You Can’t Handle the Truth! (Matthew 5:17-20)

You Can’t Handle the Truth!

The Truth, not Tradition–The Sermon on the Mount

Matthew 5:17-20

The late football strategist, Vince Lombardi, was a fanatic about fundamentals. Those who played under his leadership often spoke of his intensity, his drive, his endless enthusiasm for the guts of the game. Time and again, he would go back to the basic techniques of blocking and tackling. On one occasion his team, the Green Bay Packers, lost to an inferior squad. It was bad enough to lose, but to lose to that team was absolutely inexcusable.

Coach Lombardi called a practice the very next morning. The men sat silently, looking more like whipped puppies than a team of champions. They had no idea what to expect from the man they feared the most. Gritting his teeth and staring holes through one athlete after another, Lombardi began, “Okay, we go back to the basics this morning.” Holding a football high enough for all to see, he continued to yell, “Gentlemen, this is a football!” How basic can you get?

He’s got guys sitting there who have been playing on gridirons for fifteen to twenty years, who know offensive and defensive plays better than they know their kids’ names, and he introduces them to a football? That’s like saying, “Maestro, this is a baton”, or “Librarian, this is a book”, or “Marine, this is a rifle.” But I believe that same challenge must be given to every Christian who lives in a comfortable culture–ready? Christian, this is a Bible! This book is your food, comfort, light, instruction, and the vehicle to know God–yet it is rejected by unbelievers and ignored by believers. This book is the second greatest gift God has given to His children–why?

1.  It’s the only Book that comes from God and is the vehicle to intimacy with God

2.  It’s the only Book that will keep you pure

3.  It is the only Book that guides you into God’s will

4.  It’s the only Book that will build you up when you feel down

5.  It’s the only Book that allows you to know truth and embrace reality, even see the future

This Book is what keeps the Christian from sin–but tragically, it’s usually sin that keeps the Christian from the Bible. Christians today don’t read it, turn to it, depend on it, nor look at life through its lens, nor submit to its truths as absolute, unbreakable guidelines for everyday life. What will it take for you to be in the Word more regularly? Make no mistake, only those who are in the Word regularly are intimate with Christ. No one who is in the Word only on Sundays has Jesus as their first love.

You cannot know, love, or obey Christ without immersing yourself in His Word. Maybe you’re asking under your breath, “How can you say that, Chris?” The Bible is called the Word of God–so is Jesus. Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit. The Bible was given by the Holy Spirit. Both are perfect, both are without error in the original, both have unique authority, both are rejected by men, both make God known and both Jesus and the Bible are judges of mankind. Because the Bible is the Word of God, it means if Jesus were present physically, the Bible is what He would say. Jesus would speak the truths and verses of the Bible. They are His Words–therefore we’d better not mess them up, distort them. malign them, ignore them or fail to follow them in obedience.

Throughout the history of God’s people, there have been subtle drifts from the Word and sudden returns to the Scriptures. The Lord’s people lost the Scripture and God graciously and dramatically restored it back to them. During the time of Christ’s earthly ministry, the people had once again lost the truth. It had been replaced by tradition—so much so that when people heard Jesus be critical of tradition and break with traditions in practice, they assumed He was being critical of or breaking God’s Word.

Jesus repeatedly broke what the Jewish leaders called the Law. He did not observe the hand-washings the Law laid down. He healed sick people on the Sabbath, although the Law forbade such healings. He was, in fact, condemned and crucified as a lawbreaker. But today, you will hear Christ speak of the Law with a veneration and a reverence that no rabbi or Pharisee could exceed. What is going on?

In the first century, those who read, interpreted, and applied the Word of God in the synagogues were the scribes and Pharisees–the leaders of the religious elite. The Jewish people were reared in synagogues, participated in temple worship, and learned the Old Testament Law from these teachers steeped in traditional religion. The role of the average, everyday layperson was simply to believe and obey what the official scholars taught. They had no opportunity to question, doubt or challenge their views.

But when Jesus arrived, He began to set the record straight. He didn’t come to throw out the Law and the Prophets themselves. After all, the Old Testament Scriptures were the very Word of God in written form–inspired and inerrant, true in everything they affirmed. They are Christ’s Words. The problem wasn’t with the Law and the Prophets, but with the faulty interpretation and mega specific applications which God did not intend.

