What Matters Most
Our greatest fear should not be of failure, but of succeeding at something that doesn’t really matter.1
The key to life is finding out what matters most and building your life around it. In an age of distraction, however, focusing on what matters most feels impossible. Everything is grabbing at our attention. Everyone is lobbying for our devotion. Be this! Do that! Give your life to my cause!
It’s not merely shallow or sinister temptations that pull us in different directions. There are so many good things to keep up with: friends, family, church, work, exercise, the news, and so on. We end up feeling frantic, spread thin, and wondering if we’re even making a difference with our lives. An article in the New York Times titled “The ‘Busy’ Trap” captures the tension well:
Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day… I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.2
So, what does matter? Sadly, we often confuse what’s urgent with what’s important and wear ourselves out by working on things that we won’t be talking about in twenty years. Working hard is great. But it doesn’t matter how hard we work if we are going in the wrong direction. We must be able to answer the question: What matters most?
You already have an answer to that question, even if you’ve never thought about it. If you want to know how your life answers that question, ask it this way instead: What do I get most excited about? How do I use my time? Where do I spend my money?
Or think about it another way: What are you building your life around? What’s at the core that shapes the whole? Are you building your life around your career? Is it a relationship or a vision of family? Maybe it’s what others think of you. In our culture, fame and success have become end goals without much substance (Successful at what? Famous for what?). If you focus more on being successful than on rightly defining success, then it won’t matter whether you succeed or not.
We need to slow down to ponder what matters most and how it can give perspective to all the other important-but-not-ultimate things in our lives. The answer to life’s deepest questions will not come from a secret place in your heart or from a New York Times journalist, or even from a pastor like myself. To understand what matters most, we need to look to the person who claimed to be the source of life and meaning itself, Jesus.
The One Thing Jesus Couldn’t Stop Talking About
“What’s the number one thing Jesus talked about?” — the preacher shouted in a classic you-should-know-this tone. Lucky for me, I was sure I knew the answer. After all, I had grown up in the church hearing every week about the love of God, the cross of Christ, and the hope of spending eternity in heaven. As the preacher allowed a few seconds of silence to let the guilt build up for those who didn’t know the answer, I smirked and prepared to mouth the words along with him. “The number one thing Jesus talked about was” — and then he said something that nearly knocked me off my pew — “the kingdom of God!”
The kingdom of God? I hardly knew anything about that. I’d heard sermons my whole life about faith in God, the forgiveness of sin, and being a part of the church. And Jesus talked more about the kingdom of God than all of those?
At that moment it was as if Conviction walked into the room and looked me in the eye; and then its friend Crisis came and sat next to me for an extended talk. How could I have spent a lifetime hearing about Jesus yet never studied or paid attention to the one thing Jesus talked about most? The kingdom had no place in my theology, my church life, or my perception of what it meant to be a Christian. That day was the beginning of a journey for me, a quest to understand the meaning of the kingdom of God, why it mattered so much to Jesus, and how it might affect my life.
In the weeks, months, and years that followed, I searched the Scriptures and became convinced the preacher was right. Jesus couldn’t stop talking about the kingdom of God. When Jesus began His ministry, the first words out of His mouth were, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). But this message of God’s reign was not only the beginning of His ministry. Christ proclaimed the kingdom of God in His preaching and demonstrated it in His miracles and healings. Jesus was crucified as the king of the Jews (Matthew 27:37), He was raised from the dead as the king of the world (Ephesians 1:20-23), and then He gathered His disciples to teach them for forty days about — guess what? — the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3).3
Jesus gave his followers many commands, but there was only one thing he said to seek first.
“Seek first the kingdom of God” — Matthew 6:33
This is the one thing that changes everything. According to Jesus, what matters most in life is the kingdom of God.
