Saturday, November 24, 2007

Is the Gospel in the Gospels? Part 4

Continued from Part 3.

The third and last thing to say about the Good News of the Kingdom, according to Jesus in Matthew 5, is that righteousness— true and genuine righteousness—is not what the scribes and Pharisees say that it is. That's good news. Read what Jesus says in Matt. 5:20, "For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."

This statement is exceedingly provocative. It is hyperbole designed to make a memorable impression.

But the sentence is difficult to translate. Most translations suggest that Jesus is doing math. That one has to add something to what the scribes and Pharisees do in order to qualify. But it's not about mathematics—accountant ledgers and ticking off how much as been done.

The words Jesus uses here are notoriously difficult to translate: perisseuo, "to abound, to overflow." It's often used with reference to eating and food in the NT. Then, too, Jesus uses the word pleion here and we cannot help but hear echoes of pleireo in v. 17. Jesus' life will "fill out" the Law and Prophets, and his disciples' lives will also abundantly fill out the instruction of God!

It's not that the Scribes and Pharisees needed to add this or that, but that their "righteousness" their covenant faithfulness was paltry, meager, anemic, slim pickins, not anything like the rich fare laid out as food for God's people in my kingdom, Jesus says. And you are about to see what that is, Jesus suggests, because my life will fulfill it all.

Unless your righteousness overflows the bounds set by the Scribe and Pharisees. . . like mine, Jesus says. Watch me. Learn from me. Listen to me.

And Jesus is most certainly not talking about earning one's way into heaven. This is not a disguised hypothetical "covenant of works" theological pronouncement. These statements by Jesus are not really about priming people to hear about the grace of God by means of setting the bar so high that everyone will know how bad they are. Rather, these statements are the grace of God. Of course, of course, there's a place for meditating on the prefect standard of moral perfection given by God and evaluating our miserable, sinful lives in terms of it. But that's not Jesus's point here.

Entering the kingdom of heaven is about becoming a subject of Jesus' reign, of his kingdom on earth, the one he is inaugurating at this point in history. He's talking about the way his subjects ought to live—not like the Scribes and Pharisees—but according to the true standard of righteousness. Jesus is not trying to induce guilt and helplessness in order to teach people they need to be saved by God's grace. He does that in other places. Here he's making the point that the standards for life in his kingdom are different than what they are used to under teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees.

What Jesus means is that Pharisaical righteousness is only skin deep, superficial, ostentatious maybe, but it's not genuine conformity to the Law of God properly understood. Jesus is saying here that the self-appointed guardians and teachers of Israel's tradition must be abandoned. They do not teach the true meaning of God's law. This is exactly what Jesus will do when he sets out his six "antitheses" at the end of this chapter: "You have heard that it was said. . . but I say to you."

Jesus' word is Good News only in relation to the horrible distortions of the Pharisees and Scribes.

And so too today! We have to wonder what Jesus would say if he were to show up in American Evangelical wonderland: You have heard that it was said. . . but I say to you.

You should think carefully about this as you read through the sermon on the Mount. To do less would be to slip into the errors of the Scribes and Pharisees.

I believe people today need to be told something like this (v. 20). Don't think that the righteousness of this or that Christian church defines God's righteous requirements. Unless your behavior, your faithfulness, breaks out of the bounds of the Presbyterian tradition, for example, you shall be no means enter the kingdom of heaven.

Each ecclesiastical tradition has developed distinctive behavioral expectations for church members—these can be healthy and helpful, but they can also obscure the depth of commitment and loyalty that Jesus expects of his disciples. This was the problem with the Pharisees.

The Good News is that you will know the true way in which to live in God's kingdom when you see and follow Jesus. In him we learn of the righteous requirements of the Law. We see God's righteousness, that is, his faithfulness to his covenant promises, enacted in his radical service to humanity. In Jesus we see God's purposes for Israel come to fruition - he truly serves the world as priest and king as Israel was called to do but never truly did. In him we learn to appreciate the radical nature of God's instruction (radical in the sense of getting at the root). And in him we discover that life in his kingdom, ordered according to the genuine meaning of God's law, is the way of true fulfillment, satisfaction, joy and peace. All this is Good News.


Ben said...

I've enjoyed this series, especially because much of my discipleship in the PCA setting left me wondering often whether the Gospels were anything more than four versions of the back-story to the actual, you know, Good News, the bit about being justified by faith apart from the Law.

Have you written anything on how this re-centering on the Good News as it is presented in the Gospels ought to shape evangelism? If not, any articles or anything you can recommend that would reflect your perspective on the matter?

It's something I'm wrestling with - how to faithfully proclaim and share the Gospel as it's actually defined in the Bible. Part of the appeal, I think, of the "justification by faith = The Gospel" formula is that it's abstract enough to plug into a lot of different evangelistic situations. It's easy to draw connections from people's stories - indications that they struggle with guilt, or that they tend to assume their ability to stand on their own two feet before God, or that they feel alienated, or whatever - to the idea of receiving righteousness as a gift, not trying to achieve it by works.

And I don't mean to disparage that, exactly; I just wonder how one of the NT evangelists would preach what they took to be the Gospel as proclaimed by Jesus Christ in a contemporary setting. I guess that's a generic sort of question about evangelism, but I hope what I'm getting at is clear: how can our evangelistic efforts better take into account the Gospel according to the Gospels?

Anonymous said...

Here are some questions: what is the gospel according to the OT prophets; what is the framework within which the NT must be understood; and what has the restoration of Israel to do with the cross?

Jeff Meyers said...

Ben: Great question. All I will say right now is that the reduction of the Gospel to what one will say to God when one dies must be corrected. Personally, I kinda like the old "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life - both now and for eternity."

Jeff Meyers said...

Rogerion: check this out and see if it helps a bit. Not the whole story, but a crucial part of it. Jesus faithfully lives out Israel's calling.