At the beginning of last week’s sermon (“More righteousness Needed, Please!”) we saw just how critical that verse 20 is to the interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount in general and this portion of the sermon in particular. It serves as a transition from Jesus statement that He came to fulfill all of the Scripture and not just the Law as well as the warning for those who teach the Scriptures to do likewise, or else. This verse singles out the teaching of the Pharisees as being deficient. The Pharisees were not merely guilty of hypocrisy. The problem is not that they taught the truth but failed to live up to it. Instead, they failed to teach the counsel of God and mixed human wisdom and understanding with the Word of God as though the two were equal. So Jesus demand for righteousness was more than simply being a better Pharisee. The righteousness we need has to come from without and not within. This is why Jesus came to become the atonement for our sin. He is the righteousness we truly need.
Exposition of the Text
Like the commandment “do not murder”, the commandment “do not commit adultery” is straight from the Bible without any human addition. The Ten Commandments states this. So Jesus who came to fulfill all the Law as well as the prophets, every jot and tittle of it, could not in any way change this truth. The act of adultery is still adultery and offensive to God. It is also offensive to Jesus who came to do God’s will. In this the Pharisees were entirely correct.
Bus as we noted in last week’s sermon that these verses were a demonstration of the insufficient righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees. There are not additions to what God said about adultery, so how could this be a demonstration of the failure of the Pharisaic teaching?
Jesus does not condemn the idea that the Pharisees were against adultery. The deficiency of the Pharisees was that they did not go far enough. They saw the Law as an external observance only. In other words, as long as they did not act on the desires of the heart, they were OK. Jesus points out this deficiency by explaining the fullness of God’s intention for this commandment. He does this by emphatically using the pronoun “I” rather than just letting the verb alone express it. He is putting what He is saying on par with Scripture. With this divine authority, he demonstrates the failure of the teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees.
Jesus’ words are simply devastating. A man who has looked after a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. The reason that there is the Ten Commandments in the first place is because the hearts of men and women are desperately wicked. Just like actual murder starts with hate in one’s heart, adultery begins with lust. The best the Law can do is to express that this activity is contrary to the will of God and offensive to His holiness as well as act as some sort of restraint to the committing of the act.
The problem is that the deterrent effect of the Law is dependent upon two things. The first is the fear of God’s wrath and judgment against the sinner. The person who does not believe in God would reject this restraint entirely. The other deterrent is public opinion and the deterrence of men’s laws against the act.. People are probably more afraid of the consequences of what men think about what they do than God. This leads many to try to strike down laws and human opinions against sexual sins in order to make what they do seem perfectly natural. What they do is perfectly natural, that is for sinners who try to evade all personal responsibility and shame, while at the same time shaming others who do them wrong.
Jesus reminds us that what we should be concerned with is not the opinions of men concerning morality, but the wrath and judgment of God. The Sanhedrin’s punishment of the shame of public opinion is nothing in the light of the eternal punishment in hell. Jesus makes the statement that it would be better to cut off one’s eyes or feet and enter into glory maimed if this is what it took to make it right with God than to be cast whole into eternal hellfire. Jesus does indeed teach about Hell as a real place of torment unlike many who dismiss this or say this is just annihilation. To the sinner, hell would be an eternal church service and being in the presence of God. They see annihilation as preferable to that option. But Jesus says they shall be tormented by the never-dying worm. They will forever gnash their teeth in Hell. To try to explain what Scripture clearly teaches is to act the part of the Pharisee and Scribe. This will surely win them the same reward that Jesus promised them, eternal separation form the God they hated.
We have to all admit that these word hit us hard as well. Jesus did not limit the “anyone who”. He did not say “Any Pharisee or Scribe who…”. Once again we face the reality that the “them” is really “us” as well. Who has not hated or lusted which breaks the commandment of covetousness? This standard of holiness would exclude every human being who ever lived except Jesus from heaven and consign us to hellfire. This leaves us with two choices. We could water down what Jesus say here and say that Jesus is deliberately exaggerating here for effect and then explain what Jesus really meant. This is exactly what the Scribes and Pharisees had done with the demands of the Old Testament. They watered the demands of God down to what they could live with, even if that was a little hard. We must resist this temptation to take out the jots and tittles from the Scripture and make these verses say other that what they said. This watering down then leads to self-righteousness, as some can do a better job of keeping them than others and begs the comparison “Thank God, I am not like these sinners, but” comparison.
If the watering down approach is wrong, then how do we deal with the despair of knowing that we could not keep Jesus’ demands even if we dismembered ourselves? We cannot even keep the externals of the Law? How could we even expect to have a chance with our corrupted hearts? Just try harder isn’t going to do the trick. There are no ten step plans to the holiness which God requires.
I cannot begin to say this enough, but the very One who spoke these words is the very One who kept them. Jesus by fulfilling every jot and tittle of the Law and Prophets also kept in his heart and actions everything that was required in them. He is the same Jesus who suffered for our desperate unrighteousness on the cross as though He had committed all these vast numbers of sins himself. We can only imagine how horrible this wrath was. Even the horrors of suffering crucifixion which we could imagine only scratches the surface of the suffering of Jesus Christ for us on that day.
A special exchange happened on the cross. His perfect obedience and righteousness becomes available to us in exchange for His bearing our sin on the cross. The One who never sinned suffered as one who committed every sin and rebellion against God, and we who actually committed all of them are treated as if we never committed any. This takes faith to believe that God loved us so much that He sent His Son for that express purpose. We can believe that God raised Jesus because he was a good man who was falsely accused and murdered. This is true in a sense of course. But what is harder to believe is that God raised Jesus, the bearer of all the sins of the world from the dead who had died such an accursed death and felt the pain of God’s wrath. But God raised one found guilty of every sin ever committed. How much more will He raise us up whose righteousness is that of Christ’s perfect obedience.
We cannot fully fathom the depth and mystery of what God did for us on that day. We can only stand in awe and thanksgiving. The benefits of the atonement are available are available to all who will believe in their heart that God raised Jesus from the dead and confess that Jesus is Lord to the world in word and practice. The righteousness we need is available only if we are in Christ. For those who do not believe, the very fact that they reject Christ and His atoning sacrifice would require that they stand before the God in their own merit. Even though Jesus died for their sins also, their rejection becomes the means of their eternal rejection from the presence of God. In other word, it will not be their fornications, adulteries, and murders which will land them in Hell. Instead, they will be there because they rebelled against the Son of God by refusing the command to repent and believe the Good News. This too is hard to fathom. Why would anyone reject the free gift and grace of God and demand that they stand before God on the good works that they have not and could not do? Your only hope is to believe the gospel. If you do not feel that you believe, pray then for faith. Even saving faith is the gift of God’s grace.
God has offered the most precious gift imaginable in Jesus Christ. Why not take it?