MATTHEW 3 of 12
We’re going to be in Matthew 5 today. We’re in our third week exploring the account of Jesus’s life given to us by Matthew. If you were here last summer—the board shape and contours of Matthew’s story are similar to the way Mark tells the story. Most of us are fairly familiar with the story of Jesus—Jesus who arrives in first century Judea announcing that God’s government—God’s rule and reign—have begun arriving. Other gospels call this “the kingdom of God.”Matthew is a rather Jewish book, and so most of the time he calls it “the kingdom of heaven.” Heaven is, of course, where God is fully—it’s God’s dimension of reality—but it might offend certain readers if you just kept throwing the word “God” around… So if you see “kingdom of heaven” in Matthew, it’s the same thing as “kingdom of God” in the other gospels.
And when Jesus announces “the kingdom of heaven,” he’s not talking about going to heaven when you die. He’s talking about something that’s happening right now. The life of heaven—the rule and reign of heaven—is invading the world in everything Jesus does.
Most of us are roughly familiar with the board story of Jesus: Jesus doing good to those around him, healing the sick and the blind and the hurting. Jesus is casting out demons and evil spirits, teaching and telling stories about this new reality of God’s kingdom, and coming into conflict with the devout religious leaders. And then Jesus eventually arrives in Jerusalem during Passover week and executed as an enemy of the state. Most of us are somewhat familiar with the broad story.
Oh! And then there are—of course—those relentless rumors that begin spreading that Jesus didn’t stay dead. No one would be telling this story if Jesus had merely been executed. He would have just been another failed Christ—another failed Messiah. But, here’s the thing: the earliest Christians were saying he didn’t stay dead. He’s alive. Alive forever. Back from death.
That’s the big story Matthew is telling.
And if it’s true—then Jesus really is the Christ— the world’s true king. There are different ways of recounting these events—of telling this story—and we’ve mentioned the last couple of weeks, that Matthew turns up the volume on talking and teaching. Jesus is the world’s true king—a king who has defeated death and is alive forever. And for Matthew, Jesus talking and teaching are central because we’re invited to learn from Jesus. This crucified and resurrected king is inviting us into a new kind of life.
We’ve summarized this by saying that Matthew’s gospel is about Jesus calling us to a narrow road. That’s what we said in the first week. Jesus is inviting us to follow him—to obey him—to learn a new way of living from him. And this really is gospel—it really is good news—because:
Learning to obey Jesus has nothing to do with securing God’s love. That’s what we said last week. Matthew begins his story with the news that God enters into our stories—into our lives, into our tragedies—even while we don’t care a thing about him. That’s what the genealogy of Jesus and the birth story of Jesus are about. God chooses to be born into this world through a virgin named Mary—God enters into the human tragedy and the story of Israel—before we ever ever ever given him a thought. The God who summons us to obedience—to a new kind of life—to the narrow road—is Immanuel (“God With Us” ). That’s who is calling us to the narrow road: the God who already always loves us.
Learning to obey God has nothing to do with securing God’s love. You’ve already always got God’s love. Obedience has everything to do with us learning to experience real and lasting life. That’s what we all want—we all want real life, we all want lasting life. Jesus says that it’s a difficult path—that not many people walk the road—but it is possible.
There are five big blocks of teaching in Matthew: the first one has historically been called the Sermon on the Mount. Today we’re going to look at the Sermon on the Mount with a wide-angle lens. Virtually everything we hear today is unique to Matthew—it’s only found in Matthew’s gospel. What we’re exploring today is pretty central to Matthew. And it’s pretty revolutionary. There’s dynamite in this dialogue. This is what the kingdom of heaven—what the life of heaven—looks like. It has been changing lives and changing the world for centuries. And it will change our lives and our families and our workplaces and the world around us if we will listen.
Here’s what Jesus says:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. (Matthew 5v17-18)
So early on in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says (v17) that he hasn’t come to get rid of the Law or the Prophets. Some people talk about the Old Testament and the New Testament like they’re two completely different stories, but Jesus says no. Jesus hasn’t come to start a new story; Jesus has come to fulfill—to fill up—Israel’s story. None of that story is going away—it’s not disappearing. It’s just all coming to a head, all coming to a climax. Jesus is about to accomplish everything, about to fulfill everything.
