The Sermon on the Mount
By E.H. “Jack” Sequeira

12 – Letter vs.  Spirit

Matthew 5:20-28:

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.
You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.”  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brotherwill 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.
Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar.  First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.
Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court.  Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison.  I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
You have heard that it was said, “Do not commit adultery.”  But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

We are dealing with some difficult areas.  We need to wrestle with these areas.  Last study we dealt with Matthew 5:17-19, where Jesus taught that He did not come to destroy the law or the prophets but to fulfill them.  Please remember that the Pharisees and scribes were accusing Christ of doing away with the law, so He was correcting that false accusation.  But now, in verses 20-28 — which is what we will cover in this study — Christ goes on and explains that, besides fulfilling the law, He wants us to know how we should relate to the law and He is contrasting His interpretation of the law with that of the scribes and Pharisees.  And He makes a statement that we may take for granted today, but which was, I am sure, shocking to His hearers.  It is verse 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.

That is a tough one.  Especially to the people that heard it.  This statement that Christ makes in verse 20 presented a two-fold problem.  First of all, let me suggest the problem as it appeared to the hearers.  Please remember that, to the Jews, the scribes and Pharisees were the epitome of what righteousness is.

Let me first of all describe the scribes.  What was a scribe?  He was a person who spent most of his time scribing, teaching, expounding the law.  He was an expert on the law, an authority on the law of God.  He was the one who copied the manuscript and was very meticulous as he copied the book of the law.  He was looked upon by the people as an expert, as an authority on the law.

What about the word “Pharisee”?  A strict Pharisee was actually a separatist:  one who came out of the world and was living only for God.  If you want a good definition of a Pharisee, look at Paul before his conversion.  Turn to Philippians 3:5.  Look at what Paul is saying as he tells what he was like before his conversion.  He makes several statements and one of them concerns his pre-converted condition in the second half of verse 5:

...Circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; ...

What did he mean by “in regard to the law, a Pharisee”?  The Pharisees prided themselves as the first-class people in terms of keeping the law.  I suppose if they were living today in America, they would join the holiness club.  The scribes were the experts in the law and the Pharisees were the experts in keeping it, in carrying out the law in their lives.  They were the ones who rigidly obeyed all the rules and regulations of the Rabbis.  They obeyed every detail that the book of the law said.

In view of this, how could Christ say to the disciples, “Your righteousness must exceed theirs”?  Can you imagine how tough it was for the disciples when they heard that?  They must have said, “What on earth are you talking about?”

The second problem with the text is that is sounds like, if you look at the second half of verse 20, that unless your righteousness is superior to the scribes and Pharisees then you cannot make it to 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.

It sounds like that Christ is teaching that the condition here to go to heaven is that your righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.  And that was tough for the hearers, too.

Is Christ here contradicting His own statement in the beatitudes when He said [Matthew 5:3]:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

We need to wrestle with this, because verses 21-28 is simply expounding on this one verse.

What did Christ mean when He said, “Your righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees in order for you to qualify for heaven”?  How would you describe the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees?  That is what we need to come to grips with.  In a nutshell, the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was the righteousness of a legalist.  And what Christ is saying is that the righteousness of a legalist cannot qualify you for heaven.

Why not?  I will give you at least three or four reasons.  Number one, the righteousness of a legalist is primarily a righteousness that is external, whereas the law demands an inward righteousness also.  Let me give you a couple of examples.  Turn to Luke 16:14:

The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.

Jesus was talking about the parable of the unjust steward and worldly dilemma, the stewardship of life, etc., and the Pharisees who heard him (who were covetous) heard all these things and they derided him.  Look at verse 15.  Christ is responding to the Pharisees:

He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts.  What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight.”

Men can only judge by external righteousness because we cannot read the hearts.  If you come and say that you have not sinned for the last two years, I will not be able to prove that you are wrong, but I will ask you if you can say that before God.  So number one, the Jews, the Pharisees especially, were wrong in their righteousness, it was legalistic because legalistic righteousness is always concerned with the external.  Whereas God looks at the heart.  Let me give you another passage:  Matthew 23:1-5, 27-28.  God spends the whole chapter on this issue but we can’t read all of it.  Here’s verses 1-5:

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples [He is talking to a mixed group]:  “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.  [He meant that these two groups of people claimed to be experts on the law.]  So you must obey them and do everything they tell you.  [Christ is not against the law.]  But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach [your righteousness must exceed theirs].  They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.  Everything they do is done for men to see:  They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; [and so on]...

