Those who belong to God are those who first seek the Kingdom
By Ron Julian
Given as a sermon at Reformation Fellowship Eugene, Oregon.

For the last several weeks, I have been talking about different ways that the Bible describes the people of God. Although, the Bible certainly describes the people of God as those who accept and believe the Gospel, the Bible also speaks about God’s people in different terms. We talked about those who fear God and those who love God as being categories that the Bible uses to describe those who belong to God. Consequently, what I have been trying to get across is that these categories, these ways of describing the people of God are not optional. They are at the heart of what it means to be a person who believes in Jesus.

I want to emphasize that I am not saying that all of these qualities characterize the people of God from the moment that they become believers. They do not immediately become super human figures with a huge love of God, and the appropriate fear of God, and the things we are going to talk about today. As I understand what the Bible describes and as I observe the Christian life, I recognize that these qualities ultimately emerge over time through what the Bible describes as the testing of our faith.

The fundamental questions:
If it were up to us, that initial “I believe” would not necessarily have a whole lot of implications in our life. We would like to protect ourselves from the implications of our faith because those implications can cut pretty deep and force us to confront some issues that, I think on our own, we would just as soon not confront. However, living life as a believer is to face into these kinds of questions. Who is it that I really fear? Who is it that I really love? What is it that I really want? Who is it that I really trust? Those questions are fundamental to our faith. Searching out and living with those questions is essentially what our lives as believers is all about, as I see it.

Learning to see beyond this world's alternatives:
I hope it is clear to you that many voices out in the world, speaking on the issue of what it means to be a believer, what our lives as believers is all about, are not saying that. Many of those voices will suggest to us that our lives as believers are fundamentally about having enough faith to make things really good for ourselves now.  Great blessings are available such as health, wealth, happiness, security and all kinds of great stuff. If only we will grab hold of it and take it from God’s outstretched hand through the appropriation of faith.

Instead, what I will show is that the Biblical picture of the Christian life is something very different. It is ultimately about taking something very good from God’s outstretched hands, but the picture is a little more complicated than the one we sometimes hear. Because in this life what we must learn is to recognize what is the good that is in God’s outstretched hands. We must also learn to seek after that and to reach out for that in opposition to the competition’s alternative. Essentially our life as believers is learning to see beyond this world’s alternatives to what is actually good and actually worth pursuing.

The ultimate good:
The implication of this for believers is periodic suffering, because learning to make that choice is not an easy one. Nevertheless, I think that learning to make that choice is at the top of God’s agenda for his people. That is why it can seem to us, at times, that he is so willing to let us suffer and to not do anything about it. It has seemed that way to me at times.

In fact, the Bible pictures our God, as a God who loves us with a love that is so great we cannot really comprehend it. So we search for an ultimate answer to the quandary, how is it that the God, who loves us with a love so great that we can hardly comprehend it, lets us suffer in so many ways? We find the answer as we learn where the real good is. What will a good God, who loves us with a love beyond understanding, do for us? What will love do as it reaches out for us? The Biblical answer, I think, is that his love is going to call us, ultimately, to that which is actually good, to that which can really satisfy, to that which alone can provide life, and make life worth living. 

The fundamental problem of being human:
Our problem as human beings is that we think we understand life. We think we have identified our real problem. However, our short sightedness puts us in a predicament, causing us to miss our most fundamental problem. We know about being human. We have bodies, we have emotions, and we have physical needs. We have come to understand something about each of those in terms of the world that we live in. We know we need to eat or we will die. We need shelter. We look for security. There are scary things out there and we would like to find a way to keep them from us. There are pleasant things out there and we would like to find a way to have as many of them as we can. We would like the work that we do to have some meaning and significance so that we can find a certain satisfaction in it and feel a certain way about the lives we live, and the things that we do. Those are fundamental basic human needs. Hence, we respond to such things; we suffer in their lack; we respond positively when those things are there. Nevertheless, our problem is that we just do not know ourselves well enough. We have understood some things but we have missed the most important things, because, as I understand the Biblical picture, we have some problems that make those other problems pale in comparison.

