not exceed the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees, they will not enter the Kingdom at all, not even as the least.
I think this needs some clarification. I know my Pastor would not likely be convinced by this argument. For him, righteousness is a state of being (being a tzeddik, which no one achieves without faith in Christ) that no person can earn regardless of what they do. He would call this “salvation by works,” even though Toby is saying that it’s actually admission into the Messianic Kingdom for the already saved. Salvation isn’t earned but admission to the Messianic Kingdom apparently is.
I will admit to being confused by this one for the reasons I’ve already stated. However, like other episodes of this program, complete ideas are expressed not in one episode, but in connecting many episodes together to form the total message. Hopefully, that’s what’s happening here.
FFOZ President and Founder Boaz Michael, as always, came on camera at the very end of the episode to announce that next week’s show would address “the Lord’s Prayer.” Maybe the part that says, thy Kingdom come, they will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven” will be used to help clarify today’s commentary on the Mystery of Seeking First the Kingdom of God.
I will review another episode next week.