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2006-06-04_Surpassing Righteousness_Matthew 5.17-20

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Surpassing Righteousness

Matthew 5:17-20   |   Shaun LePage   |   June 4, 2006

I. Introduction

A.   The hype over The DaVinci Code has been almost unbearable. Since the best-selling book was released, there have been numerous books written about The DaVinci Code. Why are Christian scholars so bent out of shape over a novel—a work of fiction? Well, there’s a very good reason. In the preface of the book, Dan Brown—the author—makes this startling claim: “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” But what do all these “descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals” add up to? If all those things are indeed “accurate” then Jesus is not God, the Bible cannot be trusted and the earliest Christians were wickedly deceitful.

B.    I agree with King Solomon. “There’s nothing new under the sun.” There have been numerous attacks on Jesus and the Bible throughout history. The attacks made in this case are not new and they are not grounded in fact. The sad part is that many will read the book and watch the movie and come away believing many falsehoods about matters that are infinitely important.

C.   The DaVinci Code provides us with a unique opportunity actually. How often do we get the chance to discuss the deity of Christ, the history of Christianity and the inerrancy of Scripture without getting a big yawn? But, my intent today is not to refute The DaVinci Code. I have provided a few excellent links on our website for those of you who desire to read about those things. I bring it up this morning simply because the passage we will be looking at—the next section in the Sermon on the Mount—is Jesus’ way of saying the Bible can be trusted. Every word must be taken seriously. And if we do not, the consequences are tragic.

D.   Review: The first 20 verses of the Sermon on the Mount constitute the first section: Understanding Righteousness. The character of kingdom disciples (1-12); the influence of kingdom disciples (13-16) and the authority of kingdom disciples (17-20).

II.   Body—Matthew 5:17-20.

A.   Christ and the Scriptures (vs.17-18)

1.     Jesus did not come to abolish the Scriptures

a)    Notice that Jesus did not stop with the phrase, “Do not think…” He didn’t say Christians should not think. It’s just a simple observation, but an important one. True Christians do think. That’s what we’re going to do today. Tough passages like this require some thinking. His real point is “do not think” wrong things people say about Him. Consider for the next few minutes whether you have misunderstood Jesus and His work and His message.

b)    Jesus was often misunderstood back then. He’s often misunderstood in our day as well. Remember that part of the reason Matthew wrote his gospel was to answer the question, “Who is this Jesus?” Lots of rumors were flying and lots of misinformation was out there—this is why Matthew’s gospel is such a good book for us to study. Jesus Himself is clearing up something for us this time.

c)    Jesus referred to “The Law or the Prophets”. This was a common way of referring to the entire Old Testament—the Hebrew Bible. He’s saying that He did not come to abolish the Old Testament. The Old Testament is still very relevant and important and applicable to all. This is so very important: Jesus had a very high view of Scripture.

(i)   In v.18 he said: “not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass…”

(a)  The Greek word for “smallest letter” is iwta. It refers to the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet—the yodh. It looks like an apostrophe in English.

(b)  The Greek word here for “stroke” is keraia. This refers to a serif or a tiny stroke which distinguishes one letter from another. For example, this (b) is the Hebrew letter Beth (pr. bait)—equivalent to the English letter “B”. If you erase that tiny little “stroke” (keraia) at the bottom right, you end up with a Kaph (k)—equivalent to the English letter “K”.

(c)   What’s the point? Jesus tells us that the Scriptures are perfect down to the minutest details! Every detail is perfect and important. In other words, Jesus taught that the Scriptures are inerrant—without error.

(d) Many people will say, “Look, the Bible was written by men, so it can’t be perfect.” But that’s really just saying, “God was unable to use imperfect men to write a perfect book.” If God is all-powerful, then it is no problem for Him to write His perfect book through the minds, personalities and pens of imperfect men. Just as Jesus was a perfect combination of God and man—without sin—the Bible is a perfect effort of God and man—without error. This is exactly what the Bible claims God did:

1.     2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is God-breathed…” (NIV).

2.     2 Peter 1:21 (NASB95) tells us, “…No prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”

3.     1 Thessalonians 2:13 (NASB95) is also very clear: “For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.”

2.     Jesus did come to fulfill the Scriptures. What does this mean? How did Jesus “fulfill” the Scriptures?

a)    First, when we closely examine the Old Testament laws, we find three clear categories of law: The moral law, the judicial law and the ceremonial law.

(i)   The moral law is timeless and applies to all people of all times. Jesus fulfilled this aspect of the Law by perfectly obeying these moral laws.

(ii) The judicial and ceremonial laws applied to Israel’s operation as a nation and to her worship—there are principles in these laws for us, but these were primarily given to Israel. Jesus fulfilled these laws at the cross.

