EXCEED THE EXPERTS
Matthew 5:17-20 NET
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish these things but to fulfill them. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place. 19 So anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever obeys them and teaches others to do so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus has been explaining the details of his new kingdom to his apostles. He began by Blessing them – the blessings being focused on the reality that things are going to change for them when he returns to reign over the earth. They are poor now, but they will be rich then. They mourn now but they will laugh then. They hunger and thirst for righteousness now but they will be filled then. They are mistreated now, but they will be vindicated and exalted then.
His commands for them were first to rejoice in anticipation of the new kingdom that is coming. Then he tells them to let their light shine before people by doing good deeds. Now, this instruction sounds very much like what the nation of Israel had already been taught by its religious professionals. That’s why Jesus had to include today’s instruction. He had to explain to them that obeying God’s law was not the problem. The problem was that they had been given bad examples of how to follow that law.
Jesus’ role is to fulfill the law, not to abolish it (17).
He told them, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish these things but to fulfill them.” When he said “law” and “prophets” his listeners would have heard “Bible.” The Hebrew Bible consisted of three sections. One was called the law – the Hebrew is Torah. Another was called the prophets, or Hebrew Nevi’im. The third was called the writings, or Hebrew Chtuvim.
Sometimes the people referring to the Bible would shorten the expression to Law and Prophets. Jesus was referring to all 39 books of what we call the Old Testament. He was telling his apostles that he was not going to replace these books as Holy Scripture.
It is very important for us as believers to understand that the Bible is the word of God and nothing replaces it. Our faith in Christ does not change God’s revelation in his word. What he has said stands for us as a reflection of who he is, and what he is all about. The Christian is following Christ when he or she walks with Bible in hand, and uses the Bible as the lens through which everything is experienced.
Albrecht says that “From Genesis to Malachi, there is one primary message: all people are sinful and deserve punishment from God, but God promised to send a Savior from sin. Through faith in that coming Savior, people living before the time of Christ received God’s forgiveness and eternal salvation. Jesus was (and is) that promised Savior. He came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. He came to keep all of God’s commandments perfectly and to fulfill all the promises about the Savior that are contained in the entire Old Testament” (71).
The law was not abolished by the appearance of Christ, but neither can it be obeyed without faith in Christ. Since he is the fulfillment of the law, just trying to obey the law’s commands will never be enough. That means that the Bible – even with its perfect instructions will never be enough. It has to be believed. Just toting it around and memorizing its words will not be enough. We need both the Bible and faith in Christ. We need the Bible because it is God’s law. We need Christ because he fulfills God’s law.
Every week you and I come together for a Christian experience in which we open the word of God and seek instruction from him. It is absolutely necessary that we keep doing that. Jesus is making it clear to his apostles that now that they have faith in him, that doesn’t mean they can stop listening for God’s revelation in Scripture. Faith in Christ and obedience to God’s word go together for us. God’s word convicts us of sin, but it also instructs us in righteousness. Faith in Jesus is the solution to our sin problem. Our obedience to the Bible’s instruction is designed to do something else – to make us lights to shine on the world so that others can come to Christ.
God’s word has a work to do that is not finished yet (18).
Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place.” When the scribes copied the holy scriptures, they didn’t have computers or a printing press. They had to copy it by hand. Some of the letters were very small. Some of the punctuation marks were even smaller. Jesus drew attention to this fact by the statement about the smallest letter or stroke of a letter. What he said was that everything in the Bible is important, and nothing is irrelevant.
He also mentioned that everything the Bible predicts has to take place. His appearance among the people was a major part of the plan. He had a job to do and his arrival allowed him to accomplish many of the things that the Bible had predicted. But he was also clear that there were some other things that will have to happen in history.
Chamblin explains that this text “is not a warning against violating the law, whether by tampering with it (by removing some of its commands) or by transgressing it (by trampling its commands underfoot). Rather, Jesus here emphatically declares that the law cannot be violated, that even its smallest parts will not disappear ‘until all things have happened’ — i.e. until the kingdom is consummated. On that day, when the present ‘heaven and earth’ are replaced by the new heavens and the new earth, the commandments will no longer be needed. But until that day, one might as easily cause the universe to disappear as to remove the law’s least commands” (341-342).
We are not going to evolve into a people who do not need the Bible. It is not going to happen. Until Jesus returns, you and I are going to need the word of God in our lives. That is why I suggest that all of us get to know the Bible better. We need to learn what it says and meditate on what it means. We need to apply it to our lives – to live our lives according to its teachings. We need to invest time in the word of God. One sermon a week is not good enough. We need to invest time daily in the Bible. I can guarantee that anyone who truly does this will not be disappointed. Time spent in God’s word is not wasted.