Let me give you an example. The Law said no work on the Sabbath. So zealous men began to ask, “What is work?” One of the work classifications they came up with was–don’t carry a burden. Then these same scholars spent endless hours arguing whether a man could or could not lift a lamp from one place to another on the Sabbath, whether a tailor committed a sin if he went out with a needle in his robe, whether a God-fearing woman might wear a brooch or wear a wig. Even if a man might go out on the Sabbath with artificial teeth or an artificial limb, if a man might lift his child on the Sabbath day. These things to them were the essence of religion–their religion was a legalism of petty rules and regulations. That’s one category of no work.

There were also massive laws about writing, healing, walking, speaking, eating and more. The scribes were the men who developed all these extra rules and regulations. The Pharisees–their name means separate ones, were the men who sought to keep all these rules. Later, this oral tradition was written down in the 800-page Mishnah, and then the twelve volumes of Talmuds were the commentaries, which explained the Mishnah rules.

When first century Jews referred to the Law, they could mean four different things—1) the Ten Commandments; 2) the first five books of the Bible, 3) law and prophets referred to the entire Old Testament Bible, and 4) Law meant the scribal or oral law. Jesus is attacking the oral law. Again, it was the scribal and oral law which Jesus, and later Paul, utterly condemned. Christ is trying to turn people back to the Word of God, not the oral tradition. Christ will attempt, in the Sermon on the Mount, to expose the difference between God’s truth and man’s tradition.

Prior to the Sermon, the scribes and Pharisees were already accusing Jesus of abolishing the Law, when in reality He is pointing people to God’s revealed Word in the Bible and not man’s applications of the Word in the oral tradition. The scribes accused Jesus of unfaithfulness to the Scripture. Christ was not unfaithful to God’s truth, but rejecting of man’s traditions, which now leads us to the Lord’s words in His sermon by the Sea of Galilee, on an acoustic hill, with thousands listening then, and hundreds of you listening today.

Read aloud with me verses 17 to 20. “’Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.’”

This passage is powerful–it elevates your love for God’s Word in all things. It challenges you to interpret the Bible correctly. It scares you out of adding to or altering anything in the Bible. There are four major points, one of each which come out of the four verses.

#1  The SUFFICIENCY of Christ and His Word  Verse 1

Read verse 17, “’Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.’” Jesus made it clear He didn’t come to “abolish the Law or the Prophets”–the Bible. We are not to think that Jesus’ teaching in this sermon or elsewhere in the New Testament was meant to abolish–meaning alter, abrogate, or replace the moral content of the Old Testament Law. Abolish has to do with tearing a house down. Christ did to come to dismantle the Old Testament.

Christ was neither giving a new law nor modifying the old, but rather explaining the true significance of the moral content of Moses’ Law and the rest of the Old Testament. Verse 17, “the Law and the Prophets” speaks of the entirety of the Old Testament Scriptures, and not the rabbinical interpretations or applications of them–the oral tradition. Christ did not come to break with, destroy or demolish the Old Testament Scriptures–no, He came (verse 17) “to fulfill”. This fulfillment has the same sense that prophecy is fulfilled.

Christ is telling His listeners that He is the fulfillment of the Law in all its aspects. He fulfilled the moral law by keeping it perfectly. He fulfilled the ceremonial law by being the embodiment of everything the Law’s types and symbols pointed to. And He fulfilled the judicial law by personifying God’s perfect justice. The enemy wants to get you off track with the Bible and one of His successful weapons is to get you to think that the Bible is not sufficient.

Is the Bible sufficient for the church’s evangelistic task? Many churches and Christians don’t seem to think so, since they abandon Bible teaching for signs and wonders, sociological techniques, and massive ear tickling entertainment. But trying to do sacred work in secular ways only produces secular results. It may result in a large pond, but it’s only one inch deep–very shallow and unstable.

Is the Bible sufficient for growth in Christ and godliness? Many churches do not believe it is–so they offer self-help programs, recommend man-centered counseling, listen to entertaining or critical blogs, even focus on the latest theological controversy, instead of living dependently upon the Spirit of God by the Word of God in order to glorify God.

