People are experts at justifying themselves. Let me repeat that. People are experts at justifying themselves. Human beings have a unique ability to convince themselves that no matter what they have done they are “okay.” Think about it. How many times have you heard, “Well it wasn’t the best choice, but it will be okay.” Or “Yes I know I shouldn’t have done such and so, but it’s okay. It’s not like I do that all the time.” God has given people creative minds, and we tend to use our powers for evil and not good.
It seems we are most creative when we are convincing ourselves that we are good enough.
It seems that no matter what happens to us, most people have this keen ability to make themselves feel better. But if you notice carefully, the self-delusional part always has to do with one thing. When people excuse themselves or justify the things that happen to them or their behavior, they are refusing to recognize that someone else has a standard that they didn’t measure up to.
When the college turns you down – hey, face it, you didn’t meet their standard. When the swim team cut you – hey, you weren’t fast enough. When you didn’t get the promotion – hey, you weren’t expert enough. When you failed the proficiency exam – face it, you didn’t understand the material well enough. When you were denied the loan – maybe you do have bad credit. But we hate that. It’s too painful to deal with, so we justify ourselves. “Oh, she doesn’t know what good is.” “Oh, they just don’t like technical managers.” “The test just asked the wrong questions.” “Everyone has a lot of debt these days.”
Sadly, the way people justify themselves in their public lives, they also justify themselves in their spiritual and personal lives. When you examine their justifications for their lack of personal righteousness, you find that the standard of these justifications are as individual as the people making them. It seems at times that we are living in the days of the judges again, and we can say that “everyone does what is right in his own eyes.” We could add “and is convinced that it is the right thing to do!” People have taken their own ideas about what righteousness and godliness are and have decided that they will live as consistently as possible with them.
One of the major problems of the post-modern mindset is that people have lost the desire to appeal to a standard outside of themselves for personal righteousness. Those that have the desire are not able because no one wants to set up a standard for fear of imposing on anyone else. And so people drift. They make up their own standard, compare themselves to it, and surprise, surprise, they usually measure up! That’s one of the best features of your own personal standard of righteousness; it is custom-made to fit your idiosyncrasies. We could better say “idiot-syncrasies” because it is plain lunacy to think we can come up with our own standard and that it is of any significant value.
Why are our standards for personal righteousness flawed? One reason is because we are flawed. But another reason has to do with the way we practice our standard. Human beings tend to like lists of rules. Why? Because they can be checked off. We like lists of rules because we can put them in our “Franklin Planner” or our “Palm device,” and when we have done them, it feels good to check them off. Nothing feels better than checking off a good deed. The problem is that lists of righteousness are dangerous because a list has the uncanny ability to make me feel righteous simply because I’ve checked off something. Hear that again. The simple act of checking something off of a list makes me feel like I’ve arrived, if only for a moment.
Think about it. No one writes on their list, “Love my wife today.” Why? Because it violates one of the basic time management principles for task making. A task must be measurable. Well, how do I measure love? As soon as I ask that question, my mind says, “Well, maybe you should do the dishes.” So I do the dishes, and my wife doesn’t feel more loved. I tell her I love her as I’m walking out the door. But she doesn’t look more loved when I come back home. So I change the task. Instead of saying, “Love my wife,” it says, “Give Julie flowers.” Aha! I can measure that. I can DO that, and when I do it, I tell myself I love her. Love is a good example because there are many things a husband can do for his wife simply because he has to, but without doing them because he loves her and vice versa. Why do these things consistently fail to produce the expected results? It comes down to the heart. If the heart is not in it, love is not kindled. Flowers wilt, and dishes get dirty again, so unless these activities are done from a loving heart, their effect is minimal. Likewise in the spiritual arena, if the heart is not in it, obedience to God’s standard for personal righteousness rather than our own righteousness is not attained. We can always find a way to excuse ourselves.
When it comes to personal righteousness, when it comes to living a life that is pleasing to God, when it comes to following Jesus Christ, it is the heart that matters. Remember this: Checklists flatter, but it’s the heart that matters. As we consider Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, we see that He is focusing His divine spotlight on the behavior of those who would follow Him. In verses 5:17-20, the text for this lesson, He zeros in on their motivation for following.