First, we are sinners, and what that means is that we are slowly dying and killing each other off in the process. Corruption is eating away at us. Our relationships are not what they should be. That is, we get a taste of what human relationships can be. Then somehow, the thing we are seeking for always seems to elude us, because of the way we treat people as well as the way people treat us. We are going to die. Nothing in life completely satisfies us. It is not that everything is worthless. It is good. It has something nice and good about it and we can rightly respond to it. However, in the end it just is not quite enough.

If that wasn’t enough, the fact is that we are under the wrath of God. The creator of the universe is good, holy and righteous. He looks at us and rightly sees us as being worthy of condemnation.

And if that weren’t enough, we’re so invested in our own self-centered view of the universe that the very truths that could save us from this terrible situation are hateful to us. We are not particularly interested in them.

That’s the human situation. Corruption is eating away at us. We are guilty before God and we don’t even care.

The Gospel is an answer to our problem:
Obviously, it makes no sense to solve our superficial problems and leave our real problems unsolved. Yet, the people of this world are essentially doing that very thing. We’re urgently striving to make our lives more pleasant, in what ever way we can do it, all the while missing the fact that corruption, death, guilt, and blindness are destroying our lives.

For this reason, the Gospel is “good news” because it is a story that identifies our real problems and promises us total deliverance for eternity, from them. Furthermore, by its very nature, that Gospel confronts us with a choice. God is saying, look, these are your real needs. I alone have the answer to them. In contrast, the world in which I live day by day and minute by minute is implying to me, if not out right shouting in my ear, that no, these other things, these are your problems. You have these needs. Just look around here for the means to fulfill them.

When we talk about worldliness, we are talking about a perspective that fundamentally believes the story that the world tells. Worldliness is not just doing evil things that the world does like taking drugs or robbing people so that you can be rich. Worldliness means buying that story, saying yes, I can see that this world alone is the place where I ought to make my stand and find the solution to my ultimate problem as a human being.

Conversely, the Gospel is calling me to something different. To believe in Jesus means that I have to believe the picture of reality that he is giving. The Gospel will not make any sense; it will not be meaningful to me if I do not recognize that my real problems are something different from what the world is telling me that they are.

To seek the kingdom is to seek what God offers:
And so ultimately I think, the Bible is telling us that to be a person who believes in Jesus is to be a person who wants what God has promised more than what the world is offering. That is not an easy thing; it is not an automatic thing; it is not a fast thing, I don’t think. It is essentially the struggle of our lives, learning whether in fact we want what God is offering more than what the world is offering. However, I think the Bible repeatedly presents faith in Jesus as being about that choice.

We can talk about it in different ways. We can talk about it as trusting God. We can talk about it as hating the world. I mean, the Bible uses all kinds of language, but it comes down to a recognition that God is different than the world around me, and he is offering something different than what the world around me is offering. What he is offering is good, and what the world is offering is not good enough.

Many passages talk about this kind of idea. Let me take you to John Chapter 5. I don’t know why but this passage has always been really intriguing to me. Partly, I think, because I have been thinking a lot about the debate over this question. What is it that marks the person of God? Some would like to argue that faith merely believes this story about Jesus and there isn’t really anything else that need be true of you except that you believe this story about Jesus. If you believe this story, then you will be saved.

Consequently, much of the debate centers on the Gospel of John because John constantly emphasizes that God saves those who believe that Jesus is the Christ. Therefore, people refer to the book of John, pronouncing, “See, just believing this story about Jesus is all that is necessary.” Sometimes they will say things like, “Repentance, that’s not necessary to be saved. Go and look at the gospel of John, which keeps talking over and over again about what it is that you need to do to be saved. Never uses the word repentance once. It keeps talking about believing that Jesus is the Christ.”

What kind of Messiah do you want?
Therefore, I am interested in passages of John that, while they talk about the issue of believing in Jesus, they connect that belief with fundamental choices in life. What do I want? What am I about? Whom do I trust? Who am I? And so on. John 5 is one of those passages that give a little glimpse into something like that. Notice in John 5:18 the situation we are dealing with.

For this reason therefore the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God.

