Introduction to Pharisaism

The Sermon on the Mount has been misunderstood in various circles for a long time. Many think that Jesus is contrasting His New Testament teaching with the Law of Moses. This is a mistake. The Lord lived under the Law of Moses and was not contradicting it at this point, else the charge that Jesus was presently "destroying" or undermining the Law would have been demonstrated as true. What Jesus is actually doing is upholding the "righteousness" of the Law, and showing that it is the scribes and Pharisees who were undermining and contradicting the righteousness of the Law. Please keep this in mind as we go through the Sermon on the Mount. Righteousness is carried by the vehicle of the Law of Moses and the entire Old Testament. When the vehicle stops, the righteousness of the Law will transfer to another vehicle to be carried in the heart of God's people, the disciples of Christ.  Righteousness does not cease to be righteousness just because the vehicle is changed.  The Old Testament is a vehicle that carried "righteousness" as well as types and shadows of the Messiah. The testimony it gives to Jesus and righteousness will always make it useful and very important. The fact that the Old Testament would cease to be a binding covenant after Jesus' crucifixion would not make it useless as faith-building testimony.  But, while that covenant was still in effect Jesus was upholding it in every way.

The topic of Jesus' sermon was "righteousness" that "exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees" (Matthew 5:20). It is not about righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the Law of Moses, but righteousness in agreement with the righteousness of the Law of Moses and which righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. Verse 20 sets the context. The quotations are things the disciples "heard" of old (for generations) from these sectarians.  Jesus will set forth what they had heard from scribes and Pharisees and then set forth His own "but I say to you" which agrees with the real standard of righteousness found in the Law of Moses and upheld by Jesus.

Jesus Preaches the Kingdom

The subjects of the kingdom possess certain characteristics (Matthew 5:1-16)

The subjects of the kingdom of God are prepared inside to be "blessed" by the heavenly kingdom. They are people who are:

  1. Poor in spirit – feeling the need (v.3),
  2. Mourning the deeper loss – the battle with sin (v.4),
  3. Meek and gentle – awaiting future spoils (v.5),
  4. Driven by an intense desire for what is right (v.6),
  5. Compassionate and caring (v.7),
  6. Purity of heart – focused on getting ready to see God (v.8),
  7. A kingdom that spreads peace (v.9),
  8. When outwardly appear to be losing (by rejection and persecution) are actually gaining the greatest ground of all (v.10),
  9. Finds its own greater honor in the company of the truly great – those who hold to Jesus, and mistreated prophets of the past (v.11-12).

These kingdom citizens are similar to:

  1. Salt in a distasteful world– influencing others for good (v.13), and
  2. Light in a dark world – guiding the world and setting the right example before them (v.14-16).

Now, having said all of this, Jesus will address the religious but lost influence of the scribes and Pharisees. They were not characterized by those characteristics and would not enter the kingdom.

The Pharisees Were the Opposite

They were all the opposite things from the beatitudes. They were haughty and arrogant, self-righteous, satisfied with themselves, unmerciful toward others, double-minded, never bringing people to peace with God or each other, never doing things just because it is right, never doing right for Jesus' sake, never making the world a better place, never doing anything for "the glory of the Father."  The righteousness of the kingdom agrees with the righteousness of the Law and the kingdom citizen would fulfill the righteous requirements of the Law (Romans 8:4; 13:8-10; Ephesians 6:1-3; II Timothy 3:16-17).

Jesus will now contrast His own relation to the Law of Moses with that of the scribes and Pharisees.

The Pharisees' Respect for the Law

In todays' terminology would the Pharisees be the religious right? Or left? Read Matthew 5:17-20.

Who respected the Law more? Jesus? Or the Pharisees? The Pharisees pretended to respect the Law. They accused Jesus of coming to destroy the Law and the Prophets. They made up their mind about Him without a fair hearing of the evidence. True respect for the Law would call upon them to give Jesus a fair hearing.  Respect for the prophetic word should have guided them reverently TO Jesus (Galatians 3:24). So, who was actually destroying the Law or Prophets?  Jesus will expose their neglect of the Law, and some of the places where they took things out of context and misused the Law and the prophets.

Two Basic Attitudes

  1. Fulfill the Law, or
  2. Do things and teach things that destroy the Law.

The first basic attitude of "fulfilling" the Law wholly respects the authority of God's word. This attitude makes obedience and submission to God's Law supremely important. The second basic attitude is one where you keep what you like, destroy the rest. To set it aside and ignore it is to basically destroy what the Law was designed to accomplish. This attitude gives lip service to God and His Law, but it ignores the Law when it gets in the way of what we want to do and believe.  This attitude actually destroys the whole design of the Law. So, what we see in the scribes and Pharisees is an attitude that is too liberal with the authority of God's word.