Let’s take a brief look at the context of our passage, Matthew 5:17-20. The Beatitudes come before in verses 1-12, and they summarize the characteristic attitudes of those who would follow Jesus. They represent ideals to strive for: spiritual (physical poverty), grief, meekness, starving for righteousness, mercy, pure, peacemakers, persecuted. Some of the people following Jesus already had those attitudes, while others were being encouraged to take them up. These are attitudes and behaviors that will characterize the life of a follower of Christ.
These attitudes immediately raise a question. Why live like this? Let’s face it. Who really wants to be meek? One reason is that it makes us salty in a bland world. Too often, we taste just like the world, and folks, the world doesn’t taste very good. Oh, it looks good, but like bad BBQ, the sauce can only cover so much.
So Jesus gave His disciples the justification for a salty life. Live this way so people can taste it. Why be salty; why be bright? “So that they can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven”173 (Matthew 5:16). Notice our good deeds are an opportunity to gain honor for our father in heaven! Why be merciful? For God’s honor. Why be pure? For God’s honor. Why make a million bucks, but live like you make $50,000? For God’s honor. Why be meek in a world that says, “Hey, you have the right!”? For God’s honor! Paul echoes this theme in Titus when he says:
11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all people. 12 It trains us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 as we wait for the happy fulfillment of our hope in the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. 14 He gave himself for us to set us free from every kind of lawlessness and to purify for himself a people who are truly his, who are eager to do good (Titus 2:11-14).
In the next chapter, Paul goes on to say:
This saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on such truths, so that those who have placed their faith in God may be intent on engaging in good works. These things are good and beneficial for all people (Titus 3:8).
The teaching of our Lord is that the life of someone who claims to follow God should be characterized by these attitudes and behaviors. The problem was that Jesus didn’t quite teach like others around Him, and it shocked people. All this talk about meekness, poverty, and persecution seems to have provoked a question in the minds of Jesus’ listeners:
Jesus’ answer is very clear. In verse 17, He says: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish but to fulfill.”
When Jesus says, “Do not think … ,” we can assume that there are people who were thinking exactly that, that He was bringing something entirely new. His teaching was so radical, so antithetical to what they had come to believe that Jesus seemed to be turning established tradition on its ear. The people believed that the Law of Moses was the unique possession of the Jews. To repeal it would have seemed to be blasphemy.
These people would have appreciated nothing more than for Jesus to be teaching some kind of new, wild-eyed doctrine so that they could characterize it as “new” and then dismiss it. But Jesus doesn’t allow them this option. Instead, He teaches then that He stands directly in line with the Law and the Prophets. How does He stand in line with them? He fulfills them.
If you’re thinking with an inquisitive mind, you should immediately ask yourself, “Okay, that sounds clear, but what does ‘fulfill’ mean?” The interpretations of the meaning of “fulfill” in Matthew 5:17 basically fall into three categories.174
1) Some understand that Jesus came to do the Law, and this is a statement that His actions fulfill the righteous requirement of the Law. The problem is that Jesus’ teaching is in view here, not His actions. Notice at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, the people were “amazed by his teaching because he taught them like one who had authority, not like their experts in the law” (Matthew 7:28b-29).
2) Others understand that Jesus fulfills the Law in that He completes it. This is to say they understand the word translated “fulfill” to mean complete in the sense of revealing its true intentions. This option is certainly there, but there is more to “fulfill” in Matthew than just explaining the Law.175
3) Others suggest that Jesus came to support the Law, that is, to tell people to obey it.
4) A fourth and preferable option becomes clear as we look at how Matthew has used the idea of fulfillment up to this point.
Beginning in the first chapter of his Gospel, Matthew has taken great pains to point to Jesus as the Christ, who came in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Jesus did not descend from heaven unannounced to a people who had no inkling of His appearance. No! For Matthew, the birth and early life of Christ were predicted centuries before His arrival, and when He appeared, He fulfilled all that was spoken of Him.
Look carefully at the first four chapters of Matthew:
1. 1:22-23. “This all happened so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled: ‘Look a virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him Emmanuel…’” [a quotation from Isaiah 7:14].
