The Righteousness of Peace

Matthew 5:21-26

The kind of righteousness which exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees is one which is illustrated by 6 examples that Jesus gives at the end of Matthew 5. The first example teaches us that kingdom righteousness is a righteousness of peace.

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It's been just a little while since we have been in the gospel of Matthew, where we have been looking at The Sermon on the Mount in great detail.

So before we get into the section of this great sermon that we are going to consider this morning, I'd like to spend just a few minutes in review of what Jesus has taught in his sermon up to this point.

We just finished looking at verse 20 of Matthew chapter 5, where Jesus clarifies for us what true Kingdom righteousness is. He says that the kind of righteousness that is a present reality of every person who is in the Kingdom of Heaven is a kind that is different from the kind of righteousness that the scribes and Pharisees evidenced. And it is not only different than that of the scribes and Pharisees, it is far superior to that of the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus says plainly in Matthew 5:20 that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

This is somewhat of a thesis statement for the entirety of this great Sermon on the Mount. It can be argued that the whole of what Jesus teaches in Matthew 5 through 7 can be boiled down to this concise statement.

One way that we know this to be the case is because of how Jesus builds up to this statement in the verses that precede it.

From the opening words of Jesus's sermon he takes direct aim at the very heart of men and women and indicates the kind of righteousness that must be true of those who have repented because the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.

  • 5:3 - We are to have a heart which has come to grips with its own brokenness -- a heart that recognizes its utter poverty and worthlessness before God.

  • 5:4 - And as a result, we must evidence the necessary emotional response to such a broken recognition -- we must be those who mourn with sorrow for how deeply we have offended the glory of God.

  • 5:5 - And the one who truly grieves because of their brokenness will be one who demonstrates it by treating everyone around them with meekness. To the broken and contrite Kingdom citizen, no person on Earth is beneath themself.

  • 5:6 - Here we see that the righteous heart doesn’t wallow in grief and mourning because its sinfulness -- it has been captured by the beauty of the righteousness of God such that the soul earnestly craves to be righteous as God is righteous. The Kingdom citizen’s spiritual appetite is one that hungers and thirsts for righteousness.

  • 5:7 - With our eyes fixed upon the kind of righteousness that will satisfy our new appetites, we look around us at those who can be shown mercy, and so we show them the mercy of unbounded forgiveness. And we do this knowing that God in Christ has shown us unbounded forgiveness.

  • 5:8 - We also look to God and set our goals and priorities purely in line with his glory. The righteous heart pursues God purely while casting away all competing pursuits.

  • 5:9 - As we look to the world around us, we have a heart which longs to see God’s enemies made into his peaceful citizens -- just like we have gone from being those who hated him to those who love him. So we seek to be peacemakers in pointing their attention to the King.

  • 5:10 - And as a natural byproduct of our peacemaking, we will certainly run into situations where we the enemies of God make enemies of us. Therefore, the heart of righteousness is one that will come into persecution for the sake of their righteousness.

But Jesus also tells us that in all of this we are to realize that we, as his people, as his kingdom citizens -- that we are a valuable commodity on the Earth. And even more than that, we are a necessary and an irreplaceable presence on the Earth.

We are the salt which functions to preserve the world from the filthy decay which would consume them all were the salt to be removed. We are the light that points attention to the glory of God so that the hope of rescue from the destructiveness of sin might be evident. And should our light be removed, the world would inevitably run its ship into the rocks and be destroyed.

So in all this Jesus is teaching about the nature of those who are in his kingdom. We could think about verses 3 through 16 in Matthew 5 as a sort of abstract to the entire Sermon on the Mount. It's the executive summary. If you're going to walk away with anything ingrained into your brain concerning what Jesus is proclaiming to you through the pen of Matthew, then it better be these 13 verses.

And then in verse 17 Jesus begins to introduce the core thesis of his sermon. Having previewed it all with poetry and illustration, he turns to logic and doctrine.

In verses 17 and 18 we understand that Jesus has NOT come to replace or do away with the Old Testament, but rather he has come to fulfill it all. He has come to bring its meaning up to the brim. He has come to fill up everything that was already there so that we can clearly see it all to the max.

The disciples spent 3 years in close proximity to Jesus himself, and even had the blessing of his explicit teaching. But even they did not fully understand until Jesus himself explain to them following his resurrection the things that were true concerning his work for the saving of his people.

Paul was schooled by the greatest of Hebrew Scholars before his conversion, and then he still needed years of training by Jesus himself before he was qualified to fulfill his Apostolic Ministry.

