The Perfection God Demands
“For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. … 48Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:20 and 48).
You can’t be good enough. God demands better than anyone can do (verse 20). Your feelings will be judged as much as your actions (verses 21 to 47). You are called to perfect righteousness (verse 48).
What is the hardest thing you’ve ever done? Going to college . . . asking someone out . . . breaking up with someone . . . saying goodbye to someone you loved who died . . . fighting cancer . . . quitting smoking . . . military life . . . forgiving someone?
For me, it was my ordination exam. It was hard and I had no idea what to expect. I actually didn’t pass the first time I sat for it. Then I watched a friend of mine a month later, who had prepped better. I studied long and hard again and passed it on the second try. It was so hard. I don’t have any degrees on my walls, but that one usually gets a spot in my office. There was no TC at the time, and I wasn’t sure I would pass.
But I’ve watched other men go through ordination exams with much more ease. What is hard for me may not be hard for you. Your hardest thing and mine will probably be different. But in each situation, we’re confronted with the realization that we might not be good enough to pull through. We naturally believe that we will be able to pull through most anything, because a) we’re still young enough to believe that, and b) we’re Americans, and that is how we view the world.
The Jews of Jesus’ day had a bit of a similar mindset. They believed that with enough effort, they could be good enough–good enough to overthrow Rome, good enough to please God, good enough to bring in God’s Kingdom. And today, we see how Jesus wanted them to understand that no matter how hard they tried, they’d never be good enough for God.
We are in week two of our series on the shocking things that Jesus said and did. The gap in time and space between today and Jesus’ time can dull our understanding of how radical He really was. We sometimes miss the intense words and deeds of Jesus. If your knowledge of Jesus comes more from culture and books than the Bible, you may not know Jesus as He really is.
Last week, Shawn uncovered how awesome Jesus really is. Today, I want you to understand the hard words He preached. We are going to dig into one of my all-time favorite sections of Scripture–the Sermon on the Mount. It is three chapters long, set in the early part of Matthew’s gospel. Open up your Bibles to Matthew 5 and allow me remind you of the setting.
Jesus, 2,000 years ago, had crowds of people following Him–not just one crowd, but crowds and crowds of people. At the end of chapter 4, Jesus had been traveling throughout Galilee, teaching, healing and proclaiming the Gospel. People were already recognizing Him as a leader and as a rabbi. Due to things that He said, there was some hope that He would bring great change to Israel. But rather than organize an army, stage a coup, and take over Jerusalem–Jesus decides this would be a prime opportunity to teach them.
So He sits down on the side of the mountain (typical position of official teaching by a rabbi). Everyone draws near–it grows quiet as they wait for Him to speak. He shares the beatitudes (eight characteristics of the redeemed). This is His introduction–they are taught as quick, rapid-fire statements given to startle the complacent and shock the confident.
“’Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 5Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth. 6Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. 7Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. 8Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. 9Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. 10Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’” (Matthew 5:3 to 10).
He talks about being salt and light–living differently for the glory of the Father. Then He shares how people have misunderstood the Law, seeking to escape it rather than embrace its purpose.
But the very heart of chapter 5 is found in verse 20, “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.” And when He said this, on the hillside–this was a mic drop. He’s got a bunch of them in this chapter and this is the first.
Jesus wanted them to understand, and for us to understand–you can’t be good enough for God. He’s going to say this in a whole bunch of different ways. You can never be good enough for God. Let’s look together at how He says this over and over.
1. God demands better than anyone can do Verse 20
The Jews used to have a saying (they have lots of sayings), “If only two people go to heaven, one will be a scribe and the other a Pharisee.” So when Jesus says in verse 20, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven,” He is saying that you can’t be good enough for God. God demands better than anyone can do. Today people say, “I’ll go to Heaven because I’m a good person.”
The common belief then was that you go to Heaven because you keep the Law. God had given the Old Testament (their Torah), and from that came the Mishnah (oral tradition–800 pages) and the Talmud (a 12-volume commentary on the Mishnah). All were equated with obedience to the Law. And to be sure you were to keep the Law.
The scribes lived to figure out rules and regulations for every possible situation in life. They always thought about, “What if?” What if you awoke on the Sabbath with your house on fire? Is it work to put it out? How rare can you cook a steak before it’s declared unclean? The scribes worked to turn the great principles of the Law into thousands upon thousands of rules and regulations. The Pharisees were the ones who busied themselves trying to keep all the rules and regulations. They were generally proud of their self-righteous endeavors.
Strict orthodox Jews, in the time of Jesus, strove to keep thousands of legalistic rules and regulations. They regarded these petty rules as matters of life and death and eternal destiny. Most people tried to do their best, and offered sacrifices to cover their blunders. But the average Jew in the streets would admit, “I can’t be like a scribe who studies the Old Testament day and night and has every fine point memorized. (In fact, most scribes could probably recite verbatim the entire text of the Old Testament from copying it so many times.) Nor can I live like a Pharisee–keeping all those rules. I’ll never make it to Heaven. Those people are so holy, their whole life is dedicated to religious and moral pursuit.”
