Title: A New Righteousness Part II
Text: Matthew 5:27-37
Thesis: Jesus redefines the new righteousness by redefining sin itself: beyond the concrete act, sin begins with the intention of the heart. (Michael Card, Matthew – The Gospel of Identity, P. 57)
Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!” Matthew 5:20
Leo Tolstoy tells of a man in a boat: The opposite shore has been pointed out to him, he has been given a pair of oars and he is left alone. He rows a short distance and the current works against him. Other boats are in the same stream. Some are struggling valiantly against the current while others are just drifting along. “Is this the way?” the man asks. “Of course it is! What do you think? There is no other way.” So our rower takes his ease. But suddenly he becomes aware of a menacing sound—the roar of the rapids. He realizes his peril and recalls what he had forgotten—his oars, his appointed course and the opposite shore. With all his might he rows upstream crying with genuine contrition, “What a fool I was to drift!” Tolstoy interprets his parable—the current is the tradition of the world which sweeps away countless multitudes. The oars are the will of the individual and the opposite shore is God. A person can either acquiesce to the temptations to drift or take a firm resolve against them.
The question is simply do we go with the flow?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus goes back to the Ten Commandments and broadens them. In particular, he takes pervading sins—anger, sexual immorality, deceptive speech—and warns us against not taking them seriously.
Jesus continues this pattern of teaching… he states the Commandment, his Contradiction and then his Explanation on how to be better.
I. Be Better Thinkers, i.e., think better thoughts
“You have heard the commandment that says, ‘You must not commit adultery.’ But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Matthew 5:27-28
For most of his career as a British journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge was a quarrelsome writer known for heavy drinking and smoking, womanizing, and espousing his agnostic viewpoint. But towards the end of his life he came to faith in Christ. But as a younger man he wrote a letter to his father and described an incident that revealed the sinful bent of his heart and the power of the flesh.
Just after graduating from Cambridge, Muggeridge moved to India to teach English. One day as he was strolling by a nearby river in the early evening, he spotted the silhouette of a woman bathing on the other side. Muggeridge later wrote that his heart began to race with what he called the "wild unreasonableness which is called passion." Overcome by lust, he plunged into the water and started crossing the river. As he approached the woman, he suddenly realized that she was a toothless, wrinkled, and deformed leper. He quickly threw himself back into the river and started swimming in the other direction.
Years later, Muggeridge admitted that the real shock that morning was not the leper, as mind-bending as that would be. Rather, it was the condition of his own heart, dark, with appetites overpowering his weak will. He wrote, "If only I could paint, I'd make a wonderful picture of a passionate boy running after that and call it: ‘The Lusts of the Flesh.’” (Adapted from Simon Ponsonby, Loving Mercy, (Monarch Books, 2012), pp. 46-47)
Jesus is rightly pointing out that the letter of the law is to avoid actually committing adultery but the spirit of the law is to avoid lingering thoughts and imaginations about and the desires to commit adultery.
The Apostle Paul wrote, "Take every thought captive" because he knew the mind is the root issue and cause of all moral failures. The mind begins the process of every action we take.
In his Epistle the Apostle James insightfully wrote, Remember, when you are being tempted, do not say, “God is tempting me.” God is never tempted to do wrong and he never tempts anyone else. Temptation comes from our own desire, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. James 1:13-15
That’s why it is important that we do as Paul wrote in Philippians 4:8, “Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.”
The next Commandment is about marriage.
II. Be Better Spouses
“You have heard that the law says, ‘A man can divorce his wife by merely giving her a written notice of divorce.’ But I say that a man who divorces his wife, unless she has been unfaithful, causes her to commit adultery.” Matthew 5:31-32
I am aware that any discussion of the subject of divorce is dicey… it’s personal and there is not a person in this room who is not or has not been personally affected by divorce. Believe me when I say, I am not one to condemn anyone who has been through a divorce, nor do I believe Jesus stands wagging a condemning finger at anyone who has found themselves forced into the circumstances of a broken marriage. I do believe Jesus is teaching that marriage is a sacred relationship and not one to be entered into lightly or readily dissolved. Jesus’ intent is to support and strengthen marriage.
