MESSAGE for Sunday, June 14, 2009, Matthew 5:17-20
This week, we pick up where
we left off last time in the fifth chapter of Matthew where Jesus says in verse 17, "17 "Do not think
that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. Jesus
follows that statement with a word of explanation, 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away,
not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished." Last time, we discussed this teaching
and saw some of what it means. We saw that this statement gives us insight into how we should understand the Old
Testament. Jesus does not distance himself from the Old Testament-he fully endorses it. More than that, he said
that he is the fulfillment or, as we saw-he is the goal or purpose of all Old Testament teaching. That means that
although Jesus profoundly embraces all Old Testament truth, he also has the right to significantly reinterpret
the Law at many points. We looked specifically at the way his death on the cross rendered invalid all the laws
surrounding the Jewish sacrificial system. We noted that he radically re-interpreted the Old Testament Jewish food
laws. He also eliminated all of national Israel's Old Testament civil laws when in Matthew 21 he expands the kingdom
of God beyond the borders of national Israel to include the Gentiles.
We saw that at the heart of what it means for Jesus to fulfill the Law and the Prophets is that he perfectly and completely embodies in his life and teaching all the righteousness, all the truth of God expressed in the Old Testament. Jesus is what the Law and Prophets were pointing to as they preliminarily expressed God's righteousness, grace and truth. When, in eternity past, God conceived of his redemptive plan--Jesus was at the absolute center of that plan. Everything else-the Law and prophets are echoes that reverberate out from Jesus. To put it another way--Jesus is the substance-the reality of righteousness and all the Old Testament is the glorious shadow of righteousness that he casts and which calls us to trace that shadow back to him. As we saw last time, we must hear the stunning centrality of Christ to the Bible. Because Jesus did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it-to be the purpose or goal of the law, not an "iota, not a dot, will pass from it until all is accomplished." That means that every bit of the law that continues to express the righteousness of Christ as taught in the New Testament is still valid and must by God's grace be obeyed.
At some point in the future, this "pointing-to-Jesus" function of the Law will no longer be necessary. That is-when "all is accomplished" as Jesus says in verse 18. That is when Christ's righteousness will be fully manifest in his new creation, when it will be the pervasive and sole influence expressed in the completely redeemed creation, when all the Old Testament promises and prophecies are fulfilled, when all that is fallen and drenched with sin is either redeemed or condemned, when death is completely swallowed up in life-THEN, the Law's function will no longer be necessary. Then, as Paul says in the resurrection chapter, God will be all in all-his rule will be over all things and that rule will fully and comprehensively express the righteousness of God found in Jesus Christ. That's what Jesus means when he says that the Law will not pass away "until all is accomplished."
Now, let's move into more of what this means to us as we continue with verse 19. Jesus says, "Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven." This verse must be read in the light of what it means for Jesus to fulfill the law. If you don't understand what it means for Jesus to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, then you may take this verse to mean that you must keep all 613 Old Testament laws down to the smallest detail. Jesus is clearly speaking of those commandments that are consistent with his righteousness in this new era of the kingdom he inaugurated. We see his law-fulfilling righteousness fleshed out in what he taught and lived and in what the rest of the New Testament further explains and fleshes out for us.
This expression of righteousness which marks the new era of the Kingdom of God must not be relaxed. We could state the gist of Jesus' teaching this way. The radical nature of righteousness that marks life within the kingdom of God must not be minimized if we want to want to honor God fully. That is, the radical nature of the righteousness which is to mark life in the kingdom of God must not be domesticated or tamed down through compromise. The sharp edges of God's call to holiness must not be rounded off to be more user friendly. The righteousness that is to mark the life a person in the kingdom of God must demand an explanation and the only explanation possible is Jesus-all that he is and all that he has done for us.
Here's this truth in context. The Old Testament-the Law and the Prophets laid down the righteousness of God in propositional truth as it applied to national Israel as they waited for their Messiah King. When their Messiah King came, Jesus fulfilled all that righteousness. His life and teaching fully embodied that righteousness of God expressed in the Old Testament and which pointed to him. Now, those who have placed their trust in Christ, have been supernaturally born again into this kingdom and have been redeemed by his blood are called to express, through their holy lives this same law-fulfilling, righteousness of Christ to a dark and lost world. We have been given the Holy Spirit through our New Covenant relationship with God so that we can by God's grace do that. Romans 8:3-4 says, "3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, [he did all that work on the cross…] 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit."