What Jesus says here would shock everyone. “You gotta be better than the most righteous of your religious leaders.” The scribes would be shocked. The Pharisees would be shocked. And all the normal people who looked up to them would be gutted. The standard was so much higher than they assumed. God demands better than anyone can do. To the average person, this was probably the most absolutely shocking, gut-wrenching, tarrying part of everything Jesus said that day.
The scribes and Pharisees made obedience to God’s Law the consuming passion of their lives. The only way to keep all the Law was to make the rules external and not about the heart. Most of us don’t use the Old Testament as our measure–but the tendency of our hearts is to do the same thing. We think, “How good do I have to be? What do I have to do in order to get to Heaven? What are the lines I have to make in my relationships, in my entertainment? What are the things I need to avoid in order for God to be pleased with me?”
Jesus’ answer to that question—”If you’re going to enter Heaven based on what you do, then you better be even more perfect than the best.” God demands better than anyone can do. Just like us, the Jews had distorted the meaning of the Law into only external acts. Their fixation was on external actions and not on the heart. To bring home this reality, Jesus begins to take common commands and teach that . . .
2. Your feelings will be judged as much as your actions Verses 21 to 47
If I was going to ask you for one thing that you are certain God will not judge you for, name one thing you are not guilty of–most people would say murder. “I haven’t killed anyone (yet).” And I think that’s why Jesus starts off with the Law prohibiting murder–it’s the one law that most everyone would deny breaking.
Look at Matthew 5:21 to 22, “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ 22But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.”
Jesus says that you are guilty of murder, when anger hits your heart–not when it is expressed in violence and death. God’s Law was not given merely as a limit to bad behavior, but to show and reveal the sin of the heart. And it is the feelings of your heart that you are liable for, not just what you do. To Jews who have become incredibly focused on rule-keeping, this is another shock to their system. Jesus is utterly undoing what they understood about the Law.
Then Jesus goes after adultery–another issue that many Jews would not think themselves guilty of. Look at Matthew 5:27 to 30, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; 28but I say to you, that everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart. 29And if your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to go into hell.”
Now to us, this level of aggression towards fighting sin is shocking. If people practiced this, we’d have a lot more eye patches and prosthetics than we do today. But really, the big shocker to the people gathered around is that they are as guilty before God as the active adulterers they looked down on.
Back in Exodus 20:14 (the seventh commandment), “You shall not commit adultery.” The rabbis took this and said, “Nothing physical between two married people”–if you want to think and fantasize about it, no problem. But no physical contact–similar to dating rules set out by many parents today. They address the hands, but not the heart.
This is the same view as many dating couples have today–they ask, “How far can we go?” I know premarital and extramarital sex are wrong, but how close can we get? They’re asking, “Here’s the line–how close can I come to it and not be in sin?” And we ask those same questions—“Can I be buzzed but not drunk? Can I tithe a little bit and call it good? Can I watch this movie if I skip the sex scenes?” How close can I go without being in sin?
The Pharisees and those couples have the wrong idea. Sin is not defined by the limits of your actions. Sin is defined by the leanings of your heart. Jesus says that everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her “has committed adultery with her already in his heart.” Now the verb here is referring to a continuous process of looking–not an incidental or involuntary glance, but intentional, repeated, prolonged gazing. If you’re thinking, “Well, how long until it becomes a gaze?”–uou may be missing the point. Sin starts in the heart. Notice what Jesus says in verse 28, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; 28but I say to you, that everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart.”
Let me share with you the Greek word meaning for “already”–it means already. When looking or thinking lustfully about something or someone, sin has already occurred. It didn’t just happen at the point of looking or acting–your heart was already inclined to dissatisfaction and lust. Get this–it is not lustful looking or thinking that causes sin in the heart. It is sin in the heart that causes lustful looking and thinking. Sin in your heart leads to anger, hate and even murder. Sin in your heart leads to lust, coveting and adultery.
If we look further down at verses 31 and 32, sin in your heart leads to discontent, dissatisfaction and eventually divorce. Verses 33 to 37, Sin in your heart leads to vows, promises and eventual lies. Verses 38 to 42, Sin in your heart leads to demands for justice, retribution and repayment. Verses 43 to 47, Sin in your heart leads to partiality, bigotry and hate. In each case, Jesus begins with the law and moves to the heart. He shows that both sin and righteousness begin in the heart, and that your feelings will be judged as much as your actions.
I put it this way, because most people live under the delusion that their actions will be the only thing that they stand before God for. If you read the Far Side comic, you have a mental image of standing before God and being judged for what you’ve done. But the reality is that your feelings and your heart attitudes will be on trial too. All sin starts in the heart–and so your heart will be judged one day.
Maybe you memorized Jeremiah 17:9–but did you ever notice what comes right after it? “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it? 10I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give to each man according to his ways, according to the results of his deeds” (Jeremiah 17:9 and 10). Your heart, mind and feelings will be judged as much as your actions. They are the root of all your deeds.
