Have you ever seen high jumpers compete at a track and field event? It’s amazing to watch. These athletes take four or five carefully-planned steps and then launch their bodies over a bar—head first—back down. I don’t know how they do it—but these guys are able to control every muscle in their body independently—consciously moving each limb in coordinated succession to get their body over the bar literally one part at a time.
If my Internet research is correct, the WORLD HIGH JUMP RECORD today stands at 2.45 meters or 8 ft, ½ inch. That’s the highest anyone high jumper has soared in that event. The person who “set the bar” at that height is Javier Sotomayer. He did it in 1993 and it hasn’t been done since. His RECORD is now the standard by which all high jumps are measured. Here’s a shot of him going over the bar. Is his control amazing or what?! Do you see what I mean about his ability to get each part of his body over one at a time?
I share all this because today as we continue our series on the Sermon on the Mount we come to a text in which Jesus talks about some WORLD RECORD HOLDERS in His day. I’m not referring to Palestinian high jumpers but rather to the Scribes and Pharisees. You see, when it came to setting the record for RIGHTEOUS LIVING they were considered to be the Javier Sotomayers of their day. Back then no one would even think of challenging them. These guys were almost universally respected for their disciplined attention to the written laws of God. To the people of that day theirs was the standard of righteousness against which everyone else was judged.
Now, you and I tend to have a negative opinion of the scribes and the Pharisees because we’ve studied the Bible—and we know from that study that the vast majority of them were the “bad guys” in the early days of Christianity. I’m referring to the Pharisees and scribes who were always criticizing Jesus—the guys who eventually got Him arrested, tried in a puppet court, and crucified on a Roman cross. But we need to understand that PRIOR to Jesus’ coming, for the most part the Scribes and the Pharisees were VERY highly thought of. Most people thought of them NOT as the BAD guys but rather as the GOOD guys. In fact, years later even Paul boasted that he had been a Pharisee when he stood up before Herod Agrippa to plead his case (Acts 26:5).
Paul knew that this title earned him the respect of this JEWISH king. I mean back then, to be a Pharisee was definitely a praiseworthy thing—and the Scribes were also honored. People thought—if anyone is good enough to get into Heaven, surely, it’s these guys. These two groups were thought of as the religious elite—the “bar setters” when it came to “soaring” to new heights of righteous living.
But—in His Sermon on the Mount Jesus challenged this commonly held belief. As He stood on that mountain side teaching that day, our Lord raised the righteousness bar. He said that to get into Heaven you have to be MORE righteous than these “righteousness world record holders.”
Take your Bibles and turn to the 5th chapter of Matthew’s gospel. Follow along as I read verses 17-22. Jesus says,
17 – “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.
18 – I tell you the truth, 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.
19 – Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same 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.
20 – 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.
21 – “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’
22 – But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of Hell.
Now this last sentence must have shocked the people listening that day. I’m sure there was a lot of jaw dropping when our Lord said these words. People must have thought, “No way—that’s impossible!” You see, according to their way of thinking Jesus’ statement would be like our going to the next Olympic High Jump Competition—and watching as the officials took the bar that was set at 8ft ½ inch and raised it to 20 feet and said, “Okay, this is the new qualifying height. Jumpers have to clear this in order to compete.” We would say, “No way! That’s impossible! Even Javier can’t clear the bar at that height!”
It would be like saying, “Unless you make more money than Bill Gates” or “Unless you sell more stuff than Amazon” you will never get past the pearly gates. I mean, those people sitting there must have thought, “What is He talking about? No one can be MORE righteous than the scribes and Pharisees! Jesus is changing the rules here! He’s throwing out the old law and talking about something entirely different.” But Jesus didn’t say anything like that did He? No—in fact He affirmed the written law of God. He said He DIDN’T come to abolish it—but to rather to fulfill it. Jesus didn’t change the rules. He didn’t say, “Throw out the Bible.” In fact, He said that in God’s Book even the smallest stroke of a pen is authoritative. Jesus reaffirmed that God’s written Word is indeed THE guideline for anyone who would live a RIGHTEOUS life!
I’m reminded of what Warren Weirsbe says about the Bible. He says, “The Bible teaches us what IS right, what is NOT right, how to GET right, and how to STAY right.” The Pharisees’ problem was they misconstrued God’s written law—by coming up with their own very flawed brand of righteousness—a brand of righteousness that set the bar way too low. To help us understand this let’s look briefly at their two MAIN errors—the two MAIN flaws when it came to the Pharisees’ attempts at righteous living—their attempts to SOAR.
(1) First, their version of righteousness was SELF-glorifying rather than GOD-glorifying.
I mean, as far as the Pharisees and Scribes were concerned, righteousness was all about THEIR OWN accomplishments.
