Do Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:20, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” contradict our Protestant understanding of justification by faith alone? To answer that question, we need to understand what Jesus is saying in verses 17-19. This sermon explores these verses. In the process, I talk about the inspiration of scripture and the way in which Jesus fulfills the Old Testament.
Sermon Text: Matthew 5:17-20
[No audio or video this week due to an iPhone error. They will be available for next week’s sermon.]
Leah Remini, the actress who played Doug’s wife, Carrie, on the TV show King of Queens for many years made news in 2013 when she announced to the world that she was leaving the Church of Scientology—after being an active member of the cult for 35 years. Over the past couple of months, she produced an eight-part documentary on the A&E Network about Scientology—and the great harm it does to its followers. Which is kind of brave—because they have an army of lawyers and private investigators and more money than they know what to do with. They will use these resources to try to ruin your life!
As Remini describes in the documentary, the path to spiritual enlightenment that scientology promises involves spending basically all your time and all your money on classes, books, and so-called “auditing” sessions. All together, she estimated that she spent nearly $5 million on Scientology.
After all the money, all the time, all the work, she was supposed to have reached a level of spiritual enlightenment at which point she was completely free from fear and anxiety; she was in a place of perfect peace—a place free of pain and suffering. And did she achieve that? “No,” she said, “not even close.”
Even after all that money… all that work. And I do mean work. She said that when she wasn’t working on King of Queens, she was taking Scientology classes—from 8:00 in the morning until 10:00 at night. Every day. She spent much of her time in Clearwater, Florida, which is the international headquarters of Scientology. At one point, the documentary shows her walking on the beach in Clearwater, and she said, “This is the first time I’ve ever been to the beach.” The first time? And she’s like, “Yes, you don’t get vacation time in Scientology.”
In a cover story on Remini a couple of years ago, People magazine interviewed the actress, who had started going back to a real church—the church in which she was baptized as a child, before Scientology. She told the magazine that she feels no pressure there: no one was demanding all her money, all her time, all her energy. She said, “I just sit in church and pray… Sometimes I don’t do anything. To me it’s what religion is supposed to be—a beautiful thing.”
It’s hard not to be reminded of Jesus’ comforting words: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
We like those words. But Jesus’ words in today’s scripture, we’re not so sure about: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Keep in mind: Jesus’ original audience wouldn’t be able to hear those words without gulping: After all, not many people would accuse the scribes or Pharisees of being un-righteous. They were role-models of righteousness. And no one would accuse them of being lazy, either. When it came to working hard and dedicating themselves completely to their religion, they could have given Leah Remini a run for her money. Is Jesus saying, “You have to work even harder than them in order to be saved?” Is he saying that we’re saved based on what we do?
And do Jesus’ words contradict what the apostle Paul tells us again and again in his letters—that we’re saved by God’s grace alone through faith alone?
Well, to understand Jesus’ challenging words in verse 20, we have to first understand what he’s saying in verses 17 through 19. Let’s look at those verses now.
“Do not think,” Jesus says, “that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” Now, when Jesus refers to the “Law and the Prophets” in verse 17, or even “the Law” in verse 18, Bible scholars tells us that this is shorthand for saying, “the entire Bible”—which at the time was what we would call the Old Testament.
And he’s saying two very important things about the Bible.
First, he’s saying that the Bible—every word of it—is given to us by God. And every word of it matters. That’s what Jesus believed. Why do I say that? Well, notice Jesus refers to “an iota” and a “dot.” Jesus would have been referring to tiny strokes in letters of the Hebrew alphabet. But for us that “iota or dot” would be similar to the crossing of a “t” or the dotting of “i” in our own alphabet—or putting an apostrophe or a punctuation mark in the right place. Or distinguishing a lowercase “q” from a lowercase “g” by adding a curl to the end of the stem. That’s the level of detail that Jesus is talking about. And he’s saying, in so many words, that God cared about each of those details in the Word that he gave us.
The end result of all this, as New Testament scholar N.T. Wright said, is that God ensured that we the Church have exactly the Bible that God wanted us to have.
