Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Extreme righteousness Matthew 5:20—24

Jesus’ statement here in Matthew 5:20 would have filled Jesus' hearers with utter dismay: “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  verse 20

It would have been hard enough if Jesus said that in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven you had to reach the same standard of righteousness as the scribes and Pharisees. But to exceed it! That was asking too much.

You see in terms of spiritual perfection—especially in keeping the commandments and the Law—the scribes and Pharisees were top of the league. They were gold medal winners every time! You just have to look at some of the biblical examples of what kind of people the Pharisees were. For example in Luke 18:9-14: the Pharisee in the Temple first says what he does not do: he is not like other men—immediately that sets himself apart - and he doesn't steal, do evil or commit adultery; and what he does do: he fasts twice a week, and gives a tenth of everything he owns, all this aside from his regular worship, his study of the Law, his prayer each day - probably seven times (Psalm 119:164) and a host of other religious disciplines.

He clearly was very serious about his faith and devoted every waking hour to it.

So for Jesus to tell the poor ordinary folk—especially those who had to work all hours to make a living and had little time for religious practices—that what the Pharisees and scribes were doing was not enough, he appears to be saying “don’t even bother trying because if they have failed you have no chance!” But that doesn't really square with the Jesus we know in the Gospels, so what was Jesus trying to do/say here?

1. Only perfect righteousness is enough for a perfect God.
In the book of Habakkuk the prophet says of God: “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil, you cannot tolerate wrong.” Hab 1:13 We see this at the moment of Jesus’ death when “he became sin who had no sin” (2 Cor 5:21) took on himself the sin of the world so that God had to look away causing Jesus to cry out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”  Matthew 27:45-50

Heaven is a sin free environment. Only those who are purified from sin—who are totally righteous can enter.

2. No one is/can be perfectly righteous no matter how good or religious they are.
Paul—as a former Pharisee—sees this and writes to the Roman Christians, quoting from the Old Testament Psalms (14: 2-3):  “There is no one who does good, not even one.“ Rom 3:10. And later 3:23: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  In other words no one is completely righteous or perfect. All are tainted in some way by imperfection & sin.

3. The only way we can enter the Kingdom of heaven then is on the basis
of God’s righteousness not our own.
This is what Paul, who saw the bankrupt-ness of his own attempt at righteousness come to nothing discovered one day on the road to Damascus. Writing to the Philippians he first writes out a long list of the things he was/did as a Pharisee (Phil 3:4-6). And then continues to completely dismiss it all : “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.”

What does Jesus say in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven”.
There are two errors we can fall into here:
One is to feel you are too good—rich in Spirit;
Or too bad—unable to reach the right standard, not good enough for God.
To both and all Jesus says “come to me” put your faith in me and have my righteousness.
In the words of a well known hymn:
There was no other good enough
to pay the price of sin,

he only could unlock the gate
of heaven and let us in.

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