There are many people who seemingly do not think of marriage as a long-term relationship. King Henry VIII married six times. Elizabeth Taylor married eight times. Zsa Zsa Gabor married nine times. However, Glynn “Scotty” Wolfe would easily claim the title of the world’s most married person by eclipsing all three combined. Starting at age twenty-two, Wolfe married twenty-nine times. Some of the marriages ended in days, while other lasted years.
Those who have studied Wolfe from a psychological perspective suggest that as soon as he committed to a person, he experienced varying degrees of remorse. His marriage would experience bumps in the relational road, and he’d start looking for other options.
Though he reportedly fathered over forty children, and many of his ex-spouses were still living, he died alone and penniless. His body, with a tattoo of a tied knot on his forearm, went unclaimed in the county morgue for months. (Moreland and Muehlhoff, The God Conversation: Using Stories and Illustrations to Explain Your Faith (IVP, 2017), Page 152)
One might conclude that Scotty Wolfe either had a really high view of marriage and wanted to be married a lot or a low view of marriage and wished not to be married more than he wanted to be married.
Commentator William Barclay commented on the culture of marriage and Divorce in Jesus’ time.
1. According to the law, in Jewish culture a marriage was entirely a matter of the husband’s will. The woman had no rights or say in the matter of divorce. “When a man takes and wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a bill of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house.” Deuteronomy 24:1 This done in the presence of two witnesses results in her being divorced.
There were two schools of thought the hinged on the interpretation of the word “indecency.” One school of thought interpreted “indecency” to mean unfaithfulness or adultery. The other interpreted “indecency” as anything that made the husband unhappy… anything! If she was no longer beautiful to the man or if she burned dinner… if the man had found a younger, prettier woman he could find some indecency in her and divorce her.
2. In Greek culture men married a wife for domestic security but found their pleasure elsewhere. (Wm. Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, P. 154)
3. In Roman culture marriage had become nothing more than an unfortunate necessity. There was a cynical Roman jest: “Marriage brings only two happy days – the day when the husband first clasps his wife to his breast, and the day when he lays her in the tomb.” (Wm. Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, P. 157)
Jesus was raising the bar on marriage and he was challenging his followers to be better at it!
Christopher Ash reflects on the testimony of Christian marriages in his book, Making Your Marriage the Best It Can Be: Some years ago a dispute arose in Britain between Foreign Office and the Treasury. The argument was about which British ambassadors would be provided with a Rolls-Royce for their office duties in a foreign capital. The Treasury unsurprisingly wanted these wonderful cars restricted to a few: perhaps Washington, Moscow, and Paris. The Foreign Office argued for many more based on the following reasoning: most people in a foreign capital have never been to Britain, they said. But when they see this magnificent car gliding through their streets with the United Kingdom flag on the hood, they will say to themselves, "I have not been to Britain. I don't know much about Britain. But if they make cars like that there … then Britain must be a wonderful place."
In a similar way, it is Christ's hope that men and women may say to themselves as they watch a Christian marriage, "I have never seen God, sometimes I wonder, when I look at the world, if God is good, or if there is a God. But if he can make a man and a woman love one another like this; if he can make this man and this woman show costly faithfulness through sickness as well as health; if he can give them resources to love each other with Christ-like sacrifice; well, then he must be a good God.” (Adapted from Christopher Ash, Married for God: Making Your Marriage the Best It Can Be (Crossway, 2016), pages 91-92) The challenge is to raise the bar and be better spouses living out better marriages.
Our text today concludes with Jesus contradicting a commonly held understanding of oath taking or making vows.
III. Be Better Truth-tellers
“You have also heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not break your vows; you must carry out the vows you make to the Lord.’ But I say, do not make any vows! Do not say, ‘By heaven!’ because heaven is God’s throne. And do not say, ‘By the earth!’ because the earth is God’s footstool. And do not say, ‘By Jerusalem!’ for Jerusalem is the city of the great King. Do not even say, ‘By my head!’ for you can’t turn one hair white or black. Just say a simple ‘Yes, I will,’ or ‘No, I won’t.’ Anything beyond this is from the evil one. Matthew 33-37
Have you ever heard someone say, “I swear it is the truth,” or “I swear on a stack of Bibles that it is the truth!” or “Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye,” or “Do you promise to tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” And then there is the oath all dentists are required to take, “Do you promise to pull the tooth, the whole tooth and nothing but the tooth… so help you God?”