Notice in this section, Jesus is talking about the father’s stamp of approval on him, the fact that he has the blessing of the father. The father looks at him and says, “Yes, this is the one. This is the guy.” However, the Pharisees, the Jews of the time, are looking at this same person, the one the father is looking at and saying “he’s the one,” and they are rejecting him. And saying, “Nah, this is not the guy.” So, let us start in verse 37

And the Father who sent Me, He has testified of Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time nor seen His form. You do not have His word abiding in you, for you do not believe Him whom He sent.

Jesus is talking about himself here. The father sent him. He has born witness of him. Yet, the Jews that he is talking to do not have God’s word abiding in them because they do not believe him whom he sent, talking about himself.

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life. I do not receive glory from men; but I know you, that you do not have the love of God in yourselves. I have come in My Father's name, and you do not receive Me; if another comes in his own name, you will receive him. How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and you do not seek the glory that is from the one and only God?

Verse 44 is the phrase I want to talk about. “How can you believe when you receive glory from one another and you do not seek the glory that is from the one and only God?” 

Seeking this worlds glory:
Jesus speaks as if to say, “Look, I know the way this thing works. You receive people who come in their own name. Someone comes with a certain kind of reputation. Maybe they have a certain reputation with you Pharisees for piety. Perhaps they have a certain position in the world (the Pharisees love money we are told), a certain success and air of success and nobility in life. You will accept these people. You are happy to receive the good opinion of such people yourself. You guys are trafficking in a worldly sort of glory, a glory this world gives. You crave a certain honor, a certain place of a good reputation, which yields you certain benefits in this life. You are very interested in things of this life that can give glory to someone else, or bring glory to yourself. You are interested in that kind of glory.

However, there is an alternative. There is another kind of glory, the glory from God. The glory God gives us ought to make the glory that the world gives us pale in comparison. The Glory God gives me is that “well done good and faithful servant.” Our ultimate glory will come from God transforming us into the very likeness of Jesus himself. I am talking about my most fundamental concern. Is my fundamental concern what man thinks of me, what glory I can find in this world? Or am I concerned with what God thinks of me? 

The Pharisees that he is talking to are interested in this worldly glory. I mean they have a lot of experience with it. They know how it works. They know about the benefits of worldly glory when you have it. The benefits are almost immediate. If you can get glory in this world from other people, then you might get other things like money or protection. It may also get you the good opinion of other people so that they treat you in a way that you want to be treated. And so on.

How can you believe?
What’s striking to me is that Jesus says, “How can you believe?” He has raised the question of their believing in him, saying look, I can see that you do not have the word of God abiding in you. The reason I know this is that you did not receive me. You did not believe in me when I came. What he is saying in verse 44 is it does not surprise me that you do not believe in me. You are not interested in me as the Messiah and reject that picture all together, because you are seeking this glory that comes from men and are not interested in the glory that comes from God. The connection he makes between the two is striking to me. 

You Pharisees are marked as not belonging to God by the fact that you rejected me when I came along. But that rejection in turn is tied to something about your fundamental commitments, to who you are, and to what you are looking for. It does not surprise me that you did not believe in me because you were looking for something other than what I can bring. Ultimately, I as the Messiah have come to bring a kingdom populated by those who have humbled themselves before God, who have confessed their sins, and who have recognized that only God can satisfy their real need. In the end, God will glorify them. He will raise them up, accept them, and put them forward as “these are my people”.  Ultimately, a glory awaits those sorts of people.

That’s why they respond to the gospel when they hear it. The gospel is a story that requires them to confess that they are sinners. It is a story that requires them to see where to find true good and to embrace it. In particular, it calls them to recognize that in the end, the only glory worth having is the glory that God has to give. If I can have only one or the other, I want the glory that he has to offer.