Those in Christ can live in a way as to fulfill the law because we do not have to walk in the power of the fallen, sinful flesh, but in the power of the Holy Spirit. And we know that the central requirement of the law-around which everything else orbits--is love. Romans 13:10 says, "Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law." So, Christ fulfilled the law and we are to fulfill the law through Christ-like love, which we can now show because we have been given the Holy Spirit. Love is such a large concept-how can we know what this kind of law-fulfilling love looks like? Jesus tells us that love is all of what he lived and taught--down to the "least of [his] commandments." The expression of kingdom righteousness is Christ-like, Holy Spirit empowered love and that love is absolutely radical-it is far, far, far more demanding that any list of rules and regulations to which people wrongly reduce the Law.
That's why Jesus warns against relaxing these commandments. You'll notice he doesn't warn against anyone "who tightens" these commandments. You can't get any more demanding than love. You can twist the commandments into loveless, legalistic rules and regulations, but that is not kingdom righteousness. Where you depart from love, you depart from kingdom righteousness. Where you depart from love, you depart from the Christ-like righteousness that fulfills the law. Jesus says by implication that if you relax the commandments in your life and you teach someone else to live out something less than Biblical agape love, then you will "be called least in the kingdom of God." He's warning people in the kingdom-people who know Jesus. But if we relax these loving, righteousness expressing commandments either by our poor example, or how we teach others in the church to live, then we--in some way neither he nor the rest of the New Testament specifies--will not be recognized by God as fully in the kingdom of God.
On the other hand, the one who teaches and lives out this kingdom righteousness in its radical expression-who does not domesticate-who does not round off the sharp corners-whose life and teaching demands a supernatural explanation--they will receive a fuller recognition in the kingdom. I don't know what is involved in that, but I know something more important. That is--we know God will not be as glorified if we are among the least in the kingdom. Therefore, it is far better to be called "great" in the kingdom of God, than to be called "least" in the kingdom of God. Wouldn't you much rather have a big, heavy, jewel-studded crown to lay at his feet in thanksgiving for all he is and all he has done for you than a spaghetti-thin garland of gold? Jesus intends that this truth motivate us to not relax those commands that express his righteousness seen in love.
Here's what this means on a day-to-day basis--Those who are great in the kingdom are those who daily war against their fallen tendency to relax the exacting and radical demands of love that are inherent in this law-fulfilling, kingdom righteousness. That's what sin does-it causes us to gradually take on a laissez faire/"that's good enough" attitude toward holiness. Those who are great in the kingdom by God's grace marshal the resources God has given them-the word of God, prayer, the encouragement of other believers to fight against our fallen tendency to tame the lion of God's kingdom righteousness into the kitten of a decent, respectable life. So, if you have by faith trusted in Christ and are in the kingdom-does this kingdom righteousness expressed in love mark you off as least in the kingdom or great in the kingdom? That's the question I believe God wants us to ask and we can get a better idea of the answer when we look into the mirror of God's word in verse 20.
Jesus says in verse 20, "For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." As we said last time, when Jesus came to the Jews with this teaching of the gospel of the kingdom, he came to a people who knew the Old Testament was the Word of God. They also had an understanding of what righteousness was and that understanding was largely shaped by the life and teachings of their religious teachers-the scribes and the Pharisees. So, for Jesus to get across what kingdom righteousness really is, he first has to tear down any wrong notions these people had received about it from their spiritual leaders. When Jesus came onto the scene, through both his life and teaching, he thoroughly dismantled the superficial notions of righteousness that the Jewish spiritual leaders had imparted to their people.
