Given the recent outbreak of the coronavirus, I am fairly confident that this passage in Matthew will be one of the most preached and studied texts in the coming weeks by pastors around the world.
Restrictions have been placed on churches throughout the world. Churches that never before considered live streaming are scrambling to figure out this new-fangled technology. And many churches and Christians are, understandably, looking to Scripture to relieve their anxiety.
The world is anxious. The worldwide COVID-19 infection rate is steadily climbing, along with the number of related deaths. Economies are tanking, individual freedoms, once taken for granted, are being curtailed, and social distancing has closed schools and universities and emptied shops. We have seen nothing like this for the last century. Historians one day will write about this time.
Of course, history should encourage us. I have little doubt that we are all headed for an entirely new normal, probably for the rest of our lives. Nevertheless, life will go on. There is a future. We have no way of knowing what exactly that future will look like but, like the disciples, we have a future. The church has a future because the kingdom of God has a future. It has a glorious future. Do we believe that? You see, the day is coming when the knowledge of the glory of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters cover the seas (Habakkuk 2:14). Perhaps that is sooner than later. Perhaps this virus is a means towards that end. Doubtless it is, in some way. Regardless, as Adoniram Judson said, “The future is as bright as the promises of God.” To the degree we believe this, we will fruitfully weather this storm.
But it must be said that Christians have no promise of escaping infection or even death. We have no promise that we will not experience financial setback in what are sure to be trying economic times. The sooner we face this reality, the better. The same birds that Jesus said the Father feeds are among the birds the Father watches as they fall to the ground (Matthew 10:29). This truth, and what is sure to be an increasing experience of it, will hopefully deal a severe blow to the lies and the liars behind the perversely popular health, wealth, and prosperity theology.
Having acknowledged these realities, it is all too easy for anxiety to settle in. Christians are not stoics who feel no emotion and merely take things in stride. If we were, then Jesus never would have given the instruction he did in this part of the Sermon on the Mount.
In this study, I want to help us to biblically, and therefore faithfully and fruitfully, face the crisis we are in. I want to help us to be productive to the glory of God. Matthew 6:25–34 teaches us that, when facing troubles, we must not worry but must rather be holy. This text teaches three things about holy people: They don’t panic about tomorrow (v. 25a); they ponder faithfully today (vv. 25b–32); and they are productive today (vv. 33–34).
Don’t Panic about Tomorrow
First, Jesus clearly taught his disciples that holy people do not panic about tomorrow: “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” (v. 25; cf. vv. 27, 31, 34).
Jesus was teaching his disciples that, as they faced trouble, they should panic neither about tomorrow nor today. In a nutshell, such panic is fruitless, useless, and unbecoming of those who have God as their Father.
Jesus began with these words: “Therefore I tell you.” Of course, whenever we find a “therefore” we need to discover what it is there for. It is a conjunction, which connects what is about to be said to what has been said before. So, briefly, let us look at the first 24 verses.
The Context is a Contrast
In chapters 5–7, Matthew records Jesus’ mandate for those in his kingdom. This is how his subjects were called to live. It would take too long to summarise the teaching of these chapters but, for our purposes, we need to note that chapter 6 presents us with a series of contrasts.
In vv. 1–18, the contrast is between sincere worship and insincere, hypocritical worship (see vv. 1–2, 3a, 5a, 6a, 7a, 16a, 17a). Verses 19–21 contrast two places of investment: one insecure, the other secure; one below, the other above; one on earth, the other in heaven. Verses 22–23 contrast two conditions of the eyes: healthy and unhealthy; light and darkness. In v. 24, Jesus draws a contrast between two masters: God and money; and in vv. 25–34 between two attitudes towards provision: the Gentile attitude or God’s children’s attitude.
The context of this exhortation is Jesus’ emphasis that God’s kingdom, and not ours, is to be our pursuit. He speaks of having right priorities and exhorts us to focus on that which will last, not on that which is merely temporary. In a nutshell, Jesus was speaking about having the right ambition.
Rather than being ambitious for that which can be destroyed by moths or redistributed by thieves, the disciple of Jesus is to be ambitious for the glory of God through the extension of his kingdom, resulting in increasing obedience to God’s word.
