Editor’s note: The purpose of this series is to walk our readers through the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 in order to help them understand what it teaches and how to apply it to our lives. This is our first such series here at Servants of Grace through an extended biblical passage and is part of our larger commitment to help Christians learn to read, interpret, reflect, and apply the Bible to their own lives.

Matt. 6:33–34, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Jesus inaugurated His ministry by proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17 ESV). He went throughout Galilee, proclaiming that kingdom (Matthew 4:23). The Sermon on the Mount starts the process of unfolding what Jesus meant when He proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom.

The first section (Matthew 5:3–16), containing the Beatitudes, is essentially an overture to the sermon. The first and last beatitudes proclaim that the Kingdom is a present possession for Jesus’ disciples. The first one says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And the last one says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3, 10).

In the next section (Matthew 5:17–48), Jesus declares that He came to fulfill the law. Further, whoever breaks a commandment is least in the Kingdom, and whoever practices and teaches Jesus’ commands “will be called great in the kingdom” (Matthew 5:19). Jesus’ teachings on murder, anger, adultery, truthfulness, and love explain the character of Kingdom righteousness.

Early in chapter 6, Jesus instructs His disciples to pray that the Kingdom will come (6:10). The entire sermon reaches  its climax when Jesus commands, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). Before this climax, chapter 6 describes three of the forces, the false gods, that keep people from seeking the kingdom. The first is reputation or human honor (Matthew 6:1–18). The second is wealth (Matthew 6:19–24). The third is security (Matthew 6:25–34), which Jesus tackles in terms of worry.

At one level, worry is simply a human folly, roughly on the order of eating or drinking in excess, or staying up too late at night. Like overindulgence, worry is a self-destructive state we think we should be able to control. After all, we know that worry is pointless—no one can add even an hour to his life by worrying (Matthew 6:27). It accomplishes nothing except to put God out of the picture. But, at another level, worry, like sensual indulgence, can be a symptom of allegiance to false gods. Self-indulgence may reveal a commitment to sensual pleasures. And worry can reveal a commitment to our personal security. That is, we may wish to ensure our personal security for ourselves, instead of trusting God.

The Context: God, Money, and Worry

Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:25 begins with the word “therefore.” That is, there is something in the previous passage that forbids worry. It emerges when we look closely at the context. Matthew 6:24 gave us a choice—“You cannot serve both God and Money.” Ordinarily a choice is not a reason. But if we follow Jesus’ logic in 6:19–24, we see that it is. In that passage, Jesus told us to weigh and choose between two alternatives, two gods:

  • We can store up treasures on earth or in heaven. We can store up and enjoy treasures on earth for a season, knowing we must battle the moths that eat and the rust that corrodes them. Or we can store up our treasures in heaven, where they are safe with God forever. Which treasure will be more lasting?
  • As we chart our life’s course, we must decide where to set our eyes and affections. We can set our hearts on wealth or on God. We can set our eyes on material goods or on the Kingdom. We can live with generosity and openness or with stinginess and greed. Which object of our affection and attention promises a better life?
  • So choose, Jesus says. Will you serve God or mammon? Weigh it carefully, and after you choose, persevere in it. Serve that God. Be devoted to Him and give no thought to the other.

Since Jesus addressed His sermon primarily to believers (Matthew 5:1–2), we know that His audience has already decided to serve God, not mammon. That is, Jesus’ disciples wanted to serve God and store up their treasures in heaven. But, like us, they needed to understand the implications of that commitment. Here, Jesus explains some of the consequences of our decision to follow God. He says that God cares physically for those who care for Him spiritually.

If God is our Lord, we need not worry about our material needs. He frees us from the mental consequences of loyalty to mammon. That is, if we live for riches, we live for a weak god, who cannot protect what is most precious to us. Therefore, it is natural for those who serve mammon to worry about their wealth, whether it be much or little. Conversely, our love for God makes us secure and ends worry, in principle.

The Structure of Matthew 6:25–34

Our passage presents a positive message through a prohibition. Negatively, Jesus forbids that we worry about food, drink, clothing, or any other material need. Positively, we must trust God. He knows our needs; He loves us and cares for us. Because He knows we are prone to worry, Jesus supplies us with logical arguments and lifelike illustrations to calm our hearts and teach us to trust him.

Jesus’ teaching has substantial repetition. But, as He repeats key ideas, He develops them further, so they strengthen the main point: we have good reasons to trust God and stop worrying.

The first Command Not to Worry

Matthew 6:25, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?”

The word “therefore” tells us to connect this statement to Jesus’ previous teaching in Matthew 6:24. So, if we serve God rather than mammon, we also know Him as the Creator and Redeemer. He demands our service, but provides far more than He demands. His provision spells the end of worry. Earlier, Jesus invited His disciples to ask God to meet their needs, confident that He is fatherly and knows our needs even before we ask (Matthew 6:6–9). So we can stop worrying.

