This is the third part in an in-depth study of key themes in the gospel accounts. For ease of reading, we’ve split this long study into several shorter individual posts, so I recommend starting with the intro and theme #1, then reading this and the other posts (linked at the end).
I’ll dive right in this time, since the introduction (linked above) gives context on what led me to write this series on how to understand the gospels. We’re really focusing on the bigger ideas and consistent themes in Jesus’s words and actions, more of a “30,000-foot view”.
As a reminder, I’m giving some of the scripture references within each point, though in many cases there were so many that I couldn’t capture them all (it got too repetitive). I encourage you to look up and read each passage referenced as well, and to have these topics in mind to recognize the patterns when they emerge.
So far we’ve examined Jesus’s life and teachings on a few major themes (each with several related sub-topics):
- That God’s calling in this life isn’t easy—and isn’t for everyone—but if we answer His call it DOES come with expectations.
- That God is concerned with the state of our “heart” (mind, emotions, motivations—our inner being)
- That the way we treat and engage with our brethren (and with other people) matters
So now let’s move on to themes #4 and 5…
Theme #4: Priorities! We can’t allow our relationship with worldly things to take precedence over our relationship with God
A huge focus of Jesus’s teachings was on how we use our resources—time, thoughts, energy, money, and more—during our physical lives. He frequently cautioned His followers to adopt a healthy attitude toward material possessions and worldly relationships, and wasn’t shy about calling out when someone’s priorities were in the wrong place.
So let’s examine some of the topics He spoke on. Get ready, this one is a doozy!
Money isn’t *inherently* evil, but the LOVE of it is…we need to develop a healthy relationship with (the pursuit of) wealth.
Throughout His ministry, Jesus had quite a lot to say about what our relationship should be with money, the pursuit of wealth or influence, and other material possessions.
In one of the more well-known passages of the gospels, Jesus says:
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven…for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:19-21).
Jesus goes on to explain that you can’t have two masters—in other words, it is not possible to wholeheartedly serve God, and yet allow money (or the pursuit of it, career ambition, a desire for security, etc.) to control you (Matt. 6:24; Luke 16:13).
We see this illustrated in the “rich young ruler”, where the man asked Jesus what he needed to do to for eternal life. Jesus could see inside his heart and told him to sell all he had and give the money to the poor.
The man went away sorrowful because he was very rich, and Jesus remarked, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:18-27, Matt. 19:16-26, Mark 10:17-27).
Again, this is not because wealth is inherently bad, but rather because it tends to warp our perspectives and priorities, and tether us to this world. In the parable of the sower, Jesus calls this “the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches”, which choke out the faith that was trying to take root, just like weeds choke out good produce (Matt. 13:22).
At another time, a man asked Jesus to command his brother to share their inheritance, and Jesus responded with a gentle rebuke: “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses” (Luke 12:15)
He then launches into a parable about a man whose land was yielding abundantly, giving him much material blessing. He decided to tear down all his buildings and build newer, bigger ones, in order to store up all his wealth for later in life.
The man died that night, and so all his planning and accumulation of wealth came to naught. Jesus summarizes the takeaway—“so is he who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:13-21).
Many read this to mean giving money to a church, and that could certainly be an element, but I think it misses the broader point. This man was focused on hoarding and protecting the blessings God had provided, rather than being generous with his time, energy, and resources. “Rich toward God” could mean our money, but also in our thoughts, feelings, and where we spend our time.
Contrast this with the widow in Luke 21, who gave just two mites. Jesus tells us that she had given more than anyone, for out of her poverty she gave all she had. She had a mindset of abundance—seeing God’s blessings and acknowledging that everything she had was ultimately from Him.
If we don’t focus on God’s future kingdom and have the right priorities right now, we may eventually lose out on eternal life.
Looking beyond just money and the acquisition of physical wealth, Jesus illustrated many ways in which our focus and priorities can go awry when we lose sight of the fact that following Him is an “all or nothing” commitment. And we’re playing for the highest stakes—eternal life in God’s kingdom!
One way this can manifest in our lives is to put off doing what we know to be right in following God’s way, leaving for “later”. We’re told that disciples were committing to following Jesus, and a one of them said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father” (Matt. 8:21-22).
Jesus replied, “Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead” (Matt. 8:21-22). This seems super harsh! But the implication is that the man’s father wasn’t on death’s doorstep—rather that he would live out the rest of his life and then once he died, the disciple would come and commit himself to following Jesus. And our Savior says that kind of half-hearted commitment isn’t acceptable.
He expands on this idea in the parable of the great banquet in Luke 14, where a man has invited many people to a huge feast. But when the time came to commit, they all gave excuses…work, looking after physical possessions, human relationships.
We, too, have been invited to be a part of the eventual wedding supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19), but if we prioritize other things—even really important and meaningful things like family—above our invitation, or don’t prepare ourselves appropriately, we will lose that invitation.
