First Things First

Publication: Pastoral Letter, January 2005

Dear Friend in Christ:

Happy New Year! I pray that you and yours had a blessed and joyous Christmas season. Everyone here at CSM sends their love and gratitude for your friendship and faithfulness.

In last month’s letter to you, I wrote about the birth of Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords. This month, I want to share some thoughts about His Kingdom and what His Reign means to us here in this new year.

Are you looking forward to 2005 with hopeful anticipation or with fearful dread? Perhaps a mixture of both? If I am going to be honest with you here, I have to admit that there have been times recently when I definitely have wrestled with anxieties about the future. Of course, being a good Charismatic, I won’t say (out loud) that I have been fearful; let’s just say that I’ve “had concerns”!

During a recent time of prayer, the Lord called me to a familiar, precious passage of Scripture:

“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 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, saying ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. 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” (Matthew 6:28-33).

As we enter the New Year, we are bombarded with “to do” lists, “wish” lists, and the ever-present “resolutions.” Some of these lists come from others, and some we put on ourselves. Of course, that’s not always a bad thing. We tell ourselves to exercise more, eat less, quit smoking, start jogging, save more money, give more money, be kinder and gentler, speak softly, carry a big stick, stop and smell the roses, wake up and smell the coffee, and brush three times daily. For many folks in the USA, these first few days in January are usually a dizzying mix of football, feasting, remorse, and platitudes.

Speaking of platitudes, I am reminded of something comedian Steven Wright once said: “Never criticize a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes…that way, when you do criticize him, you’ll have his shoes and you’ll be a mile away from him.”
Thank God, Jesus offers us more than mere platitudes, finger-wagging, and pious ivory tower theories. He offers us power and wisdom and hope for the New Year ahead.

“Seek first the kingdom….” Those are the words that I cannot escape here on the cusp of 2005. In the Scripture passage above, Jesus does not discourage His followers from making prudent plans or from doing hard work. He does, however, put everything in perspective for us. He tells us where our priorities should be, and He tells us that we are not to worry. Earlier in Matthew 6, He explains that we are indeed called to do good…but in so doing, we should strive to please the Father rather than merely seeking the approval of others.

Furthermore, Jesus notes that if we act in faith and in obedience to the Father, then He will see to it that our needs are met. Our Father is a good Father; He not only meets our needs, but He blesses us abundantly, far and above all that we could ask or imagine. Jesus wants us to get this truth firmly rooted in our hearts to the point that it is a basic presupposition; in other words, it is understood and unquestionable. The Psalmist wrote:

“Forever, O Lord, Your word is settled in heaven, Your faithfulness endures to all generations; You established the earth, and it abides, they continue this day according to Your ordinances, for all are Your servants” (Psalm 119:89-90).

I like that word: “settled.” God’s plan, God’s Word, God’s authority, and God’s power are a “done deal.” The Psalmist points out that everything in heaven and on earth merely serves the Sovereign will of Father God. People and circumstances, whether difficult or happy, are not barriers to God having His way. In fact, circumstances are actually doing God’s work, bringing history closer to that moment when every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

Of course, the trouble is not with God and His Word…the trouble lies with us and in our lack of trust in – and obedience to – His Word. An old chorus says, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it for me.” O, that it may be so in my own heart! His Word is settled in heaven; but all to often, my heart is not settled in His Word.

It is for good reason that another hymn says, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love, Here’s my heart, Lord, take and seal it, seal it for Thy courts above” (from “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” by Robert Robinson).

This wandering tendency can strike anyone at any place and at any time. It tempts the new believer and the seasoned spiritual giant; it tempts the poor and brokenhearted and the rich and prosperous; it tempts the high-school dropout and the intellectual egghead; it tempts the apathetic pew-warmer and the over-active world shaker; it tempts me and…brace yourself…it can tempt you, too.

Thank God for His grace, eh? He is speaking to our hearts in these days, calling us into a new level of faith and trust in Him, in His goodness and mercy, in His rock solid true Word, in His faithfulness, in His wisdom…and in His plan for our lives and for this world.

Faith will cause you to act in a way that transcends circumstances, because faith sees beyond circumstance and into the heart of the Father. Faith is, after all, not merely ethereal “wishing on a star,” but it is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1, emphasis added).