Then in verse 27 [Matthew 23:27]:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  [A hypocrite is one who outwardly appears righteous but whose heart is far from righteous.]  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.”

Today if Jesus was talking He would say you are like beautiful caskets (instead of whited sepulchers).  In verse 28, He is applying the symbol to the reality:

“In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

Christ is saying that outward righteousness cannot take you to heaven.  Number two, the reason why a legalistic righteousness does not qualify you for heaven is because it is a righteousness that concerns only the letter of the law.  And this of course is connected with number one (the letter and not the spirit).  Look at Matthew 23:23:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You give a tenth of your spices — mint, dill and cummin.  But you have neglected the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy and faithfulness.  You should have practiced the latter [God is not against outward righteousness], without neglecting the former.

They were concerned about outward conformity, the letter of the law, but lacking an inward obedience.  Does the law also require inward obedience as well as outward conformity?  In a moment we will come to the issues:  letter versus spirit.

Number three, legalistic righteousness is a righteousness of man.  Not of God’s righteousness but of man — self-righteousness.  The scribes and Pharisees had substituted 248 man-made commandments for God’s law.  Plus they had 365 prohibitions.  Do you know what Christ said about these rules and prohibitions?  Turn to Matthew 15:1-9.  Here it begins:

Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law [the same group we are discussing] came to Jesus from Jerusalem [headquarters] and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders [various rabbis]?  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?”

These traditions were supposed to elaborate on the book of Moses, but, in actual fact, they were going around the Ten Commandments, although on the surface they looked like they were obeying them.  To continue:

“For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,’ he is not to ‘honor his father’ with it.  Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.”

They made loopholes.  I was reading their commandments about the Sabbath and it was amazing how they found loopholes.  For example, the Old Testament rules said, “You can’t carry a burden on Sabbath.”  Now of course, the houses in the Middle East are flat roofed, they don’t get much rain there.  They used this flat roof to sit in the evening and have their evening meals because it was cool when the sun went down.  The problem was they had no staircase, they had a ladder which they kept in the house.  On the Sabbath, if they wanted to go up, if they carried the ladder it was work, but if one part of the ladder touched the ground, if they dragged the ladder, it was okay.

They could only walk about 1/2 mile on the Sabbath.  But they said if you wanted to see a girlfriend two or three miles away and if you stopped every 1/2 mile and drank a sip of water you were qualified to go another half mile.  So they would stop at the houses and ask if they could have a glass of water, and everybody knew.  Then they would walk another 1/2 mile and stop again.  If they couldn’t find a place for a drink they would swallow their spit and that would be acceptable.  They found loopholes.  You remember the lady who asked me to switch her light on because it was Friday night and she was a Jew and switching the light on Sabbath was work.  But if a Gentile did it, it didn’t matter because he was lost in any case.  That lady told me that the rich Jews had timers for their lights, TVs, etc.  It was wrong to switch the TV on but if it went on automatically it was not a sin to watch it.  (I wondered if this had been introduced in my Church).  Terrible.  Let’s go on to Chapter 15:7-9:

“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 but rules taught by men.’”

We are laughing, but we have been guilty of this very thing.  We have made rules and we think if we obey these rules we are doing God’s will, but, please remember, God is looking at the heart.  What is in our hearts that He wants to see?  Let me give you one more thing about legalistic righteousness.  Legalistic righteousness is motivated by what?  Self.  They want to let people see how good they are.

A man who told me at the Washington Campmeeting that he had not sinned for two years.  I said to his wife, “Is this true?  It must be wonderful to live with such a man.”  And she just smiled.  She was wise; she knew.  You cannot bluff your spouse, but, above all, you cannot bluff God, because He can read your thoughts; He knows what is in your heart.  That is why we are told in the Bible not to judge.

I believe that we are going to be awfully surprised in heaven.  We will see people who we have already condemned to hell and we will ask them, “What on earth are you doing here?”  And they will point their finger to Jesus Christ and say, “Ask Him.  I am saved by grace.  If you want to give any credit, it is He who gets the credit.”

In contrast to all this legalistic righteousness, the true Christian is described by Christ in the beatitudes.  That is how He begins.  A true Christian is poor in spirit, he is meek, he is merciful.  A legalistic, self-righteous Christian always looks down on people who are not making it like them.  But a true Christian is one that ... let me give you an example.  Turn to 1 Timothy 1:15.  I think you will all agree with me that Paul was a true Christian.  Let’s look at his evaluation of himself.  He is writing to Timothy and he says (let’s read verse 14 also):

The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.  Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance:  Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am the worst.

