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.
I have had times of being a little hungry or thirsty, but I have never been in any extreme need for food or drink. It would do me good to go without for a bit, but that’s another issue. Jesus was up on the mountain side speaking to His followers with the words we call the Beatitudes, the Blesseds. In His fourth point He said,”blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied”.(Matthew 5:6) The object of the hunger here is righteousness, and this hunger is not just a mild desire to eat, but more of a sense of being famished. Do we hunger, need, urgently long for, the perfect righteousness of God? And not just for some personal satisfaction, but a true longing that all people know the good and perfect righteousness of our heavenly Father. This is the righteousness found at the cross, and then reflected in our lives to others. It is this hunger that truly changes things for the better, and Jesus promises that we shall be satisfied.
The magnitude of God’s glory, Paul writes, is so great, “things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard … of all that God has prepared for those who love Him.” (2 Corinthians 2:9) C.S. Lewis likens the comparison to a ghetto child playing in a street mud puddle, having no concept of making sand castles on a clean ocean beach. We use superlative words for God like awesome, majestic, glorious, and holy, but still have little concept of the depth of what these words mean. Too often we content ourselves with the toys and trinkets of this life, not realizing that there is so much more for us in a life in harmony with God through Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness…”(Matthew 6:33) He would not have said it if He didn’t mean that it was possible. We can live at least a beginning of Kingdom life even in the midst of this broken world. The sand castles are real.
Christians put things backwards. Yesterday I wrote about being able to stand in righteousness before God. It seems to me that is the purpose for all world religions. Buddhism doesn’t recognize a god but still seeks the way of righteousness. All of these have systems of theology that supposedly guide them step by step to become righteous and acceptable to God. They all recognize God is holy, and man is not. Some effort must be expended to get man to God. Christians recognize this, but they also recognize that God is absolute holiness, and man, in his sinful nature, is so far separated from God that there is no ladder long enough for man, by his own efforts, to reach God. We declare that God, in His mercy, first reached out to mankind. God came among us Himself in Jesus Christ. At the cross, God took the just penalty of death, that we all deserve, into Himself. Jesus, the holy and righteous One, took all of our sin into His own body, and in turn gave us His righteousness. This is the great exchange, the central Christian teaching of justification. We come to the cross by faith in Jesus Christ, and we are declared righteous before our holy God. “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord.”(Romans 6:23) This is backwards to all other faiths. We are first declared righteous before God. Then, because of the great loving kindness we have been shown, we want to live to serve our gracious Lord. The problem with trying to work our way to God is that we can never be sure we’ve done enough. One has no certainty of God’s favor. But by faith in Jesus Christ He stands with us before the Father, and we have the assurance of life in His presence, today and always.
Sometime there are single words that flies out from a text and affects the whole meaning. King Solomon received the throne of Israel from his father David. In First Kings chapter three it says “Solomon showed his love for the LORD by walking according to the instructions given him by his father David, except that he… (vs.3) In the original the word except means emaciated, lean, or thin. His devotion was not full or complete. It was thin. We love to hide behind these single words or phrases. “Well, we are all sinners. Nobody’s perfect.” Now, that is true. We know that no one is perfect. We all have a sinful nature and struggle with temptation and sin. The rich grace of God in Christ calls us to turn again, receive forgiveness, and a new beginning in life. We rejoice in our new life in Christ daily. The problem is when we lean on phrases (excuses) like nobody’s perfect, we lower the standard. Our standard is always God’s holiness, the very nature of Jesus Christ. We do fall short of the glory of God, (Romans 6:23) but we do not try to bring the glory of God down to our level. We do not say I am doing all this except… therefore I’m acceptable to God. The only way we are acceptable to God is in the righteousness of Jesus Christ which He freely gives us at the cross. The standard is never lowered, but we can stand before God in the white robe of Christ’s righteousness.
There were many time when God was angry with His people and had to discipline them. They were on the wrong path, a path that would only lead to their hurt. They couldn’t see it while they were worshiping their idol or whatever else it was that violated God’s commands. They were having a good time, thinking everything was fine, not realizing the hurt they were causing themselves and others. They were surprised when the discipline came. Solomon wrote in his Proverbs, “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.”(14:12) This is all true for individuals as well as for nations. God has shown us a way of life that is good. He has given us laws and values for our well being. When we choose to ignore God’s laws we get ourselves into trouble and discipline comes in one form or another. Maybe by an authority over us, maybe by the natural course of our sin. The Hebrews writer wrote, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”(12:11) God has provided a way for us to return by repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. It is always God’s desire that we know the “harvest of righteousness” in life, and a depth of His peace.
We are under about an eight inch blanket of snow this morning. Everything looks pure white and clean. Before the snow the ground was brown and scrubby, the trees barren, and everything in mid-winter roughness. But now, all is clean and pure white. This is always a good picture of what Christ has done for us. Luke 15 tells the story of the Prodigal Son who rebelled from his father, but finally returned home in repentance. The father received the son, and the first instruction to his servants, was to “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him.”(vs.22) The father, in the greatest love, received the son back, and immediately surrounded him with a clean robe, covering all of the stench of the pig pen he had been in. Jesus Christ has covered us in the pure white robe of His righteousness. When you look at the blanket of snow, let it remind you of the great love of our Lord who has covered all of our sins.