(a)  The judicial laws were fulfilled the moment Jesus cried out, “It is finished!” (John 19:30). Romans 3 tells us that His death satisfied the justice of God—the judicial requirements of God.

(b) The ceremonial laws were fulfilled at the same time. Sacrifice was at the heart of Old Testament worship and Matthew 27:51 tells us that when Jesus died, the “veil of the temple was torn in two.” Why? Because Jesus fulfilled the ceremonial laws and opened up the Holy of Holies to all who will come to Him by faith. I love the words of Hebrews 10:19-22: “19 Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith…” So Jesus’ death changed everything. The ceremonial laws of tabernacle or temple worship no longer apply because Jesus “inaugurated” a “new and living way” to worship God.

B.     You and the Scriptures (vs.19-20). Jesus spoke in these verses to “you”—the disciples of Jesus Christ. What should our attitude and response be to the Scriptures?

1.     You are not to annul the Scriptures (v.19a)

a)    Look at v.19: “19 ‘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…”

b)    “Annul” was translated “break” in the KJV. The root word is to “loose,” so the warning is against those who somehow decide that “one (or many) of the least of these commandments” found in the Scriptures is no longer binding. It is deciding that we are “loosed” of our responsibility to obey a commandment. We “annul” the Scriptures when we discount any part—the “smallest letter or stroke.”

c)    So, Jesus requires of us the same high view of Scripture which He held—inerrancy. He condemned those who “annul one of the least of these commandments”. We can’t pick and choose and say, “Well, I’m obeying all the big commandments—no murder, no adultery.” Even the “least” commandment must be “kept.” Every letter of every word is important.

d)    What is the consequence? “…shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” This is not a discussion of salvation, but of treatment in the kingdom. There will be true Christians—saved and in heaven—who will somehow be shamed (called “least”) because they annulled the Scriptures. They thought the Scriptures were a smorgasbord—they could pick and choose what they wanted to obey. And, they taught others—whether formally or by example—that they should treat the Scriptures with the same attitude.

2.     You are to keep the Scriptures (v.19b-20)

a)    Again, Matthew 5:19 says, “19 ‘…but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

(i)   To “keep” is to obey—to fulfill. What does it mean to “keep” the ceremonial and judicial laws of the Old Testament?

(a)  Again, Christ fulfilled those, so we don’t have to! We could not have fulfilled them, but by trusting in Christ, He becomes our substitute. Our “righteousness account” (if you will) is credited with Christ’s righteousness.

(b) Paul called these ceremonial laws “a shadow”. Listen to Colossians 2:16,17: “16 Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day— 17 things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.” In other words, the ceremonial laws were types that pointed forward to Christ. So, when Christ came, we no longer needed the “shadows”—we have the real thing!

(ii) What about the moral laws?

(a)  Again, the moral laws are timeless—they apply to all people of all times. The foundation of these is the Ten Commandments. These are reaffirmed in the New Testament.

(b) Let me give you an example—a hot-button issue of our day is homosexuality. Many agree that the Old Testament condemns homosexuality, but—they say—Jesus did not condemn homosexuality. The implication is that Jesus “abolished” the prohibition against homosexuality because He did not specifically condemn it. But, the laws against homosexuality in the Old Testament are part of the moral law. That law applies to all people of all times. Also, Jesus did not specifically condemn many sexual sins, so if we follow the logic of those who “annul” the Scriptures in this way, we must say that incest, bestiality, polygamy and various other perversions are now okay. But, also, in at least two places in the New Testament, Jesus instead reaffirmed the Biblical standard: Marriage is for one man and one woman.

(c)  The point is, “keeping” the Scriptures means obedience. We must—as disciples of Jesus Christ—be completely committed to obeying every iota of Scripture—down to “the smallest letter or stroke”! In the Great Commission, Jesus commanded us to “make disciplesteaching them to obey everything (He) commanded…”! This is so important: Obedience is not legalism! Legalism is adding to the Scriptures—saying something is a sin that the Scriptures don’t call a sin. Saying we are required to do something the Scriptures don’t command us to do. Legalism is man-made requirements. Obedience is God-given requirements.

(iii)    Another emphasis here in Matthew 5:19 is on teaching and teachers—either teaching others to annul the Scriptures the way you do or teaching others to keep the Scriptures the way you do. And we all teach, by the way. Some in formal situations—and I take this warning very seriously. My heart’s desire (though I will fall short) is to obey the Scriptures before I teach the Scriptures. My life mission is to be a good example first—a good teacher second. I hope that’s your desire as well because all of us teach. In our example or the way share our opinions or bring up our children. How does your life “teach” what you believe about the Scriptures?

