Jesus said to those gathered before Him, “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.”(Matthew 5:20) “Surpasses their righteousness”, how is that ever possible? The Pharisees and teachers were the good guys. I know Jesus had His troubles with them, but they strictly followed the laws of Moses. God had said this is what He wanted, and they were obedient to it. How could we possible do better? And on top of this Jesus said that what is in our minds counts also, whether anger, or lust, or whatever, these are sins, too. How can we ever be righteous before God? But that is just the point. We can’t. There is nothing we can do to make ourselves right with God. It is all in what Jesus came to do on our behalf. He lived the perfect sinless life. He died to make atonement for all of our sins. He gave us, as a free and unearned gift, His perfect righteousness. We can stand before God in a righteousness that far exceeds that of the Pharisee, the righteousness of Jesus Christ, Himself. Speaking of Abraham in Romans chapter four Paul says, “‘(His faith) was credited to him as righteousness.’ The words ‘it was credited to him’ were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness–for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.”(vss.22-24) What a marvelous truth! What a marvelous gift! We are free in Christ Jesus.
The word Gospel is used over 90 times in the New Testament. It is the Gospel or the Good News of Jesus Christ. When the angels announced the birth of Christ to the shepherds they said “I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people…”(Luke 2:10) Almighty God had broken into the midst of human life. God came into our world in the person of Jesus of the Galilean town of Nazareth. God knew our need, our failures, our separation from Him, and our inability to do anything about it. He came in the midst of our helplessness and did for us what we could not do for ourselves. We have just shared the truths of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the glorious resurrection on Easter Sunday. The whole life of Jesus Christ is the Good News of a new life for us in Him. We began yesterday with the greeting “He is risen! He is Risen indeed!” No matter what happens in this broken world, we have the truth that Jesus Christ is alive. And because He is alive we also have life in Him. That is really Good News.
We were thinking about words yesterday, and the one I gave you was big. I’m thinking now about the truth God has given us. It is really pretty simple. Probably the most famous verse in the Bible is John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life.” That is the whole truth of God’s Good News for each of us. There are only a couple of words in this verse with more than one syllable. We often use a lot of words, some big and complex, to explain the theology of our faith, but the Gospel, the Good News, is very simple. We have rebelled from God. We have sinned against Him, separating ourselves from His holiness. But He loved us. He reached out to us because we are incapable of reaching Him. He did for us what we could never do for ourselves. See, I already used to many bigger words! But here it is. God loves you deeply. He gave the life of His only Son for you. By faith in Jesus you will not die, but live forever with your Lord. Theology is necessary, but in the simple Gospel you have life.
There is an interesting verse in Galatians 4. Paul has been having trouble with the Galatian Christians wanting to go back to all the Jewish laws. They did not understanding their freedom in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He wrote, “It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good…”(vs.18) To be zealous for something is to do it with great fervor, seeking it with all of one’s energy and interest. Paul was certainly zealous for preaching the Gospel. He would get irritated with fellow workers who were not as active as he was. But he cautions here that the purpose for the zeal must be carefully chosen. That is, by seeking the wisdom of God. We can be zealous for the wrong things, and go off in a wrong direction. We are driven back constantly to Scripture and prayer, that our direction is in line with God’s nature, and will. Jesus continually worked with His disciples on this. It is in learning to know and love God that we become aligned with His purpose for life. Then He becomes our life and is the zeal in all we do.
In visiting a Gettysburg, Pennsylvania book store I ran across a book called The Gettysburg Gospel. It was analyzing Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address after the Civil War. I was struck by how freely we have come to use the word “gospel”. We say such and such a thing is gospel, or that’s the gospel truth. Gospel means “good news”. It is the message the angels brought to the shepherds over the Bethlehem hills. “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Messiah, the Lord.”(Luke 2:10-11) Gospel is not some general good news applied to any helpful message. It is the good news that the Messiah, Christ the Lord, has been born. He is the Savior for all people. Christ-mas is about Almighty God coming among us in His Son, Jesus Christ, to save us from the death our sins have brought upon us. It can be no other, and there is no greater Good News.