Is the Bible sufficient for making an impact on society? Many churches doubt it. How do we know? Instead of teaching the Bible, they put their effort into political action groups, lobbying for changes on the Supreme Court, or try to elect Christian or moral legislators. Some of those efforts have value, but that is not God’s way of transforming people or society. Christians need to stand on the sure foundation of God’s Word and expect God to bless it in transforming human lives through the Gospel.

#2  The INSPIRATION of Christ and His Word  Verse 18

Verse 18, “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” Christ is emphasizing the inspiration of all of Scripture. He is specifically affirming the utter inerrancy of the Old Testament as the Word of God–down to each vowel and the smallest Hebrew and Greek letter in both the Old Testament and New Testament. Friends, the New Testament should not be seen as supplanting and abrogating the Old Testament, but as fulfilling and explicating it.

For example, all the ceremonial requirements of the Mosaic Law were fulfilled in Christ and are no longer to be observed by Christians. Not one tiny word is thereby erased or neglected–the underlying truths of these Old Testament Scriptures remain. In fact, the mysteries behind them are now revealed in the brighter light of the Gospel. Verse 18, they’ve not passed away, failed or dropped from the Word. To set aside the Scripture, any of it, was never the agenda of Jesus.

So Jesus shocks the listening crowd in verse 18, “Not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law.” Letter or stroke–some versions say, “not one jot or one tittle.” Literally it says not one iota or one horn. The iota was the smallest Greek vowel, sometimes even located beneath another letter. The horn refers to a tiny mark, like a hook or tail that distinguishes one letter from another. With Hebrew letters yod (י) and waw (ו), or daleth (ד) and resh (ר). Or in English, the difference between a C and a G, or an O and a Q–just one little stroke. So a jot refers to the smallest Hebrew letter, the yod, which is a meager stroke of the pen, like an accent mark or an apostrophe–every word is inspired.

Your enemy wants to turn your focus from the truth of God’s Word to tradition. Be careful you don’t spend more time with authors, bloggers, and sermons than you do with God’s written Word. That’s what happened to the nation of Israel and slowly they drifted away from the truth. You and I face the same danger. Sometimes we define ourselves by focusing on aspects of Christianity–freedoms or gray areas, like drinking, dress, or entertainment. There are some who are so hot about the latest doctrinal controversy, they read everything but God’s Word.

Far too many of us are caught up in our friendships and family over our Savior and His truth. It is God’s Word which is inspired–every single word is God-breathed. Look at how Jesus begins verse 18, “For truly I say to you”–truly is the Greek word for amen. “Truly I say to you”–I am telling you the truth. Our Lord is looking you in the eye—this is what I consider important, My Word. Verse 18 , “until heaven and earth pass away.” This phrase is used 31 times in Matthew’s gospel to say, until the end of the age–as long as this present world exists. None of God’s Law will pass away–not tradition but truth, not sermons but Scripture, not blogs but Bible. Like John 10:35b, “the Scripture cannot be broken.”

Jesus is affirming the trustworthiness and reliability of all the Scriptures in the strongest possible language. Back then, He was trying to move people from traditions to truth–and today, our Lord is trying to move you from anything less than the Bible. Yes, listen to sermons, some blogs, read good books, but not more than your Bible. The Bible alone is the inspired Word of God.

Back then, Jesus told these scribes and Pharisees in John 5:39 to 40, “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” And as Jesus continues to teach the Sermon on the Mount in coming weeks, He is going to show us how the leadership moved away from the truth to tradition and it ruined them. Do not let it ruin you. The enemy is tricksey and subtle–be careful, Christian.

Sola Scriptura means Scripture alone–it was one of the themes of the Reformation. And practically, it means whenever our beliefs and the Bible are in conflict, whenever our traditions come in conflict with the Scriptures, then we give the Bible pre-eminence. The Bible must win in our church and in your schedule, in your life and in your heart.

#3  The AUTHORITY of Christ and His Word  Verse 19

Not only do Christians need to believe the Bible and stand on it as a matter of conviction–we also need to obey the Bible and live by it too, which is the truest test of whether you actually believe and trust in God’s Word. Is the Bible your authority? Look at verse 19–using a play on words, Jesus warned that any teacher who annuls even one of the least of the commandments will be least in the Kingdom of God. On the contrary, “whoever keeps and teaches” the commandments will be great.