The Sermon on the Mount, and this chapter in particular, makes a distinction between those who have God as their Father and those who don’t. The former live differently than the others. They are holy in that, when it comes to how they approach the vicissitudes of life, they are wholly different. One of those differences is that, when it comes to challenges in life, they don’t panic.
Take Thought without Taking Thought
It will be good to pause here and make a comment about the KJV translation: “Take no thought” (vv. 25, 31, 34; cf. 27–28). I am loathe to criticise such a revered translation, but here, it not only misses the point, but is misleading. The Greek term means “do not be anxious about” or “do not be overly concerned about” or “do not be full of care.” Jesus used the same term to describe Martha who was busy and “distracted” (Luke 10:41).
Jesus was not saying that we should not plan; he was saying that we must not allow our planning to distract us from what is essential. In fact, contrary to the implication of the KJV, we are to think and to give thought to our provision. In other Scriptures, we are told that, if a man will not work, he should not eat and that, if one does not provide for his own household, he is worse than an unbeliever and has by his behaviour denied the faith. So, yes, we are to give thought to our provision.
Further, Proverbs, as we have recently learned, points us to the example of the ant who works to provide for itself. Jesus told several parables about those who thought about the future and acted accordingly: stewards who invested; the unjust steward who made a plan; the builder who counted the cost; etc. The point is that thinking—taking thought about provision—is a part of wise and godly living. But there is a difference between considering one’s future and being consumed with it. It is the latter that Jesus has in mind here. Jesus seems to be saying, “Therefore, having your ambitions properly sorted, there is no reason to worry or to be anxious about your needs being met. After all, since your ambition is the extension of the kingdom and resultant increased justice on earth—that is, since your ambition is aligned with God’s ambition—don’t be anxious.
As John Stott so aptly put it, “what Jesus forbids is neither thought nor forethought, but anxious thought.”
This is vitally important for the days that are upon us. And “upon us” is the operable phrase. This coronavirus has seemingly just come upon us with little warning that it was coming. Many, if not most, of us blithely lived unaware of this virus that was stealthily mobilising to attack our bodies, our families, our nations, and our economies. We need to give thought to it and to its implications—but not anxious thought.
Personally, I can testify that I have been giving thought and forethought to my financial future. Retirement is perhaps a decade and a bit away. Recently, I had been looking at my pension and property, making some plans so that I will not be a burden on others, including my family. There is nothing wrong with that. And by the way, I had a perfect plan—or so I thought. Who would have thought that some unseen enemy would decay, break in, and steal? With my walls, electric fence, gates, alarms, investment manager, and savings account, I paid no attention to a virus. This illustrates the point of the passage well.
You see, Jesus was teaching that, no matter how much thought we give to our providing for our needs, we cannot plan for every eventuality. We are not in control. And when crisis comes—when tomorrow becomes today—with its trouble (v. 34), the Christian must not panic.
Of course, that may be easy to say, but the question is, how? How do you overcome a tendency to panic? This brings us to our next point, where we see that Jesus taught us to be thoughtful without being full of care.
Ponder Faithfully Today
Listen to Jesus:
“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.”
As mentioned, the context of what has gone before is essential if we will apply what follows. Again, Stott puts it so well: “‘Therefore I tell you.’ … He calls us to thought before he calls us to action. He invites us to look clearly and coolly at the alternatives before us and to weigh them up carefully.”
From the latter half of v. 25 through v. 32, we are provided with several things we should ponder—today and every day.
Ponder the Power that Gives Life
First, we must ponder the power that gives us life: “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”
While we spend so much time and energy worrying distractedly about food and clothing and health, we lose sight of the power of God who sustains our life. I think Jesus was saying that we should ponder that we are alive because of God, not because of food and clothing. We should be thankful for food and clothing but, without life, they are irrelevant. Cavin commenting on the phrase “man shall not live by bread alone” (Matthew 4:4) emphasised that there can be a play on words here. That is, not only should we learn from this that we need the word of God if we will properly live, but we should also realise that, apart from the life-giving power of God, bread could do nothing for us physically. God designed bread to nourish us but only God can enable us to live. Jesus wanted his followers to get this! Our life is in God’s hands!