2. 2:4-6. Speaking of Herod the Great: “After assembling all the chief priests and experts in the Law he asked them where the Christ was to be born. ‘In Bethlehem of Judea,’ they said, ‘for it is written this way by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are in no way least among the rulers of Judah, for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel’” [a quotation from Micah 5:2].
3. 2:15. “Then he got up, took the child and his mother at night, and went to Egypt. He stayed there until Herod died. In this way what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet was fulfilled: ‘I called my Son out of Egypt’” [a quotation from Hosea 11:1].
4. 2:17. “Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah weeping and loud wailing, Rachel weeping for her children, and she did not want to be comforted, because they were gone’” [a quotation from Jeremiah 31:15].
5. 3:3. Speaking of John the Baptist: “For he is the one who was spoken of by Isaiah the prophet, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, prepare the way for the Lord, make his paths straight’” [a quotation from Isaiah 40:3].
6. 4:12-16. “Now when Jesus heard that John had been imprisoned, he went into Galilee. While in Galilee, he moved from Nazareth to make his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by Isaiah the prophet would be fulfilled: ‘Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way by the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles – the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, and on those sitting in the region and the shadow of death a light has dawned’” [a quotation from Isaiah 9:1-2].
Notice that Matthew has been laying the foundation for this fulfillment theme throughout the first four chapters, so when Jesus says He came to fulfill, Matthew wants us to understand the statement in light of what has come before. That is to say that the Law and the Prophets pointed to Him prophetically. So how could people think that He came to get rid of the Law and the Prophets? They point to Christ, and Jesus is aware that His ministry fulfills all that was spoken before. Remember Luke 24:44:
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44).
How long do you think that conversation was? Three minutes? Oh, what I wouldn’t give for a sound bite from that conversation! Imagine, to hear Jesus, the Messiah Himself, open the Old Testament and say, “See here, I’m the Man!”
Now it is true that often in Scripture, words have more than one meaning and may carry additional significance, and this passage is no different. Yes, without a doubt, the Law and the Prophets point to Jesus. But there is more here because the focus in the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ authority to teach and make claims on the lives of His followers. In doing so, He explains to them precisely what the Law and the Prophets intended. Our passage today functions as a preamble to Matthew 5:27-48, where Jesus lays out in clear fashion what the Law expected all along. You know those passages: “You have heard it said … but I say to you.” The emphasis there is on Jesus’ authoritative teaching in contrast to the teaching of the day, which depended heavily on evaluating what others before them had said. Instead, Jesus comes and declares what the Word of God means and appeals to no one but Himself. But a careful look will show that He is not really teaching anything novel; rather He stands in line with what Moses and the Prophets taught. And what did they teach? They taught that a life lived righteously before God must be lived in heartfelt obedience.
I agree with a teacher friend of mine who has said that the righteousness Jesus is primarily talking about here is the righteousness followers of Jesus are to live out. Jesus is not discussing the righteousness imputed to us because of His work on the cross. We find that theme in other places, but here in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ primary focus is on those who claim to be His disciples. And His point, as in the Book of James, is simple: if you would follow Me, your lifestyle matters!
Notice please the emphasis on proper living in the Sermon on the Mount. We call the first 12 verses the beatitudes because we expect Christians to strive to “be” like them. Notice verses 5:13-16, the passage Colin McDougal will teach in the next lesson. As we’ve mentioned already, the theme is summarized in verse 16: “Let your light shine before people, so that they can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven.” Notice the passages that follow verse 20. There the focus will be on avoiding murder, not committing adultery, not getting divorced, not swearing, not retaliating, and loving your enemies. All of these are behaviors Jesus is commending – no, commanding – to His audience.
