Surpassing the Pharisees’ Righteousness
A Message by Pastor Eric Chang
We read today Mt. 5:17-20:
Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
In v20, the Greek has a double negative - “you will never, never enter the kingdom of heaven.” To enter the kingdom of heaven means, in the Bible, to have eternal life. So, do not say in your heart, “To exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees, that is easy. They are just a bunch of hypocrites. I am no hypocrite, therefore my righteousness has already exceeded the Pharisees.” The ignorance among the Christians today regarding the Pharisees is really quite astonishing. I am going to show you as we go along that such facile notions of getting into the kingdom of God is nowhere to be found in the Bible.
Jesus Did Not Come to Abolish the Law
I want to point out an error in the Chinese translation, which incidentally occurs also in the Authorized Version [AV]. [Note: The preaching is consecutively translated into Chinese; hence the comment on the Chinese text is given.] The Revised Standard Version [RSV] rightly translates v19 as “whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments”, not “whoever ‘cancels’ or ‘abolishes’, or ‘breaks’ (as the AV has it) one of these commandments”. To ‘relax’ means you do such a thing but rather sluggishly - in a relaxed fashion. You are not doing it very diligently. It is important to note these points. In expounding the Word of God, you must have every word accurate. You must understand that the words are entirely different in the original. But the Chinese translates these two words as though the ‘abolish’ in the beginning and the ‘abolish’ in v19 is the same thing, which it is not.
As we look at the words of Jesus, we get a very important message. The Lord Jesus said, “Don’t get the notion into your mind that I have come to abolish the law.” This statement is very essential for today because the way the Gospel is often preached today, one would have thought that there is no more use for the law. If there is no use for the law, I do not quite understand why we still read the OT. We might as well throw the whole OT out, since it has to do with the law and the prophets. The Lord Jesus said, “No, I have not in any way come to abolish the law.” It all has to do with the law and the prophets. It is important to understand this, so I want to emphasize this today. Also, I have to preach as the Lord Jesus preached. I am not free to say whatever I like. The words of the Lord Jesus are explicit: “I did not come to abolish the law.” You do not have to be some kind of expert in interpretation to understand words as simple and straightforward as that.
Antinomianism Caused a Plunge in Righteousness
The notion of abolishing the law has come again and again in the history of the church in what in theology is called Antinomianism. Antinomian is anti-law, [referring to] people who want to throw the law out. Already in the 2nd century of the church, we had people who said, “We don’t need the OT. We are Christians! We just want the NT. The OT is out; the law and the prophets we don’t need.” Do you know what is the result of this kind of teaching? That takes a tremendous plunge in the standard of righteousness. What happens then is that every kind of sin comes into the church and is tolerated because there is no law against such sins.
I would like you to understand what the Lord Jesus is saying. The Lord Jesus is saying, “Don’t ever think that I have come to reduce, to lower the righteous standard - the standard of righteousness - that is required of a Christian. Don’t imagine for a moment that I have come and said, ‘Well, now we’re going to have a good time of it. We don’t need [the law]. We can all go and sin, and at the end of the day, we’re all going to get into the kingdom of God.’” The Lord Jesus was a friend of publicans and sinners, of tax collectors and sinners, but He did not lower His standard of righteousness to their standard. He came to save them; He came to raise them up to a standard of righteousness far above that of the Pharisees and the scribes.
The error of this kind of teaching of Antinomianism is very apparent in the Chinese churches all too often. The standard of righteousness in the Chinese churches is pathetically low. It is about time that we put a halt to this. The standard of conduct in Chinese churches is such that it has often been a disgrace. Do you know that the Chinese have a very high standard of righteousness as taught by Confucius? The Chinese people have been accustomed to expect a high standard of righteousness - and what do they find in Christians? They are not only disappointed but also often disgusted that the Chinese Christians often cannot attain to a standard of righteousness equivalent even to that of a Confucianist. I can see what the Lord Jesus would say. He said, “Don’t think I have come to lower the standard of righteousness. I have come to fulfil it all. Let me tell you this: if you don’t fulfil it, you are not even going to see the inside of the kingdom of heaven.”
Is this all a salvation by works? Well, we will consider that in a moment, [since] it depends what you mean by ‘works’. But we must understand that the Lord Jesus has come to save us out of sin and not to leave us in sin. Did the Lord Jesus die on the cross to redeem us from sin merely to let us continue in sin? Do you remember what Paul’s reaction to that was? “Shall we continue in sin...? God forbid!” [Rom. 6:1&2-KJV] No one has ever suggested such a thing. God forbid that we should suggest that a Christian redeemed by the blood of Jesus shall continue in sin. And yet, look at what Christians are doing!
There are things going on in the church that would be disgraceful, as Paul said, even to be mentioned among non-Christians. Paul carried out the severest discipline against people who committed sin in the church, as you know from 1 Corinthians Chapter 5. He committed that man who was guilty of adultery, of incest, to Satan for the destruction of the flesh. He was determined to maintain the standard of righteousness in the church. He was completely at one with the Lord Jesus in this teaching.
The ‘Law’ Meant Loving God with Our All
We want to look at this: that the Lord Jesus says, “I have not come to abolish the law.” In expounding this, we must first understand: What did the Lord Jesus understand by ‘law’? What exactly did He mean by this? Firstly, let us look at Mk. 12:29 and we will see here what the Lord Jesus means by ‘law’. As I searched the Scriptures, I find that the Lord Jesus always means this by ‘the law’. We will read Mk. 12:28-31. In v28 one of the scribes, i.e., one of the lawyers, came up, heard them disputing, and he asked this question. The Lord, when He was asked which is the first commandment, went on to say this: “The first commandment is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’” And the second is like it.
