A Greater Righteousness
If you’re just joining us we are only a couple paragraphs into one of the most familiar and least understood sections of the entire Bible. The Sermon on the Mount () is really important to understand if you call yourself a disciple of Jesus Christ, otherwise known as being a Christian.
And if you haven’t heard the first few sermons in the series, I encourage you to hop on the website and give them a listen.
“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. 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. 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. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Father, please open the eyes of our hearts this morning. Holy Spirit teach us why you wrote this and why it’s so important for us to understand if we’re going to be faithful and fruitful disciples.
As we study these sections, I want you to try to imagine that you are one of people in the crowd.
You see these leaders everywhere, they’re always praying in the streets, giving alms to the poor, fasting, laboring to memorize the Torah, and they never seem to doing anything wrong. They’re like the perfect example for everything and they are constantly reminding you of that too.
But you, you just don’t have it all together. You’ve convinced yourself that you could never become what they want you to become and you’ve already pretty much given up. And then you get word of this new prophet and he’s altogether different than the religious leaders, not that he’s any less righteous, but he’s less rigid and he’s actually very compassionate and caring for the people that the religious leaders want nothing to do with.
You’re Jewish, but living in the Greco-Roman highly structured, and progressive society
And he’s peaked your interest to the point that you’ve decided it’s time for you to go and listen to him teach. Because people are beginning to say that this prophet has more and more likeness to the prophet that Moses said would come, and Isaiah, and David, and mean could this actually be the ONE?
You’re either low society because you or a family member have struggled with an incurable illness or malady
This prophet has not only performed the supernatural, but has begun to speak authoritatively. And you begin to wonder, will this new Moses have a new rulebook? Everything else he’s doing seems to point in that direction. Everything he’s teaching goes against what the religious leaders and philosophical thinkers are saying.
Or you are low society because of your occupation
Or you’re high society, but only because you have been willing to play for the other team (like Matthew who was a tax-collector)
Whatever situation brought you to this place where you were willing to listen to this new teacher, in almost all cases, you have been pushed to the fringes of society because either the Roman society created this chasm of separation or because of the interpretation of the Law and the Prophets by Israel’s own religious leadership.
Micah, one of Israel’s last prophets before the 400 years of silence made this statement:
He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
So when this new prophet comes on to the scene he is altogether different from what you’ve been hearing day in and day out. The religious leaders have this weird thing going on. They’re like the most righteous people in all of society. They’re always praying long prayers, and wearing holy clothing, and fasting, and giving their tithe and they’re giving alms to the poor. But they’re mean, and they make sure that I’m far enough away from the community so that relationships are impossible to form and they’ve convinced you that the reason you are the way you are is because God’s favor is being kept from you or because you’re under God’s punishment.
But Jesus is saying that the life of the Kingdom of Heaven, the life of human flourishing is a life of humility, mercy, and peace. And that we (yes we poor, marginalized, and weak) are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We’re the ones who should be inviting others into this the Kingdom of Heaven.
There is a major problem. The religious leaders have justified their behavior with the Scriptures. They’ve literally quoted all kinds of the sayings of Moses. So, Jesus is your invitation to us and acceptance of us a sign that the law is finally being abolished?
This must have been close to what the people in the crowd and not in the crowd were beginning to think because Jesus begins this next major section with a time out. He says:
“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.
I did not come here to abolish (or as another translation puts it) “throw down” the Law or the Prophets, I actually came here for the purpose of fulfilling them both.
Jesus expands on that and says, in fact:
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.
And if his previous two statements weren’t strong and clear enough, he issues a warning:
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.
To summarize what Jesus said:
“Some of you might be thinking that the reason why I’m here is to say, the Law God gave and the Prophets he sent to point the people back to obedience to the Law was a failed plan, so we’re going with something new. But actually, I’m here to accomplish everything that the Law and the Prophets said would happen. And this present age will not end, until it is Finished. So, those who think I’m here to loosen up the demands of the law and teach others to loosen up too, you’re clearly not interested in God’s Reign. But those who obey the law and teach others to obey them as well, you’re the one’s who really want God’s Kingdom to Come and His will to be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”
And then here comes the icing on the cake:
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
The Law and the Prophets
The Law and the Prophets
I’m going to let you just stew on that for a few minutes, but man that is uncomfortable. Here is why I think this is uncomfortable for us; because when we hear Jesus say “the Law” we are thinking of the list of 613 commands.