And I know it’s controversial to talk about the inspiration of scripture. Christians fight about this all the time. Just last December, megachurch pastor Andy Stanley got into hot water for saying that you don’t need to believe in the Virgin Birth in order to be saved. In his defense, Stanley himself believes in the Virgin Birth. But he said that many would-be Christians who come to his church have a hard time believing the Virgin Birth—on scientific grounds. So he doesn’t want that doctrine to stand in the way of their following Jesus and being saved.
While I’m sympathetic with Stanley’s desire to reach skeptical people, I have to wonder: Why is it hard to believe in the Virgin Birth? Or more accurately, “Why is it harder to believe in the Virgin Birth than any other miracle in the Bible?” At the heart of Christian faith, after all, is the belief in one very large miracle: that God raised Jesus bodily, physically from the dead. There’s no getting around that. Even Andy Stanley would agree that believing in the bodily resurrection of Jesus is necessary for salvation—Paul says so in Romans 10:9: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” So if we already believe that God raised Jesus from the dead—which means we also believe that God himself became incarnate in Jesus, which is another great miracle—is it so much harder to believe that God conceived Jesus in Mary’s womb without a human father? Also as Christians we already believe he created Adam and Eve without a human father or mother—in fact, we believe he created the universe and everything in it out of nothing!
So is it that big of a stretch to believe that the Creator the universe conceived Jesus in Mary’s womb without a human father?
So maybe our salvation isn’t at stake in the question of whether we have to believe in the Virgin Birth. But you know what is at stake? Confidence in God’s Word. Trust in God’s Word. The firm conviction that God is telling the truth through this Word that he gave us. That we can stake our lives on what God reveals here about himself and his Son Jesus. That we can literally lay down our lives for the sake of what this book tells us about God and his Son Jesus. That’s what’s at stake. Andy Stanley, like the rest of us, ought to be about making disciples, not selling Christianity at the cheapest possible price!
I know that there are real challenges when it comes to interpreting the Bible—especially in the Old Testament, especially in relation to scientific questions—and questions related to violence and bloodshed. But trust me when I say that there are good answers to each of these questions—answers that don’t involve checking your brain at the door, or picking and choosing which parts of the Bible are “truly” inspired and which ones aren’t! I’d be happy to talk with you one on one about any questions you might have, but suffice it to say, the answers are there.
So… the first thing that Jesus is saying in verses 17 through 19 is that we need to accept the authority of entire Bible. We need to hold the Bible in highest regard—just as Jesus does.
The second thing he’s saying might surprise you: The Bible is really all about… Jesus. That’s what he means in verse 17: He has not come to abolish the Law and Prophets. He’s come to fulfill them—that Greek word literally means to “fill them full”—like filling a cup to the rim with water. A cup’s only purpose is to be filled with liquid, to hold it without spilling or leaking. And I’m not talking about a “red solo cup” here! So think of it this way: The Bible, by which Jesus means the Old Testament, is like the cup. And Jesus is like the water. The Old Testament is like a container whose purpose is to be filled to the rim with Jesus.
So when we look back at the Old Testament, in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, something amazing happens: we start to see Jesus on every page! Christ is at the center of the Bible—of both the Old and New Testaments. This is the way Paul and the apostles read the Old Testament; this is the way the early church read the Old Testament; and this is the way we ought to read it, too.
This reality of this truth—that the Old Testament is all about Jesus—only hit me five or six years ago when I was preparing to preach on Jonah. I had bought a commentary on Jonah written by a theologian named Phillip Cary. In the introduction of the book, he wrote something that startled me at the time—and it changed my life because it forever changed the way I read the Old Testament. He wrote:
First of all, this is a Christian reading of the Scriptures of Israel, which Christians call the Old Testament because it contains the ancient covenant to be fulfilled by Jesus Christ. Like the whole Bible, the book of Jonah is about Christ and therefore about all those who find their life in him.
“Like the whole Bible, the book of Jonah is about Christ and all those who find their life in him.” Isn’t that great? And sure enough, we see Jesus in the Book of Jonah. Remember in Jonah chapter 1: God’s wrath, in the form of a furious storm, is threatening to destroy the ship that Jonah and his shipmates are on. And what does Jonah do? He says, “Throw me overboard. God is angry at me because of my sins. God will punish me instead, and you will be saved from God’s wrath.” And that’s exactly what happens. And that reminds us of Jesus. Jesus was without sin, but he takes the sin of the world upon himself—and takes the punishment that our sins deserve. So that we can be saved from God’s wrath.
