Summary: Jesus’ new kind of righteousness is based on: 1. Internals rather than externals. 2. Transformation rather than avoiding transgressions. 3. A relationship rather than rules.
Perhaps you have seen it. It is a bumper sticker which displays the slogan: “Christians Aren’t Perfect, Just Forgiven.” It is a catchy phrase, the only problem is that it misrepresents the Christian life. Is that all we are, “just forgiven”? Is there no more to it than that? Do we, in the end, just “get saved” and then sit back and wait till Jesus comes? Is there nothing in between? Then what do we do with Jesus’ statement: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48)? Do we dismiss Jesus’ words as an unattainable ideal? Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “Most people really believe that the Christian commandments. . . are intentionally a little too severe — like putting the clock ahead half an hour to make sure of not being late in the morning.” So is this what Jesus was doing — putting the standard beyond what we can possibly reach so that we will at least come closer to what we should be than if the standard was more realistic?
Jesus befuddled his disciples so that they sometimes asked, “Then who can be saved?” To which Jesus responded: “What is impossible with men is possible with God” (Luke 18:26-27). At another time he said: “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” (Matthew 5:20). The disciples could not imagine anyone more righteous than the Pharisees, so this too seemed impossible. Obviously, Jesus is talking about a new kind of righteousness. It seemed like an impossible righteousness, and it is on our side, but not on God’s side. Let’s examine what Jesus is saying.
I want to offer a few observations that I believe may help to understand this new kind of righteousness. The first is: It is based on internals rather than externals. The reason that it seemed impossible to surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees was that they had a million rules to follow. They never saw a law they didn’t like. They developed an oral tradition that they claimed was as divinely inspired as the Scriptures. The Talmud contained the oral tradition which was developed over many years of time. It explained and added to the scriptural injunctions. Their favorite additions to the law surrounded the Sabbath law where God commanded us to have a time of rest and refreshment at least on a weekly basis. Dr. Abraham Cohen, in his book Everyman’s Talmud explains one of the hundreds of extrapolations concerning the Sabbath: “The beggar, for example, stands outside and the householder inside, and the beggar stretches forth his hand into the interior and. . . takes [something] from his hand and draws it outside. In that event the beggar is guilty and the householder is free of guilt. If the householder stretched forth his hand and put something into the beggar’s hand. . . then the householder is guilty and the beggar is free of guilt.” Stretching out the hand was considered work, so it was essentially unlawful to help someone in need on the Sabbath. And there were countless laws like this. Jesus said of them: “You experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them” (Luke 11:46).
The Pharisees allowed rules to become the center of their religion, and they forgot human need. For example, one Sabbath Jesus was teaching in a synagogue, and a woman was there who had been crippled for eighteen years. Jesus called her to come to him so that he could heal her. The Bible says, “Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God” (Luke 13:13). But the synagogue ruler was indignant and said, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.” Imagine it A miracle had taken place, and all they could see was a broken rule.
I had a friend who was a pastor in another town where I also served. He had developed a ministry with the Sheriff’s Department and made himself available to the deputies to talk with them, or to go on difficult calls where someone needed counseling. As a result, the Sheriff made him the chaplain of the department. The Sheriff also gave him a uniform and there was an article in the paper along with a picture of him in his uniform. He was the pastor of a very conservative denomination, and when the church officials saw his picture in the paper with a short sleeve shirt, they brought him up on a morals charge. Forget the fact that he had an effective ministry outside the church; he was wearing a short sleeve shirt, and that was all they could see.