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SERMON ON THE MOUNT: PART TWELVE

PRESENTED ON 07-05-08

        Last time we took an in-depth look at what Jesus meant in saying He had not come to destroy the law or the prophets but to full and that until heaven and earth passed away no part of the law would pass away until all was accomplished.  We saw what had to be accomplished was accomplished through the Christ event.  We saw Jesus did indeed fulfill the law within the context of the Old Covenant system passing away and being replaced by the New Covenant system. 

       Now Jesus makes another profound statement in saying that whoever 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. What commandments is Christ talking about?

       Matthew 5:19-20: 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. 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.

       We discussed in the last sermon how Jesus fulfilled and subsequently abolished the Old Covenant judicial, priestly, ceremonial and sacrificial law through his crucifixion, resurrection, ascension and Gods facilitation of judgement upon first century Israel in the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple.   We saw how Jesus fulfilled the moral law of the Old Covenant, not by abolishing it but by transforming it into the spiritual law of love characterized as the law of Christ.  So what commandments is Jesus now alluding to?

       As always, we must look at the context to determine what is intended.  Jesus began the Sermon on the Mount by giving instruction as to how we are to behave as citizens of the Kingdom.  Remember, He said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  He said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  His focus was on teaching behavior that facilitated Kingdom living.  If we are to keep things in context, it appears Jesus is reflecting back on the Beatitudes when he speaks of commandments in association with the Kingdom.  He certainly knew the ceremonial and sacrificial law was about to be abolished.  He therefore would not have had in mind commandments associated with the ordinances He was about to bring to completion through His crucifixion and resurrection.  Apostle Paul made it quite clear that the Christ event did away with ordinances that separated Israelites and Gentiles. 

       Ephesians 2:11-18: Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called "uncircumcised" by those who call themselves "the circumcision" (that done in the body by the hands of men)-- remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.  He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.  

       What separated Israelites and Gentiles?  The sacrificial and ceremonial system, the Sabbath and other religious observances, the dietary laws, these are the commanded regulations that were virtually nailed to the cross. These could not be the commandments that Christ was talking about in the Sermon on the Mount.  But there is another reason to believe Jesus is talking about a different set of commandments.  He continues to say, “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.” 

       When it came to observing the various religious regulations of the law, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were second to none.  These men were meticulous in there observance of the regulatory provisions of the law and were careful to observer the letter of the moral law as well.  They took great pride in their knowledge of these provisions and even added many of their own regulations to the law in an effort to be righteous.  One example of this can be found in the parable Jesus gave regarding a Pharisee and a tax collector.

       Luke 18:10-12: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about  himself: `God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'

       The Pharisees were very judicious about the law and went over board in their attempt to keep it.  For example, there is nothing in the law that requires someone to fast twice in a week.  The law required one day of fasting per year and that was on the Day of Atonement. The Pharisees added a variety of do’s and don’ts to the law in an attempt to excel in what came to be called Judaism.  In so doing, however, they became so taken up with themselves and their role as the religious clergy and administrators of the law that they totally disregarded the weightier matters of the law.

       Matthew 23:23:  Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices--mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.

       Jesus pointed out to these religious leaders that they were obligated to the Mosaic regulations as the Old Covenant was still in force.  They were obligated to pay the tithe as the priesthood was still operational to which the tithing system was attached.  But there were more important matters of the law.  These matters had to do with how you treat your fellow man.  The Pharisees and teachers of the law were very good at adhering to the letter of the law.  They were diligent to keep the weekly Sabbath and even added additional regulations to the keeping of the Sabbath.  For example, they had what they called a “Sabbath Days Journey.” 

       A Sabbath Days Journey, as recorded in Acts 1:12, designated the distance from the Mount of Olives to the city of Jerusalem. In New Testament times, Jewish rabbis used this term as the limit in distance a Jew could go from his or her home on the Sabbath. The rabbis set this distance by their tradition as 2,000 cubits or about 1,000 yards.

       First, the rabbis based their tradition on the last part of Exodus 16:29-30, which forbade the Israelites to go out on the Sabbath to gather manna. Then, since the distance separating the people from the ark as they marched across the Jordan was 1,000 yards (Joshua 3:4), the rabbis believed this was the distance between the peoples tents and the tabernacle during their wilderness journeys. They concluded it was reasonable for the people to travel that far to approach the tabernacle and worship. Rabbis supported this contention further by the fact 1,000 yards were allotted for pastureland on all sides of a town according to Numbers 35:5 and apparently it was felt it was allowable to travel this distance on the Sabbath.

       Some later rabbis invented a tradition that enabled them to get around this 1000 yard limitation. For example, since they were allowed to go 1,000 yards from their home, they defined their home as anywhere their personal possessions were. They would take a bag of worthless possessions, go 1,000 yards, put down their bag of personal possessions, and say, "This is my Sabbath home; I can go another 1,000 yards." By this means, they could go anywhere they wanted. No wonder Jesus called them hypocrites.  They would add law to the law, enforce it upon the people and then find ways to get around their own law. Look what they did with the commandment to honor your father and mother.

       Mark 7:10-13:  For Moses said, `Honor your father and your mother,' and, `Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.' But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: `Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban' (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that."

