I think many Christians would be shocked by Jesus’ teaching about righteousness. Most Christians believe they just need to trust Jesus and really not much else. Sure they should avoid the really big sins but everyday sins are inevitable. Sinning is just part of life.
But Jesus says something very different from that. He says that without a righteousness greater than that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, we will certainly not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The righteousness He is talking about the righteousness we receive from Jesus when we first put our faith in Him. It is about obeying, and teaching other to obey, the word of God that has not changed and will not change – even in the tiniest detail – until “everything is accomplished”. It is the righteous lifestyle of Christian disciples. Do we, as Christians, believe that we are called to live radically righteous lives – or we will certainly not enter the Kingdom of heaven?
Last Tuesday, at the missional community, we looked at 1 John. John says that one of the main sign that we are Christians is obedience. We know that we don’t become Christians by our obedience. It has nothing to do with our works. Salvation is a free gift from God. But, people who are saved are expected to obey God.
Hannah suggested an analogy: it is like being invited into a kingdom. Entry is free but in that kingdom there are rules. Entry into the Kingdom of God is free. It is God’s gift to us when we put our faith in Jesus. Entry into the Kingdom is by God’s grace. But we cannot live in the Kingdom and disobey the King. Citizens of the Kingdom live by the laws of the Kingdom. The natural response of those who know they have been graciously given entry into the Kingdom (when they don’t deserve it) is to love the King, and God’s love language is obedience.
But God doesn’t stop being gracious once we are in the Kingdom. 2 Peter 1:3 says that God has given us everything we need to live a godly life. So, we have the scriptures; we have a relationship with Jesus; we have the Holy Spirit, teaching, guiding, transforming; we have each other, we have the church; we have other teachers: books, videos television, the internet… We have everything we need.
Jesus very clearly said, “The Law remains unchanged and obeying it and teaching others to obey it are critical.” It is not only a case of obeying God’s law but of teaching others to obey it. There again we see disciple-making. Teaching others to obey it is disciple-making. In the Great Commission, Jesus said, “and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Being disciples and making disciples are required by Jesus
Jesus also says in these words in Matthew 5 that He was not abolishing the Law but fulfilling it. He did fulfil it in that He perfectly kept it, but also, He shows us the fullness of God’s law.
The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law had built a lot of interpretation on the Law. They said, “Well what it really means is this.” When they did that they generally loosened the Law. They built in wriggle room. Jesus said, “No wriggling.” The righteousness God wants is radical.
That is what we see in the six examples that follow in Matthew 5. Each of these six topics is worth a thorough study. What does God say about anger? What is God’s standard regarding sex? What about marriage and divorce? What about the things we say and the promises we make? How should a Christian respond when he/she has been treated unjustly? Who does God want us to love?
Then the sermon goes on to deal with care for the needy, prayer and fasting, money, worry… really important issues. How are we to deal with broken relationships and hurts and money? The Sermon on the Mount is the manifesto of everyday life in the Kingdom of God. We will look at all of those issues but, today, I want us to see the general pattern revealed in these six examples in chapter 5.
All of them follow a formula. Jesus says, “You have heard that it is said” or similar wording. He then says, “But I tell you.” And then in five out of the six He gives some practical examples. “I tell you” reveals a truth. The examples then give practical, everyday expression to that truth.
At first glance it appears that Jesus is contradicting the Old Testament. He quotes from the Old Testament (“This is what you have heard”) but then says, “But I tell you”, as if Jesus’ teaching contradicts Moses’ teaching. Is Jesus contradicting the Old Testament and bringing new teaching?
He has just said that the Old Testament will not be changed in any way. So, if He is contradicting Moses, he is also immediately contradicting Himself! Jesus couldn’t in one breath say that the Law is good and is to be obeyed, and then in the very next breath, say that the Law is wrong. That would be nonsense.
Jesus often quoted the Old Testament. In the previous chapter, when He was being tempted by Satan, He quoted the Old Testament. Each time He said, “It is written”. Clearly Jesus believed that the Old Testament was the word of God. What God has inspired is truth.
But notice that in these six examples, He doesn’t say, “It is written”. He uses a different phrase: ‘You have heard that it was said…” He is not referring to the Law of Moses. He is referring to the interpretation of the Scribes and Pharisees. He is not contradicting the Law; He is contradicting their interpretation of the Law. Their wriggle-room version was wrong. God’s Law is radical and it stands.
Let’s look at the first one (vv.21-26). Jesus quotes them as saying “You shall not murder. A murder will be judged.” Jesus doesn’t disagree with that but He takes it further. The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law limited the application to the actual act of murdering someone. Jesus says, “No, don’t even be angry with someone. Don’t even show contempt for people or call them names.”
