Priorities and Dominion – Conclusion

Chapter from "Priorities and Dominion" by Gary North.

But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you (Matt. 6:33).

The theme of the kingdom of God/heaven1 pervades Matthew. This gospel is the premier gospel of the kingdom. We learn that the kingdom of God should be man's supreme earthly goal — a kingdom based on righteousness. All other goals are secondary.

This raises the question of the dominion covenant.2 God gave man his marching orders: "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth" (Gen. 1:26-28).

If the kingdom of God is the top priority, what has become of the dominion covenant? Nothing. It still operates. Kingdom-first is the same requirement. What was universal under Adam prior to his rebellion has become the specific requirement for God's covenant people. The general requirement also remains, which is why there is a powerful impetus in cultures to extend their wealth and power. But now the dominion covenant has two rival manifestations: the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan. Both are supernatural. Both reveal themselves in history. An increase in one in history is offset by a decrease in the other: wheat vs. tares.

It is basic to man's nature to extend his control over the creation. Covenant-breakers still obey the dominion covenant, but they do this for the sake of other gods, including man. But because of biblical adoption, assets built up in Satan's kingdom can wind up in Christ's. This is one of God's ways of appropriating the wealth of the wicked. What the wicked lose as covenant-breakers they inherit as covenant-keepers. Because they come under a new covenant, so do their assets.

The New Testament has not abrogated the dominion covenant. The kingdom of God is not in conflict with the dominion covenant. On the contrary, it is the fulfillment of it. The world was always supposed to be subdued by man for the glory of God. This means that covenant-keeping man must do the bulk of the subduing if the dominion covenant is to be fulfilled appropriately. If covenant-breakers do the bulk of the subduing throughout history, then the Bible is incorrect: "A good man leaveth an inheritance to his children's children: and the wealth of the sinner is laid up for the just" (Prov. 13:22). If the wealth of the just were laid up for the sinner, then sinners would permanently inherit in history. Satan's kingdom would then permanently displace God's by way of Adam. This means that Christ's resurrection and ascension have not definitively ivercome the effects of Adam's Fall and will in history progressively overcome them. Then how should the following be interpreted?

But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ's at his coming. Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. For he hath put all things under his feet. But when he saith, all things are put under him, it is manifest that he is excepted, which did put all things under him. And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all (I Cor. 15:20-28).

Or this?

For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind. But be ye glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create: for, behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy. And I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and joy in my people: and the voice of weeping shall be no more heard in her, nor the voice of crying. There shall be no more thence an infant of days, nor an old man that hath not filled his days: for the child shall die an hundred years old; but the sinner being an hundred years old shall be accursed. And they shall build houses, and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, and eat the fruit of them (Isa. 65:17-21).

The prophecy in Isaiah refers to history, not heaven, for sinners still are present. They live to an old age. Only by denying both the context and language of the text can amillennialists get it to refer to heaven or the post-resurrection state. This is the most difficult passage in the Bible for amillennialists to deal with, so they prefer to avoid it.3

The Theme of Priorities

God or mammon? This is what each person must decide. Once this decision is made, then the individual must assess his priorities. A person's priorities are established in terms of one of the two kingdoms.

Matthew sets forth the idea that man is subordinate either to God or mammon. Man is never autonomous. He makes decisions as a covenant-keeper or a covenant-breaker. If he is self-consciously subordinate to God, he can work more effectively to extend God's kingdom. The extension of the kingdom's influence is accomplished by the faithful obedience of God's people. Obedience is what gives them what they need. Obedience, not magic, is the proper means of attaining what we need.4 Covenant-keepers are humble before God — meek — and therefore active in relation to the creation.5 They are to march forward confidently because they are under the supreme Commander.

Matthew reminds the reader that he is responsible to God. Responsible people carry the burden of Christian activism. They are more ready to take risks for God and the kingdom. Their fear is reduced because they know that God is sovereign. As His agents, they are part of a large endeavor that spans time and geography. This larger endeavor gives meaning to their efforts, even when they fail. God does not make mistakes; He sees everything in advance.6 Men's work has meaning and purpose in terms of the comprehensive judicial claims of God on man and the kingdom that manifests these claims in history.