Then He goes on to say that all the commandments are summed up in these words. Everywhere I look at the Lord’s teaching about the law, I see that He always points out that the law is this (the law is summed up in these words): it is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength and the neighbor as yourself. You see that again in Mt. 19:18-19, Mt. 22:37-40 and again in Lk. 10:27. The Lord Jesus is saying that the law is summed up in these two statements - that the whole law is to be understood in terms of its essence. That is to say, it is to love God with all your heart, soul and strength and your neighbor as yourself. You see, when you understand the law as the Lord Jesus understood the law, you will say, “Surely, that cannot be abolished! Far from being abolished, that is the essence of being a Christian.”
That is exactly what the Pharisees sought to do. Notice these words: That is exactly what the Pharisees sought to do! Do you think that your righteousness can meet that standard? Let me ask you a question: which of you here will dare to say that you love God with your all - all your heart, all your soul, your mind and your strength? And that is required of the law. That is required. The Lord Jesus said that that has never been abolished. The Lord Jesus, in fact, made that a central element in His teaching. That is why He said, “I have never come to abolish the law.” The law is what? The law means that you shall love God with all your heart, soul, mind, strength - everything you have.
I have mentioned again and again that to be a Christian is to be a total Christian or nothing at all. There is no teaching in the Bible that I know of in which you can be a part of a Christian, that you can be a 20% Christian, or 50%, or 80% or 90%, or even a 98% Christian. God requires all or nothing. That seems drastic teaching but that is the Bible’s teaching. You remember that Rev. Fred Zhang last Friday expounded to us a passage from Samuel in which he was mentioning the point that the trouble with Christians today is that they are partial Christians. The church is full of partial Christians, and that statement is so true. It is exactly the point that I have been making for a long time. You cannot be a partial Christian. You are either all or nothing. Saul was partially obedient to God’s command, as we saw that day. And what happened to him? Did God commend him, “Okay, you did 80%, 90% of what I commanded. We’ll let the other 10% pass”? Not at all! Because of that 10% he did not do, the Lord stripped him of his kingship and threw him out. Saul was finished forever. Why [is the punishment] so severe? Because being a Christian is total; the demand is absolute. The reason for our church troubles today is precisely because of this very thing: that we are full of Christians who are 80%, 90% [committed]. I do not know how to measure them. God is not even going to measure that. He is going to say, “All or nothing!” That is the way it stands with God. You can see how essential it is. The standard of righteousness is so that the Lord Jesus again and again emphasized, “I tell you this. I require of you at least what the law requires.” And the law already requires everything. The Lord Jesus always answers the question like this, in the same way. When somebody asked Him - do you remember what the rich young ruler in Matthew Chapter 19 asked Him? Did you ever notice his reply? The rich young ruler asked Jesus, “How can I get eternal life?” Do you know what Jesus said to him? Read it sometime. He said, “You know the commandments; you know the law. Do it and you shall live.” You know, the pathetic thing was that the rich young ruler thought he was doing it. He said, “I have done that all since my youth.” “You have done that?” He said, “Let me tell you what it means. It means, ‘Come with Me! Leave everything else and come with Me.’ You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength - everything!”
How can you abolish the law? That is what the law taught. Jesus said, “Don’t you know what the law says? I have not come to abolish it; I have come to fulfil it!” You know, this lesson is something that I hope nobody today in this church is going to miss. We are going to come back to it again and again because it comes back in the Lord’s teaching again and again. I would like you, therefore (as in the hymn we were just singing, “Search me, O Lord, and Try My Heart”), to ask yourself if you are sitting there complacently and comfortably thinking, “I am a good evangelical Christian.” Forget the evangelical bit and ask yourself first, “Do I love God with all my heart, mind, soul and strength?”
Paul taught nothing different. He said nothing different from what the Lord Jesus said. He said, in 2 Cor. 5:15, “Let me tell you this, Jesus died for all.” You know why? So that they can congratulate themselves on being good evangelical Christians who believe in the cross of Jesus and the blood of Jesus?! Not at all! “He died for all that we who live, henceforth no more live for ourselves, but for Him who died for us.” “That is why Jesus died,” he said. Do you not understand that? He said to the Corinthians - proud, spiritual Corinthians - who thought they were full of spiritual gifts, vaunting themselves in their gifts of tongues and all other gifts that they had. He said, “Do you know something, He didn’t come just to give you gifts to make you feel good. He died for this specific purpose - that those who live through His death shall live for Him.”
Becoming a Christian Means Change of Our life to Center on God
There are two worldviews and the Christian life corresponds rather roughly to this: becoming a Christian means such a total change in the center of one’s life that we move from what may be called the Ptolemaic worldview to the Copernican worldview. You know the Old Worldview - the Ptolemaic worldview - was that everything moved around the world. The stars, the sun, everything moved [around the earth]. You remember that the old notion of the world was that the world is the center, the earth is the center of the universe, and everything revolves around this world, revolves around man. The Greek notion was that man is the measure of all things. Man is the center. How deflated man became when it was discovered that the world was not the center of the universe, but everything revolved around the sun in this planetary system, not around this earth! Suddenly man came to realize his true place in the universe - that he was not the center of all things.