And hopefully in a few a minutes we’ll have a clearer picture of what that “everything” is.
Jesus keeps going:
Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly 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. (Matthew 5v19-20)
Now that’s something a lot Christians don’t really expect Jesus to say. Jesus accomplishes everything… Jesus fulfills everything… and yet Jesus calls us into something. We’re not passive. We’re not spectators. Jesus calls us to participate. We don’t just set aside God’s commands (v19)—we’ve got to learn to obey them. And what he’s inviting us into sounds really intense because he says:
“unless [our] righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, [we] will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5v20)
I mean, that sounds… intense. Right? That lands with the same impact as saying:
Unless your free-throws surpass that of Michael Jordan and Lebron James, you will certainly not… Unless the quality of your art surpasses that of Michelangelo and William Shakespeare… Unless your innovations in business surpass that of Steve Jobs and the guys at Google…
This statement lands with that same impact—it makes your jaw drop. (“I might as well give up now.”) The Pharisees and the teachers of the law, those were the people who were obsessed righteousness—obsessed with “how to live rightly.” They’re the professionals. They’re the geniuses. They know all of the laws and the rules and they’re spending every moment of their lives trying to keep them. We’ve got surpass them? Sure. Ok. Right after I win a Home Run Derby against Barry Bonds and start a coffee franchise more popular than Starbucks… I’ll get right on that.
But Jesus isn’t stuttering.
He keeps talking and teaching until it finally his sermon reaches a crescendo at the end of the chapter:
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5v48)
It doesn’t get any more intense than that. Matthew is the only gospel-writer to record Jesus’s words right here: “Be perfect.” As your heavenly Father is perfect. He isn’t stuttering; he seems to be serious.
If we take actually take Jesus seriously for a moment, this should concern us. What does Jesus mean? What does this look like? How are we going to do this? Because until we figure out how to out-professional the professionals and out-expert the experts, we’re missing out on the kingdom of heaven. Until we are righteous in a way that they are not we’re missing out the life of heaven.
Interestingly enough, however, Matthew has already given us a clue to what Jesus means. We read it last week in Matthew 1:
Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. (Matthew 1v19)
Matthew says that Joseph is faithful to the law. Joseph is a just man. Joseph is “righteous.” He’s “dikaios.” That’s the same word that Jesus uses in the Sermon on the Mount. Your “dikaiosune”—your faithfulness to the law—your righteousness—must surpass that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law. Joseph is the first clue we have on what surpassing righteousness looks like.
But it’s interesting. Matthew says that Joseph is righteous—that he’s faithful to the law—but do you know what the law literally says? Joseph and the Pharisees and the teachers of the law all had access to the same law. We even have access to it. It’s what we call Deuteronomy.
If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die. You must purge the evil from Israel.
If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death… You must purge the evil from among you. (Deuteronomy 22v22-24)
There were plenty of people who would read the letter of the law with cold hearts and say, “It’s time for a good old-fashioned stoning.” There’s a story in John 8 where the Pharisees and teachers of the law want to do exactly that. The interesting thing is that’s not what Joseph does. Matthew says that Joseph is faithful to law, but Joseph doesn’t have Mary stoned.
He’s trying to obey God—he’s trying to obey to the law—and yet he also wants to have mercy on Mary. He wants to love and take care of the girl that he thinks has cheated on him. It’s not that Joseph doesn’t care the precept. He just cares as much or more about this person—about Mary. It’s not that Joseph doesn’t value that regulation—he just also values this relationship. Joseph is definitely devoted to obeying God’s law—he can’t just ignore what looks like evil—it’s got to be purged. A wedding with Mary is out of the question. But he understands obedience to God is about something deeper than just cold and calloused obedience to the law.
Deepest obedience is a life of love. And Matthew opens his gospel by saying this man—this man full of love and mercy and compassion—this man is righteous. This fellow with the wide heart is the fellow on the narrow road.
