Rev Dr Edgar Mayer – Living Grace Lutheran Church, Toowoomba – Date: 21 May 2017

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Surpassing Righteousness

 

Jesus burst a bubble for his disciples when he told them: “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). He continues: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets [any of the old Bible laws and teachings]; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). “Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments… will be called least in the kingdom of God” (Matthew 5:19). “… not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law…” (Matthew 5:18).

Jesus is serious here. He is targeting the disciples – and us: “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” “Don’t think that I have come to abolish any of the commandments.”

What was the problem? Why would the disciples think that Jesus was abolishing any of the old commandments? The Pharisees and the teachers of the law (respected religious leaders) were doing all they could. Why would the disciples expect easier standards of righteousness for themselves? Is this what we expect? How easy or stringent is the standard of righteousness? How obedient must you be as a Christian?

In the case of his disciples, Jesus was worried that they would get the wrong idea from the many conflicts between him and the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. So many times Jesus would break their code of behaviour and their traditions that it must have looked like he was a little more easygoing and casual about keeping the laws of God.

I give you a few examples:

 

Matthew 9:14-15: Then John’s disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?”

Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.”

 

Matthew 12:1-14: At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”

He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to bring charges against Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”

He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”

Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.

 

Matthew 16:6-12: “Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees… be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

 

Jesus seemed to ease up on fasting (even though he foreshadowed that his disciples would fast later on), and he relaxed the Sabbath laws. Jesus allowed the picking of heads of grain and healings on the Sabbath, and he defended his conduct aggressively against the Pharisees and teachers of the law. He stood up for liberty from their interpretations of the law. He was a champion against the naysayers. Thus, it would have been easy for the disciples to get the wrong idea, because who doesn’t love to relax a little? (“Should I do this?” “Nah. No worries. Should be right.”)

But have we relaxed too much? Today, we have become even more easygoing about the Sabbath than the stories in the Bible. We not only happily pick heads of grain and heal the sick on God’s holy day, but we also go shopping, do work, and skip church. Is this okay with Jesus? This is how the command reads in the Bible: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath to the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:8-10).

And what about fasting? Jesus said that his disciples would not fast for a season (while he was with them) but later they would fast, but do we? Jesus said to his disciples: “Don’t think that I have come to abolish any of the commandments. I have come to fulfill them which means that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

It’s never comfortable to hear about God requiring obedience from us. (We are all rebels.) It’s certainly not comfortable to hear about thesurpassing righteousnesswhich Jesus demands, and it is downright uncomfortable to hear thatsurpassing righteousnessis the condition for salvation – for entering the kingdom of heaven. “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Yet, as Jesus continued to teach his disciples, he kept speaking uncomfortable words and urged his disciples to make an effort:

 

Matthew 5:22: … And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

 

Matthew 5:29-30: If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

 

What Jesus really wants (surpassing righteousness) is best seen in his conflict with the Pharisees and the teachers of the law about washing hands before a meal. On the one hand, he relaxes their rules (he is more permissive than they are – his disciples do not have to wash their hands) but, on the other hand, he demands a lot more from his disciples than what the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were offering to God.

 

Matthew 15:1-20: Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”

Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:

‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’”

Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.”

Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?”

He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”

Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.”

“Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”

 

Jesus was relaxed about eating with unwashed hands – human regulations for expressing piety (outward ceremonies) – but he was not relaxed about what really matters for righteousness. He quoted the Bible against the Pharisees and the teachers of the law and he offended them (as the disciples brought to his attention), saying: “These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”

Their hearts were wrong. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were passionate about washing hands before a meal, and spoke highly about God (praying and worshipping) but Jesus exposed their true motivations which had nothing to do with God. He charged his disciples: “Leave them; they are blind guides… Out of the heart [the heart of a people that honour God with their lips but have the heart far from him] come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.

When Jesus taught the disciples about righteousness (that needed to surpass what the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law were offering to God), he gave a few examples which illustrated the look of obedience that was coming from a right heart.

 

Matthew 5:21-48: You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca [empty head],’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift...

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart...

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

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.

 

You obey God’s commandments and laws with a heart that loves him which means that you don’t look for a way out of obedience. On the contrary, you don’t count the cost. Your heart captures the heart of God and why he gave a particular commandment. This is what you obey and not the minimum requirements that have been spelt out.

Thus, instead of just holding yourself back from physicial violence and murder, you don’t even give way to anger and name-calling. Instead of just avoiding adultery and sleeping around, you don’t even look lustfully at someone else. Instead of asking and accepting legal compensation from your adversary, you do not resist the evil person that slaps you on the cheek but pray and love your enemies, because Jesus wants us tobe perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”.