The OT is true and it is sufficient and it is authoritative, but it is not the fullness of what God has intended to reveal to us. Jesus tells us that he has come to bring full understanding to it all.

Then beginning in verse 19 Jesus introduces the theme of this great sermon. He talks about the necessity of not relaxing the commandments, and then in verse 20 he talks about a righteousness that is vastly superior to that of the self-righteous scribes and Pharisees. And his point is that the Commandments of God are a set of commandments which flow from his very character and essence, and which must be taught and obeyed.

We're going to find that there is not so much a letter of the law that we are to conform to as the people of God, so much as there is a Giver of the law to whom we must conform. God does not arbitrarily dish out commandments for us to follow, instead he graciously reveals to us instructions that are an expression of the purity of his nature so that we might be able to fulfill his purposes for us in becoming like him...

The commandment of God keeps us connected to our purpose.

And then just so that we’re really clear on this -- It is NOT that those in God's kingdom keep his commandments in order to enter it. Rather, those in the Kingdom seek to keep his commandments because they are in it.

The message of the Gospel is that which powerfully declares to mankind that Jesus has accomplished everything necessary to remove God's anger towards the sinner.

The gospel is the message which declares that in Christ God can forgive sin justly. It is the message that tells us in power and in certainty that all of our sin is covered by the atoning death of Christ.

This is a glorious message. But we must understand clearly that the powerful gospel is not the only powerful thing at work in the life of a person who becomes a Christian and enters the kingdom of God.

It is a miraculous thing, and it is a powerful thing for God's hostility toward the sinner to be removed. But it is an equally powerful thing for the sinner’s hostility towards God to be removed... The doctrine of regeneration is just as necessary and is just as powerful as the doctrine of the Gospel.

Listen to these texts:

Ephesians 2:5 - “Even when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ.”

Colossians 2:12-13 - “You were also raised with [Christ] through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him.”

Colossians 3:1 - “[Since] then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is.”

2 Corinthians 5:17-18 - “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself”

Friends, may we never look at the words of Christ in The Sermon on the Mount (in which he calls us to a life of righteousness) and think that in this Sermon he is calling us to a life of legalism. Jesus is assuming the powerful working of the spirit of God inside the life of a sinner to regenerate them and turn them from a life of sin to a life full of the pursuit of the righteousness of God.

Jesus very well understands the fact that if a person has been placed into the kingdom of God, it is not only true that God’s enmity towards the sinner has been removed because of his atoning death on the cross, but it is also true that the sinner's heart has been completely changed -- that his heart of stone has been replaced with a soft and tender heart that beats for righteousness.

And because the doctrine of regeneration is true, Jesus makes this bold thesis statement in verse 20 -- “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” ...You will never come to enjoy the fullness of the Eternal kingdom of God if you never come to evidence the fullness of Spirit-wrought kingdom righteousness.

So. How do we know if our righteousness is indeed this right kind of righteousness that exceeds that of the self-righteous scribes and Pharisees? Jesus, can you give me an example of what this righteousness is? And our Lord answers that question in a sense by saying, “Yes, here are six of them.”

In verses 21 through 48 of Matthew 5 we find Jesus’ gracious offering to us of 6 important examples of what this kind of righteousness is.

He gives us a distilled and poetic description of this kind of righteousness in verses 3 through 16, and he's going to elaborate more fully on what this kind of righteousness is in chapters 6 and 7. But we see that he first enters into a series of examples that will help us understand clearly what kingdom righteousness is... and what it isn't.

So before we look into the first example, I want to spend just a few minutes overviewing the structure of how Matthew clearly separates each example for us in these verses.

It is very clear that Matthew is recording 6 specific examples of Kingdom righteousness not only because of the content of this second half of Matthew Chapter 5, but also because of the literary structure.

Verses 21-22, Verses 27-28, Verses 31-32, Verses 33-34, Verses 38-39, Verses 43-44. We see the obvious repeating pattern of “You have heard that it was said...But I say to you.”

And what we see Jesus doing is exactly what he said he came to do in verse 17. He said he came not to abolish the law or the prophets but to fulfill them. He came to bring them into full clarity.

So he tells his mostly Jewish audience that they might have heard certain commandments issued in certain ways by the teachers of Israel. But he says to them all with authority what it is that God all along had intended for his commandments to actually be...

The self-righteous scribes and Pharisees had taken the law of Moses and fit it to their own prerogative and conveniences, and they then had taught the people to observe it their way. But we see Jesus destroying their self-righteous abuse of the law of Moses in order to fully and clearly establish the law of God upon which the law of Moses rested.

