Being better - Matthew 5:17-20
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
‘Advertising’ says the cynic ‘is the art of getting people to buy what they don’t need by describing it in ways they know are not true.’ You know as well as I do that in the West, advertising is more than big business it is a way of life, for what is most commonly associated with advertising is now the very thing which shapes the way many people look and behave. And what that something is, is of course, style. And what is style- but self-advertising. To choose a certain style is to choose a certain image we want to project to the world. And so, identity-who we are -merges into image-what we want to appear to be. So the old adage ‘You are what you eat’ (which I think is attributed to the philosopher Nietzsche) has been transmuted into ‘You are what you wear.’ The whole fashion industry is totally dependent upon us believing this.
Now the person who elevated style to the level of a whole new art form is Madonna. I know Madge is getting on a bit now but she really does live out the cliché that the ‘medium is the message’. So she has total control over her shows, she writes the songs, produces the music, choreographs the dances, designs the stage set and even does her own make-up and costumes. Richard Morrison of the Times says this about her: ‘The likes of Madonna …. aim to offer what can only be called the total egocentric experience: they control every aspect of their acts and are willing to dissolve the line where art ends and reality begins.’ In other words, for Madonna, image and reality merge so one is difficult to distinguish from the other.
Now this evening I want to suggest to you that Madonna is not alone. The surrender of substance to style; the sacrifice of personal integrity for the sake of public image is a danger we all constantly face. And nowhere is this more prevalent than amongst religious people-people like you and me. The temptation to put on a ‘show’ in order to impress our friends, our parents, or even our ministers (and possibly God) is very, very strong- it’s called hypocrisy. So let’s turn to Matthew 5:17-20 and see how this works out for Christians as we look at in terms of a series of three contrasts.
First of all, there is the contrast between inner reality and outward appearance, which is what lies behind Jesus insistence that his followers must have a righteousness that surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law in verse 20. You see, nothing has changed all that much for in Jesus’ day religious people were very much concerned with creating impressions as we are in our day. Whereas Madonna choreographs her shows, these religious people choreographed their lives. They wanted to make absolutely sure that they did not put a foot wrong, they wanted to be as certain as they could be that they had ticked all the boxes (which they made up themselves) so that when they came to the pearly gates they could go through with their heads held high
Now the moment we hear that word ‘Pharisee’ we have a communication problem. Because for us ‘Pharisee’ has come to be equated with ‘religious hypocrite’, the bad guys, the fanatical religious fundamentalists- the sort who, if they were around today, would have semtex strapped to their chest in order to blow up school buses for the sake of their cause. That is entirely the wrong picture. These were not seen as the fundamentalist weirdoes, but the neat and respectable. So when we hear the word ‘Pharisee’ we are to think- Rotarian, Bishop, Headteacher, doctor, the sort of people we might not feel too embarrassed to be seen hanging around with-the good, solid, middle-class, moral majority types. That is the Pharisee. In the old western films he would have been wearing the white hat. In other words, these were the people you looked up to. The prayer of the Pharisee in Luke 18 gives a pretty accurate insight into how these people operated, he did fast twice a week and give a tenth of his income away. The Pharisee was by definition -the role model. But not according to Jesus, because his followers are to have a righteousness which exceeds that of the most religiously committed, for he wants followers who are not primarily concerned with external appearances-the image, but inner reality- hence 5:20. ‘For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.’ So here’s the thing: how can the followers of Jesus have a lifestyle, a way of living which goes way beyond that of the most religious of the religious? Well, let’s go back to what Jesus first of all has to say about his relationship with the Old Testament -vv 17- 18. "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. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen; will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.’
Here then, is the second contrast, between fulfilling the Old Testament and abolishing it.