In setting his priorities, the faithful man is to decide how his work can extend the kingdom of God. He is to honor this principle: first things first.7 Eternal life is man's primary goal.8 This means being part of God's kingdom: surrendering authority over one's own life in history for the sake of eternity. The kingdom is primary. Money is not. Those who pursue riches are playing with fire, Matthew teaches. Greed is the religion of mammon: self-gratification and self-worship (Matt. 6:24-25).9 Man cannot serve two masters.

The underlying lure of wealth is personal autonomy. Wealth seems to provide this by increasing a person's range of choices. God calls us to exchange assets in our earthly treasury for assets in the eternal one.10 This is a low-risk exchange. Assets in heaven cannot be lost. This is what the rich young ruler failed to understand.11 Jesus asked him to sell everything as a condition of joining His disciples. He has not asked most of His followers to do this, then or now. He does ask them to tithe. The tithe is a token payment that declares that the tither is dependent on God.12 It also drastically reduces the likelihood of addiction to the pursuit of money. Men must trust in God's reserves, not their own, which is why Jesus sent out the disciples the first time without any money or assets.13 This trust enables men to rest.14

Saving faith produces service to God by means of service to others.15 Jesus called this taking up the cross (Matt. 16:24).16 The bearing of burdens for the sake of the kingdom affirms eternity over time. But only future-oriented people can fully understand this affirmation. Covenant-breakers discount the value of eternity to close to zero. Present blessings are preferred too much to present sacrifice because future blessings are discounted too heavily. The more present-oriented a person is, the more steeply he discounts the present value of future income.

Wealth as a Tool of Dominion

Matthew's focus is the kingdom of God. This gospel calls men to repentance, service, and a reordering of their priorities. The kingdom is clearly both earthly and corporate. While the personal goal of service is eternal life, the kingdom itself is corporate. God's servants are part of a larger enterprise.

The message is conquest over adversity through personal subordination. This conquest is more than the subduing of individual sins. It is corporate. The tares and wheat grow together in the field of history. The goal of members of each kingdom should be to replace the other kingdom's influence.17

Then what of capital? If wealth is a lure to autonomy, how can God-fearing men safely accumulate capital? Only through commitment to the principle of service. Economic growth is inescapable in a social order that obeys God's laws. Jesus told the disciples that by men's fruits we shall know their character (Matt. 7:15-20). Good men produce good fruits.18 When applied to business, this principle means that serving the consumer to his satisfaction produces wealth.19 In a faithful society, the rich get richer, but so do the poor, even faster. Per capita wealth moves toward the mean: middle-class wealth. The means of this increase in wealth per capita is capital formation. But the motive for capital formation is the desire to increase one's wealth. Thus, the means of reducing poor people's poverty is the desire of investors to get richer.20

There seems to be a conflict here. Jesus praised sacrifice, warned again too much wealth, yet suggested that covenantal faithfulness will produce a kingdom victory. If wealth is to be avoided, but the kingdom is to be victorious in history, does this mean that this victory is exclusively spiritual, i.e., beyond per capita investment, even including tithe-funded missionaries' salaries? There are Christian traditions that affirm this. Are they correct?

Matthew must be read in terms of the first five books of the Bible. It is clear in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 that covenantal faithfulness produces social wealth, while covenantal rebellion produces poverty. Jesus did not break with this covenantal system of cause and effect, but He did not spend time teaching it, either. He was concerned with what happens when men achieve wealth: they forget God. That was Moses' concern, too (Deut. 8:17-18). This is the sin of autonomy.

Obedience to God is the key to personal success in history as well as kingdom success.21 But Jesus focused on kingdom expansion, not wealth expansion. He was so aware of the positive economic effects of tithing22 and using one's talents effectively23 that He felt compelled to warn men against the effects of covenantal self-discipline: wealth leading to the sin of autonomy. This was Moses' theme and Solomon's (Prov. 30:8-9).

All These Things

"Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?" (Matt. 6:31). These are the basics. What of shelter? It is not mentioned here. Yet building a house is basic to man's dominion. This is why God had Solomon build His house.

Is this passage a defense of a minimal lifestyle? Is it saying that the most we can hope for is food, drink, and clothing, and only after we seek the kingdom? In the modern industrial world, most people have these things. This was also true of Israel under the kingship. David wrote: "I have been young, and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread" (Ps. 37:25). Modern man has a great deal more than these things. Steady economic growth, year after year, has provided wealth undreamed of two centuries ago.

