For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20 ESV)

The Sermon on the Mount is Christ’s great sermon against the legalism of the scribes and Pharisees. They emphasized merely an outward, perfunctory obedience, and Christ taught an inward and spiritual obedience. The Ten Commandments themselves end with the command against coveting, or lusting after what another person has. So this matter of inward obedience was never ignored by God, rather it was taught throughout the scripture. David wrote:

Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart…

For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:6,16-17 ESV)

How these teachers of the Law missed it is a wonder to us all, but they did. They resorted to a religion that was measured by its outward obedience, not by its inward faith.

But we can also become guilty of the same thing by taking these teachings of Christ and seeking to create a new “Christian” legalism. We can take what He said on these different matters legalism and, ignoring the inner matter of faith, find a backdoor into legalism. We need to interpret scripture faithfully and consistently.

Seeming Contradictions

The Holy Spirit does not conflict with Himself – He never gets in His own way, not in His moving in the world nor in His work of inspiring Scripture. When we see something that appears as a contradiction we need to see the context, the historical and cultural settings of the scripture, and understand each passage in light of its original audience and meaning.

Some seeming contradictions on the Sermon on the Mount include:

  • “Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matt. 5:22) and Christ calling the scribes and Pharisees “Blind fools” (Matt. 23:17).
  • Do not resist an evil person” (Matt. 5:39), and Paul’s resisting (same word in Greek) Peter, “But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed” (Gal. 2:11), “withstood” is the same Greek word as “resist.” And James said: “Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (James 4:7).
  • Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Matt. 5:42), and Paul’s strong words to the church in Thessalonica where Christian compassion was taken advantage of: “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10).

If we take these teachings of Christ and form a new legalism we will have missed His point. We need not a new list of rules but new hearts, and this is exactly what Christ brings to each believer.

But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code. (Romans 7:6)

Interpreting Scripture

Evangelical believers use a method of interpreting scripture called the “Grammatical-historical Interpretation Method.” It means to interpret passages in light of the language in which they were written and in light of the historical situation they were given. Two practical examples of this are:

  • Matthew 26:52, “Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.'” Clearly Christ was not only speaking of swords, but also of knives and guns, and any weapon used in violence.
  • Romans 16:16, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” Clearly this was a reference to believers greeting one another according to the custom of the First Century Mediterranean societies. In many places on earth, to kiss one another is considered culturally inappropriate.

In most places common sense will take us a long way, such as the two passages above. But in the Sermon on the Mount we might need more than just common sense. Christ was speaking to Jews, in light of their cultural realities. He was addressing those people who had taken the scripture and made it to say what it was not saying, and who had ignored what it was saying.

One of the key considerations of Christ’s teaching in the Sermon is the view of the individual and the Final Judgment. Theologians use the word Eschatology for this, and it is strong in Christ’s teachings here. Possessing the Kingdom is all important (Matt. 5:3), and that the Kingdom would come is the heart of both praise and of prayer (Matt. 6:10). The Christian life is to be lived seeking the Kingdom of God (Matt. 6:33) and the final judgment is passed, gaining personal and permanent entrance into the full Kingdom, not by doing good works but by knowing Christ personally (Matt. 7:22-23).

The Inadequacies of Legalism

So the point of this section of the Sermon, Matt. 5:21-48, is not to give a new legalism, but to teach our need of grace. God looks at the heart, and though the command is “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48), or as Moses wrote the principle, ” ‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2), these teachings reveal that we can never achieve our own righteousness this way. As Paul wrote, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).

The false interpretation of the Sermon is that Christ was just giving a new legalism, and the individual may think, “I am saved so long as I don’t call anyone ‘fool,’ and do not lust after women, and do not divorce my wife, and do not swear, and do not turn people away who need help, and forgive my enemies.” Of course, immediately we see the deception here, that no one can do this, or be sure he has done enough of it. The topics of inner lust and helping others and forgiving others are all issues that are heart matters. As James wrote, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (James 2:10).

Our only hope is the grace of God in Christ. What we find is that the scripture speaks of two different judgment seats: the Judgment Seat of Christ, which is exclusively for believers, and the Great White Throne Judgment, which is exclusively for non-believers. On the Judgment Seat of Christ we read: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor. 5:10). We believers will stand before Christ one day and be judged by Him – not to determine our salvation but to assess and give our rewards for faithful service.

Paul wrote:

Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 cor. 3:12-15)

So at the Judgment Seat of Christ there will be some who have done very little for Christ, but they did trust in Him and become Christians through faith. They will be those who are saved like someone “escaping through the flames.”

But the Great White Throne Judgment is for those who have not believed. We read:

Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Rev. 20:11-15)

Christ spoke of it being “more tolerable” (Mark 6:11) for some than others at the judgment, so there will be assigned by God various degrees of suffering in hell. God, who is the fairest One in the universe, shall judge the unbeliever with complete and total justice. But hell will still be hell, the lake of fire will still be the lake of fire.

The only logical response is to repent and trust in Christ

The good news is that if you are reading this you do not need to fear hell. You can today turn from sin and trust in Christ. You can admit to God and to your self that you are a sinner and in need of God’s forgiveness. God placed the punishment of your sin on Christ and you can receive His forgiveness by believing in Him, that He died and rose again. A simple prayer to pray is this:

Lord, I admit that I am a sinner and need your forgiveness. I believe you died on the cross and rose from the dead. I turn from my sin and turn to trust in you. I ask you to forgive my sins and give me the new life you promised. Thank you for hearing my prayer. Amen.

  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.