The degree in which we are biblical is the measure of our kingdom greatness (19).
Jesus said, “So anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever obeys them and teaches others to do so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” There are two tests to see if we are being biblical: obeying the scriptures and teaching others to obey the scriptures. On judgment day, our status in Christ’s kingdom will be revealed. But we can judge for ourselves how well we are doing right now. The Bible is the standard for that judgment.
Democracy is not the kingdom standard. When we stand before Jesus on judgment day, he is not going to judge us based on what other people did or did not do. Nobody else is going to get a vote – just Jesus. The books will be opened, and everything we have ever done or thought about will be there as evidence. God’s word will be the standard by which he determines our status as kingdom citizens.
Most people will not make it. Jesus himself said that “the gate is wide and the way is spacious that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it” (Matthew 7:13). The most popular route is the route of self-centeredness, and it is in the wrong direction. That is why our Lord’s first command for all of us is “repent” – because nobody ever gets into the kingdom without repentance.
But Jesus is also telling us that there will be degrees of greatness in his kingdom. There will be those who turn to God but do not allow God’s word to prevail over their lives today. They will build doctrines for themselves that excuse them from the hard work of living according to the teachings of the Bible.
Ironside says that Jesus is talking about people who ignore “the-divine authority of God’s revealed will by loosening the moral effect of His commands, so as to make men careless of their obligations to Him” (38). The people who are great in Jesus’ kingdom are those who are biblically careful, not biblically careless. If we refuse to shine our light on the world’s darkness and expose it, we are leading others to live carelessly.
Our righteousness has to exceed that of the experts (20).
Jesus said, “unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The experts in the law and the Pharisees were considered the super-spiritual in New Testament times. But their knowledge was merely academic and their expertise was mere pretense.
Jesus called them hypocrites. The Greek word hupokritēs refers to an actor — someone putting on a show. Our devotion to Christ and his coming kingdom has to be genuine. It cannot be a life we live for others to see. It has to be real.
Giving should be part of our lives, but there are people who give just to impress others with their generosity. Jesus said our giving should be in secret. Our left hand should not know what our right hand is doing.
Jesus actually criticized the hypocrites because they gave the tithe of their herbs and spices, but did not give justice, mercy, and faithfulness. That is the kind of giving that Jesus appreciates.
Praying should be part of our lives, but most of our prayers should be done in our room privately, not publicly for others to see. We are not talking to them, we are talking to him.
Fasting should also be done without showing. It is not an opportunity to show off our spirituality. It is an act of humility. When pride comes into the picture, humility leaves the scene.
Living in purity should also be part of our lives, but it is so easy to fake that. Jesus said that the experts were like whitewashed tombs – clean on the outside, but dead and stinking on the inside.
Hell is the place for hypocrites. The kind of person who says that Jesus has not come back yet, so he is going to have fun and abuse others because the master is not watching – he is on his way to hell.
So, Jesus warns his apostles right at the beginning. Life as a kingdom citizen is not going to be easy. Even the experts don’t know what they are doing, so we cannot follow their example.
Garland says that the “righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is deficient for entry into the kingdom of heaven. It flunks the test because it does not go far enough and because a different kind of righteousness is required. The demand for a greater righteousness announces the theme of what follows” (62).
So, what we are going to see in the following sections of the sermon on the mount is that the world’s standards are going to be judged and found deficient. Then Christ is going to provide his biblical standard instead. The world says “don’t kill people.” Jesus says, “don’t get angry, and if you do, reconcile.” The world says, “don’t commit adultery or divorce.” Jesus says “stay faithful.” Not the same thing. The world says “don’t break your oaths.” Jesus says “stay true to your word.” Not the same thing.
I want to invite you to live the kind of life that Jesus is talking about here. It is a life that exceeds the righteousness of the super-spiritual hypocrites. That is the kind of life that attracts people to Jesus Christ.
Albrecht, G J, and Michael J. Albrecht. Matthew. Milwaukee, Wis: Northwestern Pub. House, 1996
Chamblin, J K. Matthew: A Mentor Commentary. Fearn, Tain: Christian Focus Pub, 2010.
Garland, David E. Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the First Gospel. New York: Crossroad, 1993.
Ironside, H A. Matthew. Neptune, N.J: Loizeaux Brothers, 1994.