What About My Righteousness?

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A sermon for Community Covenant Church in Rehoboth MA on April 26, 2020. Last Fall we went through the Beatitudes one at a time in a series entitled Read the Red and in these weeks following Easter we’re back in the Sermon on the Mount with a series entitled “What About __________?

Today we will be looking at Matthew 5:17-20 and if you’re joining us for the first time, we are in a series considering what is likely the first extended sermons of Jesus called the SOTM.

I like to remind people that Jesus was the most radical person who ever lived and that He came out of heaven and into our brokenness to launch a revolution. The SOTM has been called His manifesto-like our Declaration of Independence or Martin Luther King’s, I Have a Dream speech.

The SOTM is only 109 verses and takes about 10-15 minutes to read so it’s widely thought that Matthew is giving us the “Cliff Notes” version. If I were to provide you with a simplified overview of the SOTM it would be that, with this inaugural sermon, Jesus dives into our innermost being probing the heart and raising the question of motive.

Today, we will look at what scholars have described as the “thesis statement” of the sermon. Most of us remember learning about a thesis statement in high school or college. By way of review, a thesis statement is (usually) a one-sentence overview of the main idea of the essay, or manifesto, or book. Most often it appears at the conclusion of the introduction or preface, but sometimes it can appear in the first or second paragraph of the first chapter. A good thesis statement will describe the intention of the author and will prepare the reader to begin to see and understand the main ideas that will be presented.

So, with that said, I would like to read Matthew 5:17-20 and then pray. See if you can identify the thesis statement for the SOTM.

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets [what we know today as the OT]; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke [KJV “jot and tittle”] shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes [Gk word is the root of our English word grammar] and Pharisees [religious police], you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Those four verses are packed with meaning and implications, but scholars agree that v. 20 is the thesis statement for the whole sermon. It would have equaled a gut-punch to the soul of anyone who heard what Jesus said.

The legalistic scribes and Pharisees had shaped the Jewish legal system to focus more on external obedience and Jesus shows up with a deeper version of reality that was always pretty clear throughout the OT, which says motive matters. An OT verse that many of us are familiar with is 1 Samuel 16:7: “…for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”

Today we only have time to consider two questions this important passage addresses. I’ll give them to you and then we will go back and look at them one at a time…

  1. What does it mean that Jesus fulfills the Law? There’s a lot of confusion about this both inside and outside the church.
  2. What does it mean for our righteousness to progress beyond the Scribes and Pharisees?

Again, we’ll look at them one at a time…

  1. What does it mean that Jesus fulfills the Law?

The purpose of the OT Law was to point God’s chosen people forward to the promised Messiah (Jesus). The short version is that once Jesus came, the Law’s purpose was fulfilled, and much of the Law became obsolete. It was not deleted, but fulfilled by a more penetrating Law, the Law of the Gospel contained in God’s radical and revolutionary kingdom.

It’s pretty common these days for the cultural critics of Christianity to dismiss Christians as inconsistent because, from their perspective, we follow some of the laws in the OT and ignore others. The challenge usually sounds something like this: “When the Bible talks about certain sexual behaviors as sin, you quote that; but when it says not to eat shellfish or not to get a tattoo, you just ignore it. Aren’t you just picking and choosing what suits you best?” That’s a legit question, right?

As far back as the mid-16th century, John Calvin saw that the Mosaic Laws could be distinguished into three categories—and then the scholars who wrote The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) followed Calvin’s lead identifying three categories of Mosaic Law: Civil Laws, Ceremonial Laws, and Moral Laws.

Let’s take a brief look at each.

  • Civil (or Judicial) Law were given for the nation of Israel in its particular circumstances at that time, which described how the people were to order their behavior in relationship to others, including what they were to do and not do. The Civil Law was fulfilled when Jesus came and established the KOG on the earth – it was/is a new spiritual Israel, that we now identify as the Church—and as such, we’re no longer bound by the Mosaic civil codes—they are now obsolete.
  • Ceremonial Law concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices and all the ritual and ceremonial worship practices. These laws are no longer in effect if we accept Jesus as the perfect sacrifice. In fact, it would actually be offensive to go back to them, because that would communicate that Jesus’ sacrifice wasn’t sufficient.
  • Moral Law consisted of the Ten commandments and the great moral principles that have been laid down once and forever. The Moral Law is permanent and perpetual[1] and still applies to us. While we are called to still adhere to the Moral Laws of God, they too were fulfilled by the coming of Jesus, in that He kept all of them perfectly, every day, for His entire life. In fact, whenever Jesus, in His teaching, mentioned the moral laws, He either reaffirmed them or intensified them—as we’ll see in the coming weeks., God has graciously given to the believer the Holy Spirit to supply us with a growing love for God’s Moral Law AND the power to live by it.[2]

If this is new information or a new perspective for you, I hope you can begin to see how important it is to comprehend how Jesus fulfills the OT Law—and renders the Civil and Ceremonial Laws obsolete. It is also important that we are able to respond to the cultural critics of the Christian faith.