We could say it this way:

When Moses gave the Ten Commandments, he gave to the children of Israel the expression of God's character that God wanted them to have in order that they might conform themselves rightly to his holiness. And all along God was after their hearts, and NOT just their outward conformity. The law provided a way for those who were truly his people to have a clear path forward in being what they were called to be. It was a way for those who were pure in heart to express their pure devotion to God.

So from the very beginning, the law of God aimed deeper than the outside. It always aimed at the heart. The leaders of Israel had turned it into something only about the outside, but Jesus comes in order to bring final clarity upon its intentions for the heart of man.

And so in this last section of Matthew 5 we find Jesus listing 6 specific instances in which the leaders of Israel incorrectly apply the law of God for people to adhere to... And in each instance Jesus describes a negative -- (which is to say that he gives the prevalent false understanding of the law) -- and then he replaces the negative with a positive. He states in full clarity what it is that the law of God always aimed for in the heart of the one to whom it was given.

The paradigm that Jesus uses 6 times is this:  

“You have been taught that the righteousness of keeping God’s law meant this outward action, but I say unto you with divine authority that the righteousness of keeping God’s law means this inward reality.”

Now surely this inward reality results in certain outward practices. But Jesus says that the focus and the priority is on the inside and not the outside. True righteousness -- true Kingdom righteousness -- that righteousness which exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees is a righteousness that flows from righteous heart to righteous actions. It begins with a righteous mind and moves its way out word into righteous choices. It originates in righteous inclinations that result in righteous pursuits. It is everything that issues like a pure fountain from a heart that overflows with affections for that which is righteous.

And of these six illustrations or examples give clear support for the kind of righteousness which Jesus says must be true of everyone who is a part of the Kingdom of Heaven.

So, just to be clear in what we find in these verses before us, let me summarize:

Jesus makes an important thesis statement in Matthew 5:20 when he says that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. This means that we must have a quality of righteousness that is vastly superior to that of the self righteous teachers of the law.

And in order to make it clear what that kind of righteousness is like, Jesus launches into six examples of what such Kingdom righteousness looks like.

And so these 6 examples are going to be our topics for the next few weeks.

So let us consider this morning the very first of these examples -- the one found in verses 21 through 26. And let’s begin by reading this section together again.

Matthew 5:21-26

Now, there is a lot here. Jesus talks about murder and anger and insults and gifts on the altar and accusers and judges and prison. And we have to make sense of it all.

And so the best way to begin understanding everything that's going on in these verses is to bring to our minds the paradigm that I mentioned earlier. Remember that each of these six sections in this part of The Sermon on the Mount serves a specific purpose. The purpose of these few versus is to serve as an illustration to the kind of righteousness that exceeds in quality that of the legalists.

And so we must ask a question to ourselves as we read these verses. We ask this question -- “How is it that the instructions here by Jesus illustrate Kingdom righteousness?” Or, we could say -- “What do these verses teach us about true Kingdom righteousness?”

What is it like? What is it characterized by? What is it not?

Answering these kinds of questions is how we arrive at Jesus’ meaning.

So I'm going to begin by giving you what I believe is the main idea concerning Kingdom righteousness that Jesus is teaching in these verses, and then we will take the rest of our time seeing how it is that everything in this section on anger and murder and accusers and judgment -- how all of it supports this one main righteous concept.

I believe that in these verses Jesus is teaching us that kingdom righteousness is a righteousness of peace.

And the Lord makes this clear by teaching us three truths concerning the righteousness of peace in these verses. His example of peace as an element of kingdom righteousness includes these three instructions:

  1. The Opposite of Peace

  2. The Necessity of Peace

  3. The Urgency of Peace

So, first, let’s consider what Jesus presents to us as what is the opposite of the righteousness of peace.

The Opposite of Peace

Matthew 5:21-22 

As is going to be typical for each of the six illustrations that we go through over the next few weeks, we find here that Jesus begins with the negative. He begins his discussion on this illustration of true Kingdom righteousness by telling us what its opposite is. He tells us what true Kingdom righteousness is not.

In contrast to what the religious leaders of Israel taught, true Kingdom righteousness is far deeper of a reality than merely measuring up to the letter of the Mosaic law.  It may include what was taught in the law of Moses, but kingdom righteousness is far more.