The fact that Jesus had to say ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets’ means that at least he anticipates that this is what some people will claim he is doing, as if Jesus turns up on the scene and says, ‘The Old Testament taught this, but I am going to teach you something entirely different’. And of course you do get folk today who pit the Old Testament against the New Testament as if they were in conflict with each other. That is not how Jesus sees it. He hasn’t come to loosen the ‘law and the prophets’ a term embracing the whole of the Old Testament Scriptures, rather he came to ‘fulfil’ them. How? The word fulfil (pleroo) occurs 16 times in Matthew Gospel. Twelve of these occur in relation to the fulfilment of prophecy. The other three occasions, not counting the one here in verse 17, point to the completion and finality of something. So in chapter 3:15 we have Jesus saying to John the Baptist that there must the ‘filling’ of covenant obligations in baptism-so John should baptise Jesus even though he is sinless. Then in chapter 13:48 there is the ‘filling’ of a net with fish, and in chapter 23:32 the ‘filling up’ of God’s judgement. And so it would seem that the meaning in verse 17 is that in the new age of King Jesus, amongst the Messiah’s new community the full and final expression of the law will be manifest. God’s will and purposes as they steadily unfold in the Old Testament in a variety of different forms- law, narrative, ritual, prophecy- those purposes of God are not set aside, rather they find their truest expression in Jesus and those who follow him. So Jesus followers are meant both to teach and practice what Jesus himself taught and practiced; we are to be rigorous in applying God’s good purposes to our lives, having ways of living which are righteous which will mark us out as distinct, like a city on a hill, so people will look and say, ‘So that is what it means to live a life under the loving rule of King Jesus’. And this is to continue until the end of the age, when everything has been accomplished, namely when all that Christ came into the world to achieve. Of course some of the specific Old Testament laws don’t apply in that they have been fulfilled by Jesus in a specific sense and are therefore no longer operative- for example, offering sacrifices for sin, because Jesus offered himself as the ultimate sacrifice and so fulfilling the law and the prophets. But in a deeper way, to which the law and the prophets point, Christians are to be offering sacrifices every single day- ‘the sacrifice of praise-the fruit of lips that confess his name’, according to Hebrews 13:15. We can offer those kinds of sacrifice and so fulfil the law and the prophets because Jesus offered himself as the sacrifice and so fulfilling the law and the prophets. Do you see the connection?
It is interesting how within the church, as well as in the world, fashions come and go. I don’t mean what people wear but what people do. An earlier generation of evangelicals in the 1930’s through the fifties and late sixties really did take Jesus seriously at this point. There was a desire to bring the whole of life under his rule. The problem, however, was the tendency to lapse into a new form of legalism, so to be a ‘proper’ Christian meant that there was a whole list of things you didn’t do- you didn’t go to the cinema, you didn’t dance, you didn’t wear make up (and that was just the girls), you didn’t drink or smoke and on and on it went. Now while it may have been possible to argue that in some contexts some of these things may not have been wise, it was going beyond Scripture to imply that they were sinful. But it seems today that we have gone to the other extreme so that little if any thought goes into what we do-after all, it is said, ‘we are not under law but under grace.’ True, but that does not mean anything goes. If we want to please the Lord Jesus, then we have to seek to apply the whole of his teaching to the whole of our lives. So a Christian should give some consideration to how much it is appropriate to drink or whether in some cases it might be better not to drink at all. As we shall see in a little more detail in a few weeks time, thought should be given by men on how they relate to women and women should think about how, for example they should dress, bearing in mind the flow of male hormones. The giving of a tenth of one’s income was taken as read at one time by Christians, but now if there is any thought to giving it tends to be an after thought. The older generation may have taken things a little to far in the direction of legalism, but our generation may have taken things too far in the other direction of license so there is scarcely any observable difference between the Christian and non-Christian. So maybe our parents and grandparents had something we have lost.
So what is it that Jesus’ followers are to do? Here is the shock of v20. Jesus is saying that the most religious, upright, and morally zealous are not even in the Kingdom of heaven. That is the implication. If Jesus’ followers’ way of life-righteousness- does not exceed that of the Pharisees, such that they will not enter the kingdom of heaven, that can only mean that the Pharisees are not even on the starting block. You can imagine Jesus disciples sitting there and thinking- ‘Well who on earth can enter God’s kingdom then? Because if the best of the best can’t get in, then we have no chance.’ So in what way is the righteousness of Christians to outstrip that of the most devout religious and moral animal ever to walk the face of the earth? How are Christians to be different?
This brings us to a way which lies between the extremes of legalism on the one hand and license on the other- namely, the way of Christian liberty.