Matthew 6 opens with the statement: “Be careful about not living righteously merely to be seen by people. Otherwise you will have no reward with your father in heaven.” Matthew 7 ends with the injunction: “Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven, only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” Notice many people will come to Him having “done” many things in His name, but what is Jesus’ response? “I never knew you. Go away from me you law breakers!” (Matthew 7:23). He then goes on to say, “Whoever hears these words of mine and does them is like a wise man… [but] who ever hears these words and does not do them is like a foolish man” (emphasis mine). The entire Sermon on the Mount is taken up largely with the theme of how followers of Jesus should live. My teacher friend pleads with us to remove the barriers to obedience. I would add my voice to that plea and say, “Do not think to yourself that you are already righteous enough. Yes, of course, positionally the Christ has become your righteousness, BUT Jesus is calling you to live that righteousness out in your life.” Paul echoes this theme when he answers the ridiculous question, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” (referring to Romans 6:1). Of course not.
So let’s be clear that neither Jesus nor I are teaching a works salvation. Instead, and I think the witness of Scripture is clear here, the life of the follower of Jesus will reflect the righteousness of the Savior.
After declaring that He came to fulfill, or in fulfillment of the Law, Jesus proceeds to affirm the value of the Law. Notice carefully verse 18: “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place.” This statement confirms the fact that Jesus came in fulfillment of the Law. We don’t often think about the Law as prefiguring Christ, but the writer of Hebrews shows us that it does. In addition, there are prophecies in the Law that look forward to the coming of Messiah and His work. What’s more, the Law contains prophecies about the punishment and restoration of Israel. All these things must take place.
We have the idea that only the prophets could prophesy. We look at the Law of Moses and see a piece of legal material that only a lawyer could love. We see a text as “dry as toast and only half as tasty.” But I plead with you, look carefully at the revelation of God to Moses, and you will see that it points to Christ.
It is easy for us to see how the prophets point to Him, but it is a little harder for us to see how the Law does the same thing. There are three ways in which the Law points to Christ:
1. There are prophecies in the Torah about the Coming One (Genesis 3:15; Genesis 49:10; Numbers 24:17; Deuteronomy 18:18). These passages function like words of the commonly recognized prophets.
2. Another way the Law points to Jesus is in the symbols and ritual of the Israelite religious system. This can most clearly be seen in the sacrifices. I don’t think anyone would doubt that when John said in John 1:29, “[Behold] the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” that he was thinking about anything other than the pure, spotless lambs that Israel sacrificed over, and over, and over.
3. But there is a third way that people neglect. The teaching function of the Law also points to Christ’s teaching ministry. Notice the end of the Sermon on the Mount. The people were amazed at His teaching. Notice throughout the Sermon that Jesus doesn’t appeal to the authority of the Law. He appeals to His own authority as One who speaks the words of God. In many respects, the scene of the Sermon on the Mount was prefigured by the events at Sinai. There Moses went up, came down, and taught Israel. Here Jesus also ascends a mountain and teaches Israel gathered at His feet.
If it seems difficult that events which are not prophetic can be understood as “foreshadowing” events in the life of Christ, look at Matthew 2:15 and see how a statement of historical fact in Hosea can be construed by Matthew to be a prophetic statement.
It is not only prophecies that look forward, but events do as well. Perhaps the greatest “prophetic event” is the Exodus. That great deliverance prefigures the salvation that we have experienced and will experience completely in heaven. On the day when the redeemed gather together before the throne, they will sing an old, old song. The Song of Moses!176
So Jesus the Christ stands here before His disciples and proclaims the enduring quality of the Law by saying that all of it must come to pass. Please don’t get distracted by the little bits of the letters – the jots, or titles. It is true that Jesus is referring to the smallest letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the smallest portion of a letter, but these are simply illustrations, hyperbole, exaggeration, to make His point. What is His point? “God’s revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai points to Me, and every last bit of it will be fulfilled!” It’s like Maxwell House coffee, “Good to the last drop.”
Therefore, He says in verses 19-20:
Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do this will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches others to do so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:19-20).
What is Jesus doing here? Is He taking us back to some kind of obedience to the Law as a means of salvation? No! But He is focusing His lens on the connection between faithful, heartfelt obedience and those who assume they will have a position in the kingdom because of their own home-made, self-justifying righteousness.
If His disciples believed that they could earn a place in the kingdom by legalistic, self-justification, instead of with heartfelt obedience to God, they were wrong. That attitude has no part in the kingdom. Instead, kingdom righteousness requires what the Law itself required. It requires heartfelt obedience characterized by the love of God.