At the end of his teaching, Jesus would give to his disciples what has come to be known as the Golden Rule – a one sentence rule which also encourages unlimited obedience (surpassing righteousness): “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). What you want from others, do to them. Much is required from you, because we want a lot from others. And according to Jesus, this is what the Law and the Prophets have always been about. All the specific laws and commandments were never intended to limit obedience. Only Jesus took this to a new level. He said: Do not even murder anyone in your heart. Let not even your eyes commit adultery. And don’t just love your neighbours. Pray and bless your enemies.

Jesus has come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets [any of the old Bible laws and teachings] and we are part of this. He said to his disciples: 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).

Before Jesus taught on the disciples’ surpassing righteousness, he spelled out some of its intent and purpose:

 

Matthew 5:13-16: You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

 

True righteousness – good deeds (obedience flowing from a heart that is right with God) – is visible to the world. And we are not to hide the good that we do, butlet your light shine before othersand bethe light of the world” – “a city built on a hill” – the “salt of the earth”.

 

[Note that we not simply do good works but are salt and light. Jesus changes our identity by his power and salvation. Cf. Matthew 7:16-20: “By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”]

 

What kind of good deeds (do you think) are most visible to the world? If our righteousness was to shine into the darkness of a lost world, what would be the most effective good deeds?

I find it interesting that Jesus is not immediately counseling his disciples to go on public demonstrations (against global warming or for better hospital cover of public patients) or serving the community by feeding the poor (or other social programs). Jesus wants the world to see our light but then talks first about the relationships among ourselves.

 

Matthew 5:21-48: You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca [empty head],’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift...

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart...

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

 

Jesus’ logic seems to be that if we just love one another with the heart of God, then something is created among us that cannot fail to be light and salt and bring glory to God. A church that truly loves one another where spouses truly love one another in marriage, cannot remain hidden and we don’t have to hide the goodness among us but let it shine. [Note also that the “you” in these verses is always us together: “You together are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Your righteousness – the righteousness of you all together – must exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law.”]

 

John 17:20-23: …I pray … that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

 

John 13:34-35: A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

 

I give you two illustrations:

 

Mel Tari (as told to Cliff Dudley): Like a Mighty Wind, Harrison: New Leaf Press 1971, p57-60: When I was in Houston, Texas, a lady came to me and said, “Brother Mel, oh, I love Jesus.” “That’s nice to love Jesus,” I told her. “But why are you coming to me? If you love Jesus, everything is all right.”
“No, everything in my home isn’t all right,” she said. “My husband isn’t as spiritual as I am. That is why we have so much trouble at home.”

“My dear, what is the trouble?” I asked.

“He’s a hypocrite,” she said. “He doesn’t love the Lord as I do.”

Then she really ran her husband down. “Oh,” she said. “I came to ask that you would pray that the Lord would help my husband repent and really love Jesus.”

I said, “Okay, we’ll pray and see what the Lord speaks to us about.”

We prayed together, and as we were praying, the Lord told me the problem wasn’t in her husband, but in her. I said, “Sister, your husband isn’t the problem, the problem is in you.”

“Just a minute, sir, I love Jesus,” she said. “Yes,” I said, “you love Jesus. But you think you are so spiritual you’re living in heaven now. You forget that you live with your husband and family.”

“What do you mean by that?” she asked.

“Be honest with me,” I replied. “I’m going to ask you a question. Do you really love Jesus? Jesus says, ‘As the Father has loved Me, so I have loved you; continue in My love’ (John 15:9; MKJV). Love is not love until we show it, feel it, and practice it, one to another. The Bible says, ‘How can you say you love God when you can’t love those you see and touch in this life?’” I said to her, “Do you really love Jesus and your husband?”

She looked at me, you know, and it looked like she didn’t like me.

“Oh yes, I love Jesus,” she said, “but how can I love my husband? He’s not spiritual. No, I don’t even like him.”

I said, “Do you ever call him Honey or something like that at home?”

“No,” she said. “I just call him his name, which is Frank.”

“Do you make a nice lunch for him when he comes home from the office or give him a kiss or something like that?” I asked.

She said, “Oh, no. I just don’t like him that well.”

“Dearest sister,” I said, “that is your problem. I don’t believe you really love Jesus.”

