************ Sermon on Matthew 5:20 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on March 4, 2001
"Surpassing the Pharisees"
The law of God is important to Christians. Not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, has disappeared. Every jot and tittle must be fulfilled. The law is as relevant today as it was on the day God engraved it into the tablets of stone. Therefore, says Jesus,
(Mt 5:1) Anyone who breaks 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 practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
By grace we are forgiven when we break the law. But grace brings more than the forgiveness and redemption we looked at this morning. It also brings obedience and holiness. One of the purposes of grace is to enable us to obey the law.
Let me put it this way: if you do not keep the law you have not received grace. You may have had an emotional or psychological or even a religious experience that you call grace; but it is not grace that you have received if it does not make you keep the law.
What is grace? It is that marvellous free gift of God which delivers a man from the curse of the law and enables him to keep the law. Grace is that which brings me to love God and keep His commandments. "If you love me," says Christ, "you will obey what I command" (John 14:15).
We must never separate these two things. Grace and holiness belong together. Forgiveness and obedience go hand-in-hand.
Topic: Ten CommandmentsThe same is true with God's commands. Fear of punishment or getting caught may check our actions. But it takes a stronger force than that to make us want to obey. That power comes from a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. That power comes from grace.
A sign on the freeway reads, SPEED LIMIT 70. You glance at your speedometer. It registers 75. A car passes you going at least 80. A huge semi follows, sucking you toward the center line. But what about the law, that 70 miles-per-hour sign?
Laws are lifeless words on statute books. They restrain only if power backs them up. Who of us hasn't let up on the gas pedal when a police car appeared in the rearview mirror? That's police power. But can you think of a time when a law or a policeman instilled within you a love for driving 70?
I The Righteousness of the Pharisees
A This evening, in speaking to us about the law, Jesus speaks about the Pharisees and the teachers of the law.
Pharisees have a bad reputation among Christians. To be called a "Pharisee" is almost the worst insult you can give or accusation you can level against a Christian. Yet, let's keep the record straight: not everything about them was wrong. In many ways the scribes and Pharisees were the most outstanding people of their nation.
The scribes, for instance, were men who spent their time teaching and explaining the law; they were the great authorities on the law of God. They gave their whole life to the study and explanation of it. They were the men who made copies of it, exercising great care as they did so.
The Pharisees were the men who were famous for their holiness and sanctity. The very word "Pharisee" means "separatist." They were people who set themselves apart by their careful observation of rules and regulations that they themselves had set up. By their rules and regulations they built a fence around the law. Their intent was twofold: first, to protect the law; second, to prevent themselves from breaking the law. For instance, they fasted twice each week. Now there is no demand in the Old Testament that men should fast twice in the week. Indeed, the Old Testament merely says men should fast once a year. Another example: the Pharisees said that on the Sabbath there is to be no cooking of food, no tying of knots, no loosening of knots, no separating of threads, no baking, no washing, no writing; you are to neither light a fire nor put out a fire. Of course, the Bible doesn't teach any of this. But, to keep the Sabbath holy, the Pharisees built a wall around the fourth commandment.
Everyone in Israel thought of the scribes and Pharisees as paragons of virtue, as examples of morality. The average man said to himself, "Ah, are those Pharisees ever good. There is little hope that I can ever be as good as they are." Even Jesus admired the Pharisees' devotion to the law and so should we. Jesus admired their attempt to keep the law. Imagine the result if we tried as hard as they did to observe God's commandments?!
B In this light, it is surprising – even shocking – to hear the words of Jesus in our text:
(Mt 5:20) For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.Jesus says that the righteousness of the Christian – the very least Christian – must exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees.
How is this possible? How can anyone possibly exceed the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees? As I already said, they were known for their strict observance of the law. We may laugh about their self-imposed rules and regulations, yet no group of people has ever succeeded in surpassing their meticulous obedience to the law.
So how can anyone surpass their righteousness?
C The fact is, as we shall soon find out, their righteousness was not righteous at all. The Pharisees and scribes looked and sounded so righteous, but they weren't. They thought of themselves as being righteous. Others saw them as being righteous. Yet, they deluded themselves and fooled others. Let me call them unconscious hypocrites.
I need to ask if we are the same way. We can look and sound so righteous sitting in church or in the coffee shop or in our homes. But are we deluding ourselves and fooling others? Are we also unconscious hypocrites? That's the question we all need to ask ourselves this evening.
II The False Righteousness of the Pharisees
A As we look through the Gospels we hear many words from Jesus against the scribes and Pharisees; it is Matthew 23 especially that speaks to this. These words allows us to pinpoint exactly what was wrong with the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees; and, they allow us to see how we can surpass their righteousness.
First of all, the righteousness of the Pharisees was external and formal rather than internal and of the heart. The Pharisees made a big show, a big production, out of their righteousness. They prayed on the street corners, they prayed standing up, they prayed out loud. They wanted everyone to see them and hear them when they prayed. When they gave money to the poor they had someone blow a trumpet. Everyone would stop what they were doing and look to see who was giving and how much they were giving. Not for the Pharisees was a hundred dollar bill all folded up and quietly, almost secretly, palmed into the collection plate. No. They would hold up their heavy bags of gold. They would drop the money from on high, so everyone could see the golden trickle of coins and hear the tinkle of coin hitting coin hitting coin.