And this is exactly why so many are content to say,
“Well obviously Jesus was only speaking to the Jews and this is not for us, because we’re not under the law, we’re under grace.”
Or “Well obviously we can’t keep the law, so the righteousness that Jesus speaks of disciples needing to have is His own righteousness. And when we become Christians we receive the righteousness of Jesus.”
Now both of those statements have some truth to them, but I am here to tell you that we shouldn’t be totally content with either statement. And the reason I say that is because I don’t believe that’s exactly what Jesus was getting at.
Part of our problem is that we haven’t taken the time to think like a first century Jew. A Jewish person knows that when Jesus says, “The Law and the Prophets” he is not speaking only about the 613 laws that are found inside of the Law (which in Hebrew is not referring to legal documentation, but covenantal narrative). The Pentateuch or the Hebrew term “The Torah” is the first five books of what we call the OT and what the Jews just called, “The Scriptures.”
You have to read 69 chapters of story until you get to the first actual LAW. The only exception is the law that God gave to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. And if you’re reading the Bible the way it was written, as a story, you begin to pick up on the patterns that the authors intend for readers to pick up on.
The Law begins with:
God’s Creation of all things
God’s almost immediate transfer of responsibility to His Created beings
The failure of the human beings to trust in God’s provision
And then exile out of the garden
We come to and even though we don’t see a new creation story, we really have like a version 2.0 with God’s call of Abraham and Sarah
He promises them that through them all families of the earth will be blessed, they’re going to have children like stars in the sky and sand on the shore
Abraham and Sarah do have a son in their old age, Isaac
He has two sons, Jacob and Esau
Jacob has 12 sons
And they have tons of kids while in Egypt
But they become slaves in Egypt, so God’s rescues them
And as he covenanted, he would bless all nations through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he deepens this covenant with that family at Mt. Sinai
On Mt. Sinai, God gives the Israelite people the way to live in the world (before God, before each other, and as priests to the rest of the world.)
It started with ten commands
Turn a couple pages and they’re already breaking the first two
God gives more commandments
And Israel breaks them
God gives more, and the cycle continues
At the end of Moses life, (Israel’s leader during this time) he makes a profound assessment:
“Take this Book of the Law and put it by the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there for a witness against you. For I know how rebellious and stubborn you are. Behold, even today while I am yet alive with you, you have been rebellious against the Lord. How much more after my death!
For I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly and turn aside from the way that I have commanded you. And in the days to come evil will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger through the work of your hands.”
And Moses was pretty right on. They were rebellious and stubborn which led them to act corruptly
So God taps the shoulder of several people throughout Israel’s history and says, I want you to go to my people and tell them to return back to the covenant
When they don’t return to the LORD, God sends them in to exile
To Babylon and to Assyria through several phases
So when Jesus says, He’s come to fulfill the LAW and the PROPHETS, we need to think like they would have thought, and that is that Jesus was coming as the True Human, the True Israelite who would accomplish the mission that God had for humanity from the beginning; and what was that? That God’s blessing would flow through the Offspring of Abraham to all the families of the earth.
This helps us understand what Jesus meant about not abolishing the Law and the Prophets, but fulfilling it… partly
Doing, Teaching, and Exceeding Righteousness
Doing, Teaching, and Exceeding Righteousness
Because he still says that a disciple does not relax on the commands, but he does them, he teaches others to do them, and he is more righteous than the Scribes and Pharisees; how do we reconcile this?
There is a connection with this statement to what Jesus says before he ascends back to the heavens: it sounds a lot like “The Great Commission” which is, make disciples, baptize them, and teach them to do what I’ve commanded you… and I will be with you.
To understand this we actually have to go back into the story again. Those prophets said some things that helps us to see what Jesus is saying.
There are two key points in that really condensed version of Israel’s history:
The first is just before God rescued Israel from Egypt, we see the author of the Torah use this metaphor for Pharaoh’s heart. You remember? He says that Pharoah had a hard heart. It’s this idea that the King of Egypt had a resistance to submitting to the God of the Israelite people. As a result of that resistance, God judged the Egyptian people with the infamous ten plagues.