That’s what the narrow road always does: it always leads to a wider heart. The life of Joseph is Matthew’s big clue about Jesus is inviting us into.
This is Matthew’s big clue about how we understand Jesus building to the crescendo of “be perfect.” Jesus says, “your righteousness must surpass those religious professionals” and then he teases out specifics of what this looks like. He keeps course-correcting us, in case we’re tempted to cold-hearted rule-keeping.
He goes through the most basic kinds of commands of the Old Testament, and he always makes it about a wider heart. Not just obeying the letter of the law but plunging deeper into love:
You’ve heard it said don’t go around murdering people (v21), but I say don’t even stay angry with people.
You’ve heard it said don’t sleep around on your spouse (v27), but I say don’t even allow fantasy or lust a place in your heart.
You’ve hear it said that the important thing is getting the divorce paperwork right (v31) but I say that marriage is about unwavering loyalty.
You’ve heard it said not to break an oath (v33), but I say that you should speak so honestly that you don’t ever need to make an oath.
You’ve heard it said the punishment should fit the crime (v38), but I say that you should give and serve and love an evil person.
And then finally he’s nearly at his crescendo when he says:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.(Matthew 5v43-48)
You have heard it said…“Love certain people.” Your neighbors. Those close to you. Those who are like you. Those who think like you, believe like you, vote like you. Nobody really needs to be told to love their friends—even conmen and thieves (v46-47) take care of their own. There’s nothing remarkable there. But I tell… love everyone. Those who don’t think or believe or vote like you.
Even those people who literally, actually are your enemies. Whether they’re trying to blow you up, or shoot you, or whether they’re gossiping about you, or trying to sabotage your life, or who are just always grumpy with you. Whoever they are—whatever they’re doing—love them. You see—our Father loves them. He already always loves them. He provides sun and rain for everyone’s crops (v45).
Love like your Father. Be merciful like your Father. Be “perfect” like your Father. Be complete, be whole, be mature. (Those are other ways of translating the Greek.) Act in kindness towards them. Seek their good. Pray for them. Be those kind of people in the world. Be that kind of community in the world. Be a people who are becoming like their Father—full of endless love and mercy.
Sin is deeper—so much worse—than a law problem. Sin is a love problem. It’s less that we’re breaking a rule on a chalkboard and more like we’re breaking the universe. That’s all of what Jesus is talking about in the Sermon on the Mount—from anger and lust to loyalty and speaking honestly. He’s talking about love.
Jesus is saying, “I know it doesn’t seem like you’re breaking any rules, and nobody even knows you’re doing it—but life is about love, and you can go deeper. You don’t have a sin problem, you have a love problem.“
The problem with your quiet anger is that you can’t live in love. You’re letting something separate you other people. The problem with your sexual fantasies is that you’re not living in love. You’re taking from someone rather than giving to someone. It’s not love—it’s not the real world. The problem with an eye-for-eye—with blindly giving them what they deserve—is that it doesn’t give space relationship and restoration and mercy. It doesn’t give space for love.
It’s like Matthew wants us to hear Jesus saying: “How can you let love in deeper?”
What God is always doing is inviting us out of sin and into love. Everything that Jesus teaches us and models for us is a really way of understanding love and mercy. That’s what Matthew and Jesus want us to become even “more surpassing” in—love and mercy. That’s what is at the heart of the truest, deepest obedience to God. Love and mercy. And ultimately that’s what Jesus accomplishes in his life. Love and mercy.
That’s what Jesus brings to fulfillment—love and mercy.
That’s the cross. That’s this table. Even though every single one of us—all of us—the entire human race—we actually are guilty before God. God grants us mercy. We’re all wayward and cheating. We’ve all stepped out on God. We’re all his enemies. Yet God gives us more and more endless love. That’s what Jesus brought the world. That’s what Jesus accomplished—what he fulfilled. Love and mercy—that’s the kingdom, the perfect life of heaven, the only life anywhere. And that—of course—is what we’re invited into.