These Jewish religious leaders took God’s law and expanded it. And when I say EXPANDED —that’s exactly what they did. They had pridefully come up with 613 rules—248 commands to DO something and 365 commands to NOT do something. For example, they took God’s command about the Sabbath and expanded it to a plethora of their own rules—man-made laws that told precisely what one could do on the Sabbath and still keep this law, and what one could not do.
These guys delighted in their endless list of do’s and don’ts! Apparently, they never met a law they didn’t like.
And the reason they loved laws wasn’t because they loved God. No, it was because in their mind obeying all these laws made THEM look good. It gave them status in the community.
In Luke 18:9-14 we read about a time Jesus confronted this flaw in their thinking. Turn there and follow along as I read.
“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ [God, I take pride in the fact that, as You well know, I have been able to keep all 613 laws! Am I good or what!] But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to Heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ Jesus said, “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Do you see the self-centered flaw in the Pharisee’s thinking? Do you understand why Jesus REBUKED his self-righteous prayer? It was because his “prayer” showed how self-absorbed he was—how proud he was of HIS accomplishment. Jesus COMPLIMENTED the prayer of a man who knew he was nothing but a sinner—absolutely dependent on God’s grace.
Listen—we can NEVER be righteous enough on our own. Even our best attempts fall far short of the “bar” that God has set. Here’s how an unknown poet put it:
“If you can start the day without caffeine; if you can get going without pep pills; if you can always be cheerful, ignoring aches and pains;
—if you can resist complaining and boring people with your troubles—if you can eat the same food every day and be grateful for it;
—if you can understand when your loved ones are too busy to give you any time;
—if you can overlook it when those you love take it out on you when through no fault of yours something goes wrong; if you can take criticism and blame without resentment;
—if you can ignore a friend’s limited education and never correct him;
—if you can resist treating a rich friend better than a poor friend; if you can face the world without lies and deceit;
—if you can conquer tension without medical help; if you can relax without liquor;
—if you can sleep without the aid of drugs; if you can say honestly that deep in your heart you have no prejudice against creed, color, religion, or politics;
—then, my friend, you are ALMOST as good AS YOUR DOG.”
Let’s face it! In many ways dogs are more righteous than we are! Is that humbling or what?! Friends, the purpose of GOD’S law was to NOT to show us how GOOD we are—but to show us how BAD we are—and how GOOD God is. The purpose of the law is to show how absolutely dependent we are on God’s grace. So, any form of self-righteousness is a crock! People who glory in their own goodness are fools! No law can’t save us! Only Jesus can and that’s why He came. As Paul put it in Romans 8:3, “For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature—God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering—in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met.”
Now, of course we are to obey the laws of God. Life works best when we live according to the principles and precepts of this handbook for life that our “Manufacturer” has so lovingly provided. But we can’t “jump” over the righteousness bar on our own.
Did you hear the story about the Alaskan man wo attempted to cross an ocean channel near Juneau on a “homemade watercraft?” Actually, it was an inflatable raft—an old rotten one that was full of gashes and holes that this man had patched up with duct tape. The ocean temperature was in the mid 30’s—just above freezing but that didn’t stop this guy. He got on board WITH his dog and WITHOUT a life-jacket—and started paddling. But he didn’t get very far before the raft began to sink and he had to be rescued by the Coast Guard.
Well, we are more foolish than this man if we think that our good works can make us righteous. Our “righteousness” is full of holes. This is why, as the old hymn put it, we are “sinking deep in sin—far from the peaceful shore—very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more!” We are absolutely dependent—desperately dependent—on the grace of God.
That leads me to mention a second flaw in the righteousness of the Scribes and the Pharisees.
(2) It was based on the EXTERNAL rather than the INTERNAL.
These guys went to a great deal of trouble to shine up the OUTSIDE of their lives but they were unable to do anything about the true state of their HEARTS. INSIDE they were just as sinful and unacceptable to God as anyone else. In Matthew 23:37 Jesus referred to this and said to them,
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the OUTSIDE but on the INSIDE are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean.”
You know, we can make the outside LOOK good can’t we? We are very skilled at that. We are good at “exterior goodness” but that’s all it is—a goodness that is just skin deep. And—speaking of looking good—I did a little Internet search and found a website that shows what popular female movie stars—look like with and without make up. These comparisons so how good we are at hiding how bad we really look. It shows our expertise at hiding our ugliness. WITHOUT make up is on the left—WITH is on the right.
Jennifer Love Hewitt
Now–I don’t want you ladies to feel like you have been singled out so to be fair, I want to show a man’s before and after appearance. That’s me without make-up on the left—and with make-up on the right—or is it the other way around? All kidding aside, there is no make-up, no law that can fix our insides. We are all deeply stained with sin through and through—and powerless to do anything about it. I mean, nothing we DO can cover that up.
Think of it—We can refrain from stealing—but how many of us have never COVETED something that wasn’t ours? We can worship here each Sunday and for all intents and purposes LOOK like we worship only one God—but have you ever loved something more than Him? Has any THING ever taken God’s rightful place in your life? I would venture to say that none of us could say that every moment of every day our thoughts and desires are for God and God alone!