If the Kingdom Matters, Everything Matters
Jesus’s command to “seek first the kingdom of God” wasn’t shared in a classroom lecture or preached from a pulpit. Rather, Jesus was responding to His disciples’ honest questions about the pressing needs of day-to-day life. They had left everything to follow Christ and now were wondering: What will we eat? What should we wear? How can we balance all of life’s needs? Jesus reassured them, promising that if they would seek the kingdom of God before anything else in life, “all these things will be added to you” as well (Matthew 6:33). In other words, prioritizing the kingdom does not minimize the other aspects of life; it puts them in perspective.
The kingdom of God doesn’t have to compete with our work, hobbies, relationships, and the other important aspects of life. In fact, when rightly understood, the kingdom will enhance every aspect of life, infusing them with fresh meaning and significance. As C. S. Lewis said, “When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased.”4 What matters most gives perspective to anything that matters at all. Jesus spent so much time talking about the kingdom of God because it is not just another thing His disciples needed to learn. The kingdom of God was the framework for everything they needed to learn.
“Seek first the kingdom” is a call to keep the main thing the main thing.
So let me ask you again: What is at the center of your life, exerting a gravitational pull to all your decisions and desires? If the dream or passion at the center of your life is something changing or temporary, not only will you constantly feel pulled in different directions, but you will always feel like you’re one bad decision from falling part. The center cannot and will not hold. Only the kingdom of God is powerful enough to order and unite the various aspects of your life. That’s why seeking first the kingdom is about more than setting priorities. The kingdom is not another thing on a long list of priorities; it is the framework determining the priorities. The kingdom of God, if you are willing to understand and embrace it, has the power to reorder your life with coherence and purpose.
What is the Kingdom of God?
If the kingdom is so significant, then we ought to make sure we know what it means. While it will take this entire book to fully define what Jesus means by the “kingdom of God,” it will help to have a working definition from the beginning. Let’s start with this:
The kingdom is God’s reign through God’s people over God’s place.5
That’s the message of the kingdom in eight words. Now let’s break down each aspect to begin plumbing the depths of the kingdom of God.
The kingdom is first and foremost a statement about God. God is king, and He is coming as king to set right what our sin made wrong. The phrase “kingdom of God” could just as easily be translated “reign of God” or “kingship of God.”6 The message of the kingdom is about God’s royal power directed by His self-giving love.
Claiming that the kingdom of God is primarily about God may seem obvious, but many today use “kingdom” to refer to the way we as human beings make the world a better place (“kingdom work”) or to refer to all the Christians in the world (“kingdom minded”). Unfortunately, much of the contemporary talk about the kingdom paints a picture of a kingdom with a vacant throne. But if the kingdom is portrayed as a utopian world without mention of God, then the biblical idea of the kingdom has been lost. The kingdom of God is the vision of the world reordered around the powerful love of God in Christ.
God is king, and He reigns over his creation. But in a world marred by sin, God’s kingship is resisted, and the peace of His kingdom has been shattered. After Adam and Eve’s rebellion, God’s reign is revealed as a redemptive reign. He is the king who is reclaiming His creation. The kingdom of God is not the culmination of human potential and effort but the intervention of God’s royal grace into a sinful and broken world.
God the Creator-King reigns over all His creatures, but He also reigns through his people. This was God’s design from the beginning. Adam and Eve were sent out from the garden as royal representatives of the king, called to steward His creation and spread the blessings of His reign throughout the earth. Instead, they chose to seek their own path to power and glory, apart from God. Their rebellion fractured humanity’s relationship with God and shattered the goodness of His creation. Ever since sin entered the world, God’s kingdom project has at its heart a rescue mission for rebellious sinners, drawing them into His work of renewing His creation as king.
God’s reign is a saving reign. The kingdom of God provides a holistic understanding of salvation, including not only what we are saved from, but also what we are saved for:
We are saved from death and for life. We are saved from shame and for glory.
We are saved from slavery and for freedom.
We are saved from sin and for following our savior.
We are saved from the kingdom of darkness and for the kingdom of light.