We need to stop living like atheists. This seems to be Jesus’ point. He wants us to serve God (v. 24) entrusting him with our life. What are we doing with our life? To whom or to what are we entrusting our life? Are we thinking through the truth that, by the power of our Father, we have life? Are we prioritising what we are doing with our life? This crisis is a wonderful opportunity that is forcing us to pause. May we ponder while we are paused.
Ponder the Provision for Life
Next, Jesus calls us to ponder God’s provision for us: “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them” (v. 26). He calls us to be birdwatchers. He tells us to ponder how God cares for the birds.
Of course, birds don’t sit around waiting for God to drop food into their beaks! They work. Yet, he does provide for them. As they are busy doing what they were created to do, God provides for them. And if he provides for them, how much more will he provide for us? We should ponder the one who provides for us. So, get busy doing what God has designed you to do! If a bird’s only ambition is to, well, be a bird, and yet God provides for them, how much more should we rest assured that God will provide for us as we align our lives with his ambition.
What has happened over the course of the past 12–14 days has provided an opportunity for us to seriously examine what dominates our thinking and therefore what ambition is dominating our lives. Our ambition determines our anxiety.
Think about this: If my ambition is to be an Olympic athlete, an injury to my Achilles tendon will potentially dominate my thinking. If my ambition is to be president of my company, a poor service review will dominate my thinking when that time arrives. If my ambition is to receive seven distinctions, I will be prone to be anxious and to give much thought to the examinations taking place next week. If my ambition is to get married, I might be anxious as the years go by and no one seems to be on the horizon. If my ambition is to retire with a huge nest-egg, I will probably give a whole lot of thought and attention to the stock market and my anxiety will probably increase as the JSE tanks like it has recently.
One reason for such anxiety in these examples is the outcome being outside our control. Despite training, planning, researching, studying, strategizing, and dating, we have no control over the outcome. It is for this reason that we worry. At some level, I suppose, we are all control-freaks. And this ushers in fear and too much care.
To put it another way, we are full of care because we have no guarantee of the outcome. Now, contrast that with the ambition that Jesus exhorts his followers: the ambition to serve God as he accomplishes his purpose. God has promised his kingdom. It is a certainty. Jesus once said to his little flock, “Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).
In other words, the certainty of the kingdom is the antidote for fear, worry, and anxiety. But this is only so for those whose ambition is for the kingdom. That is the rub, as they say—or as Jesus says.
Brothers and sisters, if our ambition is to glorify God’s name, to further his kingdom, and increasing obedience to his revealed will as found in his word, we have no cause to worry, for he has promised.
But, you might ask, how does this help me as I face the economic challenge? Well, go back to 6:9–13. In the Lord’s Prayer, we are told to petition God for our daily bread. God’s fulfilment of his purpose involves his ordained means. And his children are his means.
Since we are the means towards God’s end, we can rest assured that he will provide for us. God provides for his children, not only because he loves us, but also because his children are called to an assignment. He provides for his workers. We might summarise that God provides for his worshippers (vv. 24, 33) who in turn are also his workers. God pays a fair wage.
Ponder the Preciousness of Life
Jesus asked, “Are you not of more value than they?” (v. 26). He argued from the lesser to the greater in order to calm our anxieties. We are of much more value than birds, and therefore we can rest assured that God will take care of us. Think about that!
Ponder the Parameters of Life
Jesus called his disciples to ponder the parameters of life:
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?
We need to think about God’s timetable for when we were born and when we will die. Jesus made this point when he said, “And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?”
When we find ourselves anxious about our physical condition, we need to pause and think about this biblically as well. This virus, like other flus, is deadly. It preys upon the most vulnerable, including the elderly and those already immuno-compromised and otherwise weakened in their bodies. How do we overcome anxiety about the threat of sickness and death? Again, we need to think. We need to think biblically and faithfully.