Many people claim to be Christian, and we will refer to people in the past, particularly our Founders, as being Christian, but is that really true? We always need to be clear in what we mean by being Christian. A follower of Jesus Christ is not a sufficient definition. That may simply mean that they like some of His teachings, and follow His moral precepts. The Apostle Paul wrote more clearly that, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”(Romans 10:9) A Christian is one who knows their eternal salvation rests only in the one man who has broken the power of death for all time, and declares Him to be Lord of their life. It is only in this that we stand justified before God, and have the assurance of our eternal life with Him. It is in this that the great truth of the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ rests. It is in this that we have cleansing from sin and freedom from guilt. A Christian knows that Jesus is no mere moral teacher among all the rest, but the unique and only Saviour of mankind.
Today we had the opportunity to step back in time to a 19th century whaling village. It is interesting to see how people lived and worked more than a century ago. We might feel a bit nostalgic for a slower time with a more simplified life, but going back to another time really never helps. People in every age have their problems, and above all have the same fallen and sinful nature. Sure, the pace of our life is fast today. Technology has added diversions and stresses, but we are the same people as a century or more ago. Above all we need the same truths to make sense of life and give it meaning. That truth come from the message of the Gospel, God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”(Hebrews 13:8) In Christ the purpose of God for creation becomes clear, giving meaning to our days, and strength to endure the trials we face. No, there was no golden age, but there is a great truth that gives meaning to every age.
I’ve just come back from a meeting of pastors in Las Vegas. That is a town offering every conceivable gratification for all of our senses. The architecture of each structure seeks to out do the other, from an Egyptian pyramid and sphinx, to a medieval castle, an Eiffel Tower, and Statue of Liberty, all beckoning “come here, I can offer you more.” Yet, here we are, eight ministers of the Gospel, planning for seminary education and care for our people. We chose this town because it is the cheapest in the country for travel, food and lodging. But it also brings into sharp focus our purpose as Christians. We are seeking to show the world that our Lord offers more beauty and glory than can be found in any hotel or casino. And Jesus offers even more – a depth of love, peace, joy, and strength for life that can never be found elsewhere, or be taken away. What we offer is without cost, and without regret, through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.
I look out this morning and there is a nice layer of frost over everything. Winter is cold. Summer is hot. It’s interesting because that is just what our Lord wants people to be – cold or hot. We usually like it nice and comfortable in the middle. Of course I’m confusion my illustrations here, but maybe not really. In Revelation 3:15 Jesus says to the church of Laodicea, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other!” One who is hot, or strong in their faith, can be of service to the Lord. One who is cold, with a zeal against the Lord, can be turned in heart toward Him for great service. Such was the persecutor Saul of Tarsus, and there have been numerous examples since. But one who always wants to stay in the middle, neither too warm, nor too cold, is really useless for the Gospel. Jesus said, “Because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” This is not a call to be offensive, or in-your-face with people about Jesus, but neither can we compromise with values or hide the truth that He is the one Lord whom we serve.
A plumb line was always an important builder’s tool. It is simply a piece of string with a weight attached to one end. When you hold the loose end up at the top of a wall, the string hangs perfectly vertical. One can tell accurately if the wall is straight or not. The Lord used that image through the prophet Amos. “Look, I am setting a plumb line among my people Israel…”(7:8) God was judging Israel by His exact standards. In our modern day, we would say that plumb lines are fine for building, but don’t apply them to us. We don’t believe there are any exact standards today. Everything is relative. A standard that is right for you is not always right for me. But that is like saying, gravity (which make the plumb line work) doesn’t really apply everywhere on earth. We have just celebrated the Good Friday/Easter event declaring God’s saving grace, and our freedom from sin and death. That is our wonderful Gospel proclamation, but that, in no way, negates the standards God has provided for our life with Him.