That's why he says in verse 20, "For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." This kingdom righteousness that he brings and which fulfills the Old Testament Law is qualitatively different than the understanding of righteousness within Israel before Christ. The righteousness Jesus calls for is God-righteousness-righteousness that reflects the very heart of God. We know this because in verse 48, Jesus sums up his call to kingdom righteousness saying, "You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." In this next section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives practical examples of the difference between his kingdom righteousness and the tamed down righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. He does this by giving six examples where the righteousness of God he teaches and lives is antithetical to what was commonly held by the Jews.
John Stott says in this context, "Christian righteousness is greater than pharisaic righteousness because it is deeper; being a righteousness of the heart…The righteousness which is pleasing to [God] is an inward righteousness of mind and motive. For the Lord looks on the heart." The way the scribes and Pharisees taught the Law was rule oriented--very surface and superficial-it was possible to live it out in your own power-no supernatural assistance needed. Jesus, who has the authority to tell us God's true intention in the Law in each example, penetrates to the heart of the Law. For instance in verse 21, Jesus quotes the commandment, "You shall not murder" but he indicates that kingdom righteousness includes something well beyond prohibiting the taking of another person's life. The kingdom righteousness expressed in this commandment goes much deeper and prohibits what is at the heart of all murder, anger. Therefore, it must be understood and obeyed as a commandment against murderous, unrighteous anger.
In verse 27 he penetrates to the heart of the kingdom righteousness expressed in the seventh commandment, "You shall not commit adultery." The kingdom righteousness embedded within that commandment goes far deeper than simply not sleeping with someone who is not your spouse. It goes to the heart. God's righteousness is seen in the absence of sexual lust, which is adultery of the heart. He emphasizes the non-optional nature of this kingdom righteousness by saying, "If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away-If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away..." It's better to enter heaven maimed than to be in hell in one piece. That's how seriously God takes this kingdom righteousness and this only supports Jesus' statement in verse 20 where he tells us that unless we show this righteousness, we "will never enter the kingdom of heaven." We must feel the razor sharp edge of Jesus' call to holiness here.
In verse 31, he cites Deuteronomy 24 that permits divorce for hardness of heart. Within the kingdom, however hard hearts are transformed into soft hearts, so divorce is therefore rendered without excuse except in the case of sexual immorality. John Piper comments on this verse saying, "[The] answer to marriage problems [is] not in the external solution of divorce but in the transformation of the heart. " That's kingdom righteousness. In verse 33, he penetrates to the heart of the law that prohibits swearing oaths falsely. This Law includes not simply a prohibition against giving false oaths-the righteousness of God is expressed by telling all people the truth-letting your "yes be yes and your no, be no." In verse 38, Jesus quotes the law, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." That law was originally written to limit excessive retribution in the law courts of Israel-let the punishment fit the crime. Over time, the Jews began to apply it, not only within the legal sphere of the courts, but also in the case of interpersonal conflicts .
Jesus gives the heart-oriented, kingdom righteousness within that law in verse 39. "Do not resist the one who is evil but if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." If anyone takes your tunic, give him your cloak too. That's the heart of kingdom righteousness which is love. In verse 43 he says, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust." That's a crystal clear call to Christ righteousness-to love like God loves-not just those who treat you well, but those who hate you. In the kingdom of God, enemies-those who oppose us--are for loving.
In the next section, Jesus further develops this theme of kingdom righteousness and moves beyond the question of what it is, to the question of how you practice it and again the it is radical and God-centered, not self-centered. When you pray, when you fast, when you give-don't do it in a way that will give you any recognition-that's not heart righteousness-that's not selfless love for God and others-that's fleshly because its about you. Instead, pray and fast and give in a way that will bring no recognition to you. At the end of the section he concludes with "But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness…" But leading up to that he gives a sober warning against what will stifle or shut down this righteousness in our life. That is-"Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not beak in a steal, For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
For the believer who lives out kingdom righteousness-their heart is not primarily concerned or anxious about the things of this fallen, rotting world-their treasure is in heaven-they yearn for the superior treasures found in Jesus. But Jesus says you impede this righteousness if you lay up treasures in this world because your heart will follow your treasures and laying up earthly treasure will drag down your heart to this world. "No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money." Laying up treasures on earth is not consistent with kingdom righteousness because it causes us to be concerned and anxious about the things of this fallen world. That's not kingdom righteousness. John Piper says this in this context, "The righteousness that exceeds the Pharisees' righteousness is the new heart that trusts Jesus and treasures him above money, praise, sex, and everything else in the world. " Jesus says, "Don't spend your life and energies seeking after the things of this world-"seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you." And Jesus says you can tell what you are seeking after by what you are most concerned or anxious about. If the things of this earth consume the preponderance of your time and energy, then you're not going to be able to manifest kingdom righteousness because your heart has been seduced by another kingdom. You're more in love with this world than with God and your heart has been bent that way by your seeking after the fallen, temporary things of this world that delight our selfish flesh. Jesus warns us that laying up treasures on earth is a powerful hindrance to kingdom righteousness.