But you know, the unregenerate man thinks in terms of the Ptolemaic worldview, that is to say, he thinks that everything is revolving around himself; even God revolves around him. There are so many Christians who think of God as revolving around himself. God is there to bless me and to do things for me, to help me pass my exams. God is there to see to it that I safely get from one place to another. When I sit in an airplane, the plane should not crash. When I sit in a train, there must be no accident. When I sit in the car, then I shall arrive safely at my destination. God is there to do things for me all the time. All my life, God is a glorified servant of mine. Well, let us put it crudely: that is exactly the way so many Christians think. And when you ask them, “What did you ever offer to God?” “Well, I offer my offering. I pay His wages for Him. He does His job - I give Him my offering. That is the way it is! I mean, if He does not do it nicely, I might reduce the offering next week.” This is the way so many Christians regard God. They have the notion that everything - all heaven - revolves around them. But when you become a true Christian, there is a fundamental revolution.
The most revolutionary teaching in the world is the Christian teaching, compared to which Communism is rather mild stuff, because Christianity involves a total change and transformation of the person so completely that his worldview, his whole way of thinking changes. He no longer sees himself as the center of things, but God as the center of things. God is the sun around which all the universe revolves, all the system revolves. What is your thinking at the moment? Is your thinking rather like that? Or is it still the thinking in which everything revolves around you? Well, if you think in this way, you have not yet become a Christian in the Bible definition. When you become a Christian, you begin to realize that God is the center and we revolve around Him - my whole life revolves around Him.
It is not a question of whether when I want to have a holiday, it should not rain. As my daughter was praying the other day, “Lord, please grant that it will not rain, because I want to go out and play.” But so many Christians think that God is there to see that things are made nice for ‘me’. Maybe the farmer wants some rain. “That does not worry me - I want to play.” But you see, we all grow up with this kind of mentality - that God is somehow there to do things for me. It never strikes us that we have something to do for Him. Our transformation must be so complete that the day comes that we cease to think about ourselves, and our whole lives revolve around Him. What is His purpose? What is His will? What is good for Him? The apostle Paul reached that as the highest stage. His whole life centered so completely in Christ, that he wanted to follow the steps of Jesus right down to the last step, right down to Jerusalem, right down to being able to lay down His life as Jesus did.
Does our life revolve around God? Have we begun to ask, “What can I do for God?” It is amazing how few Christians ever think in this way, “What can I do for God?” Do you get up in the morning and say, “Lord, what can I do for You today? What would You like me to do for You?” Or do you get up and the first notion is, “Lord, here I am, what are You going to do for me? I’ve got this person to meet, I’ve got that problem to face - just help me here and help me there.” What kind of Christian are you? Look at the Word of God and measure yourself up: “Search me, O God. What kind of a man am I?” Well, if you are still the kind of a Christian [where you are the center], then you are still a “Christian” - a Christian in quotes - as far as the Bible is concerned. You are still a Ptolemaic Christian; you have not yet reached the Copernican stage, in which we come to realize that God is the center. When you get up you say, “Lord, You are the center. What do You want me to do?” This is what you need to do.
Not One ‘Yod’ of the Law Will Pass Away
Now we come to what the Lord Jesus says in v18, “I tell you something, that heaven and earth will pass away before the law passes away. Not one dot, not one iota [will pass away]. ‘Iota’ of course is Greek and not a good translation of the Hebrew. The word there refers to a ‘yod’ in the Hebrew. That is, that little thing that represents or which is often translated as a ‘y’ or an ‘i’ in the English. It is the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet and is only one little corner. In English it is translated as a dot. In Hebrew, you know, if you have seen a synagogue, you would have seen that the words are very artistic. The little horn on top is often used as a decoration. Thus the Lord Jesus is saying, “Not one little horn...” to the effect that: “Not the slightest element in the law will pass away before heaven and earth passes away.” That is how He emphasized the importance of the law. And He says the same thing again in Luke. [Lk. 16:17] So we see that we must come to understand the Lord Jesus is not speaking metaphorically or symbolically. He means exactly what He says, that the law remains. Remarkably Paul says the same thing, too.
What does Paul say about the law? Paul says three things about the law. He says the law is holy (Rom. 7:12), the law is spiritual (Rom. 7:14), and the law is good (Rom. 7:16). Now, the law is holy; it is spiritual and it is good. You are going to abolish what is holy and spiritual and good? Paul would not dream of it. When Paul says that we are no longer under the law, he means the dispensation of the law. We are no longer under the Old Covenant. That was called the law, the dispensation of the law. We are under grace; we are under dispensation of grace - the New Covenant. But that is far from saying that we do not need the law; we can throw it out the window. And it is very remarkable that on more than one occasion, Paul speaks about the fulfilling of the law. You will see that in Romans, that again and again, he speaks that by love is the fulfillment of the law.
Now why should he speak about fulfilling the law if the law is past anyway? You do not have to bother with fulfilling the law. Paul speaks about love as a fulfillment. He says, “You must love, because love is a fulfillment of the law.” I thought you said, “There is no more law.” Paul never said that. What Paul did say is that we are not justified by the works of the law. And that is a different matter. Though we are not justified by the works of the law, it does not mean that we do not need the law. And we want to see what this means in a moment. But I want to rush on to the central point of our message today.
Motivated by the Love of God, Press on toward Greatness
Before we get to that, we have v19, which says, “Whoever relaxes the law,” i.e., who performs the law in a slack manner, who says, “I love God with all my heart and my neighbor as myself, but I will perform it in a rather slack way. Well, you may love God genuinely with all your heart, but there is the diligence aspect in it, the earnestness aspect in it. V19 says, “You will be the least in the kingdom of God if you do that”. What all this means is that in the kingdom of God, there are different grades. This point is very important for us to understand. It is also very little understood among Christians, and we are going to come to this later on in the Lord’s teaching in greater detail.