And that’s just one small example. In Genesis 22, when father Abraham offers his only son Isaac as a sacrifice, we’re reminded of another Father who offers his only Son Jesus as a sacrifice. During Passover, when the Israelites are saved from judgment and death by the blood of a lamb, we’re reminded of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Or remember when Samson pushes down the pillars of the Philistine temple? Through his sacrificial death the enemy of God’s people was destroyed. And this reminds us that through Christ’s sacrificial death, Jesus defeated our main enemies—sin, Satan, and death.
I could go on and on. I haven’t even talked about all the messianic prophecies. Tim Keller said that when he was a young seminary student he often failed to see how the Old Testament related to the New Testament. Until one of his professors, Alex Motyer, asked the class to imagine how the Israelites would have given their “testimony” about what God had done in their lives. Motyer said that it would have sounded something like this:
We were in a foreign land, in bondage, under the sentence of death. But our mediator—the one who stands between us and God—came to us with the promise of deliverance. We trusted in the promises of God, took shelter under the blood of the lamb, and he led us out. Now we are on the way to the Promised Land. We are not there yet, of course, but we have the law to guide us, and through blood sacrifice we also have his presence in our midst. So he will stay with us until we get to our true country, our everlasting home.
Then Dr. Motyer concluded: “Now think about it. A Christian today could say the same thing, almost word for word.”
You get the point. The Bible, even the Old Testament, is all about Jesus. But here’s the problem: We usually read it as if it’s about us.
Think about a typical sermon on the Old Testament. We say, “Look at what this faithful person did. For example, notice how young David had so much faith in the Lord that he was able to overcome his fear, his inadequacies, his weakness and defeat big bad Goliath! You, oh Christian, need to have that same kind of faith so you can defeat the enemies in your life—and then you’ll be blessed. Then you’ll be rewarded!”
I’m pretty sure I’ve preached that message before!
But guess what? That message is a recipe for disaster. Because one of two things will happen: We’ll realize that for every “Goliath” that we defeat in our lives, there will be about a dozen other Goliaths that we’ll be unable to defeat. We’ll feel like failures: “Why can’t I be more like David—or Abraham or Moses or Gideon or Ruth or Josiah or Esther or… fill in the blank.” We’ll feel like we’ll never measure up. And we’ll feel guilty and ashamed. “How could God truly love me? How could God save me?”
Or worse, maybe we’ll defeat one particular “Goliath” in our lives, and it will go to our heads. We’ll feel pride in what we’ve accomplished. And we’ll feel morally superior to other people who were unable to defeat that “Goliath.” And we’ll become self-righteous.
Either way, our righteousness will be like the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. It’s as if we’re reading verse 18 without understanding verse 17. In other words, we believe that every “iota and every dot” of God’s Law will have to be accomplished—so we better get busy, or else we’re in trouble! Whereas if we understand verse 17 first—that, yes, every iota and every dot of the Law will have to be accomplished, but here’s the good news: Jesus did it for us! Jesus fulfilled the Law for us!
He fulfilled the Law for us when he was perfectly faithful in obeying his heavenly Father. And he fulfilled the Law for us when he suffered the penalty for sin that the Law demands—which is death and hell. Jesus did that for us!
Jesus begins this sermon by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Poor in spirit? Guess what? That’s us! We have nothing to show for ourselves—no good works that we can bring to God and say, “See, I’m going to prove to you that I deserve your love and mercy. I’m going to earn eternal life.” No. We are poor in spirit. But Jesus was rich in spirit, and he shared his spiritual riches with us! So that the kingdom of heaven would belong to us.
That’s grace, and that’s our starting point: first, the recognition of our complete inability to fulfill the law on our own; and second, our belief that where we failed, Christ succeeded. If we understand that, well… our “righteousness” will naturally exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.
Every other world religion says, in so many words, “Do these things, and God will accept you.” Christianity says, “Because you are accepted, do these things.” The difference between those starting points is like night and day.
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
Do you want the “rest for your souls” that Christ is offering us?