Jesus' assessment of lawbreakers is that such would be "least" in the kingdom of heaven. We can't have a whole lot of respect for those who would break and teach others to break even "one" commandment, even if it is "one of the least of these commandments." This person has set himself up as a judge of the Law, instead of a judge of himself by the Law. Because the scribes and Pharisees were not highly esteemed by heaven, Jesus proceeds to tell of the standard of righteousness that must "exceed" that of the scribes and Pharisees.

In righteousness, the kingdom will not settle for their standard of righteousness. Your mission and mine must be to "fulfill" righteousness. We are not to sit in judgment on God's law and pick the parts we like and discard the rest. That is an attitude that "destroys" the Law and the Prophets. Don't destroy God's Law by ignoring what you judge to be "the least" of important commandments. Believe that all of God's Word is important. Jesus "fulfilled" the Law and the Prophets. Believe in Jesus – else you have "destroyed" the whole purpose of the Law: to bring you to Christ.

Pharisaism Is NOT

  1. Trying to obey God's word but falling short,
  2. Respecting the authority of God's word and insisting that we all submit to it,
  3. Holding to traditions that expediently carry out a commandment.

Pharisaism IS

  1. Ignoring points of Law that get in the way,
  2. Judging the Law and assessing by human wisdom what will be the "least" important commandment, and then, disobeying it and teaching others it is OK to disobey it.

That approach to God's law destroys the Law by liberalism and human rationalization that works to get around the clear commands of God.

Your righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. There is no entering the kingdom of heaven if:

  1. You come to pick what you will keep and what you will throw out,
  2. You do not view your whole life as a mission to do whatever the Lord requires or desires of you in His word.

For example, what do you do with these words: "He that believes and is baptized will be saved" (Mark 16:15-16)? Do you believe it and seek to fulfill it? Or do you seek to explain it away? The latter would be a modern way of being Pharisaical.  There are many other ways, but that is one example where many today are "destroying" what Jesus said rather than humbly fulfilling it.  The Sermon on the Mount will show a series of ways in which the scribes and Pharisees were undermining the righteousness of the Law. We will take up each issue and show that Jesus was upholding the truth of the Law of Moses, and the Pharisees were destroying the Law.

Proper and Improper Contrasts

Jesus is not contrasting His new law with Moses' old law. Again, Jesus is contrasting true "righteousness" with the standards taught by the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20).

The Pharisees taught against "murder" (Matthew 5:21) but, what should they have taught about "anger"? (Matthew 5:22). The moral standard they held was contrary to the Law and the Prophets. In anger, words can murder people by eliminating them as important human beings. Words have a way of murdering the character and reputation of others.  Was the standard of using words of hate and anger to injure and assassinate someone's worth and character upheld by the Law?  No! This first example is where the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was well below the standard of the Law. They were correct in the verse they quoted, but incorrect in the principles they ignored.  So, it was not that the Law only addressed murder of the body, but did not address anger and hate in the heart.

"Cease from anger, and forsake wrath; Do not fret — it only causes harm" (Psalms 37:8).

"Do not hasten in your spirit to be angry, For anger rests in the bosom of fools" (Ecclesiastes 7:9).

Once again, Jesus is not saying that the Law of Moses only taught against the physical act of murder but did not address the anger and hate in the heart. That is a false contrast. The Pharisees taught against physical murder but murdered or assassinated people with words of anger and hate. Jesus and the Law are the same on this. Jesus agreed with the Law as to murder and anger and harmful words that come from an angry heart.

"Make no friendship with an angry man, And with a furious man do not go, Lest you learn his ways And set a snare for your soul" (Proverbs 22:24-25).

The dangers of anger and the "ways of anger" were certainly addressed in the Old Testament.

"An angry man stirs up strife, And a furious man abounds in transgression" (Proverbs 29:22).

Jesus agrees with the Old Testament. He is not presenting a new form of righteousness. He is not destroying the Law of Moses and now presenting His own higher principles of righteousness. He is showing that the scribes and Pharisees had a lower standard of righteousness than the Law of Moses that Jesus is upholding in His life and teaching. Leviticus 19:17 said, "You shall not hate your neighbor in your heart."  Thus, the Law and Jesus are in agreement. Jesus "fulfills" and upholds the righteousness of the Law. The Pharisees held a lower standard that "destroyed" the Law in effect. The righteousness of those who would enter and live in the kingdom must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. That is the contrast being made in the Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus brought out the progression of murder. Murder progresses from anger in the heart. Therefore, we must value the life of another enough to preserve it, value the life of another enough to honor it, nor destroy them with devaluing words of anger and valuing the life enough to reconcile quickly where possible. True righteousness is not merely trying to escape the judgments of the lower human courts. Human courts cannot always see the true motives of the heart. God's all-seeing eye is what matters to those truly interested in "righteousness." Only these can escape the judgment of Gehenna Fire.

This is the righteousness of the Law, and this is what kingdom citizens will be expected to exemplify. The righteousness of the Law must be fulfilled in us (Romans 8:4; 13:8-10; Ephesians 6:1-3; II Timothy 3:16-17).

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