Does this mean we can, or should, abandon the OT as unnecessary? The NT cannot be truly understood except in the light provided by the OT.[3] Paul told Timothy in 2 Tim 3:16 that, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.”  So, the OT was not written TO us, but it was written FOR us.

I came across this quote in some notes: “So, eat your shrimp and get that tattoo without guilt, but don’t throw away your 10 Commandments just yet.”

  1. What does it mean for our righteousness to progress beyond the Scribes and Pharisees?

Righteousness is that which satisfies the demands of the Law. It is doing what is right. To be called righteous means that one is in right standing with God. What Jesus is saying in v. 20 is that the purpose of God’s law was to show us that we needed more righteousness than we could come up with on our own.

Galatians 3:24-26 addresses how the Law works on our behalf: Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.

The purpose of the Law was to show us that we couldn’t do it on our own. It’s like a dentist’s mirror, which can point out decay, but it can’t do anything about it.

So, this perspective of righteousness becomes the thesis statement of the SOTM[4]. The goal is to show us what true righteousness is – and to show us that we can’t get there on our own. Last Fall when Pastor Chris taught us about hungering and thirsting for righteousness he said that an appetite for righteousness is a desire to align our lives with who God is and all that He is doing, seeing Jesus as our representative and example, while guided by the movement and power of the Holy Spirit. That’s very good…

So, how do we gain this righteousness? Let’s go back to the Beatitudes…

The first three Beatitudes inform us of how we can enter into the KOG. Another way to say this is they tell us how we can be converted.

To be poor in spirit means that we recognize our spiritual poverty and that we need the resources of something, or Someone, to become the people that we long to be.

Another word for mourn is repent. We repent over the selfish tendencies and sinful condition of our soul – and the woeful condition of the world around us.

To become meek means that we become humble learners. As we’ve heard, meekness is not weakness but strength (or giftedness) that increasingly comes under God’s control and direction. Remember, disciple means learner.

As we recognize our spiritual poverty, repent over our selfish and sinful condition, we become humble learners, a hunger and thirst for God and God’s ways begins to grip our soul. The psalmist provides us with an excellent metaphor in Psalm 42:1-2a, As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God…” This is how we know conversion has taken place.

If you don’t have a growing hunger to honor and please God that results from acknowledging your spiritual poverty, mourning over it, and becoming a humble learner, you’re probably not a Christian. Certainly, like the moon, our hunger for God can wax and wane, but if it’s just not there, I think you should be concerned for your soul.

The final four Beatitudes address our sanctification and are a lifelong process.

We experience God’s mercy and as we receive it we begin to give mercy to others. God’s mercy begins to purify our hearts and cleanse us from the brokenness of sin – both the sins that have been committed against us as well as the sins we have committed. This, in turn, leads to a peace that passes understanding – and then, access to a wisdom that helps others make peace with God and one another. And finally, we need to expect persecution. Living life from a kingdom of God perspective will place us in conflict with those that oppose it—and usually it’s “religious” people.

Overall, the big idea of these four verses that we’ve looked at today informs us that Jesus is inviting us to surrender afresh to an internal moral law and that through the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit, we can re-orient our values, vision, and habits from the ways of external righteousness to a growing whole-heartedness toward God.


Study Questions

  1. What are your thoughts regarding Jesus being the most radical person who ever lived and that He came to launch the Kingdom of God as a revolution? (Being part of a revolution requires that we be “all in.” Where do you feel lax and where do you feel focused?)
  2. Jesus fulfilled the Civil, Ceremonial, and Moral Law. Is the idea that most of the OT Law has been rendered obsolete, or fulfilled by the perfect sacrifice of Jesus new to you? (Over the last several months we’ve been talking about the whole Bible as one story, with Jesus declaring the whole OT is really about Him—see Luke 24:27. Has this changed the way you are reading your Bible?)
  3. Do you feel like you could adequately respond to a cultural critic of the Christian faith who asks why it appears that we keep some of God’s laws but not all of them?
  4. Does it make sense to you that, while we are called to still adhere to the Moral Laws of God, that we now have the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit to grow in us a love for God’s Word and sanctifying power to increase our responsive obedience?
  5. There are (at least) two ways to talk about our righteousness. One is how we are fully justified by grace through faith at conversion and the other is (growing in) our longing to love and honor God and be more like Jesus. Do you feel clear about the distinctions? If not, what seems confusing to you?
  6. The fourth Beatitude is hungering and thirsting for righteousness. Talk about your current hunger and thirst. Has this shelter at home season enhanced or hindered your hunger and thirst for God?

Bonus Questions for Pondering: Could we assume that most of the scribes and Pharisees were sincere in their intention to keep the Law even if they were primarily concerned with outward appearances? For millennia women have been considered second class citizens (even in the Church), even when we see clearly how both Jesus and Paul elevated their role. And if we assume that many slaveholders in the 17th – 19th centuries were sincere in their belief that the Bible justified slavery, where and how did these groups misinterpret Scripture? Do you think there might be any theological perspectives that our grand- and great grand-kids might look back on and wonder why we believed the Bible was saying such a thing?

[1] Lloyd-Jones: 195.

[2] Lloyd-Jones: 194.

[3] Lloyd-Jones: 191.

[4] Pennington: 177.

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