Jesus said that we face certain facts of life over which we have no control. None at all. These words could be translated “can add a cubit to his stature” (see KJV) but since a cubit was 45cm, this would make little sense. I think the ESV captures the meaning better. Jesus was saying what the psalmist said, “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them” (139:16).
This is such an important point and one that Christians alone are able to embrace fruitfully. More than 150,000 people die each day across the globe, each reaching the end of their God-appointed days. Statisticians inform us that most of these are age-related. In reality, every one of them is age-related. They have reached the age, the day, the hour, the minute, the second, the millisecond appointed to them by God.
I am not making light of death. I am not being flippant about the heartache that tens of thousands of families experience daily over the death of loved ones. I am, however, making the point that our lives are in God’s hands. The day of our death is a fact of life and facts of life are not things which we can change.
A fact of life is something we have to learn to live with. For Joni Eareckson Tada, being a quadriplegic for the past fifty years has been a fact of life. She prayed for healing. She went to numerous faith healers only to leave the meeting in the same wheelchair in which she arrived.
A challenge however is something that we can face with the faith that it can be overcome—like a sinful habit. We have God’s promise that, by his power, we can change (see Romans 6; Ephesians 4; etc.). We refuse to just accept it and we strive by the power of God to overcome it.
Some things are meant to change; others are not. Jesus taught us know the difference for knowing the difference makes all the difference.
We don’t know the day of our death but God does. And that is enough. Will you die of COVID-19? Perhaps . Should you be fatalistic about it? Only if you are a pagan (v. 32).
But Christians apply their minds. They think through matters such as recommended protocols and seek to be wise. At the end of the day, our lives are in God’s hands. But though we are faced with this fact of life, we are also faced with the challenge as to how we will face this fact of life. Will we devote ourselves to God and lay up treasures in heaven (vv. 19–24) or will we live like the world, pursuing the merely material? We are faced with this challenge: whom (or what) will we serve (vv. 24ff)? If we fear the Lord, we will serve him. And we should fear him (see Matthew 10:28). But if we see the world as ultimate, then we will fear COVID-19, poverty, fear, and hardship and we will make no progress in our love for God.
Christian, we alone, of all people, should not be anxious with care over the length of our life. We of all people have the ability to be assured that God is watching over us and that our life is a matter to which he pays attention. Jesus encouraged us with the truth that, since God cares for birds and lilies, how much more must he care for his children?
But, of course, Christians are prepared for the ultimate. We are prepared for death because Jesus lived and died and rose from death for us. Our life is hidden with his. Our future after death is secure. No wonder Jesus commanded, “Do not be anxious!” The gospel empowers us to overcome our fear.
We must learn to think and trust.
“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.”
Jesus knew what his disciples wrestled with when it comes to anxiety and unnecessary worry. He read the minds and hearts of his hearers and he responded with, “Will he not much more clothe you of little faith?” (v. 30). Our Lord knows our frame and how weak it is (Psalm 103:14). So even while Jesus exhorted his disciples not to worry, he knew that they were worried!
To have “little faith” means that we have lost sight of God, his character, and his promises. In other words, it is to live like someone who is outside the covenant, which brings us to the last thing we must ponder faithfully.
Ponder the Profound Privilege of Life
Jesus told his disciples to ponder the profound privilege of life: “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” (vv. 31–32).
Jesus said that if we are anxious about over how our lives will be sustained then we are responding to our challenges like the Gentiles. This word means “nations” or, as in older translations, “heathen.” To be a Gentile is to be non-Jewish and therefore one who is not blessed to be among God’s chosen people. It is to be outside of the covenant promise(s). As Paul references, it is to be “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12).
What a terrible place to be. What a terrible position from which to face the harsh realities of life. What a terrible position from which to face a world battling the threat of COVID-19.
But we who have been saved and the children of God do have hope. Paul went on in the following verse to write, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13). In other words, by the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, we are no longer separated. We are no longer alienated from the promises of Yahweh, no longer without hope, and no longer without God! And therefore, what are we worried about?
Jesus refers to God as the Father of his disciples twelve times in this chapter. What a profound privilege! Ponder that until your anxiety flees. Our heavenly Father cares for us, has a plan for us, and has proved his love by giving his precious Son for us.