Are we to imagine that God has placed before us poverty as an ideal? Are we to seek no more than a poor man has in our day? Or are these three things — food, drink, and clothing — representative of all the comforts of home, including a home? I think the context indicates that this is the case. The kingdom of God is comprehensive. It encompasses everything. Therefore, the things promised are equally comprehensive.

Long-term economic growth is the cure for widespread poverty. Nothing else has ever worked. Charity ameliorates the conditions of a few, but it is limited by the resources of charitable people — always a minority. Economic growth provides sources of productivity and therefore income for an increasing population. What able-bodied, mentally capable poor people personally need for economic success is this: opportunity, self-discipline, a sense of personal responsibility, specialized knowledge, a work ethic, and future-orientation. What they need environmentally is this: a private property law-order, a high division of labor, high rates of investment, social peace, open markets.

Is the kingdom of God opposed to any of this? No. Does it promote wealth for all? Yes. Does it promote riches for all? No. Its view of riches is the same as Solomon's: riches can be hazardous to our spiritual health. Just as great beauty can be a temptation to the woman who possesses it,24 so is great wealth to its owner. In the distribution of wealth, the biblical model is the bell-shaped curse: not many wealthy and not many poor. The great bulge is the middle class.

What happens when the bell-shaped curve moves to the right along the line of wealth? Everyone gets richer. But because the increase is slow, most men do not perceive that they are gaining wealth. They adjust to it. They perceive ever-greater wealth as normal: their just deserts. Then covenant-breaking men are tempted to forget God. They attribute their wealth to themselves. When they do this, they depart from the source of their wealth. If their wealth increases after this, it becomes a snare to them and to the whole society. Negative sanctions will eventually be imposed by God.

Conclusion

The gospel of Matthew does not present the case for great wealth. It presents the case against wealth. Jesus set forth principles of obedience that produce wealth, according to the Mosaic law, yet He warned against personal wealth. This was not because wealth is achieved primarily through disobedience to God's law. It was because it is achieved through obedience. It then becomes a snare. This could also be said of great beauty, but beauty is not earned. It could be said of great political power, but this attainment is limited to a handful of people in history. Wealth is the more universally desired blessing, and more easily attained than the others. The only blessings to match its appeal are good health and long life — again, rarely believed to be attainable by one's efforts until the rise of the modern health movement, itself a product of unprecedented social wealth.25

The New Testament makes plain what was taught but not emphasized in the Old Testament about the dangers of wealth. Wealth can be a snare. It can lead men to seek autonomy. Solomon understood this. "The rich man's wealth is his strong city, and as an high wall in his own conceit" (Prov. 18:11). Wealth is the fruit of covenantal faithfulness that readily becomes a root of autonomy. "And thou say in thine heart, My power and the might of mine hand hath gotten me this wealth.But thou shalt remember the LORD thy God: for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth, that he may establish his covenant which he sware unto thy fathers, as it is this day" (Deut. 8:17-18). Jesus paid far more attention to this dilemma than Moses did, just as Moses paid more attention to the covenantal origins of wealth than Jesus did.

What was revolutionary about Jesus' teaching was His doctrine of the afterlife. Only in Daniel 12:1-3 and Job 19:25-27 do we find any Old Testament references to the resurrection. Jesus made clear the extent to which a person's participation in one of two kingdoms in history places him on one side or the other of impenetrable barriers between heaven and hell (Luke 16).

Footnotes:

1. There is no difference between the two.
2. Gary North, The Dominion Covenant: Genesis (2nd ed.; Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1987).
3. Archibald Hughes, in his book, A New Heaven and a New Earth (Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1958), does not discuss it. He deals only with the New Testament passages.
4. Chapter 1.
5. Chapter 4.
6. Chapter 23.
7. Chapter 19.
8. Chapter 17, Chapter 24.
9. Chapter 14.
10. Chapter 13, Chapter 28.
11. Chapter 27.
12. Chapter 15.
13. Chapter 22.
14. Chapter 25.
15. Chapter 5, Chapter 10, Chapter 41.
16. Chapter 35.
17. Chapter 29.
18. Chapter 18.
19. Chapter 41.
20. Chapter 27.
21. Chapter 6.
22. Chapter 15.
23. Chapter 45.
24. As a jewel of gold in a swine's snout, so is a fair woman which is without discretion" (Prov. 11:22).
25. The thought of paying for an expensive exercise club or exercise machine does not occur to peasants.

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