Don’t think that everybody in the kingdom of God is going to be the same. Everybody who is saved is the same. In the kingdom of God, there is an enormous difference of rank, a difference of greatness and smallness. And Paul aims for the greatness, not the smallness. Did you know that? Now it is amazing how many Christians are just content to be saved, assuming they will even get saved. You know, if you aim to pass to pass mark, you might not make the pass mark. If you aim for 90%, you just might make the pass mark. But so many Christians aim for the lowest level. They say, “I’m going to get saved, that is enough!” Think of it. In the kingdom of God there is an enormous difference of rank, of greatness. In the kingdom of God there are some who are exceedingly great; they will shine as the stars forever and ever, as Daniel put it. There are others who are going to be very, very little. They say, “Who cares about great or little? So long as I get there.”
Do you know what motivates people to greatness or littleness in the kingdom of God? It is their love for God which makes the difference. You think it makes no difference? It makes an awful lot of difference. “I aim to love God with all my heart. I aim to be exactly what He wants me to be in order to be pleasing to Him.” In other words, it is the motivating factor that is important. I wonder if you are a Christian with any sort of motivation. The church today is without motivation. That is the amazing thing. You are interested in promotion in your company, aren’t you? You are interested in getting good results. Would you be ashamed to say, “Well, I’m just happy to pass. I’m very modest, you know. I’m not looking for first class honors. I’d be content to get a pass.” You expect people to say, “Oh, a very modest man.” Do you think that? [You will get the reaction,] “What kind of a fellow is this?” Of course, when you take an exam, you aim for the first. All right, you may end up with a second, but never mind, you are still aiming for the first. But will you say that a person is modest when he is only contenting himself with a pass mark? Would it not be more modest to say, “Well, I am not even concerned to pass!”? Well, logically speaking, you should take it all the way and say, “I don’t mind if I pass or not. I’m ready to fail! I’m very modest. I’m looking for a fail this time, because if I say I’m looking for a first, I’m too proud.” But what kind of notion is this? If your reasoning like this is right, then what makes you think it is proud if you aim to be, in the kingdom of God, going for the honors? What is so proud about that? Paul said in 1 Cor. 9:24-27 (Did you ever read those words?), “There are many people running a race” - very suitable with the Olympics now - “but only one gets the crown.” He continues, “So run that you will obtain it.” Like all these athletes, is it modest to say, “Well, I’m content to be the last one. Let the other guy get the crown. I’m being very modest.”? What kind of modesty is this? You run so that you may obtain! We run so that we may please Jesus. If the greatness comes with it, that is okay. We are going to press on for the greatest possible, the highest possible standard. I pray that God will so work in the churches today that we will have people who say, “I’m going to press for the highest.” We thank God for people like Oswald Chambers who wrote My Utmost for His Highest. He was pressing for the highest, nothing less than the greatest, the best.
John Sung - His Greatness Lay in His Going for the Highest
Somebody asked John Sung once, “You are a Ph.D. in Chemistry. Why are you preaching the Gospel?”
He said, “Let me ask you a question. What you are doing here in this university?” He was preaching in a university.
The other replied, “I’m doing my degree in Chemistry.”
John Sung asked, “What are you studying Chemistry for?”
“Well,” he said, “I want to make a living, you know.”
“What do you do after you pass your exam, after you get your degree?”
“Well, I’ll look for a job.”
“What do you do after you get your job?”
“Well, I suppose I’ll get married.”
“What happens after you get married?”
“Well, I suppose I’ll have some children.”
“What happens after that?”
“Well, after that, well, I suppose I’m going to die one of these days.”
“What happens after that?”
“After that, nothing! I don’t know what happens.”
John Sung said, “My friend, you asked me why I’ve given up Chemistry to preach the Gospel. When I look at you, I seem to think that you are quite an intelligent person. You are studying because you are thinking about the future - how to have a good degree, a good job, a good family, a good life - until it all ends in the grave. And beyond that, you haven’t thought? So I’ll tell you why. I am going for the highest. I am preaching the Gospel because I am making provision where you have stopped thinking. When you have ended up in the grave, your planning is finished. My planning goes on into eternity. I know that for me, I am not going to end up in the same way as you.”
“I also did Chemistry”, continued John Sung. “I also had this notions of grandeur, of having some good place in the world, until when I thought that it all ends up in a hole six feet under the ground. I thought, ‘How am I going to plan a bit further ahead?’ And so I said to myself, ‘No! I am going to go for honors’, in the kind of honors that do not end up in the grave, that goes on forever.’ So, as you see, the difference between you and me is the distance of our sight - how far we see!”
Do We Aim for the Greatest?
Do you know that all this is amazing, that today in the church, we have people whose vision stops at the grave, who do not think beyond about the greatness that goes on for eternal life? You are interested only in getting a first class. Okay, in your degree, maybe you do not even have that ambition. You say, “I’ll never make a first anyway. I’ll content myself with a second.” And then you are going to get yourself a job. I see all Chinese people are very good at reasoning this: “I get a good job, then I get a good future. I get a good future, then I get a good family. I get a good family, then...”. And then? Exactly! And then what? In the kingdom of God, there is a great deal of difference in rank - a difference of greatness. Your sight is very short - you are very short-sighted - if you cannot see beyond that.
