A greater righteousness – your mind matters! Matthew 5:21-30
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus sets out the pattern and the standard for Christian living for all who follow him. But as we saw two weeks ago, Jesus doesn’t in any way replace the Old Testament commandments with a new set of rules. Nor does he just raise the bar for right living a bit higher than that of the most religious people of his day, the Pharisees. What God expects of his people as they live under his rule as King is in a different league altogether. Christian living is a whole new ball game.
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.
Jesus is asking for a different kind of righteousness altogether. My old professor Dick France paraphrased the words of Jesus like this. “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”
As we said last time, it is not that Christians have to achieve this new level of right living in order to be saved. We are only ever saved by grace alone through faith alone. But now we are saved, the standard we must aim at is the standard of righteousness of God himself. Matthew 5:48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
We are seeking to live like Jesus who embodied the Sermon on the Mount in everything he said and did. We are not trying to live by some set of rules but rather by the simple question, “What Would Jesus Do?” So the Sermon on the Mount gives us a number of examples and principles and we each need to work out how these will apply in our own lives. And the first general principle we find is in many ways the most demanding. Because Jesus teaches us that God doesn’t just care about our actions and our words. Righteous living starts with our thoughts and with our attitudes.
Matthew 5:21 21 “You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, Do not murder,, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment. 22 But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Whoever insults his brother or sister, will be subject to the court. Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be subject to hellfire.,
In God’s eyes, anger and hatred are just as much sins as murder. When we are seeking to please God in everything we say and do, we have to start by taking control of the things we think about and over the attitudes we have towards other people. And Jesus then teaches us that this principle applies just as much in the area of sex.
27 “You have heard that it was said, Do not commit adultery., 28 But I tell you, everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
Sinful thoughts are as serious as sinful actions. The Seventh Commandment says do not commit adultery, but we can break that commandment in our heart by dwelling on lustful thoughts. The root problem in murder is anger and hatred. The root problem in adultery is lust. To avoid sin we must deal with the underlying issues and resist the temptations to sinful thoughts and sinful attitudes.
We thought about this four years ago in our series of sermons on the Ten Commandments when we came to the tenth Commandment. Nine of the Ten Commandments are concerned with actions – the things God’s people should and should not do or say. But the principle that holy living begins with holy thinking was already there in the Tenth Commandment. Sinful actions and sinful words arise from sinful thoughts. So the Tenth Commandment says, “Do not covet.” Coveting, craving, hankering after, longing for, simply means an illegitimate desire for something which belongs to somebody else. Coveting other people’s stuff.
Exodus 20:17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
The Message: “No lusting after your neighbor’s house—or wife or servant or maid or ox or donkey. Don’t set your heart on anything that is your neighbor’s.”
Sinful actions and sinful words spring from sinful thoughts. Indeed we see this right from the very beginning of human history when sin entered the world when the devil tempted Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. Genesis 3 6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.
Sin entered God’s perfect creation at the moment when Eve took something she was not allowed to have. She saw the stuff and she coveted the stuff and so she took the stuff. God’s perfect Creation was wrecked by sinful thoughts.
The Letter of James explains how temptation works like this.
James 1 13 When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14 but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
So temptation begins with evil desires and sinful thoughts. If we want to live holy lives, the challenge is not to give in to those evil desires or sinful thoughts. The first impulse is not a sin. But dwelling on a sinful thought so that it becomes a sinful desire is asking for trouble. Martin Luther once said, “You can’t stop a bird from landing on your head, but you can stop him from building a nest in your hair.”
The old saying is true. “Sow a thought, you reap an action. Sow an action, you reap a habit. Sow a habit, you reap a character. Sow a character, you reap a destiny.”
If we are serious about living holy lives and resisting temptation we need to start with our thought life.
“The mind is a garden that could be cultivated to produce the harvest that we desire.
The mind is a workshop where the important decisions of life and eternity are made.
The mind is an armoury where we forge the weapons for our victory or our destruction.
The mind is a battlefield where all the decisive battles of life are won or lost.”
Paul wrote in Romans 12:1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. 2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Your mind matters! Our minds need to be renewed.
“Don’t let the world around squeeze you into its own mould, but let God remould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.” (Romans 12:2 in J.B.Phillips translation)
In the Beatitudes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had already said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Matthew 5:8)
As the old hymn puts it:
Blessed are the pure in heart For they shall see their God
The secret of the Lord is theirs, Their soul is Christ’s abode
Still to the lowly soul He doth Himself impart
And for His dwelling and His throne chooseth the pure in heart.
In our modern thinking the heart is all about feeling and emotions. But in Jesus’s time the heart was the centre of human thinking and choosing and deciding. A pure heart was all about pure thinking. About character and personality. Becoming holy through and through. Developing a pure heart is about developing a Christ-like mind. A mind and character unspoiled by sin. God sees our thoughts and our attitudes as clearly as He sees our actions. So our thoughts and our attitudes affect our relationship with God just as much as our actions. Being pure in heart is about a mind unspoiled by sinful thoughts and equally a mind unspoiled by sinful attitudes. Unspoiled by pride or selfishness or greed. If we want to become holy through and through, if we want to develop the mind of Christ in our own lives, we need to keep sin out of our thinking. So we need to watch carefully what we read, what we listen to and the company we keep. In today’s world we need to think hard about what we watch on television and read on the internet. We can’t pray “lead us not into temptation” if we deliberately put ourselves into situations where we know we are likely to be tempted.
What will this kind of righteous living look like in practice? The battle to live a holy life begins with holy thoughts.
1 Peter 2 11 Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.
Abstain from sinful desires. This tells us that evil desires are something we can choose to abstain from, just as some people choose to abstain from alcohol, or indeed some of us might need to abstain from chocolate cake. The challenge is that abstaining from sinful desires is a much more inward and personal battle. Other people can’t see what we are thinking about. But God still does.
Our minds need to be renewed. If we want to avoid falling into sin we need to get rid of the deceitful desires of our old self. And it also helps to give our attention good and wholesome things.
Philippians 4 8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
We can crowd sin out by filling our minds with good and wholesome things. By reading the Bible. By reading Christian books and magazines and wholesome websites and blogs. By joining in Bible study and discussion and sharing in fellowship. By worship and praise and prayer.
Righteous living starts with pure thinking. And the stakes could not be higher! As Jesus immediately goes on to say this.
29 If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
Here Jesus is using a form of language called hyperbole. Hyperbole just means making a point by using exaggeration or overstatement, by using words which are not meant to be taken literally. We say, “it’s raining cats and dogs”. We know that isn’t literally true – it just means it is raining very heavily. The Jews used hyperbole a lot, and Jesus did too. Remember how Jesus criticized his opponents, “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” These verses are hyperbole. Through the centuries Christians have not generally felt led to obey these commands and mutilate themselves. The language is extreme to emphasise just how serious a problem sin is. If the things we are looking at are causing us to have evil thoughts, we would be better off blind. If we are tempted to sinful actions we would be better off if we lost our hand than if we sinned. Of course that is because sin carries the death penalty – and not just murder or adultery as in the Law of Moses. All sin bring the consequence of separation from God which is eternal death. Jesus is saying we would be better off blind than dead. Better off maimed than dead. Sin is that serious!
Jesus is using exaggeration and overstatement. But his point is very clear. Avoiding sin is a matter of life and death. Hatred is as much a sin as murder. Lust is as much a sin as adultery. Holy living has to begin with holy thinking. When it comes to this whole new ball game of righteous living – your mind matters!