In fact, when you go to fight sin, your best strategy as a Christian is to go after the heart. That is what John Owen, in his book The Mortification of Sin, calls getting at the root of sin. In front of my house near the road, I have some weeds that won’t die. I can weed-whack the tar out of them, but they grow right back. I can cut them off at soil level and they grow back bigger still. If I don’t manage to pull out the root of that weed, it comes right back in a few weeks or a month.
Our foremost concern in dealing with sin should be attacking the root–not going after the leaves and flowers, but digging for the root. We go after the heart attitudes, because sin is conceived in the heart and merely manifest in action. God focuses on and judges our hearts, because that is who we truly are. It is the root of our actions. Jeremiah 11:20, “O Lord of hosts, who judges righteously, who tries the feelings and the heart, let me see Your vengeance on them.”
The shocking message Jesus declares again and again through Matthew 5 is, you can’t be good enough. In order to enter Heaven, your righteousness, your holiness has to be better than the Jews who devoted their lives to obeying God. God demands better than anyone can do (verse 20). They worked their tails off to satisfy each of God’s commands and then Jesus comes and destroys them. He tells them that your feelings will be judged as much as your actions (verses 21 to 47). It’s not just what you do that matters, but also what is in your heart. And He wraps it all up in verse 48 by saying . . .
3. You are called to perfect righteousness Verse 48
Matthew 5:48, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This is the point that Jesus has been driving towards since He said, “Your righteousness needs to exceed the scribes and Pharisees.” He has been leading the crowd from shocking truth to shocking truth, all so that they would realize their spiritual bankruptcy and the utter impossibility of God’s demands on their lives.
From here to the end of the sermon, Jesus continues to tear down the misguided attempts of the religious to earn God’s favor–but this is the crux. This would have been one of the most devastating parts of the sermon for those listening. You are called to perfect righteousness—and you can’t be good enough.
At the end of this sermon, Matthew says the crowds were amazed. They were astounded, overwhelmed with what they had learned. By the end, they were despairing and hopeful. And if you have hoped in Jesus Christ, then you know that very feeling. If you want to enter Heaven, this is the requirement. You must be as perfect as God is. Heaven is the home of God and nothing less than perfection can enter.
Many of you know what a miserable treadmill acceptance through works is. You worry like a girl who’s never secure in her father’s love. You never know if you’ve done enough for your heavenly father to be pleased. And Jesus here in this sermon provides the certainty, the assurance that you have not done enough. He says that you can never do enough.
If you have been trying to live up to God’s standards, then you need to know you must match His perfection in order to enter Heaven. Leviticus 19:2, “Speak to all the congregation of the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.’” You must be perfect. You must be holy. But you can’t be. You cannot be holy the way God is. And you can’t be perfect the way God is.
The solution many people choose is to say, “That can’t be what He means.” Many people read these words and they try to get around them. They say, “Jesus didn’t really mean that we’re to be perfect. He understood no one is perfect. He was giving us a target–something to strive for. But God’s standard is perfection and we will never hit it. The only place to get perfection is Jesus Christ, who never sinned.
All this talk of the Law has been to drive us to the Gospel. Galatians 3:22 and 24, “But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. …24Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith.”
The only way to survive the judgment of God is to hope in Jesus. You acknowledge that you can’t be good enough and you believe that Jesus was good enough and you cry out for forgiveness. You admit that your actions, your words, your emotions and your thoughts are all tainted by sin and self. You know in your heart that you’re not going to do better. You can’t be good enough. And you know down deep that one day you’re going to stand before God.
You are responsible before God for your life. There are no victims and there are no excuses. What Jesus teaches is that a heart for sin leads to Hell. God’s standard is perfection. He will judge every person by that measure. Your actions, your words, your thoughts and your feelings. He demands better than anyone can do. And He provides the righteousness that He requires.
The one who wrote the Law that condemns also offers the gift of salvation. The standard of Heaven does not change. Perfection is still required. Holiness is still demanded. But Jesus’ perfection and holiness is counted as ours. When you believe in Jesus, His righteousness becomes yours in the same way that your sins became His. Perfection is the path to Heaven, but it is Christ’s perfection. And when you repent and believe, you are made new. The Spirit of God awakens your heart to sin. He seals you and begins to transform you. He gives you pleasure in obedience. You recognize that obedience is a consequence of salvation–not a means of salvation. As Christians, we do fight sin aggressively–even violently. We go after the root of sin and we aggressively pursue holiness.
Christians will live in a way that’s pleasing to God. But that desire to obey springs from gratitude. As Isaac Watts taught us to sing, “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all” (“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”). The main goal of Jesus’ sermon was not instruction about how to live as a follower of Jesus. He wants you to utterly admit your total need for a Savior. He is pleading with you even today, to confess that you have no hope for Heaven, other than Jesus Christ and His righteousness.
This is the confession of every new believer and mature believer alike—”I can’t be good enough. I have no hope other than Christ and His perfect righteousness.”