I aim, by the grace of God, to aim for the greatest. I do not think there is any pride in that. I have spiritual determination. I pray, by the grace of God, that I shall gain a crown - as Paul says - that does not fade away. He says, “You all run for crowns that fade away.” Your degree, when you put it on that day, [how did it make you feel?] When you went into that hall with that degree in the academic hood, whoa! You felt great! You know, when I went in, I hired one. I did not have one of my own. I do not know how many people before that wore that stuff and I do not know how many people afterwards will wear that same hood again. But, you know, I can see it now. If I go back and look up that company again and say to them, “Which was the one you hired to me those years ago?” it would probably by now be in the garbage bin. Faded and gone! “You run for that fading crown which will pass away.” But Paul says, “I run for that crown that does not fade away”.
So the greatness in the kingdom of God entirely depends on whether or not we have been pleasing to God. It is not something earned; it is something given to us, that is, whether we have been pleasing to God or not.
The Standard of the Pharisees - Total Devotion to the Law of God
But we must hurry to our last point, where the Lord Jesus says, “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, you will never, never enter the kingdom of God.” The standard here is of the Pharisees. Like the high jump, unless you get over that, you are not going to get to the victory. You are not going to make it. I said to you a moment ago that many people think, “Oh, that is easy. The Pharisees - they are hypocrites. I am not a hypocrite.” Wait a minute! Are you sure you are not? You know, the Pharisees did not think they were hypocrites either. Do not think that the Pharisees were people who went around behaving as hypocrites intentionally. The greatest tragedy of the spiritual life is to be a hypocrite without knowing it. Don’t think that the Pharisees consciously knew that they were hypocrites. Not at all! That would be a complete misrepresentation of the Pharisees. You have to know something about the Pharisees.
The Pharisees were a group of people - you might call it a sect, an organization. The very word ‘Pharisee’ meant people who were separated - separated from the crowd. Separated in what way? They were separated in their total devotion to the law of God. The Pharisees’ one aim was to do the law of God to its smallest detail. They committed their entire life to obeying God’s law. The Pharisees rose after a time when the law was being challenged, when people were throwing the law away, when Greek culture was invading Palestine, invading Israel. The Pharisees rose up in defense of the law, as the Maccabees had done before them. The Pharisees are people of enormous piety and devotion. We must once and for all get rid of the notion that the Pharisees are a bunch of foolish hypocrites, not worthy of mention. The Pharisees were a very respected, a highly respected group of people, respected that is, by the whole people of Israel for their high standards of righteousness.
Let me tell you, the Pharisees often stake their life in defense of the law. They were fearless in defense of the law. They practiced the law down to the greatest detail. They fasted, which is not required by the law, but they went beyond the law. In their devotion to God, they fasted twice a week. Which of you fast once a week? Once a month? Once a year? Do any of you dare to raise your hands to say that you fast once a month? The Pharisees fast twice a week. You say, “Well, that is just works!” Wait a minute! What is wrong with works - works of devotion? Paul says, “You have been ordained to good works”. [Eph. 2:10] God has saved us and ordained us to good works. What is so shameful about good works? The Pharisees fasted twice a week, on Mondays and on Thursdays. The whole day they fasted.
They gave their tithe of everything, that is, one tenth of everything they had. Do you give a tenth of what you have? Do you really? Would your account bear inspection? Would you like to open your account for inspection? One tenth of everything they were sure to give, and often they gave more. And that has not yet passed away, has it? The minimum for a Christian is surely one tenth. When we give one tenth, we give God what is His own. That was required by the law. The Pharisees gave one tenth and again went beyond the law. They tithe even what was not required by the law. I said fasting was not required by the law, except on one day of the year - the Day of Atonement. But the Pharisees fasted twice a week, voluntarily. The Pharisees gave 10% of everything they had and they even tithed what was not required by the law. We will see that in the words of the Lord Jesus in Mt. 23:23, a very important passage where he condemns them for their hypocrisy, but we will see in a moment what it means.
In Mt. 23:23 the Lord Jesus says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith;” - notice - “these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” “...you ought” means, “Yes, you were right in giving tithes. You were right to fast. You ought to have done this. But you should not have neglected the others.” Notice that the Lord Jesus does not say it was not necessary to do all that, that they should instead have only paid attention to justice and mercy and the love of God. Not at all! He says, “You were right in doing these”, but that was not enough.
Christian Notion of Pharisees Were a Complete Caricature
I would like you to understand then, to clear away from your mind the old conception of the Pharisees as a bunch of superficial hypocrites. They were nothing of the sort. In fact, many scholars have rightly protested that the Christian notion of the Pharisees were a complete caricature of the Pharisees. If I tell you some of the people who were Pharisees, [you may be surprised]. Do you know who was a Pharisee? Paul himself was a Pharisee. Would you accuse him of hypocrisy? Paul three times declares himself to be a Pharisee, and he declares this with great pride. In fact, in Acts 23 he does not say, “I was a Pharisee”, but when defending himself in the council he said, “I am a Pharisee”. Striking tense! Having checked the tense in the original, I was impressed that it is certainly in the present tense. So Paul says, for example, in Acts 23:6, “Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead I am on trial.” He said, “I am a Pharisee.” So before you start waxing easy, saying, “Oh! The righteousness of the Pharisee is easy to meet”, I challenge you to meet the righteousness of Paul even before he was converted. In Phil. 3:5, he said again, “I am a Pharisee”. Then he says in v6, “as to ... the law blameless.”