As a result of that resistance, God judged the Egyptian people with the infamous ten plagues.
Well, if you fast forward the story of the Hebrew people into the days of the Prophets, there are two prophets in particular that develop this concept of the hard heart. But this time, they’re not referring to people who worshiped other gods (like the Pharoah). No, they’re talking about the Israelites who have hard hearts; the Hebrews are the ones who are resistant to the Will of God.
But the house of Israel will not be willing to listen to you, for they are not willing to listen to me: because all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart.
They made their hearts diamond-hard lest they should hear the law and the words that the Lord of hosts had sent by his Spirit through the former prophets. Therefore great anger came from the Lord of hosts.
And the word of the Lord came to Zechariah, saying, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” But they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears that they might not hear. They made their hearts diamond-hard lest they should hear the law and the words that the Lord of hosts had sent by his Spirit through the former prophets. Therefore great anger came from the Lord of hosts. “As I called, and they would not hear, so they called, and I would not hear,” says the Lord of hosts, “and I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations that they had not known. Thus the land they left was desolate, so that no one went to and fro, and the pleasant land was made desolate.”
We could go to a few other places too, like Jonah. Remember Jonah was not happy that God was showing mercy on Nineveh. They resist God’s reign. God’s response in so many words is, Jonah, so are you.
Habakkuk is another prophet who cries out to God for the evil of the Hebrew people to be punished, so God shows him that his plan is to judge the Hebrews by sending the Assyrians to take them into exile. Habbakuk is like, um too far LORD.
The message of the Law and the Prophets is that all of mankind is depraved. No one will submit to God’s will regardless if they have no rules like the pagan nations, one rule like Adam and Eve, or 613 like the Hebrews.
The commands of Scripture as we saw in our study in Galatians was to be like a baby sitter for the people of Israel until Messiah came. When he came, Paul says, “he would bring life and faith with him.”
Here is where it all comes together. The prophets not only spoke of the problem (which was the hardness of heart) but they also spoke of the solution:
And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh,
And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
See the Law and the Prophets pointed to a day when God would make a covenant with a people. But this time he would perform a surgery on the people to remove their heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh. This time he would write his commands on their hearts. And this time he would put His spirit within them.
We Uphold the Law
We Uphold the Law
No, we don’t want the LAW and the PROPHETS to be abolished, we want to join Paul in saying, “We uphold the law.” We go back to the law and the prophets again and again to remember that our heart is hard, our mind is sinful, our worldview is broken. And the only way we even know this is because we’ve had the heart transplant, we’ve been given that life and that faith so NOW we see with fresh eyes.
The commands of the law are not condemning laws, they’re a diagnostic to show us where we’re sick and where we need to be healed by the grace of Jesus.
So as we’ll explore in the next few weeks, the type of obedience to the law that Jesus speaks of is not a mere outward obedience to the law like the Scribes and Pharisees had, but an inward obedience to the law. That’s the greater righteousness.
Some of us are probably asking, “So, does Jesus really want us to follow the law?” My response would be that if by the “Law” you mean the rules and guidelines that God established for the Historic Jewish community as a way of keeping them separate from the pagan communities that surrounded them, I would say that there is much wisdom in studying the will of God as revealed in the law. But if by “Law” you mean the ten commandments, I would urge you to read Jesus words to the lawyer’s question in
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
In other words, the disciple of Jesus is really called to love God and love their neighbor with a transformed mind and heart. All of the commands in both the OT and the NT are practical and wise applications of the Great Commandment.
And as you contemplate these things, may our minds be led to see that when Jesus says that he is not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but he has come to fulfill the law and the prophets their is one major line in that passage that is easy to gloss over:
What the prophet Jeremiah says (speaking for God) is that he’s going to give a new heart and the law will be written on those new hearts, FOR “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
Christ fulfilling the law and the prophets means complete forgiveness of iniquity.
Christ fulfilling the law and the prophets means he freely chooses to NOT remember our sin anymore
He doesn’t forget because he’s God. It’s better than that, he chooses to remember our sin no more.
That’s what the cup and the bread represent. Every sin, every failure, every mess up, he forgives and chooses not to bring it back up as leverage sometime in the future.