The spiritual superstars of Jesus day were surprised and more than a little upset that He disqualified them for entrance into the kingdom of heaven. What might Jesus say to you and me today?
Therefore whoever relaxes 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 does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:19-20
Jesus has only just begun what is considered by many to be His greatest sermon – The Sermon on the Mount. When He finished the crowds were amazed for He taught “as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Mat. 7:29).
Beginning with what we call the Beatitudes, Jesus continued by calling believers salt and light. Then said He had not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill or complete them perfectly. He said, “until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Mat 5:18); literally not the smallest markings of the Law, punctuation marks as we might call them, nothing will be taken from God’s Word until it has all been fulfilled.
No doubt there were many religious leaders in the crowd because Jesus’ next words are directed specifically at them. Within the kingdom of heaven two types of people are identified. Those called the least relax the least of God’s commandments teaching others to do the same. Those called the greatest obey these commandments instructing others to follow their example.
No doubt as experts in the law, the scribes and Pharisees would immediately think of themselves as the greatest. But Jesus hit them with an unexpected rebuff telling the crowd that if their righteousness did not exceed these ‘skilled lawkeepers’ they would never enter the kingdom of heaven. Don’t miss this – Jesus does not say the scribes and Pharisees would be known as least in the kingdom of heaven; instead they are excluded from it.
Jesus recognized that the scribes and Pharisees were not just relaxing God’s commandments, they were misinterpreting some with their traditions and completely ignoring other commandments all together. They made themselves and their teachers the final authority on the commandments rather than looking to God and the scriptures. Little wonder Jesus would later confront the scribes and Pharisees as hypocrites who make their followers “twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (Mat. 23:15).
The Sermon on the Mount continues as Jesus speaks directly about many of God’s commandments. In each He presents the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees saying “you have heard that it was said,” followed by His corrective and authoritative teaching saying, “But I say unto you.” In doing this Jesus is fulfilling the prophetic promise given to Moses, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen” (Deut. 18:15).
Is it any wonder the crowd was astonished by Jesus teaching? And it’s no surprise that His words agitated the religious leaders with an anger that eventually boiled over having Jesus crucified.
Imagine if Jesus had preached such a message today. We would all be there – from those who only attend church on special occasions, along with the regular attenders, to pastors and religious leaders like me (i.e. modern day scribes and Pharisees). How many of us will be surprised to hear Jesus tell us our righteousness must exceed that of our favorite bible teachers to enter the kingdom of heaven? And how many of us as expert pastors will be put off by Jesus words excluding us from the kingdom of heaven, of which we profess to be citizens?
What made the difference then, and what makes the difference now? Notice Jesus did not say we are saved just because we believed the right thing; He said, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Yes, we are saved by faith, but faith alone is dead. We’re to also live righteously being obedient to God’s commandments. Could such obedience be the “good works” God has prepared for us who have been “saved through faith” (Eph. 2:8-10)?
It seems that Jesus pointed to the key for entering the kingdom of heaven as obedience to God’s commandments. The way you and I live in response to God’s commandments and in turn teach others to follow our example will determine our place in the kingdom of heaven. Yet for the spiritual superstars of Jesus day, their righteousness didn’t even get them into the kingdom. Why? They were following their religious traditions – the teaching of man – rather than God’s commandments.
So where do you and I stand today? Would Jesus include us in the kingdom of heaven or not? If were in the kingdom, citizens of heaven, then shouldn’t we obey the rules of the kingdom?
But let’s not stop there. If we’re in, then will we be considered the least in the kingdom because we relax God’s commandments to make it easier on ourselves and others? Or will we the among the greatest who live a life of obedience teaching others to do the same?
God’s commandments – and unexpected sign saying, “Enter Here.”
I believe Jesus is LORD, Yehovah, and is the lawgiver and judge (see Jm. 4:12). I need to learn how God’s commandments help me to treat others as I desire to be treated, because Jesus said, “this is the Law and the Prophets” (Mat. 7:12). That means I cannot ignore God’s commandments from the Old Testament, for just like the Golden Rule the two greatest commandments support “all the Law and the Prophets.” (Mat. 22:40).
Yes to Yield
LORD Jesus, forgive me for following the modern day traditions of men rather than seeking out the truth of Your Word for myself; I have ignored so many of Your commandments because I was taught You fulfilled them. Yet Your Holy Spirit has shown me that Your fulfillment does not absolve me from also living in obedience to God’s commandments. Thank You for Your salvation, a gift I can never earn or repay. Holy Spirit, continue to teach and empower me to know how to obey even the least of God’s commandments teaching others to follow my example.