Do you know who else was a Pharisee? Nicodemus was. Nicodemus was a Pharisee. And he was the one who brought a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes to the grave. He was not afraid to stand up and be counted with the disciples in front of Pilate. You say that these are all hypocrites? Do you know who else was another Pharisee? There was a Pharisee called Gamaliel in Acts 5 who defended the apostles when they were being tried before the Sanhedrin. Let us throw away the fallacious notion that the Pharisees were all a bunch of silly hypocrites. They were people highly respected in Israel for their enormous standard of godliness. They lived a righteous life at tremendous cost to themselves. And they were not afraid to die for the law, even if sometimes misguidedly. For example, under the Romans, the number of Pharisees who died in defense of the law of Israel, at the Roman sword, was really impressive. So, before you start saying, “Oh, Pharisees - easy to meet that!” Not at all! Then you say, “If that standard is so high to reach, why does the Lord Jesus call them hypocrites?” Precisely! Why did He call them hypocrites? Because like so many religious people, they emphasized the external performance of things. What Jesus Meant by Hypocrisy
What is meant by hypocrisy? When you understand what Jesus meant by hypocrisy, you will not be too quick to assume that you are free of hypocrisy. Jesus did not say that they were not pious. Jesus did not say that they were not earnest. Jesus did not say that they were unrighteous. What did He say? He said they were hypocritical. What does hypocritical mean? It means to emphasize the external performance to the neglect of the internal, to the neglect of what relates to the heart. In other words, we can be so taken up with doing things that we forget what we ought to be. Now you know, this applies every bit to Christians.
There is an awful lot of hypocrisy in the church - hypocrisy in every aspect. You say that you love God - I would challenge you every way down the list. You say you love God, that Jesus died for you and you love Him? Hypocrite! Let us see the evidence of your love for Him. “Show me the evidence of your love. Take it out and let us see it.” That is what James said. “You say you have faith? Take it out and let me have a look at it. Where is your faith?” The church is full of hypocrites. Hypocrites! You love God with all your heart and soul and strength, and the slightest problem comes to you and you blame God for the whole business. You love God, do you? “Jesus died for us that we should live for Him.” [2 Cor. 5:15] When have you lived for Him, brothers and sisters? When have you lived for Him during the past week? Never mind theoreticals! During this past week - Monday, what did you do for Him? Tuesday? Wednesday? Thursday? Friday? Saturday? Name it. Come out with the facts and stop deceiving yourself.
If Jesus were here, I dare you look in His face. If He says, “Do you love Me?” Where is the evidence of that love? Did you say you are not a hypocrite? You love Me? How much did you offer to the Lord?” And you say, “But I have a lot of expenses!” Sure! We all have expenses. And therefore we do not have to give anything, because we all have expenses. Which of us are rich? We give out of the love for God, not because we have money. And you say you love God? When did you fast when you last prayed - when you prayed for China, or prayed for Canada, or prayed for the church or prayed for the Lord’s servants? When in your earnestness did you pray so that you were willing to fast? Oh no, when you prayed, halfway, you said, “My stomach is [grumbling]. Excuse me, Lord, wait till I have my lunch and I’ll see You afterwards.” Then, of course, you got so busy - your friend came to call, you had this and that to do, and by nighttime, you say, “Sorry, Lord, I was a bit busy today!” Hypocrites! And you say your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees?
Let me tell you something more: the Pharisees prayed three times a day. How many times do you pray a day? Or you do not think it matters whether you pray at all, because you are saved by grace? The Pharisees prayed at 9:00 AM; they prayed at 12:00 noon; and then they prayed at 3:00 PM. What is your prayer life like? Better than the Pharisees, huh? 5 minutes in the morning? 2 minutes? 2 minutes at night? Hypocrites! And you say you love God in your heart? You say, “The Pharisees only did the outward performance, you know. I love God in my heart, so I don’t have to pray at all because the outward performance does not matter.” Perfect logic that suits a hypocrite! And you say, “I love God so much, that you know, tithes and offerings, these belong to the law. I love God so much I don’t have to give Him a penny.” Perfect reasoning of a hypocrite! And we say, “We are not hypocrites. We are righteous! Our righteousness has exceeded the Pharisees’. We are not hypocrites.” The church is full of hypocrites. It would be enough to make you weep to see the hypocrisy that goes on.
You say you love God and that you are going to serve Him. But all your concern is your exam, your future life - how you are going to pass your exam, how you are going to get a good job. God’s work does not cross your mind, except in your spare time. Your leftovers are for God. If you have 5 minutes to spare, maybe God can have it, if the TV does not get it. And your righteousness exceeds the Pharisees’? Don’t feel so self-complacent! The one thing God cannot stand is self-complacency, and that is exactly what the Pharisees were! Their hypocrisy lay in their self-righteousness, their self-satisfaction - “I thank God I am not like this man!” That attitude is too common in the churches. “I thank God I am not like that non-Christian. I thank God that I am among the elect of God.” That is exactly what the Pharisees thought. And you think exactly the same way: “I thank God I am not like that filthy guy who smokes those dirty cigarettes. I thank God that I don’t touch a drop of wine. Wine does not touch my lips. I am so self-righteous.” I once went into a pub, and someone saw me there. He was shocked and said, “What are you doing in a pub?” I don’t know whether you know what is a pub. Here they call it a bar or a brasserie. In England, we call it a pub - a public house. He asked, “What are you doing in a pub?” What is wrong with being in a pub? Publicans and sinners, tax collectors - Jesus mixed with them! And so, you go into a pub. If you drink a sip of wine (which I didn’t drink incidentally - I only had a softdrink in the pub), you are finished, my friend. You are heading for hell. You have had it!
