Sermon on the Mount

Two Ways to Enter God's Kingdom

Matthew 5:17-48

Teaching t12611


In this section, Jesus addresses the question that people have asked for ages: “How can I gain entry into God's kingdom?” If God exists, and if He has a kingdom that we can be part of, it's difficult to think of a more important question than this one. According to the Bible, to get into God's kingdom not only means that you have eternity locked up; it also means that you get to experience God’s love and guidance and provision and protection in this life (cf.Ps.23).

The question is: How do you get in? The interesting thing is that Jesus gave two different answers to this question – depending on who was asking. Around here, we call these two answers “Plan A” and “Plan B.” In this passage, Jesus focuses on “Plan A” because most of His audience was convinced they were getting in through that plan...

PLAN A: Earn your way in by fulfilling God’s Law

“Plan A” is simple: You earn your entrance by fulfilling (obeying) God’s Law (i.e., the moral law of the Old Testament, summarized by the Ten Commandments).

The consensus of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day was that this was the only plan. This is also the consensus of most religions (e.g. ISLAM) – including “Christian” religion (EXAMPLES). This is the view that many people in our culture (maybe many of you) hold.

In this passage, Jesus gives some bad news to those who plan on getting in by “Plan A.”

It begins in 5:20 (read). This was an absolute bombshell to His audience, because the scribes and Pharisees were considered to be the most righteous people around. It would be like saying, “Unless you're far more righteous than Billy Graham and Mother Theresa, you can forget about ever earning your entrance into God’s kingdom.”

In 5:21-47, Jesus criticizes the scribes and Pharisees for lowering the bar, for creating a diluted version of “Plan A.” He cites six of God's commandments. In each case, He refutes the scribes’ and Pharisees’ misinterpretations (“You have heard that it was said...”) and corrects them with His authoritative interpretation (“...but I say to you...”). As we look at what Jesus says, why don’t we score our performance on “Plan A?” There is more application and complexity in Jesus’ teaching on these six areas – but let’s focus on Jesus’ main point about...

“You shall not commit murder.” Read 5:21. The scribes and Pharisees taught that you fulfilled this command if you never actually committed homicide. “I've never murdered anyone, so I am righteous enough to enter God’s kingdom.”

Read 5:22. Jesus says it’s not just the outward act of murder will exclude you from God's kingdom; it’s also the heart-attitude that underlies murder, even if you never actually kill anyone. Vilifying anger and contempt, therefore, while they do not make us guilty enough to go to prison, do make us guilty enough to go to hell.

Ask yourself: “Have I ever been sinfully angry toward anyone?” If your answer is “Yes,” you are not righteous enough to enter God’s kingdom.

“You shall not commit adultery.” Read 5:27. The scribes and Pharisees taught that you fulfilled this command as long as you never actually had sex with someone other than your spouse after you got married. “I have never gone out on my wife, so I am righteous enough to enter God’s kingdom.” (Of course, a huge percentage of Americans are in trouble even by this standard!)

Read 5:28. Jesus says that it’s not just the outward act of adultery that will exclude you from God's kingdom; it’s also the heart-attitude that underlies adultery, even if you never actually commit it. Sexual lust – not physical attraction, but viewing another person as an object of sexual pleasure and fantasizing or planning to use them in this way – this is abhorrent enough to God to sentence you to hell!

Ask yourself: “Have I ever sexually lusted for anyone?” If your answer is “Yes,” you are not righteous enough to enter God’s kingdom.

Read 5:31. The Law acknowledged that sometimes divorce should be permitted as the lesser of two evils. But many scribes and Pharisees perverted this into virtually “no-fault divorce” for men. They could divorce their wives for burning a meal, talking loudly in the morning, being “troublesome,” or even because he had found another woman who was more attractive. “I may have ditched my wife, but I’m still righteous enough to enter God’s kingdom.”

Read 5:32. Jesus says that even if this kind of behavior is legal in court, it is a transparent betrayal that earns God’s judgment. I think this principle applies to all committed relationships (parents; children; friendships).

Ask yourself: “Have I ever wrongly broken my commitment to a relationship?” If your answer is “Yes,” you are not righteous enough to enter God’s kingdom.

“You shall not make false vows, but you shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.” Read 5:33. The scribes and Pharisees had come up with a legalistic code of “binding” and “non-binding” vows (read Matt.23:16-22). So if you knew the code, you could deliberately deceive someone and still be righteous! Their answer was something like “As long as you have never committed perjury in court, you are righteous enough to enter God's kingdom.”

Jesus completely rejects this whole definition of righteousness! Read 5:34-37. His point is not that we should never take an oath in court or swear by God’s name (God does, Jesus did, Paul does). It is rather that every assertion, promise, etc. is made in God’s presence, and that therefore righteousness means always being honest and never being deceptive. Twisting an account to make us look better, failing to tell the truth when we should, etc. condemns us in God’s eyes.

Ask yourself: “Have I ever broken a promise or lied to anyone?” If your answer is “Yes,” you are not righteous enough to enter God’s kingdom.

“An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” Read 5:38. This was part of the Old Testament civil law, a key principle of jurisprudence: the penalty should match (not exceed) the crime. Its intent was to not only justly punish crime, but also prevent blood-feuds. The scribes and Pharisees ripped this out of its context and applied it to personal relationships so that it justified vengeance in personal relationships! If someone wrongs you, you can get back at him in the same way (“I don't get mad--I get even.”) and still be righteous.