The culture of Jesus’ time was as crooked as is ours… contracts were not always made to be equally beneficial to everyone. If a person made an oath and could make that oath swearing by anything other than by God he was not bound to keep his oath. That’s why Jesus said don’t swear by “heaven” or by “earth” or anything else.
Jesus was saying that the fact that you have to take an oath or swear by anything at all is an indication that you are untrustworthy. Jesus raises the bar when it comes to oath taking and says your character needs to be such that a simple “yes” or “no” is sufficient. “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No.’ Whatever is more than these is of the evil one” (Matthew 5:37)
But…can any one of us obey the law of God? Can any one of us obey the law of God perfectly? Can any of us do that?
There is a story about a group of ten men who were soldiers. These soldiers had been locked in vicious battles for years when in one battle, all ten were killed. All ten went up to the pearly gates of heaven to see St. Peter who was the guardian of the gates into heaven. St. Peter came out and said, “Good to see you men here today. I have been expecting you although you had not been expecting to see me. Would you please sit in those ten desks there, right outside the pearly gates? I will give you each a piece of paper and a pencil. Please write the numbers one to ten on the paper.” All the big burly soldiers, still in their military fatigues and splattered with mud and blood sat down at the desks and did what they were told to do. St. Peter then instructed them, “You answer ‘yes or no’ to these ten questions. Question number one: Did you love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul, and your neighbor as yourself? Yes or no.” The soldiers looked at each other, puzzled, not sure if they should be truthful or not. Didn’t seem wise to lie to St. Peter. St. Peter said, “The second commandment: you shall not take the name of the Lord God in vain. Did you ever swear when in your life or recently when you were a soldier?” The soldiers, knowing their everyday vocabulary, looked at each other quizzically. “The third commandment: you shall remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Did you go church on a regular basis and worship God with other Christians?” The soldiers became agitated and nervous. The fourth commandment, “Did you honor your parents and all in authority at all times?” Silence. The fifth commandment: “You shall not kill. Did you soldiers kill?” The soldiers knew their job was to kill. How many people had they killed? Who knew? Who kept track? It was a bloody war. St. Peter continued with the questions about the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth commandments and the soldiers seemed to be slipping deeper into their fox holes. Finally, after the questions were finished, the leader of the platoon raised his hand and asked, “St. Peter, how many do you have to get correct to get into the pearly gates?” The men nodded in appreciation. The platoon leader continued asking the questions on behalf of the men, “What if you get two right? Maybe three? Maybe four? Is that good enough to get in?” St. Peter, with his steely gray eyes, looked right at the leader and spoke without a hint of hesitation: “You have to get them all right. You have to get l00%.” The soldiers reacted as you would have guessed. They put down their pencils and threw up their hands in disbelief and despair. About that time, Jesus walked through the pearly gates and into the classroom of desks where the men were seated. Jesus said, “I have taken the test for you and I have scored l00% for you. Come into my kingdom.”
Forgiveness is the means by which we enter the kingdom of God. None of us will enter heaven because of our obedience but by his gracious gift that he has given for us by his death on the cross.
Knowing that, knowing that we are forgiven, knowing that we cannot keep the Old Law of the Old Testament perfectly, knowing that we cannot keep the New Law of the New Testament perfectly, knowing all of that does not mean that the Ten Commandments become the ten suggestions. It does not mean we can forget about rowing and just drift to only end in despair. What we do is renew our spiritual determination to honor our desire to pursue Christ-likeness and be better.
Jesus wants us to actually “be” better people.
• Be better thinkers by thinking good thoughts.
• Be better spouses by nurturing our marriages.
• Be better truth-tellers by demonstrating exemplary character.