Jesus has a brilliant way of taking many myriad principles and reducing them down to their bare essence. For example, He said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself; on these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (see Matthew 22:37-40 and Luke 10:27).

Noted teacher Jim Rohn once said “It’s the six or seven little things that you do in life that make up about 80% of the difference.” He went on to say, “If an apple a day really does keep the doctor away, then why aren’t we all eating more apples?” That philosophy of doing the few, simple effective things will keep us on track and will prevent us from “running to and fro” seeking out every new fad and trying increasingly frantic and desperate measures to get our lives in order.

What are the few, simple effective steps that we can take that would make the primary difference for us in 2005? I believe the answer lies in Jesus’ instruction: “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.” A few years ago, Caleb McAfee, a teacher in biblical economics, gave me a plaque engraved with his philosophy: “The top priority is to keep the top priority the top priority – in the spirit of Matthew 6:33.” The Kingdom must be our top priority for 2005.

I’ve heard my Dad compare the process of prioritizing to buttoning a shirt…if you get the top button in the top buttonhole, the other buttons will follow; if you get the top button in the wrong buttonhole, all of the other ones will be wrong. Ern Baxter spoke of “the law of first beginnings,” where the beginning of an endeavor would determine its course and its outcome.

Getting things right here in January will go a long way towards helping us in July and in December. Seeking His Kingdom first – and seeking a right relationship with Him – will cause all of the other issues to fall right into place. His Kingly rule in our hearts produces a harvest of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit (see Romans 14:17).

Earlier, I quoted “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”. Another line of the song says, “Tune my heart to sing Thy praise.” One of the ways He “tunes our hearts” is through the process of thanksgiving. There is something powerful about thanking God that takes our eyes off of ourselves, our circumstances, our weaknesses, our fears, and our trials, and puts our eyes on Him, His Sovereignty, His power, His love, and His faithfulness.

I heard Michael Coleman of Integrity Media say, “If you are ever wondering what the will of God is, or what you should do, just give thanks.” That is precisely what Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica: “In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Could it be that one of the reasons the Lord exhorts us to give thanks is that it heals our vision and equips us to see His Kingdom more clearly?

Paul’s letter to the Philippians is called “The Rejoicing Letter,” because Paul is so full of joy and so adamant in encouraging the other believers. A classic line in the letter is, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4). Paul wrote this joyful letter while sitting in a Roman jail. Paul’s vision was not locked in that cell with him. Paul saw beyond his circumstances and he saw beyond his day.

Seeking first Christ’s Kingdom will lift your vision beyond where you are today. And where your eyes are focused is where you will go. We may not be there yet, but by allowing God to change our vision, we have the opportunity to be on our way there.

Recently, Larry Neese, the Director of the Kenya Ministry Training Institute (KMTI) visited with us and shared dramatic testimony how the CSM Bible teaching curriculum, The Covenant and the Kingdom, is blessing and shaping the next generation of Christian leaders in eastern Africa. These pastors and teachers are not simply receiving academic philosophy, but they are experiencing profound changes in their own lives and families.

The teaching represented in that book, or in our new series of Covenant Institute courses, will focus students on Christ’s Kingdom…not only training them, but stirring up a hunger in them for more of God and His ways. When you pray for CSM or graciously sow financial gifts into this ministry, the Lord is causing your gifts to bear good fruit in more than 70 nations worldwide. Please continue to remember us in your prayers and in your giving this month; we depend upon God’s faithfulness and your kind generosity.

May the blessings and peace of God be yours as you seek His Kingdom first in 2005!

In Jesus,

Stephen Simpson

Scripture Reference: Matthew, Psalms, Hebrews, Luke, Romans, Philippians, Thessalonians

About the Author:

Stephen Simpson

STEPHEN SIMPSON is the Editor of One-to-One Magazine and the Director of CSM Publishing. In addition to publishing ministry, Stephen has served in leadership for churches and ministries in Costa Rica, Florida, Mississippi, Texas, and Michigan, as well as being the Senior Pastor of Covenant Church of Mobile (2004-2013). He continues to travel in ministry across North America and in other nations.