(iv)    The consequence of “keeping” the Scriptures is wonderful and amazing! “He will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” That’s the kind of greatness to which we should all aspire! Who cares if we’re called great here. True greatness is not to be found on a basketball court or a football field or on American Idol. True greatness is greatness as defined by God—the Lord of heaven! Somehow, those who “keep and teach” the Scriptures will experience the praise and joy and honor of heaven. They will be treated as royalty in the kingdom of heaven. They will reign with Christ in His kingdom.

b)    Now look at verse 20 again: “For I say to you that unless Your righteousness surpasses that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Let’s take this verse from the end and work our way back to the beginning.

(i)   “You will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Why is true righteousness so important? You will not enter the kingdom of heaven without it. If you have the same kind of righteousness the Scribes and Pharisees had then you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Jesus’ own words make it clear how much is at stake here. We are not messing around! Why is it important to “keep and teach” the Scriptures? Because true righteousness is only found by understanding and believing the Scriptures! And why is it so important to find true righteousness? Our eternal destiny depends on it. Why is it so important to teach every detail of the Scriptures correctly? Because the eternal destiny of others depends on it.

(ii) Jesus said we must do better than “the scribes and Pharisees.” The righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees was not good enough. What did the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees look like? A very simplified description is this: They focused on the external, rather than the internal. Jesus said they were like “whitewashed tombs.” They looked fresh and beautiful and righteous on the outside, but inside they were full of “dead men’s bones.” They tried to achieve righteousness on the human level, but what they really needed was a transformation of the heart that only God could provide.

(iii)    This brings us to the chilling words of Jesus in the first part of v.20. “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Scribes and Pharisees…” Our righteousness must surpass the human level righteousness the scribes and Pharisees shot for. Jesus’ final words, in fact, of this chapter are, “You must be perfect.” How perfect? “As your heavenly Father is perfect.” To enter heaven, we must have a righteousness that is perfect—a righteousness which is beyond our ability to achieve. You see, there are two kinds of righteousness: Human-achievement or God-given. God-given righteousness is the “surpassing righteousness” Jesus was talking about. It can only be gained by faith in Jesus Christ.

(iv)    Listen to Romans 3:21-31. This is the New Living Translation which makes this important passage so clear—notice Paul’s emphasis here on faith or trust:

1.     Romans 3:21-31 (NLT): “21 But now God has shown us a different way of being right in his sight—not by obeying the law but by the way promised in the Scriptures long ago. 22 We are made right in God’s sight when we trust in Jesus Christ to take away our sins. And we all can be saved in this same way, no matter who we are or what we have done. 23 For all have sinned; all fall short of God’s glorious standard. 24 Yet now God in his gracious kindness declares us not guilty. He has done this through Christ Jesus, who has freed us by taking away our sins. 25 For God sent Jesus to take the punishment for our sins and to satisfy God’s anger against us. We are made right with God when we believe that Jesus shed his blood, sacrificing his life for us. God was being entirely fair and just when he did not punish those who sinned in former times. 26 And he is entirely fair and just in this present time when he declares sinners to be right in his sight because they believe in Jesus. 27 Can we boast, then, that we have done anything to be accepted by God? No, because our acquittal is not based on our good deeds. It is based on our faith. 28 So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law. 29 After all, God is not the God of the Jews only, is he? Isn’t he also the God of the Gentiles? Of course he is. 30 There is only one God, and there is only one way of being accepted by him. He makes people right with himself only by faith, whether they are Jews or Gentiles. 31 Well then, if we emphasize faith, does this mean that we can forget about the law? Of course not! In fact, only when we have faith do we truly fulfill the law.”

2.     Paul went on in chapter 4 of Romans to use Abraham as an example. He said, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Credited! Abraham didn’t fill his own bank account with righteousness. God credited righteousness to Abraham simply because of Abraham’s faith. Simply because Abraham asked for it.

3.     Jesus’ words come full circle here. He did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it! How did He fulfill it? He died on the cross, fulfilling the righteous demands of God. Then, “by faith” in Him, we are given the righteousness we need—this surpassing righteousness. We fulfill the Law and have a righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees when we receive by faith as a free gift the “surpassing righteousness” achieved by Christ for us.

III. Closing

A.   Because Jesus placed value on every “stroke” of Scripture, we must love, read, study, apply and defend the Scriptures ourselves.

B.    Because Jesus fulfilled the Scriptures, we must keep them by faith in Him.

C.   Because Jesus gives a surpassing righteousness that provides entrance into the kingdom of heaven, we must let a hopeless world know that there is a new world coming. A kingdom which may seem like a fairy tale to some, but is very real nonetheless.

D.   I’ll close with Revelation 21:1-5.

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