Jesus launches directly from that parable into teaching on the costs of discipleship and the importance of “counting the cost”. Here He says that we cannot put ANYTHING—not parents, children, spouse, or even our own lives—ahead of our commitment to Him (Luke 14:25-33). He’s not saying we should literally hate our family, but rather using hyperbole to illustrate the steep cost of following Him.
Here are some other examples of how wrong priorities might show up in our lives:
- Losing sight of what God commands, and descending into legalism, ritual, and man-made rules like the Pharisees—thinking we’re being righteous but ultimately placing burdens on God’s people and even contradicting God’s laws (Matt. 23)
- Self-sufficiency, like the Laodiceans. They looked around at their lives and thought they were doing pretty good…”’I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’”. Yet Jesus says they are “wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17).
- The reality of providing for our daily needs can distract us if we’re not careful. “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life” (John 6:27). Jesus goes on to tell them that He was the bread of life, and that we should be pursuing a relationship with Him as the #1 priority in our lives.
- The pleasures and cares of this life. Jesus warned that we should “take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day come on you unexpectedly [as a snare]” (Luke 21:34).
- In the parable of the sower, Jesus shows a few ways that this can happen to us, including receiving the truth with joy and being really gung-ho but lacking perseverance and fizzling out, as well as a person who allows the truth to be choked out by the cares and riches of this world (Matt. 13:18-23).
What do the right priorities look like? Perhaps the simplest illustration of what this looks like is found in the (super brief) back-to-back parables of the hidden treasure and the “pearl of great price” (Matt. 13:44-46). In both, the man finds a treasure and sells all that he has in order to buy it. Simple as that.
Obviously it’s *not* quite that simple. But what we should take away from this is that, when we finally recognize the immeasurable worth of God’s truth and the calling we’ve been given, we should pursue it with single-minded devotion.
We are to live IN the world, but not be OF the world—we should be recognizably not like the society around us.
Just hours before His death, Jesus prayed for His followers, then and through the ages:
“I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify [set apart as holy] them by Your truth. Your word is truth” (John 17:15-17).
Shortly before that, He exhorted His closest disciples:
“If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:18-19).
We should ask ourselves very honestly: Does the way I’m living by God’s truth visibly set me apart from the rest of society? Do I blend in naturally with the people around me? Would my co-workers or neighbors be shocked to hear that I am a follower of God and Jesus Christ? Am I a chameleon, showing up as though I’m “of the world”?
Jesus told Pilate that if His kingdom were of this world (that is, being established with authority here and now), His disciples would fight for it (John 19:36). As His disciples in today’s world, we should really meditate on this and examine what it means to our lives and relationship with the world. This wasn’t just a throwaway line.
One of the biggest areas this shows up today in God’s church is in deep emotional involvement in politics and worldly issues. We should certainly be well-informed and set ourselves against the terrible societal trends that are anathema to God’s way.
But we should not get so emotionally involved in political partisanship and other issues that it pulls our focus away from pursuing God’s way, or damages our relationships with brethren. We must bear in mind that we are “strangers and pilgrims on the earth” awaiting our better, heavenly country (Heb. 11). This is not our world.
BUT just because we’re not to be “of the world” doesn’t mean that nothing in this life matters, or that it’s sinful to try and build a good life for ourselves.
We still have to live in the world (“render to Caesar”, Luke 20), and we still have to make a living, eat, have somewhere to live, and care for our families.
Jesus tells us that, just like earthly fathers, God wants to give His children good gifts (Luke 13:13). He wants to bless us both physically and spiritually, and He wants to have a relationship with us.
In that famous passage in Matthew 6, Jesus isn’t saying that food, clothing, and shelter aren’t important (Matt. 6:25-34). Of course they are! He is pointing out that we shouldn’t be consumed with WORRY about this, because God knows our needs even before we ask. (Note: He still wants us to ask.)
We should be serving our brethren, working hard at our chosen career, taking care of our family, and spending time growing in grace and knowledge.
And through all that, we need to maintain a balanced perspective, because even the good things we do can pull us away from God if we’re not careful. For instance, even the act of serving others can go too far when it takes precedence over seeking God’s truth, or our attitude and reasons for doing it aren’t right (the story of Martha and Mary, Luke 10:41-42).
Ultimately, we must keep our eyes on the prize.
As the bible comes to a close, Jesus tells us, “I am coming quickly”. We should have a sense of urgency in our lives and our actions, not falling into complacency (Rev. 22:7, 12, 20).
We should be praying regularly, and talking to God about many different topics (as shown by the example prayer in Luke 11). Some of those prayers should be around being counted worthy to escape the coming tribulation, and Jesus tells us repeatedly that we should be paying attention to what’s happening in the world and “discerning the times” (Luke 12:54-56; most of Luke 21).
Jesus starts the parable of the expectant steward, with a command: “Let your waist be girded and your lamps burning” (Luke 12:35-40). He describes faithful servants staying up all night, dressed, and ready to receive their master, and says we must likewise be ready for Jesus to return.