The rest of the Sermon on the Mount is an illustration and application of this principle which we must grasp if we want to enter into God’s kingdom. In the remaining chapter, Jesus gives 6 case studies which show the difference between the Pharisees’ way of doing things and the Jesus’ way of doing things. In each case a commandment is taken from the Old Testament and Jesus contrasts the way the religious handle those commandments and the way his followers are to handle them and the contrast could not be greater. And that it is with living righteous lives, being concerned with the spirit and not just the letter of the law, attitudes as well as actions, is underscored by the way this section ends in chapter 7: 12, ‘So in everything do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the law and the prophets.’ It is exactly the same phrase. This means that everything Jesus is teaching about from chapter 5:17- to chapter 7:12 is all about how his followers fulfil the law and the prophets by living lives God intended us to live by his grace.
It is really a contrast of two methods in morality which is out third contrast. The Pharisaic method is the principle of minimum requirement whereas the Kingdom method is the principle of maximum application. Minimum requirement/maximum application.
Let me use an illustration to show the difference. It is what tends to happen with students. You are given a list of 10 essay topics and you are asked to choose one and write 1500 words on it. What do you do? You look for the one you are interested in, which is the easiest one to do and has the shortest bibliography. That is the one you choose. Then you go to the lecturer and say, ‘This is the shortest bibliography isn’t it? Is there one book which covers everything else? And is there a summary of that book? And when you say 1500 words would 1450 be all right? is it 3 or 400 words either side of the number, not that you ever intended to write 1800, but you never know your luck-maybe 1200 would do. Then with the modern Word Processor you put on your word count to make sure that you are well within the limit and the barest minimum has been done. That is because as a modern student what matters is not getting education as such but a qualification. The reason you are writing this stuff is because you have to in order to qualify. Yes, there are exceptions, those totally sold on the subject, but what we really have our eyes on his that piece of paper at the end of it all isn’t it? And not wasting too much time in getting it-so minimum effort to get the maximum qualification.
Now, the Pharisaic approach to the Bible is just that. It is centres on the question: ‘What is the minimum I can do to be acceptable?’ Jesus talks about praying, what does that mean? Is it twice a day, three times, would a quick prayer over the washing up or on the way to work be OK? That is the Pharisee talking. Jesus talks about loving your enemies. But what is an enemy? Is it someone who has declared war on me? Is it the person I find an annoyance? When am I to forgive him and how many times- 7 or 70 times 7, so I can give up at 491? That is the Pharisee mentality. And, let me say, there is a lot of it about.
But the kingdom method is wholly different .It operates at the level of maximum application. Here you approach the word of God and ask ‘Where else in my life can I apply this?’ What other areas are there of what I have just read where it can be worked out?’ You maximise the application in order to live out the Christian life, rather than minimise it in order to qualify for the Christian life. Do you see the difference? And when you do that, you will appear as different and as mad as the student who wants to write all ten essays. The world will look at you and think that you are from another planet. Men are from Mars, women are from Venus and Christians are from Pluto! They will ask ‘What has happened to you? You are strange, for you really care about what God is saying. You are different.’ And that is because you are different, you are the salt of the earth and the light of the world because you have come to Jesus poor in spirit, knowing you can’t keep the law, that you need grace and forgiveness and Jesus, who, is the only person to have ever kept the law perfectly and so fulfilling it, is the one who gives you these things. You don’t keep the plan and purposes of God-the law and the prophets in order to come to Christ, you come to Christ in order to fulfil God’s plan and purposes in your life. And so you are not interested in qualifying anymore, you are interested in serving. You are not just concerned with outward appearance, you want the inner reality. In fact it is because you are changed on the inside by God’s Spirit that the outside gets changed too.
Could it be that it is at this point you have been going wrong. You have been labouring under the mistaken impression that being a Christian is all a matter of ticking off the right boxes, doing the bare minimum to qualify and so it is proving a tedious business. If so then what you need to do is to come to the King, giving over everything to him and saying take me as I am, enable me by your Spirit in joyful gratitude to take your teaching seriously and radically, and change me. Because it is when that happens more and more, that our friends and family will begin to take notice and people will give praise to your Father because of your good deeds.
Copyright information: The sermon texts are copyright and are available for personal use only. If you wish to use them in other ways, please contact us for permission.