The “I am” is in the present, continuous sense.  Can you imagine Paul, a Pharisee, saying this?  He did not say this as a Pharisee.  He spoke these words as a Christian.

Having explained what Matthew 5:20 is all about — a true Christian is concerned about pleasing God:

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.

And, in pleasing God, he may not look so holy to his fellowman.  He is concerned about his relationship with God and, because he has a relationship with God, he is concerned about his fellowman.  He is willing to eat and drink with publicans and sinners.  He is concerned about their eternal destiny.  He is not concerned about what people think of him because he thinks of himself as “I am the chief of sinners.”

In verse 21 up to verse 28, He is contrasting the righteousness of the Pharisees and the righteousness of the true Christian in the context of the law.  Please remember that Christ and the Pharisees disagreed.  They looked at Him as a lawbreaker.  I would like to say clearly that we must never set Christ in opposition to Moses.  Christ did not do that.  We must never set the Old Testament in opposition to the New Testament.  We must never set the gospel in opposition to the law.  Here in the Sermon on the Mount, Christ says that the Old and New Testaments are in harmony.  The gospel and the law are in harmony.  And here He explains the relationship of law and gospel.  And He contrasts this with the scribes and Pharisees and their righteousness.  Look at Matthew 5:21-22:

“You have heard [this is what you were taught by your religious leaders — the contrast is between Christ and the religious leaders of His day] that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ [Does the law say this?  Yes, but listen to what Jesus says:] 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.”

Then in verse 27 He says:

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

Here you have the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit.  The Pharisee could stand up and say, “I have never killed anybody.”  From the human point of view, was he right or was he wrong?  Right.  From the law’s point of view, was he right or was he wrong?  Wrong.  Because God looks at the heart and the law of God was given by Who?  Therefore, the Law of God looks where?  At the heart.

This brings us to a very important question.  Everyone of us is tempted.  Am I correct?  The temptation may come from the devil.  It may come from without; it may also come from within.

Is temptation sin?  Remember that temptation is the desire, a longing desire that you want to experience.  Is temptation sin?  No.  Otherwise you would have to make Christ a sinner because He was tempted like we are.  The question is, “When does temptation become sin?”  I will give you an illustration that I gave my kids (in the class at the college).

I am driving to an appointment in Seattle.  And I am driving on the freeway and my gas mileage is kind of low.  It is a hot day in the summer and I am thirsty and I stop at a small town.  There is a gas station there and I go to pay for my gas and I want a drink but the only drink is Coors Beer.  And I say, “Don’t you have some soft drinks?” And the clerk says, “I am afraid we have run out, but we are expecting the truck in an hour or so if you can wait.”  But I can’t wait and I think, “Well, nobody here knows me [and that is the temptation — nobody knows me], why don’t I just have a beer?  After all, I have heard so much about Coors Beer.  Everywhere it is advertised and I have never tasted it and this is a good opportunity.”  I turn around to go to the fridge and, just as I turn, I see a car pull in to get some gas and there is a Church Elder and I think, “I am glad I caught myself in time.”  And I say to the clerk that I think I will pass.  Have I sinned?  Yes.  In my heart.

When does temptation become sin?  I have two choices.  One is when I commit the act.  The other one is when my mind says “yes.” I haven’t really drunk it; I can never be accused of drinking beer.  But in God’s eyes, have I sinned?  Turn to James 1:14:

...But each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.

We have a nature that is in harmony with sin.  Even if the devil was destroyed today, you still would be tempted.  I don’t need the devil anymore to tempt me because I have a nature that is in harmony with sin.  That is why we have to be redeemed from this body of sin.  Paul says, “I groan for the redemption of my body.”  Because we have a nature that is in harmony with sin.

Adam was not tempted by being “dragged away and enticed by his own evil desire.”  The devil had to put an idea into his head, but all of us have a sinful nature.  When does this sinful nature become sin?  Look at verse 15 [James 1:15]:

Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

When does the temptation conceive?  When the mind says yes.  Sin is the fruit of conception.  When does human life begin?  When a baby is born or when it is conceived?  According to the Bible, at conception.  And that is when sin begins.

I may not perform the act, and the reason may be that the policeman is around the corner or somebody is watching me.  I told the college kids this example:  I was going to an exam.  It was a difficult subject so I wrote all the formulas (don’t you ever do it) on my fingers and nobody can see it.  Here I am sitting for the exam and look at the question — and the answer is on my fingers.  But the trouble is that the examiner is standing next to me and I say to myself that I wish he would move.  But he doesn’t move.  And he stands there.  And then the bell rings.  Have I copied?  No, he can never give me an F for copying because I haven’t copied.  But in God’s eyes have I copied?  In God’s laws have I copied?  Yes.