Now pay careful attention here. Let me say it again. Please do not put words in my mouth or attribute things to me which I am not saying. JESUS IS NOT SAYING THAT YOU MUST EARN YOUR WAY INTO THE KINGDOM BY BEING MORE RIGHTEOUS THAN THE SCRIBES AND PHARISEES. INSTEAD, HIS FOCUS IS ON THOSE WHO THOUGHT THAT THEIR RIGHTEOUSNESS, HOME-MADE AS IT WAS, COULD GAIN THEM ENTRANCE SIMPLY BECAUSE THEY DID SOME WORKS. JESUS’ POINT IS THAT, ON THE CONTRARY, RIGHTEOUSNESS CHARACTERIZED BY HEARTFELT OBEDIENCE IS THE ONLY KIND THAT IS WORTH ANYTHING AT ALL.
Jesus’ point is not to talk about the imputed righteousness that we are so familiar with from Romans and Galatians. Instead, Jesus speaks in the context of the covenant between God and Israel. That covenant demanded heartfelt obedience just like Jesus does:
Please notice Deuteronomy 6:4-5, which became one, if not the central, passage in Israel’s religion: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one, and your shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength” (NKJV).
So realize that the LORD your God is the true God, the faithful God who keeps covenant faithfully with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations (Deuteronomy 7:9).
Now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you except to revere him, to obey all his commandments, to love him, to serve him with all your mind and being (Deuteronomy 10:12).
19 Today I invoke heaven and earth as a witness against you that I have set life and death, blessing and curse, before you. Therefore choose life so that you and your descendants may live! 20 I also call on you to love the LORD your God, to obey him and be loyal to him, for he gives you life and enables you to live continually in the land the LORD promised to give to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20).
But Israel didn’t really love God from the heart. Instead, they quickly turned from Him and from His standard of righteousness to their own. Oh, it looked like it was God’s righteousness, but major surgery had been performed on it. Its heart had been removed! And as the nation justified itself and changed God’s standard from one of heartfelt obedience to a set of things Israel could do like so many items on a checklist, they fell further and further away from the Lord. When God sent the Prophets to them, their consistent theme was, “Tear your hearts, not your garments!”
Notice the charge of the Prophets, that “religion” is not the same thing as living righteously before the Lord. You cannot make up your own standard and then present that before the Lord as a righteous life.
10 Listen to the LORD’s word, you leaders of Sodom! Pay attention to our God’s rebuke, people of Gomorrah! 11 “Of what importance to me are your many sacrifices?” says the LORD. “I am stuffed with burnt sacrifices of rams and the fat from steers. The blood of bulls, lambs, and goats I do not want. 12 When you enter my presence, do you actually think I want this – animals trampling on my courtyards? 13 Do not bring any more meaningless offerings; I consider your incense detestable. You observe new moon festivals, Sabbaths, and convocations, but I cannot tolerate sin-stained celebrations. 14 I hate your new moon festivals and assemblies; they are a burden that I am tired of carrying. 15 When you spread out your hands in prayer, I look the other way; when you offer your many prayers, I do not listen, because your hands are covered with blood. 16 Wash! Cleanse yourselves! Remove your sinful deeds from my sight. Stop sinning! 17 Learn to do what is right! Promote justice! Give the oppressed reason to celebrate! Take up the cause of the orphan! Defend the rights of the widow! (Isaiah 1:10-17).
13 The sovereign master says, “These people say they are loyal to me; they say wonderful things about me, but they are not really loyal to me. Their worship consists of nothing but man-made ritual. 14 Therefore I will again do an amazing thing for these people – an absolutely extraordinary deed. Wise men will have nothing to say, the sages will have no explanations” (Isaiah 29:13, 14).
6 With what should I enter the LORD’s presence? With what should I bow before the sovereign God? Should I enter his presence with burnt offerings, with year-old calves? 7 Will the LORD accept a thousand rams, or ten thousand streams of olive oil? Should I give him my firstborn child as payment for my rebellion, my own flesh and blood descendant for my sin? 8 He has told you, O man, what is proper, and what the LORD really wants from you: He wants you to promote justice, to be faithful, and to live obediently before your God (Micah 6:6-8).
