Especially given the age that we live in, and as we watch our brothers and sisters in the Middle East suffer at the hands of ISIS being driven from their homes and towns, this is a particularly relevant question from Kevin in California: “Dear Pastor John, in Matthew 6 we read: ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.’ So, if this is true, why are there still millions starving to death in our world? Some Christians are starving to death in certain countries even though they seek first the kingdom, right? So how do we make sense of this?”
It is so crucial for Christians, especially for Christian teachers and preachers, to take questions like this with utter seriousness. So often we use promises in the Bible which on the face of it seem unrealistic, and yet we don’t pause to give some plausible explanation of how those promises are to be used, realistically used. So we need a heavy dose of realism whenever we embrace promises like this.
“Jesus promises that some of his anxiety-free people will be put to death.”
Let’s get the promises in front of us from Matthew 6:25–34, that glorious paragraph. Jesus’s aim there is to give eight arguments — at least, eight that I count — for why God’s children don’t need to have any anxiety. And the summary and climax of the arguments is in verse 33 that he quotes, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” And “all these things” is clearly referring back to what are you going to eat, what are you going to drink, what are you going to wear. And he is saying: Don’t be anxious about any of those things. And now he ends by saying: You are going to have all of those that you need.
So, Kevin raises the question rightly: Do Christians ever perish from exposure or starvation? Is Jesus promising that his followers who have faith will never lack food, never lack clothing? That is what it sounds like. Now, several things should give us pause before we think that Jesus is naïve or simplistic or false in this verse. Consider three other passages and let them really sink in. This is a reality check not from experience over against Jesus. That is a bad way to do exegesis. But the Bible and Jesus’s words in particular over against Jesus clarifying what he means here.
For example, in Luke 21:16–18 Jesus is talking to these people who don’t need to be anxious about anything because every need will be met. “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish.” So, Jesus promises that some of his anxiety-free people will be put to death. Now, these are people who in Matthew 6:33 have believed, trusting “all these things” will be given me that I need — and they are going to be killed. And it doesn’t say how they are going to be put to death. Starved to death in prison? Killed by chaining them outside in below freezing weather with no clothes? It doesn’t say. Persecution has assumed every imaginable form in the history of the church.
“We had better be slow to say that God’s promise to meet all our needs means Christians cannot die of hunger.”
And then he says, “Not a hair of your head will perish” (Luke 21:18). Well, surely that promise is just as sweeping as “all these things will be added to you.” Not only will they be added to you, not one hair is going to be hurt. And he says that ten words after saying they are going to kill you: killed, but no harm done, no ultimate harm done. Now, that should give us pause if Jesus can say: Not a hair of your head is going to perish, right after he says: They are going to kill you. We had better be slow to say that all your needs are going to be met means you can’t die of hunger. That is number one.
Here is Paul in Philippians 4:11–13, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” — all things, including hunger. “And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19). So, verse 19 is very similar to Matthew 6:33. One says: All these things will be added to you, and the other says: Every need you have will be met. And yet Paul has just said: I know how to be brought low. I know how to face hunger. In other words, God’s promise to meet every need does not mean providing all the food and clothing we think we need.
One more text: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). Now that is the same as Matthew 6:33 — all things. He is going to give you “all things.” What you eat, what you wear, what you drink. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or” — here they are — “famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long” — starved to death, put out in exposure — “we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:35–37). So, Paul virtually says that some Christians will die of distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword — and what does he mean that God will give us all things?
“God’s promise to meet every need is not a promise to provide all the food and clothing we think we need.”
Now, here is my answer to that question. When I put all of this together — Jesus’s words and Paul’s two texts — when I put all of this together, I think the meaning of Matthew 6:33 and Romans 8:32 and other promises like this — and there are a lot of them — I think it means: Everything will be given to us that we need in order to do God’s will in order to glorify God most fully, even if it means death. Jesus isn’t promising all the food, all the clothing, all the housing, all the healthcare, all the protection that we need to be comfortable or even to stay alive. He says we are going to die in his service. He is promising that we will have every single one of those things in exactly the right measure for doing his will and glorifying his name, even if it means perishing from exposure or starvation in the path of obedience.