Still we worry, and in predictable ways. We worry when things are out of our control. When we can do nothing else, we worry (and pray). If a flood is coming, worry dissipates if we can stack sandbags. If we fall ill, worry fades if we can research our disease. But when there is nothing more to do, we lapse back into worry.

We also worry when we love the wrong things. Jesus warns against seeking fulfillment or happiness in a sphere that cannot provide fulfillment, the sphere of transitory things. Since these things are subject to loss, they leave us vulnerable to loss. Our love for them is unavoidably tinged with fear. Socially, this sets one person against another, as we feel like rivals grasping for the same prizes. Personally, misguided loves wound us. We set out on a desperate, hopeless quest when we search for fulfillment where it cannot be found.

It is logical that we worry first about food and clothing, since they are essential to bodily life. Still, as Paul says, the love of money is a root of all evils (1 Tim. 6:10). It is a love for the wrong thing. It is a love that is entangled in the web of unhappiness that it has spun for itself.

Reasons for a Worry-Free Life

Reason 1: Life is more than food and clothes.

Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? (Matthew 6:25b)

Jesus quickly moves from His command to His reason. We should not worry about food and clothing, He says, because God cares for life itself, which encompasses food, clothing, and all the rest. If God cares for the greater thing, for life as a whole, then He certainly cares for the lesser things, the constituent parts of life that sustain us each day.

To put it differently, if we worry about food, drink, and clothing, we have hardly gotten started. What about war, pestilence, collapsing buildings, wild animals, floods, pollution, meteors, and more? If we believe that God cares for the great thing, life itself, then we should trust him to care for its parts. And when we are confident that God oversees our material needs, we are free to seek his kingdom.

Reason 2: God cares for creation—the birds

Matthew 6:26, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”

The second reason to stop worrying is the mirror image of the first. Here Jesus moves from the lesser to the greater. Since God cares for a lesser thing—the birds of the air—He will certainly care for us, for we are greater—more valuable—than they are.

The whole earth bears witness to God’s love, if we let faith guide our sight. Birds work hard at times, but they put forth no properly organized effort. They are not farmers. They neither sow nor harvest nor store food, yet they avoid starvation. Like birds, we enjoy God’s providence. Yet we are more valuable than birds. Confident of His providence, we should seek Him and His kingdom.

Reason 3: Worry accomplishes nothing

Matthew 6:27, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?”

The original, translated literally, reads, “Who of you by worrying is able to add a span to his length?” There is a slight riddle here, since “span” can mean a span of time—an hour—or a span of length, which at that time was eighteen inches.

The point is that worry cannot accomplish even a little thing. Since it would be a rather large thing to add eighteen inches of height, Jesus must mean that we cannot add an hour to our life. Indeed, some say, the stress of worry may cost us a few hours of life. But certainly worry, by itself, cannot lengthen our life span. Therefore, we should commit our energies to places where they can make a difference, by seeking first the Kingdom of God.

Reason 4: God cares for creation—flowers and grass

Matthew 6:28–30, “Why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?”

Once again Jesus looks to the lower creation, offering two examples this time, from creatures less weighty than birds. Jesus puts the traditional images of flowers and grass to a new use here. In the Old Testament, flowers and grass illustrate the “brevity and fragility of life.” Isaiah says that God’s breath blows down plant life and human life alike. Only his word stands forever:

All men are like grass.…

The grass withers and the flowers fall,

because the breath of the Lord blows on them.

Surely the people are grass.

The grass withers and the flowers fall,

but the word of our God stands forever. (Isa. 40:6–8; cf. Ps. 37:2)

There are two possible lessons that we can draw from creation. First, we can learn that life is feeble and fleeting, that we are defenseless. We are as short-lived as plants and as easily slain as animals:

As for man, his days are like grass,

he flourishes like a flower of the field;

the wind blows over it and it is gone. (Ps. 103:15–16)

But, like Jesus, the psalmist directs us to the opposite lesson:

As a father has compassion on his children,

so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;

for he knows how we are formed,

he remembers that we are dust.

As for man, his days are like grass,

he flourishes like a flower of the field;

the wind blows over it and it is gone,

and its place remembers it no more.

But from everlasting to everlasting

the Lord’s love is with those who fear him,

and his righteousness with their children’s children. (Ps. 103:13–17)

Contemplation of the lower creation could make us miserable. We have eternity in our hearts, but we know that our life is short and easily extinguished. But both David (in Ps. 103) and David’s Son (in Matt. 6) point us to the contrary lesson. If God lavishes such care on lilies, which bloom only for a few days, and on animals, which live a few years, then how much more will he care for us? Human beings live longer than most creatures. Still, we are as restricted by time as they are. But God’s love goes from everlasting to everlasting. He wins our love in return, and bids us seek His Kingdom and His righteousness.

