A different standard - Matthew 5:17-20

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 2nd March 2003.

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‘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.’ And I guess many of us would sympathise with that definition. Today, 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. Identity-who we are then merges into image-what we want to appear to be. So the old adage ‘You are what you eat’ has been changed into ‘You are what you wear.’

And the dominance of style found its zenith in the fashion industry as vaunted by Diana Vreeland ,editor of Vogue. Her motto was ‘fake it, fake it.’ Never mind about the facts ,she used to say, ‘project the image to the public.’ The art of success ,according to Vreeland, is to create a world ‘as you feel it to be, as you wish it to be, as you wish it into being.’

Of course the person who has elevated style to the level of a new art form is Madonna. She lives out the clichthat the medium is the message. 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 and Jackson 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 coalesce so one is very difficult to distinguish from the other.

Now this evening I want to suggest to you that Madonna is not alone. The surrender of reality to image; the sacrifice of personal integrity for the sake of public reputation is a danger we all constantly face. And nowhere is this more prevalent than amongst religious people-people like you and me. The pressure to put on a ‘show’ is very strong. 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. You see, nothing has changed all that much for in Jesus’ day religious people were very much concerned with creating impressions. Whereas Madonna carefully choreographs her shows, these religious people carefully choreographed their lives. They wanted to make absolutely sure that they did not put a foot wrong. And these religious people were called Pharisees and Scribes.- teachers of the law.

Now the moment we hear that word ‘Pharisee’ we have a serious 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 the wrong picture. Instead think- the Rotarian, the Bishop, the kindly Headteacher, the sort of people you might not feel too embarrassed being seen hanging around with-the good, solid, middle-class, moral majority type. That is the Pharisee- he the good guy. 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 impressive-the role model. But obviously not impressive enough 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- the substance- 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.’ How can the followers of Jesus have a lifestyle, a way of living which is beyond that of the most religious of the religious? Well, lets 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 fulfill 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 fulfiling the Old testament and abolishing it.

Now the key word here is ‘fulfil.’ The contrast being made is between abolishing the law and the prophets, which Jesus has not come to do, and fulfilling them, which is what he has come to do. Notice it is not just ‘the law’ but the law and the prophets bracketed together i.e. the whole of the OT Scriptures. So how does Jesus fulfil these? Well, we have already been given a clue earlier in the Gospel. In 2:15 Jesus is said to have fulfilled Hosea’s prophecy -that God’s ‘son’ would be called out of Egypt - originally that applied to Israel- God’s ‘son’ and the exodus, now it applies to God’s true Son and the Exodus -the escape- he will accomplish at the cross, the rescue from sin and death. Jesus insisted that John baptise him in order to ‘fulfil’ all righteousness, so completing what God requires of him in order to carry out his ministry. So by fulfilling the OT Jesus is going to bring about all that it pointed towards and so bring about its completion. What is it that they point to? It is that God himself would come to rescue a fallen humanity in the form of a suffering King, involving sacrifice. That was the promise made to Abraham in Genesis 12 and 18 ,that through one of his descendants all the nations would be blessed. How this would happen is suggested by the call for Abraham to sacrifice his ‘one and only son’ Isaac in Genesis 22, but with God providing a substitute instead in the form of a ram. It is what is promised through Moses and pictured in the sacrificial system, and then later to David that he would have a descendant who would reign forever- 2 Sam 7 and Psalm 2. It is the prophesy of Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 regarding one who would die for the sins of the people- and on they went until all these pictures, patterns and types find their reality and completion in the one God- man Jesus Christ. So in this prophetic sense everything in those OT scriptures was to be fulfilled and will not be thwarted ‘until heaven and earth disappear.’ So when Jesus fulfills all of these things- dying as a sacrifice for sins, so we can be a forgiven people; rising from the dead so we can be a victorious people with death defeated; ascending into heaven and giving the gift of the Holy Spirit so that we can be an empowered people with the law of God written on our hearts- then v18 no longer applies, because then everything has been accomplished. The only thing left to be accomplished is his return- that is when heaven and earth will pass away. So why do Christians no longer need to offer animal sacrifices for sin? It is because Christ offered himself as the final sacrifice for sin. Why do Christians no longer need to avoid eating certain foods? Because the symbolism of not eating food that pagans eat-namely that God’s people are to be different, is now fulfilled in the people Jesus makes different. Do you see?

So what does v 19 refer to? ‘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.’ . Is it referring back to the OT commandments or is it referring forward to Jesus commandments which he is about to give - ‘You heard it said, but I say to you...’ ? What is the focus of what Jesus is saying? Well, it is the kingdom of heaven and he is the King who is giving his new commands to his people. In other words, the ‘these commandments’ is referring to his teaching which his disciples are meant to follow. Do you remember how Matthew’s Gospel ends? Mtt 28:19-20 ‘Jesus came to them and said, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.’ So Jesus followers are meant to both teach and practice what Jesus himself taught and practiced.

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 are wanting to please the Lord Jesus, then we have to seek to apply the whole of his teaching to the whole of our life. 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 next week, thought should be given by men on how they should 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. Well, 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- the way of Christian liberty.

And the rest of the sermon is an illustration of a 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 Pharisee way of doing things and the Jesus’ way. In each case a commandment is taken from the old testament and Jesus contrasts the way the religious handle them and the way his followers are to handle them and the contrast could not be greater.

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 to 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. And I am sure you are all exceptions here tonight.

Now, the Pharisaic approach to the Bible is just that. It is centers 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 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 to which what I have just read 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 weird, you really care for what God is saying. You are different.’ And that is because you are different, for have been born again. You have had a spiritual regeneration which is from above by the Holy Spirit. 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.

And it could 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. 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 the real fishing for men and women will begin.

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