The Pharisees said that sin begins with an act; Christ says, “No, if you hate somebody in your heart without a cause, you have already killed him.”  When the Pharisees heard Christ say those words, did they hate somebody without a cause?  Yes, they were even planning to get rid of Jesus.  Did the scribes and Pharisees look at a woman and lust?  Yes.  So Christ is saying, “You are a bunch of sinners.”

You are going to say, “Who then can make it to heaven?”  The Christian makes it to heaven by grace.  But he has now a heart that wants to serve God.  Righteousness in the Christian world does not begin with acts, it begins with the heart.  So when you bring somebody to Christ and he looks all unkempt, is full of drugs and things, please, let God transform him.  What he needs is a change of heart.  And that is the gospel of Christ.  That is the new covenant.  God says, “I will take away that stony heart [legalism doesn’t do that] and I will give you a new heart.”  And He gives you a heart that wants to do right.

I want to quote a theologian who puts it very nicely.  He says, “God gave the law to sinful human beings to drive us to Christ.  And once we come to Christ and find peace and hope and assurance and justification, then Christ sends us back to the law and says, ‘This is how I want you to live.’”  The law was never given as a method of salvation but the law is a standard for Christian living.

The law is not only outward righteousness — that is the letter — but it begins as an inward righteousness.  And when the inward righteousness takes place, the outward gradually changes.  And you will see a transformation outwardly.  But many people who have inward righteousness are still struggling with bad habits.

I was giving a Bible study of Romans at a penitentiary.  Now, these were hard, cold prisoners.  And one Sabbath, one of those men, a murderer — he is in for life — came to me and handed me a paper.  He said, “Pastor, you have no idea how excited you have made me through the study of Romans.  I sat down the other day and I read Romans 6.”  (We had just covered Romans 6).  And he said, “The ‘light’ came on and I was impressed to sit down and write.”  He wrote about five pages; I wish I could read it all to you, but I want to read his prayer at the end of his statement.  Please remember this is a hard-core criminal praying:

“Dear Father, help me to discern who I should accept as friends and who I should consider as acquaintance, and who I should avoid.  Let my company be a blessing to others and lead me to all Your ways.  Father, open my eyes to dangers and lead me in the way that I might combat them.  I need to approach you with anticipation as I focus on you.  Father, soften our hearts and the words of our mouth.  Let me be a peacemaker.  Let the words of my mouth spread comfort and calm and make my actions a testimony to your great love.  Father, sometimes I feel I just can’t go on.  Please fill me with the strength I need, both of body and of character.  Don’t let me give up, but deliver me.  Plead my cause, Lord, with those that strive with me.  All day I need to seek after You and make You my focus.  Then the walk I walk, the talk I talk, and the life I live, and the prayers I pray as You would have me.  Help me to understand how to care for people and Lord, teach me love.  Thank you, Father, In Jesus name.”

Now, that is the prayer of a convict.  He is understanding what Paul has already stated that through faith in Christ we stand acquitted.  He’s no longer worried about going to heaven.  He has assurance.  “I am not guilty,” he says.  “But,” he says, “having given me this hope, Paul emphasizes that we need no longer live under sin’s power.”  And then he shows that the righteousness that comes from God begins within.  He says, “I have struggled, I have struggled all my life with the sin problem.  I have tried to overcome sin and all I have met with is failure.  But I thank God that I have peace in my heart, and now I want Christ to live in me.”

When I read this, I said to him, “This is the power of the gospel.  Don’t give me credit.”  I am very tempted (I would have to get his permission) to send this to the Review and have it published.  He’s understanding Romans 6:6-8:

For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin — because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.  Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.

Your old self-life has been nailed to the cross with Him.  That part of you that loves to sin was crushed and fatally wounded so that our sin-loving body is no longer under the slavery of sin.  For when you are dead to sin, you are now free from its allurement and its power over you.  And since your old sin-loving nature died, in Christ, we know that you will share his new life.  (This is how he paraphrases Romans 6:6-8.)

My dear people, the righteousness that God wants to see in us is an inward righteousness which shines outward.  It is my prayer that God will liberate us from the righteousness of the Pharisees, the outward performance.  It doesn’t matter what people will think or see, God is in your heart.

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