The last phrase in Matthew 6:30 deserves our attention. If God bestows rich clothing on grass, how much more will he “clothe you, O you of little faith?” The phrase “you of little faith,” which is just one word in Greek, is notable. Jesus’ audience, like most church audiences today, consisted primarily of disciples, with a few of the curious tossed in. His listeners had faith, or at least an interest in faith. But they were worrying, which signals a lack of faith and trust in God. They have “a little” faith. But they need strong faith.

Strong faith does not come by introspection, by working up feelings of trust in God. Rather, Jesus says, stronger faith comes by contemplating God’s ways with His creation. Watch the birds. Observe or contemplate the lilies and the grass. The animals and plants point beyond themselves to God, their caretaker. Strong faith knows that He dresses the lower creation and will also dress us.

Indeed, God dresses them better than we could ever dress ourselves. At the height of his wealth and self-indulgence, Solomon could not dress himself any better than a lily or a zinnia (Eccl. 2:1–11). So why worry?

This message is vital, yet open to abuse. Some might think that Jesus’ ban on worry requires believers to make no plans, to anticipate and prevent no troubles. But to plan, even to plan for potential trouble, is not necessarily to worry. We must pause, therefore, to consider how lack of worry and proper planning can coexist, in areas such as bodily care, financial planning, and life’s troubles.

Planning without Worry

Bodily care. Jesus does not forbid us to worry about our bodies because they do not need care, but because He cares for them. Our bodies are good. God designed them for us. They are “us” in one sense, and they are our instruments in another. Either way, because they are essential, God provides the food and clothing that preserve them. So our bodies matter. Yet we should aspire to more than feeding, clothing, and comforting them. The Gentiles seek comfort and pleasure. We seek something more; we seek the Kingdom.

Financial planning. Just as care for the body is good, so planning is good. Proverbs 6 tells the sluggard to go learn from the ant, who stores up food for winter. Proverbs 31 blesses the woman who sees winter coming and prepares clothing for her family. Paul tells men and women that they need to provide for their families (1 Tim. 5:8).

We know that more possessions bring more cares. But if possessions are few enough, it can also be true that fewer possessions bring more cares. So planning is good. The problem is the obsession that frets over every financial decision, that dies a little with every financial setback, that always finds something to worry about.

When Jesus says that God feeds the birds, He is not encouraging sloth. Birds do work. They use their God-given wings and beaks and instincts. God feeds them by those means. Likewise, God grants us strength of body and mind, showers us with mental and physical gifts, and sends us parents and teachers to instruct us. He even makes laziness painful. “The laborer’s appetite works for him; his hunger drives him on” (Prov. 16:26). God feeds us, but we are also responsible to work. It is right for us to plan to use our God-given abilities and training wisely.

Human troubles. If we hone our talents and work willingly, we may expect to be free from privation. We may even enjoy abundance. But God does not promise believers that they will never go hungry. (In Ps. 37:25, David says, “I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread,” but this is a description, not a promise.) Jesus’ analogy promises God’s care, not a carefree life. After all, God clothes flowers and feeds birds, but flowers do fade and birds do fall to earth and die. Jesus does promise that God will guard us even in times of trouble, and is working all things for our good, so we need not worry.

That promise can fortify Christians who have suffered for their faith in pagan empires, in Communist countries, and in Muslim lands over the centuries. That promise braces believers who are caught up in pestilence and war. Shortly after World War II, a German evangelical pastor, Helmut Thielicke, reflected on this very thing.

What could Jesus’ promise of freedom from anxiety mean to those Germans living through the Allied invasion of Germany? “We know the sight and the sound of homes collapsing in flames.… Our own eyes have heard the sound of crashing, falling, and shrieking.” In such times, the invitation to consider the birds and lilies seems inapt. Yet, Thielicke continued, we must “stop and listen when this man, whose life on earth was anything but birdlike and lilylike, points us to the carefreeness of the birds and lilies.” The shadow of the cross already loomed over the Sermon on the Mount. So it is reasonable for us to trust the Father in a dark hour, because Jesus, our exemplar, did so as well. Moreover, Jesus blazed a trail through life’s troubles, tasting death itself, and defeating it on our behalf.

We do suffer war, famine, and disease. But let us never blame them on God’s inadequate provision. He supplies sun, rain, and fertile soil. He created nourishing plants and domesticatable animals. Wars create famine. Dictators and warlords use starvation as a weapon against their foes, even to suppress dissent among their own people. Starvation is rarely caused by lack of production. God gives enough for us to eat. Hunger is caused by sins of oppression, hatred, greed, and, sometimes, laziness.