Listen friends—no one can accuse Christ of having a low regard for the inspiration, accuracy and authority of Scripture. Listen to what Jesus says next in verse 19. “Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” Any willful, ongoing violation of God’s Law makes one least in the Kingdom, which is equal to being outside the Kingdom and under condemnation.

The one who seeks to keep, meaning to carry out, to work on following God’s Law, and teaches others to do so–meaning they believe it is God’s Word so much, they think everyone should follow its truths, that person is great, mega, which is equal to being in the Kingdom and in possession of salvation. Christ is not telling you the means of salvation–no, He is telling you the result of salvation, which is obedience. Born again Christians love God’s Word and seek to obey it in all of life. First John 2:4, “The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.’”

Later in Matthew chapter 13, in the parable of the wheat and tares, Christ makes it clear that in His Kingdom on Earth, among those who identify with Christ, there will be true and false believers. Here today at FBC, there will be true and false believers. In all the parables in Matthew 13, the least refers to those who will be judged and cast out, while the great shall be included and rewarded. Matthew 13:30, “Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, ‘First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

Matthew 13:41 to 43, “The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all … those who commit lawlessness, 42and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.”

Again, the enemy moved people away from the Bible as the authority in the first century, and he is doing the same today. He distorts grace by turning obedience into legalism. He distorts obedience by making it optional. He distorts the Bible’s authority by elevating your thinking, your reasoning above His revelation. Like those churches which follow a business model over biblical leadership, submit to psychology over doctrinal truth, affirm evolution over six-day creationism, distort the distinctions of male and female, or embrace homosexuality as an alternate lifestyle instead of a sin against God.

We desperately need our minds. God has given us the ability to reason and we should use it, especially when studying the Bible. But if our reason and the Bible are in conflict, our reason must bow to the Bible’s authority, recognizing that Father knows best. Like rails for a train, the Bible provides the only tracks to guide the Christian life. Love for Christ and the filling with the Spirit provide the energy to power the engine and move us forward, but it’s the Bible alone which takes us in the best and right direction.

#4  The POWER of Christ and His Word  Verse 20

Listen to verse 20, “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of Heaven.” There must have been a visible shock and an audible gasp at this statement from the multitudes on the hill by the lake. The Pharisees and scribes were admired and respected in Jesus day. The scribes were highly trained in the interpretation and application of the Law, beginning as children and ending their training with a formal ordination at the age of 40. These men were committed to their faith. People would stand in honor as they walked by, greet them with the title Father, Rabbi or Master, and always give them a seat of honor at any gathering.

The listeners are thinking and maybe you too, if their righteousness was not enough to get them into Heaven, then the rest of us are in trouble–which is exactly what Jesus wants them to see. The scribes and Pharisees were seeking to gain righteousness by following the oral traditions, not the truth. It was external obedience by following softened demands of the Law, but not the Law itself–it was salvation by human achievement. Christ expects your righteousness to be perfect and that means the imputed righteousness of Christ given to you, as you submit to Him in faith and repentance. It is salvation by divine accomplishment.

Just like Abraham, in Genesis 15:6, “Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.” You will not get into Heaven unless you are perfectly righteous and no one here is. That is why each of you must submit to Christ by faith and He will cover you in His sinless, perfect righteousness. When the Lord saves you, He indwells you with His Spirit and He transforms your heart, so you are not only able to live differently, you want to live by God’s Word.

Romans 6:17, “But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed.” So now, as a made-new person, as a born again Christian, Paul can say in Romans 6:13, “And do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.”

So your righteousness must exceed the scribes and Pharisees in two ways. ONE) it can only be achieved by faith in Christ, Christ being punished for your sin and Christ giving you His righteousness. Double substitutionary atonement–Christ takes your sin and gives you His righteousness. Romans 4:5, “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.”

And TWO) because the Pharisees lived only by externals, but your faith changes your entire nature before God–when you’re justified, you are also regenerated, born again. You now have a heart that wants to obey God’s Word. Therefore, your lifestyle will be more righteous, because it is driven by the Spirit through you to live righteously. It is not mere externalism, but internally driven to love the Lord by obeying His Word. You want to obey God’s Word and all genuine Christians will.

