A Greater Righteousness – A Whole New Ball Game Matthew 5:17-20 and 5:48.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, to the British Viceroy of India, “When your country and mine shall get together on the teachings laid down by Christ in this Sermon on the Mount, we shall have solved the problems not only of our countries but those of the whole world.” Many people regard Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5, 6 and 7 to be the greatest moral teaching in history. Very many people who would not call themselves Christians still know some of the greatest sayings. Love your enemies. Turn the other cheek. Go the extra mile. Augustine of Hippo described the Sermon on the Mount as “a perfect standard of the Christian life.” John Stott wrote, “The Sermon on the Mount is the most complete delineation anywhere in the New Testament of the Christian counter-culture. Here is a Christian value-system, ethical standard, religious devotion, attitude to money, ambition, lifestyle and network of relationships–all of which are totally at variance with those in the non-Christian world. And this Christian counter-culture is the life of the kingdom of God, a fully human life indeed but lived out under the divine rule.”
A few years ago we looked at the first part of the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, in a series of sermons on The Upside-Down Kingdom. I will share those sermons in a booklet this week. Over the next couple of months we will study the rest of these chapters, although a whole year of sermons would not begin to do them justice. Today we will begin with an overview of the message of the Sermon on the Mount. Some people see similarities between Jesus and Moses going up a mountain. Moses went up Mount Sinai and God gave him the Ten Commandments and the Jewish Law. Some people think that here Jesus is replacing the Old Testament Law by giving Christians a new set of rules to live by. But that isn’t the case at all. Jesus said,
Matthew 5 17 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.
In his ministry Jesus often said things which challenged the Jews, especially his greatest opponents the Pharisees. And after his death and resurrection, the first Christians wrestled with an important question. Do Christians have to obey the Jewish Law? So this saying was important not only during his ministry but also for the church through the centuries. Jesus makes clear he had not come to dismantle the authority of the Old Testament. Not the Jewish Law which was contained in the first five books from Genesis to Deuteronomy. Nor the Prophets with all their teaching on the future hope of salvation. Jesus was not demolishing the Old Testament. Rather, he had come to be the fulfilment of all that the Law and the Prophets had promised. The Old Testament prepared the way for Jesus. In his earthly life and ministry and even in his death, Jesus would fulfil everything which the Jews were expecting from their Messiah, their Saviour. Jesus would be the only person in history who would, or even could, obey the letter and the spirit of the Jewish Law. In doing that, Jesus was the Saviour who the Law and the Prophets pointed towards. As a result, after Jesus came the function of the Old Testament changed. The Law and the Prophets were not abolished, but the task of pointing forward to Jesus was completed.
Dick France was one of the world’s greatest authorities on Matthew’s Gospel. I had the immense privilege of being a student of Dick’s at London Bible College. In his commentary on Matthew, Dick paraphrases chapter 5 verse 17 like this. “Far from wanting to set aside the law and the prophets, it is my role to bring into being that to which they have pointed forward, to carry them on into a new era of fulfillment.” He continues, “On this understanding the authority of the law and the prophets is not abolished. They remain the authoritative word of God. But their role will no longer be the same, now that what they pointed forward to has come, and it will be for Jesus’ followers to discern in the light of his teaching and practice what is now the right way to apply those texts in the new situation which his coming has created. From now on it will be the authoritative teaching of Jesus which must govern his disciples’ understanding and practical application of the law.”
In other words, Jesus has obeyed the Law and fulfilled the Law. So now his disciples do not have to obey all the Jewish Law. Instead we must follow Jesus and obey Jesus. But before we breathe a sigh of relief and think that will be easy, Jesus goes on to explain that far from being an easy option, following him raises the bar for Christian living to a whole new level.
Matthew 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.
The New Revised Standard Version translates this as, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees,
The New Living Translation puts it, 20 For I tell you that if your righteousness does not go far beyond that of the scribes and Pharisees.