Oh, you read the Sunday newspaper? My friend, you are going further down into hell! You wear a mini-skirt? You are finished! You put on lipstick? In some parts, the Christians will say that if you drank coffee or tea, you are also fit for hell. Those things are not to be drunk by Christians. And you have no laws? You don’t follow outward behavior? In certain parts, the Christians are not supposed to wear nice, shiny dresses, nice clothing, fancy ties. No, no! You must wear black things. That is why if you go to Germany, you will find that the standard thing for perfect Christians to wear is black skirt, black jacket, white shirt, black tie. That is the uniform of a good Christian. If you wear anything else, you are fit for hell.
We Must Not Neglect Justice, Mercy and Faith!
Now, you see that we too are hypocrites. We are very hypocritical. “Search me, O God, and try my heart and know my thoughts, because what is involved is eternal life.” Jesus says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that...”. Exceeds what? “Exceeds that hypocrisy of the Pharisees” that is, unless your Christianity and your faith in God is so much less superficial than theirs! He says, “What do you neglect? You neglect justice” - He says to the Pharisees in Mt. 22 - “you neglect mercy, you neglect faith - the love of God”. Do you neglect these things? If you say, “I don’t neglect mercy. I don’t neglect any of these things”, look at the relationship between Christians in the church. How many churches are divided? How many brothers and sisters look at each other and are not on talking terms? Hypocrites! You have not neglected mercy? You love your neighbor as yourself? Well, brothers and sisters, I plead for honesty, that God may search our hearts and save us from that superficial Christianity of which the Pharisees were guilty. Superficial religion! Outward religion! That being a good Christian is not smoking, not drinking, not reading Sunday papers, not doing this, not doing that, not going to the dance hall, not going to the cinema. And what is a Christian supposed to do? I had a friend who became a Christian and who was once a playboy. He was a very handsome fellow; he drove all the girls mad. Then he became a Christian. He stopped going to the dance hall; he stopped smoking; he stopped drinking. One day we were having a meal together and one of his friends came, opened a bottle of wine and said, “Come on, have a glass.” He said, “No, thanks!” He said, “Dear me! You mean to say becoming a Christian is not smoking, not drinking, not going to dance halls? What do you do?” Good question! Good question! What does a Christian do? You know what he does not do. Maybe you would like to know what he does do. What do you say in reply to that question? Well, too often he is contented with his Christianity of not doing anything. He does not do anything and that is the trouble. Being a Christian is doing something! It is being righteous beyond that standard.
It is time for us to close. But we must understand that we must reach that standard of righteousness that Jesus requires. We must go forth into this world - as we saw earlier - as the light of the world, as the salt of the earth. But the Christians of today can hardly be described as either of these. We must reach the standard that Jesus set for us - “I send you out as light in the world, as salt of the earth.” - distinct from the multitudes. By what? By your light! What is light? Righteousness! What is righteousness? Jesus said it Himself - these are the good works that come by the power of God. We have no excuses for failure. Let God search our hearts and go out and live as He calls us to be.
But one last point and the point is this: how can I meet such a standard? How can I live this high calling? How can I be the light of the world? “I cannot reach it, Lord.” You would be inclined to give up in despair and say, “Lord, I can’t make it.” Let me tell you my experience as I close. How I Learned “Exceeding the Pharisees’ Righteousness”
I was a Christian for three years or so, and when I came out of China, I suffered many things; I learned many things. But I felt that the standard of my Christian life was still too low. I felt that many times I failed the Lord in my conduct and in my thinking. Do you know what most Christians do? They go back to God and say, “Lord, forgive me my sins. Cleanse me with Your precious blood and help me never to do it again.” And they do it the next day again. The next night, they say, “Lord, forgive me” and they start all over again. I was fed up of doing these kinds of things. One day, I remember I was in Hong Kong, and I came back from church, not remembering one word that was said in church. I was walking along the road and I felt utterly depressed, and I said, “Lord, my Christian life is so poor.” I think other people thought I was a wonderful Christian, but I knew my own self. I asked God to search my heart and then what He showed me was that I had failed Him in every direction. Although everybody else thought I was a wonderful Christian, I knew better. I knew I was not. And I was fed up of this hypocrisy. It was not that I intentionally wanted to be hypocritical, but that I simply could not attain the standard that Jesus wanted me to live up to.
I remember that day I came back to the hostel where I was staying in in Hong Kong in Granville Road. I knelt down before God, and said, “Lord, it is no use! I can’t live the Christian life. I give up. I don’t want to dishonor Your name anymore. I love You, Lord, and I don’t want to dishonor Your name.” Henceforth, I don’t want to call myself a Christian anymore. I do not want to disappoint all those people who thought I was such a good Christian. I just pray that You will forgive me. I will always love You, but I don’t want to take Your name in vain. And you know, the Lord spoke to me. That is one of several times in which He spoke to me. He speaks to those who come to Him in an earnest and honest spirit. He said, “I have never asked you to live the Christian life in your own strength. I have never asked you to.” I said, “How am I going to live it then?” He said, “In the Spirit that I have provided.” He said, “That is why I have given you My Holy Spirit! You have been trying to live in your own strength. That is why you failed.” That is exactly where the Pharisees failed. They had a high standard and they tried with all their own strength to live up to that high standard, and they failed. And outwardly they succeeded. Outwardly I succeeded too. Everybody thought I was a fine Christian - one of the leaders of the young people in the church which I was a part of in Shanghai, and in Hong Kong, I was already known by the news that had come ahead of me. But I knew what I really was. I knew that in my heart there was a lot of hypocrisy. The Lord said, “I haven’t asked you to live in your own strength. Live by the power of My Spirit!” I said, “How? How do I live by the power of Your Spirit?” He said, “Stop struggling and let the Holy Spirit take over. Yield yourself to the Holy Spirit’s control. Like a car, hand over the steering wheel to Him; He will take over. You have been trying so hard to live the Christian life that you have not given God the chance to show His power in your life. You have been doing all the striving and all the struggling. Where does God come in? So, now you stop, and let God take over your life.”