Oh, if she could have hit me, I think she would have. “I don’t believe you love Jesus,” I continued. “You are spiritualizing your love. When Jesus talked about love, He made it simple and practical. But you make it so spiritual. You are talking about loving someone in heaven, and here you can’t even love your husband on earth. If Jesus would have just kept saying, ‘I love my Father, I love my Father,’ it wouldn’t have done me any good. But He loves us, as the Father loves Him. He gave himself on the cross, so that you and I could be redeemed. That’s love! Jesus said we should love our fellow man; love one another. You cannot love Jesus if you don’t love those around you. When you love them with your whole heart, then you really love Jesus. You will never prove to me you love Jesus until you love your husband.”

She said to me, “Brother Mel, what should I do?”

“It’s so simple, my dear,” I said. “Just go back home and dial him at his office and when he answers the phone on the other side, be sure that the first word that comes out of your mouth is Honey. Honey, that’s all. Be sure to call him and tell him, ‘Honey, I really miss you.’ Tell him like that, and then prepare his supper. Prepare it just as he likes it, not the way you want it. Sometimes when we want to please people, we do it to please ourselves and not really the way they want it. Go and please your husband the way he wants it and not the way you want it. Will you remember that?”

“Yes,” she said.

“And when you hear his car come home and he comes in the door, you give him a big hug and kiss. Give him a good dinner and talk to him, and the Lord will tell you everything to do,” I said. “Now let’s pray together.”

I didn’t pray for her husband, but for her. I prayed that the Lord would help her not to spiritualize her life, but that He would help her show her love in a practical way.

She went home and did these things. She called him and said, “Hello, Honey.”

The husband thought it must be another girl calling him, because his wife never called him Honey. She continued, “Honey, this is Harriet.”

(Later, her husband told me that when she called him that way he thought, A miracle has taken place at home. I know my wife, and she has never treated me like that. “I felt like we were on our honeymoon. It was just wonderful,” he said.)

“Oh, Honey, I miss you,” she continued.

Her husband could hardly speak at all. He didn’t know what to say, it was so wonderful. But he quit working and took a half a day’s vacation. When he got home, his wife was waiting for him. That time, he knew his wife loved Jesus. “Before, she would tell me that, but I never believed her,” this man told me. “How could she love Jesus and never show love to me? I just couldn’t believe it. But, oh, when I saw her like this, I knew she really loved Jesus.”

Without one more sermon, that husband repented. He said, “Lord Jesus, I have been very rough and cruel to my wife. Jesus, forgive me this and come into my life in Your fullness.”

The Lord restored that family in a very wonderful way. Why? Because this lady instead of spiritualizing everything and making it complicated, just took the Bible in a practical and simple way.
For many years in our churches, we have made our Bible so spiritual we have forgotten that God wants the Word to be practical in our everyday life. Oh, that we can realize that the Bible is our guide and the Word of God. When we take the Bible this way, we can hear the Word of God.

 

This woman was all spiritual. She was obeying all of the commandments. She was not committing adultery but the heart was not right and, not even liking her husband, she did not pratice a righteousness that surpassed that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law. Everything changed when the heart changed and she captured the heart of God for her husband, and then he immediately responded with wanting Jesus for himself.

One pastor told the following about his youth:

 

Mark Stibbe and Andrew Williams: Breakout, Crownhill: Authentic Media Limited 2008, from Andrew Williams, p143-143: When I was a child the only Christians I knew lived on the opposite side of the road to us. Quite deliberately we never had anything to do with them. I did not meet or speak with these neighbours for over thirty years – until recently I met them again in a sodden field at New Wine’s CLAN Gathering of St Andrew’s in Scotland. They said, ‘You probably don’t remember us, but we lived opposite your house when you and your brother were little boys. We just wanted to say hello and to tell you that all those years ago we prayed so hard for you and your brother and your family.’

This had been a very happy time for us as a family, and to know that the Father was looking out for us in a season that felt so dark really moved me. Our former neighbour asked me if I remembered his Alsatian. I did. He said, ‘I used to walk my dog late at night so that I could walk past your home and pray for you and your brother. We could see all the pain and it felt like there was nothing we could do, but we knew the Lord was calling us and our fellowship to pray for you.’

I asked them if I could share something with them from that time in my life. Over thirty years ago, as a ten-year-old boy making my way home one Saturday evening, I took a short cut through a track that ran to the side of their garden. It was a summer’s evening and I could hear laughing and music, so I stopped and looked through a hole in their garden fence to see what was going on.

I could see a group of about twenty or thirty people in the back garden enjoying each other’s company. I remember that I was utterly transfixed by what I saw. I think I stood there for over half an hour watching them. There was something different about the way they talked and laughed together. There was a kindness in their being together that I had not seen before. I was ten years old, I knew nothing about Jesus, but I knew that these people were Christians and I desperately wanted to be with them on the other side of that fence.

