Saturday, 11 December 2004 17:29

The Christian and the Law (2)

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In Matthew 5:20 Jesus Christ says to the multitude around Him: Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven. This must have been a shocking statement to the audience of Jesus. For the scribes and Pharisees were looked up to with the highest respect. The scribes were the most renowned teachers of the law and the Pharisees were living examples, or models of sanctity. Now Jesus says that their righteousness was not enough to secure for them an entrance into the kingdom He had come to set up. How could Jesus say a thing like that? If that was true, if even the scribes and Pharisees could not enter the kingdom, what about them, ordinary people?

The average Jew was convinced that he could never expect to equal the attainments of his leaders, let alone surpass them. The Jews had a proverb which said, if only two men were to go to heaven, the one would be a scribe and the other a Pharisee. No wonder then that Jesus startled His hearers by this strange statement.

What does Christ mean by it? He means that the righteousness of His disciples must be of a different quality than that of Israel's leaders. The righteousness of the Christian, even the very least Christian, must and will exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.

If you have ever read the Gospels, you must have noticed how often Jesus had something to say about the religious leaders of Israel. Usually it was not very good, what He had to say about them. Take Matthew 23, which records the terrible pronouncement of woes upon the scribes and Pharisees. Christ denounced them again and again for being hypocrites. Yet they were not aware of this at all. They were unconscious hypocrites. They really thought all was well and that they were pleasing to God.

There are still people like that in the church today. It is possible that you who are listening at this moment are such a hypocrite. How can you know if you are a hypocrite? Is there any way I can tell? Yes, there is. Listen carefully to our Lord's analysis of the religion of the scribes and Pharisees, and see how your religion measures up to theirs.

The first charge Jesus lays against them is that their religion was completely external and formal, instead of being a religion of the heart. Christ turned to them one day and said: Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God (Lk.16 :15). They were satisfied with the outward observance of the law. They were strict in abstaining from such gross sins as adultery, theft, murder, and blasphemy; but they made no conscience of impure thoughts, covetousness, hatred, and coldness of heart toward God. Therefore Christ had to say to them: Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. (Mt.23: 25,27,28)

In the second place, their observance of God's law was a partial one. They laid far more stress on its ceremonial requirements than on its moral demands; and therefore Christ accused them: Ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith (Mt.23: 23).

The third charge against the religion of the scribes and Pharisees was that their actions proceeded from wrong principles. Their ruling motive was self-interest, rather than the glory of God. They fasted regularly, even more often than the law required; they prayed at street corners and gave their alms, making sure that everyone could see them. Everything they did was done in order to enhance their reputation among the people.

What we see here in the religion of the scribes and Pharisees is the same as what we see in the religion of all unregenerate men. It is the attempt to please God by certain outward performances. Though many would deny this in words, in their works they show that this is true. They bring their bodies to church, but not their spirits; they worship the Lord with their mouths, but not with their hearts. They are sticklers for total immersion or early morning communion; the liturgy has to be just so, the minister must wear the proper vestments, etc., etc. But they never ask themselves: what is my relationship to God? Am I born again?

Here we have the basic difference between the religion of the Pharisee and the true believer. The ultimate condemnation of the Pharisee is that he is a stranger to the spirit of the Beatitudes. He thinks he is righteous before God because he has performed certain actions. You see, the Pharisee had selected certain things, which he thought had to be done. Therefore, as long as he conformed to this man-made standard, he thought he was alright. At the end of the day he would put his check mark behind every item on that list of duties and went to bed satisfied with himself.

But the Christian described in the Beatitudes is not satisfied that easily. He is poor in spirit, meek, and merciful. He is conscious of his shortcomings and failures and therefore he hungers and thirsts after the righteousness of Christ.

Is your religion like that, or is it like the Pharisees? Here is the test. The basic trouble with the Pharisees was that they were interested in details rather than principles, that they were concerned with actions rather than motives; with doing rather than being.

The remainder of the Sermon on the Mount is just an exposition of that. Later on Christ is going to say to them: You are pleased with yourselves because you do not commit adultery. But I say to you, if you even look with lust in your eyes, that is adultery already. It is the principle, not the action only, that matters. It is what you think and desire. It is the state of your heart that is important. Someone once said:

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