21 “I absolutely despise your festivals. I get no pleasure from your religious assemblies. 22 Even if you offer me burnt and grain offerings, I will not be satisfied; I will not look with favor on your peace offerings of fattened calves. 23 Take away from me your noisy songs; I don’t want to hear the music of your stringed instruments. 24 Justice must flow like water, right actions like a stream that never dries up. 25 You did not bring me sacrifices and grain offerings during the forty years you spent in the wilderness, family of Israel. 26 You will pick up your images of Sikkuth, your king, and Kiyyun, your star god, which you made for yourselves, 27 and I will drive you into exile beyond Damascus,” says the LORD. He is called the God who leads armies! (Amos 5:21-27).
“I wish that one of you would close the temple doors, so that you no longer would light useless fires on my altar. I am not pleased with you,” says the sovereign LORD, “and I will no longer accept an offering from you (Malachi 1:10).
The heart cry of these verses shows us that God always intended Israel to obey Him out of their love for Him. Please do not misunderstand me here. God intended Israel to obey Him out of their love for Him. He never expected them to simply adhere to the letter of the Law. As the testimony of the prophets shows us, when they tried that number, they inevitably began to believe they were genuinely righteous SIMPLY BECAUSE THEY HAD DONE THE LETTER OF THE LAW. So Malachi can say to them, “You hate the Lord’s table.” And they respond, “How? We keep the food on it.” And Malachi responds, “In your hearts you believe it is a weariness.” They were keeping the commandments, but their hearts had been sold on the black market.
Sadly, decades in exile did not cure the nation of this sin. In fact, although it cured them of rank idolatry, it only forced them deeper into ritualistic law keeping. They completely ignored the true message of Malachi. They recognized that God punished them for not keeping the Law, so they elevated it to the level of God and began keeping it according to their own standard.
The issue is not that they made the Law more doable. The Law was already doable. Note carefully now. Perfection through personal effort was not attainable. But God had provided WITHIN the Law a means for the imperfections of Israel to be covered by grace – the sacrifices. That’s why Moses can say in Deuteronomy 30:11-14:
11 This commandment I am giving you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it too remote. 12 It is not in heaven, as though one must say, “Who will go up to heaven to get it for us and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 13 And it is not across the sea, as though one must say, “Who will cross over to the other side of the sea and get it for us and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 14 For the thing is very near you--it is in your mouth and mind so that you can do it (Deuteronomy 30:11-14).
God intended the Israelites to keep the Law. And that meant striving for the standard of the Father, humbly offering sacrifices, and calling on the grace of God for forgiveness when the inevitable sins were committed.
No, the problem was not that the Pharisees made the Law more doable, but that they changed the standard by which righteousness was evaluated. Whereas, in the Law, the standard was God the Father (Leviticus 19:2): “You must be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.”177 The Pharisees said, “No, we will decide what holiness means, and we decide that keeping the rules will suffice!”
We see hints of this in the New Testament. Notice Jesus’ words in Luke 18:9: “Jesus also told this parable to some who were confident that they were righteous and looked down on everyone else.”
These people justified themselves. The greatest treatise on these folks is Matthew 23. The point is that they had taken the law of Moses and elevated keeping it to the standard of righteousness. In addition, rather than keeping it, they created a body of tradition around it that allowed them to actually avoid doing what the Law commanded.
Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the Corban controversy in Mark 7:5-11:
5 The Pharisees and the experts in the law asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with unwashed hands?” 6 He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied correctly about you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. 7 They worship me in vain, teaching as doctrine the commandments of men.’ 8 Having no regard for the command of God, you hold fast to human tradition.” 9 He also said to them, “You neatly reject the commandment of God in order to set up your tradition. 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever insults his father or mother must be put to death.’ 11 But you say that if anyone tells his father or mother, ‘Whatever help you would have received from me is corban’ (that is, a gift for God)” (Mark 7:5-11).
What was the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees? It was a self-justifying righteousness. It was righteousness on human terms. It was God’s righteousness watered down and doctored with a non-sugar substitute. Oh, it was sweet, but it rotted your spiritual teeth.