Do I think about Jesus Christ’s return with a sense of urgency and readiness every single day? If I’m honest with myself, I fall short here a lot…the busy-ness of the day, work meetings, making food, and all the little rhythms of life distract me and tire me out. And that’s totally normal. But God and Jesus Christ expect better from us.
This passage nicely wraps up this larger theme about our priorities and relationship with the physical things in this world:
“Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?…Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?
Therefore do not worry [about what you will eat, drink, or wear]…For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matt. 6:25-33)
Theme #5: God expects both faith AND action—“you will know them by their fruits”
Just because God and Jesus Christ are especially concerned with our hearts, does not mean that our actions (or “works”) and the way we go about our lives are unimportant.
Jesus was also extremely focused on our actions as a manifestation of our character and faith, and frequently taught about how God wants His people to follow His commands.
It’s about doing, not *only* hearing and believing. Yes, Jesus was sharing a gospel of grace and love and forgiveness. But it was unarguably also a gospel rooted in obedience to God and living according to His ways.
Jesus’s brother James later succinctly put it, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead…Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith BY my works” (James 2:17-18).
Here are some places that Jesus made this point:
- “If you abide [obey, continue] in My word, you are My disciples” (John 8:31)
- “Blessed is that servant [whom the master entrusted to care for his people], whom his master, when he comes, will find so doing” (Matt 24:46, Luke 12:41-48). Luke also ends that passage with Jesus cautioning, “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required.”
- The parable of talents (or minas) makes clear that God expects us to utilize what He has given us—His spirit, plus gifts and physical resources—to produce more…not just sit on it, bury it, “guard” it. Instead, to multiply it and yield abundantly in our lives and those who we come into contact with (Matt. 25:14-30).
- “My work is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work…he who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life” (John 4:34, 36)
- “If anyone loves Me, he will keep my word (John 14:23)
- “If you keep My commandments, you will abide [live, obey, continue in] in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love” (John 15:10).
- Jesus “Whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and DOES them” (Matt. 7:24). He doesn’t say “and thinks they’re great,” or “and puts them on an Etsy print on their wall”. He is focused on action, on putting His teachings to work in our lives every day.
- After His resurrection He asks Peter three times, “do you love me?”, and then His command when Peter says “yes” is an action—“feed My sheep” (John 21:15-17).
We should be very careful not to decide for ourselves that parts of God’s law do not apply to us today.
There’s a tendency for people to take the parts of the bible that they either don’t understand, don’t know what to do with, or don’t like, and toss them out. That’s particularly true of the Old Testament…it’s a culture and way of life that’s hard for us to understand today.
But that is a dangerous mistake. Jesus plainly stated:
“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy, but to fulfill [level up, cram, fill to the fullest]. For assuredly I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all its fulfilled.
Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:17-19)
Jesus continued this teaching, giving specific examples that stripped away the human-created rules of the Pharisees, and rather deepened and expanded what the bible had previously said (such as laws about divorce and murder).
Throughout His ministry, Jesus demonstrated both words and action. He consistently preached (words) and healed (actions). He told people to believe in Him (words) and performed miracles (actions, to help their unbelief).
When He sent out the twelve disciples, “He gave them power and authority over all demons, and to cure diseases. He sent them to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick (Luke 9:1-2).
Words (belief) and actions. This is just a good reminder for us that we can’t have just one or the other. They are most effective when paired together.
Jesus frequently tied together the idea of works and being in the kingdom, with a sense of urgency.
We shouldn’t forget that the very first thing Jesus started preaching in His ministry was, “The time is fulfilled, repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand” (Matt. 4:17, Mark 1:14).
Repentance requires both our heart/mind (in acknowledging our sin, feeling the weight of it), and our action (turning away and not doing it anymore).
Jesus’s message is just as consistent (and urgent) at the end of Revelation. There He exhorts us, “I am coming quickly and My reward is with Me, to give to every one according to his work [acts, deeds, labor]” (Rev. 22:12).
Over and over to the churches of Revelation, He says, “I know your works” (Rev. 2 & 3). He knew the good and the evil of their works, and the same is true for each of us today. We’re told that how we build on the foundation and with what materials (Jesus Christ), that work will be tested and refined in the fire, to see if it endures (I Cor. 3:12-14).
What’s still to come
We’ve covered two really big themes in this post! We’ll stop here for now, but in the final post in this series we’ll look into what Jesus showed us about how our faith manifests, the importance of taking care of ourselves (not only others), and how we are to balance being peaceful but not “doormats”.
In the meantime, here are the first two posts in this series on surveying the gospels:
- This Life Isn’t Easy, & Comes With Expectations (Part 1)
- The State of Our Hearts & Minds, Motivations & Intentions (Part 2)
- Finding Balance & Boldness in Our Walk of Faith (Part 4)