Christians are supposed to be good people, right? So preaching to them, teaching them to be good must then be good, right? Maybe good but not best.
As Jesus went about his ministry on earth he was counter-culture and often at odds with the established status-quo of the religion of the Jews. He visited the homes of sinners, he ate with them, he went to parties with them. He was cross-cultural. He once went out of his way to encounter a woman hated and despised by the Jewish religionists because of her ethnicity. And he had an ongoing habit of in-your-face confrontations with the religious elite, even telling them they were children of the devil and did not know God.
Why would Jesus slam the best people in the Jewish community? They are the ones who never miss synagogue. When the doors open they are there. They are the ones who hold the Scriptures in high esteem, who meticulously copy it by hand, who memorize it, and pass it on to others. What pastor wouldn’t want church members like that? Not only did they hold the Scriptures in high regard, they kept its teachings, strictly! In fact, they had taken the ten commandments and developed over 600 more to make certain the ten were kept precisely. They were faultless people who prayed often, fasted, tithed, and live out what they preached. Isn’t that the hope of every pastor, elder, teacher?
If not, then why does the majority of Sunday morning sermons focus on behavior? Why is so much of what is preached aimed at the results mentioned above? I fear that many preachers are preaching “therapeutic moralistic deism” at the expense of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Oh yea, you still mention that Jesus died on the cross for our sins but you don’t go much further, not into the place Jesus did.
In what is considered his most important sermon Jesus made an astonishing statement to the listening crowd. In the gospel of Matthew chapter 5, after Jesus had spoken about the Law of God, and that he had not come to abolish it, but rather to fulfill it, he said this:
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Can you imagine the look of horror on the faces of some of those who heard those words? What? Is Jesus demanding better law keeping than those who do it best? Is that what this is about? Is he crazy? Can anyone enter the kingdom of heaven?
This teaching comes very early in Jesus’ ministry and yet he is changing the paradigm of law keeping and morality. The old template was “do this” “don’t do that”. Jesus is introducing a new template for righteousness, “a new heart”. He moves the conversation from the external to the internal. He is laying the foundation for the transformation of the human condition from the inside out by the power of his worth and work.
Notice his direction. “You have heard that it was said…”, “But I say…”. Don’t forget, he is not suggesting that anyone take the law of God lightly. He has just established it’s validity and that keeping it is a non-negotiable. Let’s see what he says about murder for example.
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment”.
You’re thinking, “I’ve got that one covered! I have never killed anyone. I’m not even a hunter, I wouldn’t kill anything.” But Jesus continues.
But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment… (and it get’s worse)
Do you see what Jesus has done here? He moved from the external action, murder, to an internal sin, anger. I can imagine the listeners thinking “I can never meet his standard of righteousness!”
There’s more. What about adultery? You reason, I have never been unfaithful to my wife, I have never had sex with another woman. I’m clean on this deal. Here’s the external rule.
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.
Here’s the internal rule.
But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart
You see, folks can look good in the community. They are model Christians at the ball park, at the civic club, and even at church. If the rule of thumb is the external acts, (murder, adultery, lying, stealing, etc) and the positive side of the external (good works, tithing, leading a prayer before meals, visiting the sick, etc.) we are good people. But Jesus said…..
The point Jesus is making is that by human effort no one can be right enough to enter the kingdom of heaven. The heart must be changed.
The only way to stop adultery in it’s tracks is to have lust rooted out of the human heart by the application of the gospel of Christ by the Holy Spirit. The way to stop murder is to have anger rooted out of the heart so that it is replaced by love and long suffering.
In this sermon Jesus makes it plain as day that left to themselves no one will make it to heaven. Only those with a better righteousness than human behavior can produce will in fact enter the kingdom of heaven.
Don’t focus your teaching on trying to change the external behavior of your congregants. Instead, preach the good news about what Jesus has done for them. He was accounted as a sinner, dying for them, so that they may be accounted as righteous, and was raised from the dead putting an end to the dominance of sin and giving us the promise of living forever as His dear children.
Every sermon, every ministry, every method in our churches must be shaped and executed in view of the transforming power of the Christ who alone can give a new heart with new hope and a new ability to say no to sin and to love as Jesus did.
Preach the gospel. Love it, embrace it, wallow in it, make it who you are and what you do. It’s a life and death matter for those you preach to every week. Preach so that you are allowing God to change hearts as people come to put their whole trust in Jesus. Do what you do so that every word of praise, every hint of glory, goes not to the church or to you but to the Lord Jesus Christ.
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
(1 Corinthians 1:26-31)