The re-created person will actually live a moral life superior to that of the Pharisees. Verse 20, “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus, here in verse 20, does not establish how the righteousness is to be gained, developed or empowered–Christ simply lays out the demand. How do you get it? Those who do not turn to Christ–those who live by traditions, religion, externalism, and not in faith and repentance in Christ will not enter God’s Kingdom now, nor Heaven 10

But those who do turn to Christ in faith and repentance will experience the power of God’s Word in transforming them into a new person who seeks to live righteously now and will live in perfect righteousness forever under God’s rule in Heaven. Ephesians 2:8 to 10 , “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.”


A  Are you PROUD of your good works and a righteous life?

When you are genuinely saved, you will find yourself doing good works–but Christians, we will not take credit for them like the Pharisees did. Instead, believers will give all the glory to God by whom their righteousness was attained and by whose power alone these good works are done. In fact, genuine Christians take it a step further–you and I will marvel at the wisdom of God, which made such a great salvation possible. And we will say, as Paul did in Romans 11:36, “To him be the glory forever! Amen.”

B  Are you ready for Christ to explain your deeper righteousness of HEART

For the remainder of Matthew 5, our Lord recounts six examples of the deeper righteousness Jesus expects from those who are truly saved. All those who love and obey Him from the heart will deal with deeper heart issues. In the rest of chapter 5, Jesus will say, “you have heard it said”, that’s oral tradition—“but I say to you”, and that’s biblical truth.

Instead of just dealing with murder, you will deal with hate. Instead of external adultery, you’ll attack your lust. Instead of divorce, you reconcile with your spouse. Instead of oaths, you let your yes be yes, and more. Today was the introduction to the difference between tradition and truth, externalism and internal transformation. Never forget, Christ is focused on your heart–beyond your words, attitudes and behavior.

C  Keep the BIBLE relational, personal and intimate with Christ

John 5:39, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me.” Luke 24:25 to 27, “And He said to them, ‘O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! 26Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?’ 27Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.”

The Bible is the path to relationship with Christ. The Scriptures speak of Him. The Word of God is your vehicle for communion with Christ–do not treat Sunday sermons, CG’s, even ministries as academic duties, but opportunities to see the Lord. A low view of Scripture is a low view of Christ. A lack of love for Scripture is a lack of love for Christ.

D  Pursue learning to FEED yourself

Babies can’t feed themselves–adults can feed themselves. And don’t fret–even as an older believer, when you try to feed yourself for the first time you will stick a couple of French fries in your eyes. But you’ll get it and you will learn how. Are you ready to move on to maturity? Then it is time to start studying the Bible. Learn to blaze the TRAIL—T.R.A.I.L.

First  T-ime  Make time for your quiet time

There are 24 hours in every day, one of them will be right for you. If you can plan three daily meals, text a friend, play pickleball or a video game, you can plan time with God. It doesn’t have to be a large amount of time, as long as it is regular and consistently kept.

Second  R-etreat  Find a quiet place

A place that is relatively quiet is better than somewhere that has lots of distractions. If possible, no one else should be around. Your goal is to have a private conversation and to listen well–learn from your Master. Most people find using the same location regularly helps them get into the routine.

Third  A-ttitude  Have the right attitude

The Bible tells us to have a spirit of expectancy, waiting for God to meet us–a spirit of stillness and calm as well. Psalm 46:10, “Cease striving and know that I am God.” Don’t be thinking ahead to your next event or to the things that you haven’t done yet. Give God all of this time fully. Have a note pad handy so when something comes to mind that distracts you, it can be written down so you won’t forget it–then put it aside until you’re done with your appointment with God.

Fourth  I-ntentional  Have an objective

Realize you’re coming to meet Christ for a reason–it isn’t busy work, or a duty, or something you have to do to keep guilt off your back. You are here to prepare yourself for the battles of the day, to listen, to commune, to gain wisdom and get direction, to be empowered, corrected, directed and to worship.

Fifth  L-earn  Learn an approach or a method that is regular

But it also can be modified if you need to. Keith Green sang these words as a motivation for you to study. “Take the time to read, ’cause Jesus took the time to bleed.” Let’s pray.

About Chris Mueller

Chris is the teaching pastor at Faith Bible Church - Murrieta.

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