None of these is strong enough. The word means to abound or to overflow. Jesus is saying that the standard of right living which the kingdom of God demands isn’t just higher than the Pharisees were aiming at. It’s in a different league. The right living God expects of Christians is a whole new ball game!
The Pharisees were the most scrupulous and religious Jews in the world. Going beyond their righteousness would sound like an impossible task. But Dick France explains it this way. “The paradox of Jesus’ demand here makes sense only if their basic premise as to what “righteousness” consists of is put in question. Jesus is not talking about beating the scribes and Pharisees at their own game, but about a different level or concept of righteousness altogether.” People who are only keeping a set of rules, however successfully they do that, haven’t even started as far as the Kingdom of God is concerned.
We must say two things at this point. The first is that Jesus is NOT laying out a standard of life which Christians have to achieve in order to be saved. That isn’t now grace works. God saves us out of his free love. As we put our trust in Jesus, God forgives our sins and gives us the completely free gift of eternal life. We are not earning or deserving our salvation – we never could. We are saved through God’s amazing grace. But once we have this new life, the way we live should be different to the way we lived before. And that standard of right living is so much higher than that of the Pharisees, who in Jesus’s time were the most committed and religious Jews. Our lives should show the difference Jesus makes.
The second point which is vital to understand is that the Sermon on the Mount does not just replace one set of rules in the Jewish Law with a different set of rules which Christians must follow. Reading Dick France’s paraphrase, “Do not imagine that simply keeping all those rules will bring salvation. For I tell you truly: it is only those whose righteousness of life goes far beyond the old policy of literal rule-keeping which the scribes and Pharisees represent who will prove to be God’s true people in this era of fulfillment”
Life in the kingdom of God is not about a list of rules to follow but a way to live. The Sermon on the Mount gives us a model of the perfect Christian life because it shows us how to live as Jesus lived. It gives us general principles and each of us have to work out for ourselves how to apply those principles in our own lives. How to love our enemies. How to enter through the narrow gate and walk on the narrow path. How to store up treasures in heaven. How to do to others what you would have them do to you. How to build our lives on the rock and not on the sand. So the Sermon on the Mount is a manifesto for radical discipleship. It is a change of perspective – a reversal of everything the world tells us to believe and do. It shows us how to live like Jesus did. To make it absolutely clear how much of a challenge this will be, at the end of Matthew 5 Jesus makes a statement which sums up the whole of his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount and everywhere else as well
Matthew 5 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
That doesn’t just take the standard of righteous living up a notch or two from obeying a set of rules. It really is a whole new ball game! The bar for righteousness is God’s righteousness – God’s perfection, God’s holiness. Just as perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. Again, to be clear, Jesus is not saying that we have to achieve this level of moral perfection or spiritual maturity in order to be saved. We are saved by God’s grace alone. But Jesus is saying that now we are saved, the standard for right living which we should all be aiming for must be nothing less than God’s perfect righteousness. And if we want to see what righteous living according to the Sermon on the Mount would look like, we just need to look at Jesus, the visible image of the invisible God. Jesus Christ, the Son of God who lived a sinless life will be our example. In every situation we face, the simple slogan asks the right question. “W.W.J.D? What Would Jesus Do?” Oswald Chambers put it this way. “The Sermon on the Mount is a statement of the life we will live when the Holy Spirit is having His way with us.” This is how disciples should live.
Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “Most people are willing to take the Sermon on the Mount as a flag to sail under, but few will use it as a rudder by which to steer.” It isn’t enough just to know what Jesus was teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. We have to live by it. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Humanly speaking, it is possible to understand the Sermon on the Mount in a thousand different ways. But Jesus knows only one possibility: simple surrender and obedience – not interpreting or applying it, but doing and obeying it. That is the only way to hear his words. He does not mean for us to discuss it as an ideal. He really means for us to get on with it.”
Taking righteous living to a completely different level. A whole new ball game! We will see more of what this means in our daily lives in the weeks to come.
Matthew 5 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

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