       What these religious leaders were in essence doing was encouraging people to place resources into the temple treasury as a gift to God when these resources should have been used in meeting the needs of their parents.  As religious leaders, they were heavily involved in temple activity along with the priesthood.  Therefore, they become the beneficiaries of these resources that were being placed in the temple treasury.  They were in essence taking money out of the pockets of their followers and putting it into their pocket and justifying this activity as the giving of a gift to God. 

       Does that sound familiar?  How many religious leaders of today are constantly begging for money from the general public on their television and radio programs and in their newsletters and from members of their congregations?  Often upon investigation of their private lives they are seen to live lavish lives while kidding themselves into believing that it is God who is greatly blessing their ministry.   

       Matthew 23: 25-26: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.   Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

       In this scripture we see the crux of the problem that the teachers of the law and the Pharisees were having and why Jesus said our righteousness must exceed the righteousness of these religious leaders.  These men had one focus in life and that was to promote themselves regardless of what it took and experience life to the full at the expense of others.  They really thought they were a measurable cut above everyone else.  They portrayed a great show of outward righteousness but that show had virtually nothing to do with their internal attitude which was extremely self-centered.   Jesus aptly defined them when he said:

       Matthew 23:27-28: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.

       The whole focus of what Jesus came to teach is what goes on in the inside.  Humans have a virtual innate desire to want to look good on the outside. At the physical level we humans spend much of our time, energy and money trying to create and maintain a good physical appearance.   Now there is nothing wrong with that.  How we take care of the physical is certainly important.  How we physically appear to others is important.  What is of much greater importance is how we appear in our conduct before others.  But even this isn’t the most important thing.  Our conduct can be faked.  The teachers of the law and Pharisees were masters at this.  They portrayed righteous conduct while inside they were full of "dead men's bones and everything unclean."  In other words, they were frauds.

       The whole focus of Christ’s teaching was about what goes on in the heart.  The Beatitudes are about the state of the heart.  So what did Jesus mean when He said “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.”

       Remember, He had just spoken about having come to fulfill the law and not destroy it. Part of that fulfillment was to show the spiritual intend of the moral law. Jesus came to show that the moral law was more than an external plastic like mold of behavioral regulations.  Jesus came to show that the moral law had much deeper significance.  It had to do with attitude.  It had to do with genuine heartfelt concern for the welfare of others.  It had to do with not only refraining from murdering your neighbor but in not having animosity toward your neighbor.  It had to do with not only refraining from committing adultery but refraining from wanting to do so in ones heart.  Jesus got right down to the cause of sin which was how we think. 

       The teachers of the law and Pharisees obeyed the law externally while all the time creating devious little ways of circumventing the law to satisfy their self-centered life styles.  In so doing they were actually teaching people to break the very commandments that on the surface they appeared to uphold.   We saw the example of how they tried to get around the commandment to honor ones parents.  In doing this, the religious leaders were actually teaching the people to break this commandment. 

       Jesus follows His statement about breaking and keeping the commandments with an exposition on the spiritual intent of the law.  He covers a broad area of behavior beginning with the commandment against murder and adultery and proceeds in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount to show in detail how we are to live the spirit of the law and not just the letter. 

       It is apparent that when Jesus said what He said about keeping and not breaking the commandments and our righteousness exceeding that of the religious leaders of His day, he was talking about the moral law and its spiritual intent.  He was talking about not only keeping the commandments in the letter and appearing righteous on the outside but keeping the commandments in their full spiritual intent and being righteous on the inside.

       Jesus had just given the Beatitudes which all pertained to what goes on in the heart.  The Beatitudes all have to do with how we think.  Then after correcting some misconceptions that may have developed regarding His mission and the law, Jesus returns to an exposition of what the law is really all about and what it is about is how we relate to our fellow man from the heart and not just a matter of fact response to what was engraved on stone on those tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai.

       Sin begins in how we think.  It is actually a process.  We think in ways contrary to the law of love.  We allow such thought to take root and grow.  We continue to feed such thoughts until they become overpowering desire. At the point they become overpowering desire we express them in overt behavior which now affects those around us.  Apostle James provides a good overview of how sin develops and becomes overt behavior. 

       James 1:12-13: Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.   When tempted, no one should say, "God is tempting me." For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

       James actually analogizes the development of sin to the process of conception, birth, growth and development.  He speaks of the conception of evil desire. Evil desire is thought contrary to the law of love.  After evil desire conceives it give birth.  What does it give birth to?  It gives birth to sin.  It metamorphosis’s into sin.  It then grows and develops and is reborn as death.

       Jesus taught our righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the religious leaders of His day.  Their righteousness was fraudulent because it was not from the heart. Righteousness is all about doing what is right from the heart.  In the Beatitudes, Jesus taught a heartfelt righteousness.  He taught a righteousness based on the two great commands of love toward God and love toward man.

       Matthew 22:35-40: One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question:   "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied: "`Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: `Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

       Here is where the rubber meets the road as to being a Christian.  This is what righteousness is all about.  The religious leaders of Jesus day only paid lip service to these two great commands.  True righteousness involves making these commands part of our consciousness, making them to be the very core of our being.  This is how our righteousness will exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law of Jesus day and fraudulent Christianity of our day. 

SERMON THIRTEEN