We know from Exodus 20:13 and from Deuteronomy 5:17 that murder is a violation of God's law. Intentionally killing a person is a violation of God's law. And this truth had been clearly taught by the religious leaders of Israel, such that Jesus remarks on this common and rightful understanding. He says that everyone has heard that it was said to those of old (or, to those who lived in the time of Moses) that they should not murder and that those who murder will be liable to judgment.

But the problem is that the leaders in Israel did not accurately teach the heart quality that lay underneath the command to not murder. You see, the actual carrying out of a murder and the heart disposition of anger (even if it doesn't lead to an outward murderous act) -- to God these two things are no different. He views the act of murder and the heart of anger as fundamentally identical crimes.

This is what Jesus makes clear in verse 22.

Instead of it only being those who murder who are liable to judgment, as it was taught in verse 21, Jesus says in verse 22 that anyone who is angry with another person is liable to judgment. Jesus is saying the same penalty rendered to a person following an act of murder is what should be rendered to a person following a thought of anger.

If murder makes you liable to judgment, then anger towards another person makes you liable to the very same judgment.

And in case this is not blatantly clear in what he explicitly says, Jesus provides two secondary examples that support the fact that everyone who is angry with another person is liable of the same judgment that comes to one who murders.

He says first that whoever insults another person will be liable to the council.

If you have the NASB this phrase reads, “whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court.” The AV says, “whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council.”

The “council” or the “supreme court” refers to the highest seat of authority in Judaism. It is the same court which sentenced Jesus to die. It is the Sanhedrin - the legal body which had the power to take one’s life should the crime be high enough. And that is precisely what Jesus in alluding to -- a crime so great that it comes with the death sentence from the Supreme Court.

The word Jesus would have said in this phrase is the Aramaic word “RE-qa”, which was well-known as a contemptuous insult in that day. Matthew records it as the Greek word, “Raca.” And we put it into English as whatever common rude insult you might imagine -- It’s not an expression of profanity. It is not a word that you can’t say on the radio. It’s the kind of commonly-given insult that even our children use on their siblings.

What is Lucy’s favorite nickname for Charlie Brown? Blockhead.

Jesus says that such an insult coming from a heart of anger brings with it the court judgement of death. (Think about that the next time you feel like using such an expression.)

And the second example Jesus uses is in the end of verse 22 -- “Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”

The crime is basically the same, but here Jesus elaborates on the sentence. In God’s eyes, a word of contempt spoken from a heart of anger is so great a crime that it deserves what sentence? Not only the sentence of physical death from the high court, but also the sentence of eternal death in the hell of fire...

All because of a seemingly harmless feeling of anger.

Which of us is exempt from this sin? Which of us can say that we have not brought upon ourselves such judgment because of anger? And even deeper still, which of us can say that we have come to know how pervasively angry we actually are?

Our anger towards others and towards God himself is the seed of a host of sins. Jesus gives two instances of “minor” expressions of anger -- and notice that both of them have to do with which of our members? Our mouths... What we say.

“Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks,” Jesus says in Matthew 12:34. And he continues in that passage to say this -- “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

Your words can reveal that you have a heart of murdering anger. Even though you don’t kill, your words can reveal that your heart sure wants to.

Therefore. Anger is the opposite of the righteousness of peace.

And Jesus continues in this example of kingdom righteousness to provide for us, secondly, the necessity of peace. Not only does he teach us the opposite of peace, but also he teaches us the necessity of righteous peace.


The Necessity of Peace

Matthew 5:23-24

The first word of these verses is the word “so.” Jesus is making a connection. Because of the fact that God views a heart of anger as no different from the outward expression of murder, we therefore ought to act a certain way as in this situation that he presents before us.

The one who is a part of the Kingdom of Heaven is so intimately aware of the fact that anger is so opposite to the will of God -- so aware of the fact that anger should be foreign to the heart of the Christian, that we ought to be driven to be like the person in this example.

The setting is obviously a time of worship. A faithful Jew has come to make an offering in the temple. He has come to worship God... And notice that this person remembers that somebody else has something against him.

We usually think of somebody having something against us in the sense that they are angry at us. But I believe here Jesus is referring to a situation where an innocent party has something against the offending party. It’s the other person who has a “rightful case” against the one who is at the altar.

In Revelation 2 Jesus says that he has “something against” the churches to whom the letters are written. They have done the offending, and thus he has offense against them. In the same way the one worshipping at the altar has sinned, and the one he has sinned against has offense against them.

So what is the offending person supposed to do? When he realizes that he has sinned against somebody, what should he do?