The Pharisees had reduced God’s word to one, very specific, and very serious action, but Jesus says it has a much fuller meaning than that. They reduced the Law. Jesus expanded it again to reflect God’s original intention. That is why the righteousness of Jesus’ followers is to surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees. Jesus didn’t do away with the Law; He gave it its true fullness. Murder is terribly serious but it starts in the heart and the same attitude is evident even when we are rude.
People today will sometimes say, “I am a good person. I haven’t murdered anybody. I haven’t robbed a bank.” That is the same attitude as the Pharisees had. Just avoid the really bad actions. Anything else is OK. But Jesus says, “No. Have you been angry? Have you shown contempt?”
The two practical examples have to do with our reactions when a relationship has been soured – when we have wronged someone or there is a dispute. Basically Jesus says, “Prioritise sorting it out and do it quickly. Don’t think you can be right with God if you are not right with others.”
I am sure you have questions. Really? Is anger equivalent to murder? Didn’t Jesus get angry with people? Why should I be the one to apologise first?
We will look at each of these issues in more detail. At the moment I just want us to get the bigger picture and to see how Jesus gave greater (not lesser) meaning to the Law and asked for a deeper righteousness.
In the next example, Jesus quoted the Pharisees as saying that a person shouldn’t commit adultery. Again, Jesus didn’t contradict that. He absolutely agrees with that. But He said, “It is not just about the act. It is about the desire. Enjoying and feeding the desire is as bad as committing the act.”
Imagine the reaction of the Pharisees. “This law is way tougher than we thought. We thought we could enjoy the desire as long as we didn’t actually carry it out.” Nuh! Enjoying the desire isn’t godly.
See how serious Jesus is about this much more radical righteousness. If you eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Please don’t go home and do that! Jesus is not literally teaching self-mutilation, but what is He saying? He is saying that sin is serious – deadly serious – and actually, you would be better to enter heaven eye-less than enter hell whole. He is right. He is saying, ‘Take drastic action to get out of the situation that is tempting you.”
Third example: marriage and divorce. Did Moses allow divorce and Jesus ban it? No, Jesus gave one ground for divorce: sexual immorality. He wasn’t disagreeing with Moses. He was challenging the laxness of the Pharisees who said that a man could divorce his wife for any reason as long as he gave her a certificate of divorce. Jesus said divorce for any lesser reason than infidelity means that that woman, and any man who marries her, commits adultery.
Again there are questions. Can Christians divorce? Can divorced people get remarried? They will have to wait until we look at each example in detail.
And so it goes on. The Pharisees said that people must not break the oaths they have made but it appears that they had again reduced the Law. It seems that they taught that if they had made a vow in the name of God, it should not be broken but if they had made it in the name of something else, such as heaven or earth or even their own head, then they were not bound by it. Again, Jesus challenges their laxity; their attempts to get around the Law. The Law is much fuller than that and true righteousness is much deeper.
We live in an age of laxity when it comes to morals. People want fewer and fewer things to be wrong. Is Jesus on the side of greater freedom and reducing the Law? No, Jesus is on the side of greater and deeper righteousness.
The Pharisees quoted “eye for eye and tooth for tooth” to justify revenge. Jesus said, “No. Actually, go the other way. Rather than taking revenge, give more.” The Pharisees were misusing that Law anyway but we will come to that another day.
Lastly, Jesus quoted the teaching that said, “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” That should alert us to the fact that He was challenging the Pharisees’ distortions of the Law – not the Law itself. The Old Testament nowhere says, “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” Where had they got that bit about hating enemies? That was their own addition to God’s Law.
Jesus says, “Take your example from God. God is good to both the good and the evil. You do the same.”
We do have to look at this teaching in more detail. It is profound and we need to know how we are to live it out if this is the level of righteousness Jesus asks of His people.
In the meantime, do you agree that Jesus reveals the true intent of the Law which is far more demanding than the Pharisees’ version? When God said “Don’t do something”, they narrowed the restrictions. “Well it really only means the most serious actions. Everything else is OK.”
And when God said they could do something, they broadened it. God made provision for divorce but only in limited circumstances but they broadened it so that divorce could be for anything. God said they could expect repayment when they had been wronged but it was limited: an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth. But they broadened it so as to allow much greater revenge. Jesus took them back to the original intention.
And do you agree that Jesus requires a much deeper righteousness from His people?
What level of righteousness did Jesus exhibit? Did Jesus harbour lustful thoughts? Was Jesus volatile and rude to people? Did Jesus make promises but with His fingers crossed behind His back so that He didn’t have to keep them? Did Jesus hate His enemies?
Followers of Jesus are called to that deeper righteousness. Are we living that radical, Christ-like righteousness? God is a God of grace. He welcomes us by His grace and He equips us for living by His grace but we have to receive that grace and live out that life. Are we?