So what does Jesus do? He forces His disciples to learn that the righteousness that must characterize His followers must be a different kind of “righteousness.” It must be better than that of the scribes and Pharisees. How must it be better? It must spring from the heart.
Jesus told the young lawyer in Matthew 22:37: “Jesus said to him, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’” Jesus identified this as the greatest commandment. Why? Because if the heart was right, out of it would flow a life that would be pleasing to God. For as Jesus said in Matthew 15:18, it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but what comes out of the heart.
James, Jesus’ brother, is going to pick up this theme in his short book when he discusses the relationship between faith and works.
But also notice this was the cry of the prophets as well:
31 “Indeed, a time is coming,” says the LORD, “when I will make a new agreement with the people of Israel and Judah. 32 It will not be like the old agreement that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and led them out of Egypt. For they violated that agreement, even though I was a faithful husband to them,” says the LORD. 33 But I will make a new agreement with the whole nation of Israel after I plant them back in the land,” says the LORD. “I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts and minds. And I will be their God and they will be my people” (Jeremiah 31:31-33).
“I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit within you; I will take the initiative and you will obey my statutes19 and carefully observe my laws.” (Ezekiel 36:26, 27).
Praise the Lord that when it comes to our salvation, Christ accomplished that work on the cross. And now He calls believers to follow Him and let our good works shine before men so that God might get the glory.
We must ask ourselves, as believers here today who claim to follow Jesus, are our lives characterized by righteousness that comes from the heart, or are we justifying ourselves and lowering God’s standard to simple law keeping?
When we give thanks to God for our food, does that thanksgiving come from a heart that is genuinely thankful for the provision God has given, or are we doing something Christians should do to avoid choking?
When we break bread together, are we really remembering Christ, or are we doing what people who go to churches like ours do on Sunday morning?
When we give, do we give with a genuine sense that all that we have belongs to the Lord? When I give, I’m not giving back to Him a part of what He has given me. No, when I give, I am managing His money the way a banker manages an account.
When I refuse to give that homeless person five dollars because he might spend it on liquor but then use that as an excuse to never give to the poor, I have to ask myself, am I falling into the same trap as the Pharisees?
When I can’t seem to find very many sins in my life to confess because I am ignorant of my own sinfulness, but I confess anyway just in case, does that really demonstrate heartfelt contrition?
Do I pat myself on the back for not killing my brother, but nurse hatred against him anyway? Do I refuse to go speak with him as Scripture commands, but tell myself it’s okay because I haven’t killed him?
Do I justify dishonesty in my business dealings because that customer is not a Christian? Or because I go to church? Or because I’ll confess it later?
Do I justify my lack of engagement with the world or the body of Christ because my family comes first? Do I neglect my family because the “work of the Lord” comes first?
What does righteousness look like at the university? Do I justify my wild behavior by saying, “Well, I’m doing this to get to know them better, so I can witness to them?”
Brothers and sisters, we could come up with many, many more questions to ask, but they all would find their center in one question: Am I loving the Lord my God with all my heart and soul and strength? That life will bring great glory to Him. That is better righteousness.
In closing, one commentator writes:
“The righteousness of which Christ speaks is not the righteousness of life over against the righteousness of faith but the righteousness of life as manifesting the righteousness of faith. The Sermon on the Mount sets forth the genuine works of faith in Christ in contrast with all other so-called works.”178
172 Copyright © 2005 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 18 in the Studies in the Gospel of Matthew series prepared by Steven H. Sanchez on June 22, 2003. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.
173 All Scripture from the NET Bible, BETA 2, Biblical Studies Press, 1994, unless otherwise noted.
174 See D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 8 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: The Zondervan Corp., 1984), p 143, for a nice breakdown. He takes the view that Jesus fulfills the law in that it points to Him like so much prophecy.
175 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992) p. 108.
176 Isaiah 2:3; Psalms 25:4-5, 12; 27:11; 32:8; 34:11; 45:4; 51:13; 86:11; 90:12; 94:12; 105:22, 119; 132:12; 143:10; Jeremiah 31:34; Micah 4:2.
177 Leviticus 20:7, 26; 1 Peter 1:15-16.
178 R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Augsburg Publishing House, 1943).