To be saved into the kingdom of God is to have God’s comprehensive rule over every aspect of life. This is a far cry from merely “asking Jesus into my heart.” It means a new life, a new identity, and a new kingdom.
The Bible is the story of God making His good creation a glorious kingdom. It all started in the garden, where God commissioned His people to go to the ends of the earth to make the rest of the world like Eden. The garden kingdom was meant to become a global kingdom where people would rejoice and the world would flourish under God’s loving reign.
After the fall, making the world God’s glorious kingdom would require a reversal of the curse and a renewal by grace. And that’s exactly what God set out to do. The Bible is a rescue story, not about God rescuing sinners from a broken creation but about Him rescuing them for a new creation. God’s reign begins in the human heart, but it will one day extend to the ends of the earth. Many Christians today think of salvation as leaving earth for heaven, but the story of Scripture is quite the opposite. The message of the kingdom of God is not an escape from earth to heaven but God’s reign coming from heaven to earth. The focus of God’s reign is His people, but the scope of God’s reign is all of creation.
Jesus and the Kingdom of God
This understanding of the kingdom of God may be new to you, but it would not have been surprising to the first-century crowds listening to Jesus. Their collective hope was that God would come as king to redeem His people and restore His creation. What surprised them about Jesus’s proclamation was not what the kingdom is but who would bring it and how He would do so. Jesus fulfills every kingdom promise, but He establishes the kingdom in a way that is different than they expected and yet more glorious than they could have imagined. In our journey to understand the kingdom of God, this introduces a key element. The message of the kingdom is counterintuitive and surprising, going against the grain of worldly wisdom, because unlike any other kingdom this world has ever seen, Christ’s kingdom is built on grace and advances with compassion. In this kingdom, the throne is a cross and the king reigns with self-giving love. 7
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This quotation is commonly attributed to D. L. Moody, although like many of Moody’s quotations, there is no written source because he was more of a preacher than a writer.
Tim Kreider, “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” New York Times, June 30, 2012, https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/30/the-busy-trap/.
The kingdom of God is widely acknowledged as the primary theme of Jesus’s preaching, and many argue that it is the unifying motif of the Old Testament, New Testament, and even the Bible as a whole. See, for example, John Bright, The Kingdom of God: The Biblical Concept and Its Meaning for the Church (Nashville: Abingdon, 1957), 7; and George Eldon Ladd, The Presence of the Future: The Eschatology of Biblical Realism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), xi.
C. S. Lewis, Letters of C. S. Lewis, ed. W. H. Lewis (San Diego: Harvest, 2003), 429.
The order of the sentence reveals the order of significance in defining God’s kingdom. The kingdom is foremost about God’s reign, then how he reigns through people, and then the realm of God’s reign. For a more thorough overview of my definition of the kingdom of God and interaction with scholarship, see Jeremy R. Treat, The Crucified King: Atonement and Kingdom in Biblical and Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 40–55.
Although the Gospel of Matthew uses “kingdom of heaven” instead of “kingdom of God,” the two phrases are mostly synonymous. Jonathan Pennington does show that Matthew’s use of “kingdom of heaven” is somewhat unique because it is part of his broader theology regarding the tension and eventual resolution between heaven and earth (Jonathan T. Pennington, Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of Matthew, NovTSup 126 [Boston: Brill, 2007]).
I alternate between the “kingdom of God” and the “kingdom of Christ” based on a Trinitarian theology of the kingdom. The kingdom breaks into history when the Father sends the Son in the power of the Spirit. In between the “already” and the “not yet,” the kingdom advances as the Spirit applies the finished work of the Son so that the kingdom may be ultimately handed over to the Father.
Excerpted with permission from Seek First: How the Kingdom of God Changes Everything by Jeremy Treat, copyright Jeremy R. Treat.
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How often do you hear about “the kingdom of God” in church settings? How does the notion of the kingdom give purpose and significant to your life? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!