The Second Command Not to Worry

So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” (Matt. 6:31)

Jesus repeats that we must not worry about food, drink, and clothing. This is a daunting command, since they are life’s essentials, not its luxuries. But notice that Jesus does not forbid that we care about the essentials. Indeed, He addresses our legitimate interest when He promises in Matthew 6:33 to supply them. He only forbids us to worry and chase after them. We must pursue our needs in ways that allow us to seek the Kingdom first. So we must never meet our needs through jobs that require us to deceive customers, promote destructive products, or otherwise act immorally.

Reason 5: Your Father knows your needs

Matthew 6:32, “For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.”

Pagans logically toil and chase after material things, since they have little else to do with their lives. But when we know the King as our Father, who knows our needs and works to meet them, we can lead an anxiety-free life. Trust in God casts out worry. One can always imagine the future and find a reason to fret. Or we can ponder God’s protection of his birds and flowers and find peace. The carefree believer is not reckless. But we are calm as we look at the near horizon, our daily food, and look ahead to the distant horizon, the eternal Kingdom.

The Third Command Not to Worry

Reason 6: The things the Gentiles chase will be given to you

Matthew 6:33, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

“Seek first the kingdom” is the great ideal, the commission and charter for disciples. And Jesus backs it with a promise. We can afford to seek the Kingdom first because God will give us all the things that the Gentiles chase. Lest this be reduced to a mere slogan, let us explore how Jesus would have us seek the kingdom, drawing on his own instruction:

  1. To seek the Kingdom is to seek the King, to love him as Savior and Friend, to bow to him as Lord, to trust the God who has chosen us, redeemed us, and taught us to trust Him.
  2. To seek the Kingdom is to pray for it: “Your kingdom come.” We pray for Kingdom causes, not just for local and personal concerns.
  3. To seek the Kingdom is to evangelize, that is, to bring others into the Kingdom, to introduce them to our King’s beneficent reign over all of life. To seek the Kingdom is to desire that God be known and glorified as King throughout the earth.
  4. To seek the Kingdom is to submit personally to God’s reign by obeying Him. We seek the Kingdom when we obey God at some personal cost. A Christian retailer seeks the Kingdom when he closes his stores on Sunday, even though it is a good day for retail sales, so that he can worship and rest, and model the same for his employees.
  5. To seek the Kingdom at work means pursuing wages and profits in ways that please God, knowing that that may lead to less money, at least in the short run.
  6. To seek the Kingdom means to have an eye on social reform, so that society may at least approximate the justice that God desires. For example, it means that public officials should do all they can to stop the spread of state-sponsored gambling, and, if possible, reverse it.
  7. To seek the Kingdom is to pursue righteousness in public places and distant lands, if we can. It also means restraining something as small and personal as our tongue—checking a sarcastic remark or refusing to repeat a morsel of gossip.

The context suggests that seeking the Kingdom especially means dethroning wealth and possessions as our first pursuits. We must not hoard treasures or live for pleasure, but put our treasures in heaven by giving to Kingdom causes (Matt. 6:19–21). We should watch the way we think about wealth. Wealth is a lesser good—a useful servant, but a miserable master. We should even watch the way we talk about wealth. When we make a decision, we should speak in terms of God’s way. We should not speak as if money makes our decisions, as if “We can afford it” or “We can’t afford it” is a sufficient guide to most purchases. Let God’s will be our guide, and let us speak that way.

To seek first the Kingdom does not mean Christians lack ambition; rather, it means we have different ambitions. Everyone needs a purpose, a direction, an ambition in life. It is sad when twenty-year-olds drift in and out of college, shift from one job to another, or go from one relationship to another. It is sadder still when a mature adult drifts aimlessly.

Ambition has two sides. There is selfish ambition, the desire for success and control as an end in itself. Dictators embody ambition at its worst. For them, power is its own reward. Greedy businessmen can also acquire wealth far beyond all needs, simply to win the game of commerce. Such ambitions are evil. “Selfish ambition” is one of the works of the flesh (Gal. 5:20). It is vain, harmful to others, and disorderly (Phil. 2:3; James 3:14–16).

But there are other ambitions, including the aspiration to unfold what is strongest and best in oneself, to accomplish goals that may improve this world a little. The Bible commends such ambitions, including the ambition to preach Christ (Rom. 15:20), the ambition to lead a quiet, productive life (1 Thess. 4:11), and the ambition to please God (2 Cor. 5:9). Ambition is good, if it seeks God’s Kingdom and His righteousness.

The Fourth Command Not to Worry

Matt. 6:34, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Our final verse restates the main command, “Do not worry,” applying it to the immediate situation. We should not worry about tomorrow because we can stay busy enough attending to the tasks and troubles of today. When we live in “tomorrow and,” we can fret over our woes or dream about our triumphs. Both can distract us from the goal of living for the Kingdom in the present. The prospect of living for the King should be enough to keep our minds and hands well occupied.