You know, that was a new experience in my life. I knelt down before the Lord again, and I said, “Lord, here’s all my life. You take over full charge. You take over and run my life as You would have me run it. You just carry on and I will just be doing whatever You want me to do. You show me what I should think, what I should feel, what I should do, what I should say. I shall not go there and say, “How are you today?” and try to be nice, pat someone on the back and be an all real cheery and rosy Christian. In effect, He was saying, “Stop that stuff! Just let God live His life in you! Hmm. Stop all the acting and let us just be genuine! Let God live His life right through me in His power!” You know, it was such an experience for me that it was revolutionary. I wondered why nobody had ever told me about that before. I had tried so hard to live the Christian life. I could not make it - and God took over.
Exceeding the Pharisees’ Righteousness - By the Holy Spirit!
That is why we need the Holy Spirit. How can we exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees? In only two ways: firstly, of course, we have to hand over our life completely to God, that is, when we become regenerate. But we must go beyond that too - than just a confession of believing in Jesus in the normal sense - and let Jesus fill our lives with His Holy Spirit. Be filled with the Spirit! Because this teaching is not sufficiently understood, there is a great deal of confusion in the churches, with the result that the Pentecostals say that you have to be filled and so speak in tongues. You know, mighty men of God have been filled but never spoken in tongues. In fact, the Lord Jesus Himself, who had the Spirit without measure, was never reported to have spoken in any tongue. But it is the importance of being filled with the Spirit. You know, for me, that was a transforming experience - a Pentecostal experience, if you like. The whole thing seemed so simple that when I got up from my knees, having handed the whole control of my life over to God, I became a new person. The Christian life ceased to be a struggle and a battle. From then on, God was in charge.
I do not know whether you can follow what I mean, but if you follow those steps, you will enter into a new phase of the Christian life - a Spirit-filled phase of the Christian life. Every Christian must be filled with the Spirit; otherwise he will never make it. To be filled with the Spirit is the normal Christian life. It is not some new, unusual experience. It must be the normal thing in the Christian life and then God takes over in your life. Many Christians have never taken that step, with the result that they live through all their Christian life in a beggarly system. If you live without God taking control, let me tell you this, you can never escape from hypocrisy. The result is you will always be like the Pharisee. That is why there is so much hypocrisy in the church because there are too few Spirit-filled Christians. “Search me, O Lord. Try my heart!” What is the first thing then? It is to ask: “Lord, take over my whole life. I have struggled; I have fought; I can’t make it!” Who asked you to fight and struggle? His power is there. He takes over and wonderful things happen. You become a channel of His power, so much so that God begins to do things through you, and where He will take you on from there is without limit.
You might find that one day, you lay hands on the sick and he is healed, as I have found again and again. You will find that you pray for a person and the person is changed. You say, “It’s amazing! What’s happening?” You find that the prayer life is no longer a battle to think of what to pray. You just relax before God and let Him take full control and He guides you into what to pray. Have you experienced that wonderful time of prayer where you are just quiet before God and He says, “I want you to pray for this person”, so you pray for that person. You ask, “So, what should I pray for that person?” He tells you what to pray, and you pray for that person. “Then who else, God?” The Lord leads you to another person. You pray for that person or you just spend time worshipping and praising the Lord. Do you know what it means to be filled with the Spirit? If not, it is about time you found out, because without being filled with the Spirit, you will never exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees.
Receive the Holy Spirit - and Be Yourself at Your Perfect Best!
But many Christians are afraid to receive the Holy Spirit for one reason: they are afraid that they will lose their character, their personality, that they will become puppets, dummies, automatons, run by God. They think, “We cease to be what we are. We cease to have any character left.” Don’t you worry! There is no such danger. When the Holy Spirit takes over your life, you do not cease to be human; you do not become less yourself. But to your amazement, you become more yourself, more genuinely yourself! Do you know what is one of the fruit of the Spirit? Have you ever thought about it? Self-control! The Holy Spirit gives you the power to run your life and to control yourself. He does not take away your personality. Never think so!
When the apostle Peter received the Holy Spirit, he was not less Peter than he was before. No, he was Peter at his perfect best. Never think that the Holy Spirit takes away your personality and reduces you to some kind of a robot. God does not want to do that. He created us to be what He wants us to be, in the fullness and the splendor of what we should have been in Christ. I say this because many Christians are afraid, and thus say, “Oh, no! If the Holy Spirit takes over my life, what am I going to be?” Don’t you worry! You will be what you never were before, and it is perfection and it is beauty. You will not become a robot. With the fruit of the Spirit of self-control, the Holy Spirit gives you the power to be what you ought to be in all the beauty of Christ, but He does not take away your character. Don’t you worry about that!
Let us now enter into the beauty, into the fullness of the life that God has called us to. The excitement, I should say, too. Rightly so! What a wonderful life! I do not know why Christians want to live a miserable, defeated, hypocritical life when God has prepared for them a wonderful life in the Spirit.
(c) 2012 Christian Disciples Church