One time some of the Pharisees were surprised that Jesus' disciples sat down at the table and began to eat without first washing their hands. Jesus replied that the Pharisees are so concerned about the outside, but so negligent about the inside.
(Mat 15:19-20) For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. (20) These are what make a man 'unclean'; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him 'unclean.'In another place Jesus compares the Pharisees to whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean (Mt 23:27).
Title: Whitewashed Tombs
We can compare the scribes and Pharisees to the ship, the Queen Mary. She was the largest ship to cross the oceans when launched in 1936. Through four decades and a World War she served until new owners decided to convert her into a floating hotel and museum in Long Beach, California. During the conversion, her three massive smokestacks were taken off to be scraped down and repainted. But on the dock they crumbled into nothing. It turns out that the 3/4 inch steel plate from which the stacks had been formed had all but corroded away. All that remained were more than thirty coats of paint that had been applied over the years. Those stacks looked so good from the outside, but inside there was nothing but rot and rust.
Anytime, congregation, your religion is merely outward show and not a matter of the heart, your righteousness does not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. Anytime you make a big show of coming to church, giving in the collection plate, being in consistory or on the school board, working on one of the church's committees, your religion is unacceptable to God.
B The second charge which our Lord brought against the scribes and Pharisees was that they were more concerned with the ceremonial than with the moral. Their religion was all ceremony and no morality. As long as he had washed his hands, fasted, offered prayers, and went to the Temple, the Pharisee thought all was well with his soul. All that counts, he thought, was that he had been to temple worship. He did his religious duty. That was sufficient.
It is so easy to have the same kind of attitude today. There is a type of religion which does not hesitate to teach that as long as you go through certain ceremonies – like Sunday morning worship, or baptism, or profession of faith – it does not matter very much what you do with the rest of Sunday or the rest of the week. They think that all is well with their soul because they have done their religious duty.
C The third charge that Jesus brings against the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is that it was full of excuses, of rationalizations. For instance, the Pharisees said that if you devoted your money to God you were thereby excused from giving help to your aged parents. They covered up their greed, their covetousness, their disobedience under a covering of religion (Mt 15:4,5).
We can all rationalize our own sins and explain them away. It is so easy to excuse ourselves for the things we do and do not do. "Everyone does it," we may say. Or, "My partner was in the wrong; that's why I got a divorce." Or, "The government is so wasteful it is dumb of me to declare all my income." This is what the Pharisees did. They twisted things around to make the wrong look right.
D The fourth charge the Lord brings against the Pharisees is that their righteousness was self-centered rather than God-centered. Jesus said,
(Luke 20:46) "Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets."Think also of the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. "The Pharisee stood up," said Jesus, "and prayed about himself." He wasn't praying to God. He was looking in the mirror and praying to himself. He was boasting: "God, I thank you that I am not like other men ..." (Lk 18:11f).
Do you ever do church or kingdom work for your own glory and praise? Do you ever feel superior, just a little bit superior, to others? "Look at the people behind prison walls. I'm not like them!" "Look at the alcoholic, the pregnant teen, the druggie. I'm better than them." "Look at that family. Thank God I work harder than they do." If this is your attitude, your righteousness is no better than that of the Pharisees.
E The fifth charge the Lord lays against the Pharisees is that they have a complete absence of love and concern. They neglected mercy, justice, and faithfulness (Mt 23:23). They devoured widows' houses and dealt harshly with the poor (Lk 20:47).
Is love to be found in your heart? Do you practice mercy, justice, and faithfulness? Do you help the poor and the widow or do you take advantage of them? Are you filled with concern for the hungry and those in prison, or are you indifferent, even cruel, to their suffering?
F The sixth and final charge I want to mention is that the Pharisees thought their righteousness not only earned them a reward but even gained them eternal life. They forgot that no one is righteous, not even one (Ps 14 & 53). They forgot that the good we do is not good enough. They forgot that no one deserves and earns anything; all rewards and salvation itself are only a gift of grace. In effect they were denying the power of sin and the grace of salvation.
I need to ask you, congregation, if you are at all like the Pharisees and scribes: is your religion all show?, is being in church more important than keeping God's law?, do you try to excuse your sins?, are you self-centered or God-centered in your worship?, do you show love?, and do you think you deserve a reward or even eternal life?
And, I need to tell you: if your righteousness is at all like the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven.
(Mt 5:20) For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Finally, let me assure you: by grace – God's wonderful, marvellous grace in Jesus – you and I can surpass the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees! Not on our own – never on our own – but by grace God grants and credits to us the righteousness of Christ Himself!
What is Christ's righteousness like? It is a perfect righteousness, a righteousness that is from the heart, a righteousness that goes beyond show and ceremony, a righteousness that is God-centered, a righteousness that shows love and concern for the poor and the widow and the prisoner.
When we believe then God grants and credits to us this righteousness – a righteousness that surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law.
You can e-mail our pastor at: Pastor, Trinity United Reformed Church
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