He's just about to offer an expression of worship to God, so should he go ahead and offer it and then go take care of things? No, he is to leave his place of worship and he is to go make reconciliation between him and the one whom he has offended.

Being at peace with the brother is more important in the outward act of worship.

Why? Because God is not pleased with an act of worship that is righteous-seeming on the outside but on the inside is given by a heart that is willingly holding onto sin. He is not pleased by a heart that seeks to worship Him while holding onto something that has been sinfully done against another.

Therefore, the person who has a righteous heart of peace is the one who sees the absolute necessity for peace with others. We must understand that being at peace with those around us as much as is possible within ourselves is an absolute necessity. We cannot so much as offer to God an acceptable expression of worship and adoration if we hold onto such sinfulness in our hearts.

Romans 12:18 - “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”

It is possible that another person will refuse to live in peace with us. But that does not mean that we are not to do everything in our power to live peaceably with them. Any sinful offenses that we might commit against another person which gives them something against us -- this is something that we must take the initiative in reconciling. And when we do we evidence the fact that we have a heart of peace, because we understand the necessity of peace.

Psalm 133:1–3 - “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes! It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there the LORD has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.”

Peace instead of anger is good and pleasant, and the point to this Psalm of Ascents is that it is also necessary. Worshippers would sing this on their way up to the Temple to worship -- reminding themselves of how vital it is that they dwell in unity and peace in order for God to be pleased with their worship.

Not only do we find here the opposite of peace and the necessity of peace for those who have a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. But we lastly find that Jesus teaches us about the urgency of peace.

The Urgency of Peace

Matthew 5:25-26

If we take these verses somewhat out of context we actually come up with a very helpful piece of life advice -- Strike a deal so you can get out of what you actually owe.

But that's not what Jesus is aiming at specifically.

It’s a well-known and even ancient principle that an accuser might be willing to settle for less then he could otherwise get if it's going to save him all the hassle of dragging you all the way over to the judge and going through all of the legal court proceedings. And Jesus uses this principle in order to illustrate the fact that coming to reconciliation and peace with our neighbors is something it is always better done sooner rather than later.

There is an urgency to being a person who pursues peace. There is to be a sort of immediate response that the righteous heart of peace has in its pursuit of reconciliation. We aren't to be those who sit around and rationalize our sins which we have committed against others -- instead we are to be those who immediately run to those whom we have offended in order to make peace with them.

But what about those who offend us? Jesus doesn't say for us to go run to them. So what are we to do in that instance?

Well, if our heart is to run urgently after making peace when the ball is in our court to do so, then it should be also true of us that we continually hold in our hearts absolute readiness (regardless of the circumstances) to make peace with those who offend us once they come to us?

You don't want for someone to come to you, ready to make peace, ready to ask for forgiveness, ready to ask how they can make it up to you -- when you are sitting in your chair stewing over what it is that they've done to you. Their righteous heart has led them to make reconciliation, but your angry heart refuses to give it.

Regardless of which side of the equation we’re on -- whether we are the ones who have been offended or the ones who have made the offence -- it is to be true of us that we are urgently ready to make peace in any circumstance.

Kingdom citizens are those who demonstrate the righteousness of peace by not being angry, because they realize it is no different from murder. They are those who realize the necessity of peace such that they drop what they’re doing in order to be reconciled to those they’ve offended. And they are those who have such an urgent disposition towards peacefulness that it’s like they are crouched like a cat ready to pounce on being reconciled no matter what.



So now it’s reality check time. Has Jesus described you?

In the strictest sense, he’s described only one person ever. He’s described himself. So we had better trust in his merit alone for our standing with God.

But if we have confidence in the righteousness of Christ, then we also have confidence in the power of his Spirit and of his grace to change us. And so we had better see some evidence of this pursuit of peace in our lives, or else we have reason to question if that transforming power of God has actually worked in us at all.

Christian friends, you must know that even the smallest evidence of this righteousness of peace in your heart is evidence of true conversion. There is just no other explanation for it to be there. Those who are not in the kingdom of heaven do not ever pursue righteous peace to this drastic of an extent.

But if you’re like me, you read Jesus’ instructions for our hearts and you long to be more what we are called to be as those in his Kingdom. And the way for this to happen isn’t first and foremost to try harder to be less angry and more of a reconciler.

The way forward is to be more of a Jesus-lover. It’s to look at the Prince of Peace and to know him and to treasure him. And as we do that, we will find that our hearts will become more and more like his.

So may he work in each of us to become more of what he has perfectly done for us -- may we live by his grace a life of righteous peace.