Be Productive Today
Finally, in the closing verses of the section, we learn that holy people are productive today: “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” (vv. 33–34)
Jesus concludes with a guiding principle. We sing it, but do we study and obey it? There are two things we need if we will live productively in times of crisis.
We must seek very differently than the world does. We must “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (v. 33).
We often speak about the sinful disposition of “worldliness” and tend to define it as getting drunk, engaging in sexual immorality, and other such obvious sinful behaviour and attitudes. Certainly these would be included, but worldliness is more sinister than these obvious behaviours. Rather, worldliness is infatuation with the fallen and fading. First John 2:15–17 makes this clear. So does Jesus.
Those who do not know God in Christ live by sight, not by faith. They are enamoured with what they can see, because that is all they can see.
But the Christian is different. The Christian sees beyond the obvious and so seeks first the kingdom of God and his righteousness rather than merely seeking bread and clothing. Yes, the Christian too labours in order to secure provision, but provision is not the end; it is rather the means to the end. That end is the kingdom of God and his righteousness. This is what we are to focus on. But what does this mean?
Simply, seeking the kingdom of God means the demonstrable extension of the rule of God in Christ on earth. This happens by evangelism. As we preach the gospel and people are converted to Christ, they begin to live bowing to God’s lordship. They acknowledge him as King and themselves as his subjects. This is what we should be seeking in these days.
Yes, we are confronted with all kinds of uncertainties: medically, pathologically, financially, and socially. These are very real challenges. But Jesus makes clear what our pursuit is to remain. We are to keep focused on seeking “first the kingdom of God.”
As you face the challenges of COVID-19, don’t forget your mission. In a timely way, our recent missions conference prepared us to keep this front and centre. With all that is confronting us, with all the developments that bombard our eyes in the media, we must guard our spiritual vision. We must maintain 20/20 vision for 2020. Though it seems as if everything has changed, in a very real sense nothing has changed. And this is the point Jesus was making.
As we do what we are called by God to do, working to provide, let us leave the results to him and use this providential opportunity to evangelise. Reach out to neighbours to see if they are in need. Do deeds of kindness. Serving can open doors for speaking.
If you are still in the workplace, pray for and look for opportunities to share the reason for your hope. In fact, be sure and be hopeful (1 Peter 3:15). But don’t miss what for many is a mission field right before our eyes: your family.
What an opportunity to make disciples in your home! Look at this situation as a providential means of improving family time. If I knew how to do memes, I would have a picture of a family sitting around each staring into their phones with the title, “Family Time in 2020.” Humorous, but so sadly true. There are abundant resources to help with productive family time in the face of this challenge.
What does Jesus mean by “and his righteousness”? I suppose he means the ethics of God’s kingdom. In other words, we are to seek the extension of God’s kingdom through evangelism and we are to seek to live in such a way that his righteous rule is displayed. Jesus was telling his disciples to seek a way of life that is biblically ethical. We are to pursue justice.
I know that is a hot-button issue today. Some have gone off the deep end by prioritising “social” justice (as if there is another kind). Others have reacted abysmally and have no place in either their theology or in their practice for it. Both are wrong.
Jesus was not merely saying that we should personally seek to live righteously (though we are). Rather his expected his disciples to make the invisible rule of Jesus Christ the King very visible. As he said earlier in this sermon, we are to let our lights so shine before men that they will see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven (5:16). What a wonderful opportunity we have to do this!
The exhortation is followed by an expectation. That is, as we remain focused on what is important to God, God promises to meet our needs: “all these things [provision of food, clothing, care] will be added to you.” That is a promise we can literally bank on. We need to believe it. To the degree we believe it, we will obey it.
Jesus ended this teaching repeating his exhortation to not be anxious. But he transparently told them to expect trouble. Why? Because the world is not a holy place. And where holiness is lacking, trouble abounds. But having listened to what Jesus has taught we can rest in another of his promises, “In this world you will have tribulation, but take heart, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Brothers and sisters, as we persevere in this crisis, don’t worry, be holy.