As we close, let me give you two applications to this teaching of Jesus. First, the righteousness necessary for heaven is radical, not optional and will be seen as extreme to those who are lukewarm. If you by the grace of God consistently live this way, people will think you are imbalanced and that especially includes so-called believers soaking in the lukewarm waters of North American evangelicalism. The teaching of Jesus is a cold, hard slap in the face to those who have prayed a sinner's prayer, go to church and who have their spiritual life set on auto pilot-who largely see the Christian life as avoiding scandalous sin while they wait for Jesus to come and take them from the soft beds of this earth to the softer beds of heaven. It's also, as we have seen--not an option. If our righteousness is the superficial, shallow, external righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven. We haven't been born into in through the Spirit.
As we'll see in just a moment-it's crucial for us to understand the glorious truths of justification and forgiveness offered in the cross. But God never intended that we use those gospel truths to lull us into spiritual mediocrity as many in the church do. Those gospel truths were given in part so that we could increasingly live out this radical righteousness of Christ. We must read the teachings of Jesus through the lens of the gospel, but when our understanding of the gospel tempts us to compromise the radical nature of the righteousness to which we are called-when our understanding of the gospel causes us to round off the razor sharp edges of God's call to holy living, we have lost the gospel.
Second, kingdom righteousness must flow from the gospel, not our own self-effort. If our response to these truths is to say to ourselves-"I just need to buckle down more-try harder"-without reference to the work of Christ in the gospel--if our response to this is to heap self-condemnation on ourselves for being such a miserable excuse of a Christian, then we have missed it. Kingdom righteousness never, ever comes out of that. It is rooted in what Jesus has done for us in the gospel. If we are trusting in Christ and his sin-atoning death on the cross, he has forgiven us of all our misguided, self-centered, pharisaic failures and compromises. We must begin there. Kingdom righteousness must flow out from the truth that we have been justified, made acceptable to God as he has given to us the very righteousness of Christ. The reason we can live out this righteousness is because in Christ we ARE righteous-we have the righteousness of Christ. That's our new identity in Christ. We have been given a new heart to want this and we have been given the Holy Spirit to do this, and we have been given a new standing with God that is consistent with this and from which this flows-righteousness! The Christian life is not trying to be something we are currently not-it's living out who God has made us to be in Christ. That implies faith-which is our victory-faith in the promises of God. Living out the righteousness of God is rooted in our love for God as our Father and expressing the profound gratitude and peace and joy that an increasing understanding of that glorious truth provides. Our daily fight against compromise must be rooted in Christ's work for us in the gospel or it is doomed to failure.
If you are here and you chafe at the radical nature of kingdom righteousness because you have rounded off the sharp edges, by God's grace, feel the severity of that in light of Jesus' teaching and then come to the cross. Confess your spiritual lukewarmness-feel the grief of godly sorrow that is a grace given to you to bring about repentance. Ask God to deeply penetrate your heart and mind with the gospel and work with God in that process by meditating on his glorious promises-ask the Lord for faith to believe them in your heart. By faith, thank God for what he will do in your life and seek him through the word and prayer and the encouragement of others who are also crying out to Jesus. We must not believe that we can be perfected in this life, but we must also never stop striving to live out through the gospel this kingdom righteousness. May God give us the grace to do that for his glory and our joy.
Page last modified on 6/22/2009
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