Jesus lays out the choice:
Jesus is painting a picture here of a choice between a worldly kind of glory and an eternal sort of glory from God.  He couples the Pharisee’s choice whether to believe in him or not with the issue of which kind of glory he wants. If all he can see is that worldly sort of glory, the kind he can get now, then he is right. When he looks at Jesus, he sees that Jesus does not have that kind of glory right now. Jesus cannot provide him with a list of prominent people in the community who will vouch for what it is that he has to say. Those are not his credentials. If he follows Jesus, he is not going to get that type of glory from anyone else either. In fact, as he goes on to say it is likely that many people will dislike his followers as much as they dislike him. That’s the kind of “glory” we are likely to get in this world from a Messiah like him. In spite of that, Jesus has a more abiding kind of glory to give that comes from God himself. The problem is that is not what the Pharisee was looking for.

This world verses the eternal kingdom of God. The glory you can get here verses the glory you can get there. If you are not interested in the glory that God has to offer then, then the Messiah he sent is not really the right messiah for you. Because that is all he has to offer.

What kind of "bread" do you want?
I think we can see the same thing if we jump into the next chapter, which I will not go into at much detail – a very famous chapter about the bread of life. You might remember the story. The people had seen Jesus multiply the loaves and the fishes. Then he had crossed over the Sea of Galilee (actually, he walked across the Sea of Galilee.) The people missed him, so they went around the shore to meet him on the other side. Once these people had seen this miracle of the loaves and fishes, then Jesus says to them in verse 26 of 6, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me not because you saw the signs but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. Do not work for the food which parishes but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the son of man shall give to you. For on him the father, even God, has set his seal.”

The point here, in this very famous section, is that the miracle of the loaves and fishes was intended to be a sign—God has put his stamp of approval on Jesus, saying, “This is the guy. Listen to him.” Still, they found another way of interpreting the miracle of the loaves and fishes. That is, I always knew that God was as interested in getting my belly filled as I am. Now that his messiah (maybe) has come along and I see him passing bread around, this is always what I thought this ought to be about. So now all I have to do is go follow him and just make sure that I am close to him so that when he hands the bread out I am there to get it. I will not ever have to work again. You know, the sweat of your brow and all that kind of stuff? That’s done.

The stuff that really solves your problem:
Essentially Jesus says to them, you did not get the point of this. You misunderstood what this was about. You followed me here because you thought you were going to get more bread. But see, actually I’m not going to do that trick again as it turns out. What I am going to do is give you the bread that you really need, which is my body and my blood. That’s the food that you need because my death on the cross (I mean he doesn’t say this here. But ultimately, we come to see that his death on the cross, which justifies us before God, which solves the problem of his wrath that we are under, opens the door into the eternal kingdom of God.) We need that food. We need the food that brings eternal life, as he says. Hence, you eat bread, even the miraculous bread that Jesus multiplied, still that bread, if you eat it, you are still going to die. It does not really solve any problems. It is a sign of something but in and of itself, it does not do anything for you. On the other hand, he came to provide the true food, the stuff that really solves your problem.

Again, as we look through this story in John 6, we see the crowd going away, in the end, because they were not interested in the food that brings eternal life. They were interested in the bread he had been passing out and it was clear that they were not going to get any more. Then, in a very striking verse, and one of my favorites at the end of chapter six Verse 66, “As a result of this, many of his disciples withdrew and were not walking with him any more. Jesus said therefore to the twelve, “you do not want to go away also do you?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. And we have believed and have come to know that you are the holy one of God.”

Where would we go?
But that “where would we go?” I have felt that way on a number of occasions in my life when I was asking myself the question, “am I going to go away here?” because I am not necessarily very happy with where I am. Nevertheless, the answer comes back, “Where would I go” because I recognize that Jesus has the words of eternal life. So then, the striking aspect of this story is that most of the disciples, people who have been following Jesus, listening to him, and learning from him, walked away. At that point, they just could not see his point. However, Peter and the other disciples understood. They were not going anywhere because they did recognized their need for the eternal life, which the Messiah had come to bring. So then, they were going to follow him even if it meant that they had to work hard for their bread in the mean time. They were going to keep following him because they saw that he was offering them the thing that they really needed.

Well, I have whole lists of passages here that talk about this kind of thing. It is the choice that you and I face all the time. It is what our lives fundamentally are about, I think. It is coming to see, not that this world is no good, because it is not true. Many things about the world are a reflection of our creator and show his creativity and his kindness. We can experience a number of good things in this life. I do not want to be misunderstood. Those good things are there.