 

How many people in the world would want to beon the other side of that fence”, and join in with a Christian family that loves one another. It is quite spectacular, visible and attractive to those that do not have Jesus.

Some of us may be shy in letting our righteousness shine before others. Jesus said: “Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before othersBut is this not big-noting ourselves? Is this not proud?

It’s wise to be careful. Jesus makes a clear distinction between what he wants us to show to others and what he wants us to hide before others. On the one hand, good deeds of love toward others should shine into all the world but, on the other hand, good deeds toward God should just be between him and us.

In the same speech where Jesus encourages us to be acity on a hilland let others see our good deeds, he also warns us about keeping some things secret:

 

Matthew 6:1-18: Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you…

When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

 

When you love others from a pure heart, you can let your light shine. Loving our neighbours is practical and it will be seen. But when you love God – when you give an offering in the church, when you pray and when you fast – there is no need to let everyone know. It’s not necessary and if you parade your piety before others to make yourself appear in a good light (this is the righteousness of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law that honour God with their lips but their hearts are far from him), then you are just concerned about your own reputation and are not really loving God. The heart is wrong.

Good deeds of love toward others shine into all the world, but good deeds of love toward God – our intimate times of prayer and fasting and giving – are just meant for him.

I come back to Jesus’ opening statements which he gave his disciples: “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). He continues: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets [any of the old Bible laws and teachings]; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).

We have had a closer look at these words now, and know that Jesus meant them. He did not come to abolish any of the commandments but wants whole-hearted fulfillment of them – even love our enemies, and be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect. However, can we do it? Not by ourselves.

 

Philippians 2:12-13: Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.

 

Romans 8:1-14 [NLT]: So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit.

Those who are dominated by the sinful nature think about sinful things, but those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit. So letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death. But letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace. For the sinful nature is always hostile to God. It never did obey God’s laws, and it never will. That’s why those who are still under the control of their sinful nature can never please God.

But you are not controlled by your sinful nature. You are controlled by the Spirit if you have the Spirit of God living in you. (And remember that those who do not have the Spirit of Christ living in them do not belong to him at all.) And Christ lives within you, so even though your body will die because of sin, the Spirit gives you life because you have been made right with God. The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you. And just as God raised Christ Jesus from the dead, he will give life to your mortal bodies by this same Spirit living within you.

Therefore, dear brothers and sisters, you have no obligation to do what your sinful nature urges you to do. For if you live by its dictates, you will die. But if through the power of the Spirit you put to death the deeds of your sinful nature, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.

 

Jesus’ demand of surpassing righteousness and to be perfect as the Father in heaven is perfect is not ludicrous because he gives us the Holy Spirit, but it is safe to say that we will fail many a time. When this happens, we can listen to some good counsel from Martin Luther:

 

Martin Luther: Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, translated by Theodore Graebner: The Scriptures present Christ in a twofold aspect. First, as a gift. “He of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification and redemption.” (I Cor. 1:30.) Hence my many and grievous sins are nullified if I believe in Him. Secondly, the Scriptures present Christ for our example. As an exemplar, He is to be placed before me only at certain times. In times of joy and gladness that l may have Him as a mirror to reflect upon my shortcomings. But in the day of trouble I will have Christ only as a gift. I will not listen to anything else, except that Christ died for my sins.”

To those that are cast down on account of their sins Christ must be introduced as a Savior and Gift, and not as an example. But to sinners who live in a false assurance, Christ must be introduced as an example. The hard sayings of Scripture and the awful judgments of God upon sin must be impressed upon them. Defy Satan in times of despair. Say: “O cursed Satan, you choose a nice time to talk to me about doing and working when you know very well that I am in trouble over my sins. I will not listen to you. I will listen to Christ, who says that He came into the world to save sinners. This is the true Christ and there is none other. I can find plenty of examples for a holy life in Abraham, Isaiah, John the Baptist, Paul, and other saints. But they cannot forgive my sins. They cannot save me. They cannot procure for me everlasting life. Therefore, I will not have you for my teacher, O Satan.”

I come to a close. Jesus was relaxed about eating with unwashed hands – human regulations for expressing piety (outward ceremonies) – but he was not relaxed about what really matters for righteousness. He quoted the Bible against the Pharisees and the teachers of the law and he offended them (as the disciples brought to his attention), saying: “These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Your heart belongs to God, and with the heart that he is giving you, you can listen to the serious words that he is also speaking to you: Don’t think that I have come to abolish any of the commandments. Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Let your light shine to the glory of God. Amen.