I don’t think any of us have committed murder—but can any of you honestly say you’ve never been mad enough to wish someone was dead?
Clarence Darrow, probably the most famous criminal lawyer of his generation, must have surely read this part of the Sermon on the Mount because he once said, “Everyone is a potential murderer. I have not killed anyone, but I frequently get satisfaction out of obituary notices.”
I would imagine most of us can honestly say we’ve never committed adultery PHYSICALLY—but how many of us are innocent MENTALLY? How many of us could raise our hands and say, “I’ve never thought a lustful thought about someone who wasn’t my spouse.”
And what about Jesus’ teaching about ANGER? Our Lord said there is a kind of INNER anger that shows we deserve Hell. He says this caliber of anger is seen when we call someone “raca” —and to explain—that word has no English equivalent because it describes an attitude or a tone of voice. I mean, “Raca” was a hateful sound—a sound of contempt that was directed at people as a way of saying, “In my mind you are nothing but a brainless idiot.” The old expression, “Duh!” is similar. Jesus says that anyone who is angry enough to use that kind of hateful sound or expression is guilty of sin. Well, what about it? Anyone here ever direct derogatory sounds or words at other drivers on the beltway—or at your spouse—or at your parent when they weren’t looking? Anyone ever use hateful body language to express your feelings about the guy in front of you at a traffic light who’s not moving when it turns green because he’s checking his I-phone?
Listen. We can all put on an act. To a certain extent you and I can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps morally and look good—look RIGHTEOUS—on the outside. But on the INSIDE—well, let’s just say we don’t want to go there. It’s like that ONE cluttered, dirty room in your house whose door you always keep shut tightly when guests are present. The TRUTH is we all have those “dirty rooms” in our hearts. Outside we may look good but inside we fall far short of the standard of God’s righteousness. We don’t even come close.
Jesus spelled it out later in the sermon He delivered that day. In Matthew 5:48 He clearly said how high the bar really is. Do you remember His words? He said we must, “Be perfect, as our Heavenly Father is perfect.” Well even a glance at our “insides” reveals the fact that none of us are even close to being close to being perfect! So—what are we to do? The righteousness bar is too high. We have to be PERFECT—but we can’t? We have to be RIGHTEOUS—but even our best attempts at it fall far short. Listen. The answer is NOT our righteousness—but Jesus’ righteousness. As the old hymn puts it,
“Our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness
Dressed in HIS righteousness alone—faultless to stand before the throne.”
Jesus paid the price for our sin—so we can be forgiven. When we experience the grace of God through faith, we stand clothed in His righteousness. Tim Keller puts it this way:
“Imagine that you are pitted in a one-on-one spiritual marathon race against Jesus—just you and Jesus at the starting line. The gun goes off and Jesus bolts out ahead of you with blazing speed. He makes Usain Bolt look like a human tortoise. Jesus runs a perfect race. He never gets lost or loses focus. He never takes one bad stride. With much fanfare and acclaim, He finishes the entire marathon in seven seconds. (He could have finished the race in negative time, since He’s outside of time, but seven seemed like a nice number.) It’s a new cosmic record! In this spiritual marathon, you finally straggle across the finish line—about five years later. You lost your focus and got tangled in bushes. You took shortcuts and got lost. You frequently tripped over your own shoelaces and fell in the mud, flat on your face. As you gasp and collapse at the finish line, you look up and see Jesus already standing on the winner’s platform. You’re a muddy, unkempt sweaty mess and He looks absolutely perfect—there’s not one drop of perspiration on His brow. He has a gold medal around His neck while you feel defeated and ashamed. But as you start to slink away Jesus calls your name and motions for you to come towards Him. You sheepishly join Jesus on the gold medal platform. He puts his arm around your shoulder and says, ‘Look, I know all about your race. It wasn’t pretty, but you are forgiven. It’s as if you never messed up in your race.’ And then He takes his gold medal and slips it over your head. The reporters start taking your picture. They start asking questions like, ‘Hey, Mark how do you feel about winning? What are you going to do with your gold medal?’ And then it hits you: you are being treated as if you ran Jesus’ race. You are receiving honor based on Jesus’ world record time and performance.”
That is what it means to be clothed in Jesus’ righteousness. When we accept the forgiveness Jesus’ made possible by dying on that cross in our place—we are cleansed without and within.
As Isaiah 61:10 puts it, “He has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of His righteousness.”
We come now to share the Lord’s Supper—that meal Jesus instituted to remind us of His sacrifice on our behalf. And as we do—I invite all Christians to join us—even if you are not a member of this church—because of course if you are His—this is yours.
THE ORDINANCE OF COMMUNION
This morning as we sing our closing song, if you have decisions that need to be made public—come and share them with me as we stand and sing—whether it is to profess your faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior or to join this wonderful church family.