It is true that I am not the most optimistic or up beat person who has ever lived. Let me put it this way, the fictional character that most people refer to when they are talking about me is Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh. A few people may be a little more upbeat than I am. (Jokingly) However, the things that I am saying now are not due to my dim view of life. It is not that. I recognize that there are many things out there to enjoy that I even do not enjoy and probably ought to. Like the camping trip that is coming up. Everybody jokes about how I am not going but the fact is I’m not big on camping; I admit it. And I’m sure that there are all sorts of pleasures of people’s company and being out in the open and all of that stuff that would probably be great for me. I would have a wonderful time. But I don’t like it. So that doesn’t say anything good about me.

However, that is not what I mean. I am not saying, (jokingly) you guys are out there camping and you think you are having a good time when really, you know, it’s all straight from the pit. I don’t mean that. That’s not what I am saying. What I’m saying though is that ultimately you could camp every weekend from now until the day you die and it’s not really ultimately going to do you much good. I mean, you have a bigger problem than finding a pleasant way to spend the weekend.

For people who are on their way to solving that problem through their faith in Christ, to spend the weekend pleasantly together, that’s a great thing. However, suppose you get sick and you have to miss it, and in the process you learn a little bit more about being patient, trusting God, and remembering what your life is all about. In the end, we are saying that we are winners in that process because more important things involved here.

I know the stories of a lot of people here (and a lot of people not here.) Many of us have come to the place, for one reason or another, where we are facing difficult things. So that, if you were to ask us is life a pleasant and sweet thing? At this point, it does not really seem like a pleasant and sweet thing. Nevertheless, I hope that we recognize that we have heard the word of the one who is promising us eternal life, not just living forever but solving the problem of sin, and death and guilt. He opens our eyes so that we can see the truth. I mean, the most tremendous thing that could happen to anyone is to stop being blind and to see what is indeed true and important, to be saved by the truth, to be rescued by it, to be snatched out of the jaws of death and brought into life. That’s our story. That’s what’s happening.

What God offers is good:
However, in order for that to be true, and to be a reality in the lives of each one of us, it requires that we actually live out the discovery process. We must actually come to see, as we live out our lives that what God offers is good. In addition, during the process we come to know that the statements about his love for us are not meaningless, not hype, not God giving himself good PR, which he does not really deserve. It is rock bottom fundamental truth, because what more could you ask of love than that it do the very best thing for you that it can do? That’s what the Gospel is. That’s what it is telling us.

We come to recognize the choice:
Nevertheless, we can only see that if we come to recognize the choice. As good as this world is, it is not good enough. There is something more important, more essential to life that needs sorting out. And if I spend my life sorting that out, then something good is happening. At any rate, we can’t avoid this question. (For one thing, when I am teaching around here I talk about it all the time. So you can’t avoid it in that sense but the fact is that this is what is going on.)

I, myself, just went through a couple of weeks of probably the most difficult time that I have ever faced, just because of my own idiosyncrasies and strangeness. I don’t think anybody else would have found it as difficult as I did. During that time, I got about as low as I know how to get. I mean, I was just one step up from death, I mean just lying down and dying because I was in bad shape. But in the midst of that I really feel like God was there with those same questions about what do you want, where are you headed, and what is life really about? Even in the midst of that, for me, there was a place to confront that, and learn a little bit more about what’s really going on. So, ultimately I feel that we can look on these things and say, there is the love of God at work. But that’s never going to make any sense to us until we can see that there is sort of a “pseudo good” that is calling us, and there is the real thing. And the love of God is grounded in the real thing. 

Ron Julian has been a teacher at McKenzie Study Center since 1982. With a degree in
linguistics, Ron's focus is biblical exegesis and communicating the gospel. Other interests
include biblical languages, film, music, literature, and computer technology. 

This article was given as a sermon at Reformation Fellowship, Eugene Oregon, and transcribed and edited by me. I have edited it for readability only. This article is Copyright 2000 By Ron Julian and is used by permission. Other articles can be viewed on-line by visiting  McKenzie Study Center.