Jesus rejects this whole definition of righteousness. Read 5:39-42. He is not saying that there is no place for a police force to maintain civil order or an army to defend a country. Neither is he saying that you must give money to every person on the street who asks you for it. He is saying that true righteousness involves rejecting personal vengeance and trying to overcome evil with good, even when it means personal sacrifice.

Ask yourself: “Have I ever taken vengeance on anyone?” If your answer is “Yes,” you are not righteous enough to enter God’s kingdom.

“You shall love your neighbor.” Read 5:43. Here Jesus actually includes the scribes’ and Pharisees’ interpretation of this command. They decided that “neighbor” includes only those who have the same religious beliefs, ethnic origin, etc. So they interpreted this law, which was given to emphasize loving people who are different, in a way that actually justified ethnic and religious bigotry. You could hate Samaritans and Gentiles and tax-gatherers and prostitutes, and still be righteous enough to enter God’s kingdom.

Jesus categorically rejects this perversion of God’s Law. Read 5:44-47. True righteousness requires always seeking the good of even those who persecute you for your allegiance to God. This is how God treats us.

Ask yourself: “Have I ever been guilty of bigotry toward anyone?” If your answer is “Yes,” you are not righteous enough to enter God’s kingdom.

Read 5:48, Jesus says, “Just in case you missed my point...” If you’re trying to earn your way into God's kingdom, the passing grade is not keeping His Law better than most other people; it is keeping His Law perfectly. That's why Jas.2:10 (quote) says that the law is like a chain – if you break just one link, the whole chain is broken.

Ask yourself: “Have I truthfully answered ‘No’ to all of the above questions?” If not, you are not righteous enough to enter God’s kingdom. I know I’m not! Even on my best days, I fail miserably! That's why Paul says in Rom.3:23 that we have all “have missed the mark” and we all “keep falling short” of God’s glorious standard.

PLAN B: Let Jesus earn your way in by fulfilling God’s Law

If “Plan A” is the only plan God has, this would be a very depressing situation. But remember, Jesus also taught another plan – “Plan B.” Jesus began this section by referring to “Plan B” in 5:17 (read). “Plan B” doesn't dilute God’s requirement of perfect righteousness. The crucial difference is that instead of calling on you to fulfill it, Jesus fulfills it. 5:17a is a very pregnant statement, because Jesus fulfills the Law in at least three ways:

First, Jesus fulfilled the Law perfectly during His life. He is the only Person who ever literally practiced what He preached in 5:21-48. He is the only Person who was ever able to seriously and sanely say “I always do the things that are pleasing to God” (Jn.8:29) and ask “Which one of you convicts me of sin?” (Jn.8:46)! But if this was the only way Jesus fulfilled the Law, it wouldn’t help us at all.

Second, Jesus fulfilled the penalty of the Law through His death. This is what Jesus is hinting at when He says that He came to fulfill “the Law and the Prophets.” It wasn’t like God only had “Plan A,” then finally realized after centuries that it didn’t work, and then invented “Plan B.” He had “Plan B” all along.

The Law provided a picture of “Plan B” – the sacrificial system. This taught that our sins deserve death, but that God would one day provide a blameless Substitute whose death would provide this payment.

The Prophets predicted the Person who would fulfill this picture (Isa.53:5,6). The last prophet, John the Baptist, announced that Jesus was this Substitute (Jn.1:29).

Jesus claimed to be God’s Substitute (Mk.10:45; Jn.19:30). This is why entry into God’s kingdom is only through Jesus. No one else has ever lived a perfect life, or voluntarily given His life as a payment for others’ sins.

This is what Paul means in Rom.3:21,22 (read NLT). While “Plan A” condemns everyone, no matter how “good,” “Plan B” makes God’s kingdom available to everyone, no matter how “bad.” The only condition is faith in Jesus. Just ask Jesus to pay the penalty for your sins, and He enters you into God’s kingdom permanently (Jn.3:16)!

So if “Plan B” was always the only way we could get into God’s kingdom, why does Jesus even refer to “Plan A?” Because until we are convinced we can’t get in through “Plan A,” we don’t see the need for “Plan B.” Our biggest problem is not our sins, but our self-righteousness. So like a wise doctor forcing a patient in denial to see his true condition so that he will submit to the cure, Jesus uses “Plan A” (because He loves us) so we will be convinced we need “Plan B” and receive it.

Jesus fulfills the requirement of the Law in us through His Spirit. Read Rom.8:4. When you ask Jesus to pay the penalty for your sins, His Spirit comes into your heart. He imparts to you a new desire for God’s will and a new power to do His will (Phil.2:13). As you relate to Him and live in dependence on Him, He “fulfills the requirement of the Law” in you – He enables you to increasingly live a lifestyle of love (Rom.13:8). Then you can look at this passage as a picture of what He is gradually fulfilling in you!


SUMMARIZE PLAN A & B: God does have a kingdom, and getting into it is the most important issue in your life. There are only two ways to enter it. Which way will you choose? If this is clear to you, don’t delay – choose today!

NEXT WEEK: Matt.6:1-18 – “Serving God in Secret”