Topic Scripture: Matthew 5:19-20
This week has been truly historic for the Metroplex, as Billy Graham has returned one last time. How God has blessed us through Dr. Graham’s preaching and through the remarkable crusade events. Dr. Graham came to help us continue to fulfill the Great Commission, making disciples of all nations, beginning in this Jerusalem. God brought him here to help us continue to win the spiritual battle for the souls of millions of lost people living in the Metroplex…and each night, thousands responded to his invitation to faith in Jesus Christ. Another chapter has been written in the miraculous story that is Billy Graham and his ministry.
But Dr. Graham’s own stories always reveal his humility. For instance, he has told about the time during one of his crusades when he went for a walk to mail a letter. He asked a young boy along the way how to find the post office, and the boy told him. Then Dr. Graham said to the boy, “In my sermon tonight I’ll be telling people how to get to heaven. Would you like to come and listen?” The boy thought for a moment and said, “No, mister, I don’t think so—you don’t even know the way to the post office.”
Our country faces grave challenges in these days. Economic hard times; a looming war with Iraq; continued bombings by terrorists with threats of more; the Washington area sniper; mounting problems with AIDS and drug abuse. But the single greatest problem America faces today is that it hasn’t heard Billy Graham’s sermon. It doesn’t know how to get to heaven. It thinks it does, and that’s part of the problem, the tragedy.
This morning I want to be absolutely sure that you know how to spend your eternity with God, and how to be great once you’re there. I will never preach a sermon which is more important than this one.
How to be great in heaven
Jesus’ Sermon continues: “Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (19). Here Jesus shows us who will be great in heaven, and who will be least.
The “great” will be those who “practice and teach” the word of God. Both are crucial, and in this order. The “least” will be those who break the “least” of the commandments of God and influence others to do the same. Those who do not live by the word and will of God, and lead others away from his word as well.
Practice and then preach. This is how we conform to the image of Christ, achieving God’s definition of success for our lives. This is how we are like Jesus, and how we help other people follow Jesus.
This is why Billy Graham will be great in heaven—not because he has preached to two billion people, but because he first practiced what he preached.
Dr. Graham will not step onto an elevator alone if a woman is in that elevator alone. An associate always goes into a hotel room before he does. He will not eat a meal alone with a woman except his wife. He has taken not one dollar from the collections given at his Missions, drawing only a salary which is publicly disclosed. His team has always undercounted the crowds at his meetings, lest he be accused of exaggeration.
Years ago, Larry King asked Dr. Graham what his greatest fear in life might be. His answer: “My greatest fear is that I might do something before I die which would bring dishonor to my Lord.”
His life is his most powerful sermon. So is yours. So is mine.
How to miss heaven
So Jesus shows us how to be great in heaven. Now let’s ask an even more urgent question: how do we get there? “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (v. 20).
“I tell you”—these words come from Jesus himself.
Your righteousness must “surpass,” an emphatic word which means to go far beyond, to outdistance greatly.
Your “righteousness” must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees. What was theirs? What must ours be?
The Pharisees were a small group, never more than 6,000 men. Their name meant “separated ones,” and it describes their passionate commitment to separation from regular life in obedience to the minutia of the Torah, the Law of God.
The Pharisees calculated that the Law contained 248 commandments and 365 prohibitions, and they aspired to keep them all.
Here is an example. To write on the Sabbath was to work, and this was prohibited. But what is “writing?” “He who writes two letters of the alphabet with his right hand or with his left hand, whether of one kind or of two kinds, if they are written with different inks or in different languages, is guilty. Even if he should write two letters from forgetfulness, he is guilty, whether he has written them with ink or with paint, red chalk, vitriol, or anything which makes a permanent mark. Also, he that writes on two walls that form an angle, or on two tablets of his account book so that they can be read together is guilty …But, if anyone writes with dark fluid, with fruit juice, or in the dust of the road, or in sand, or in anything which does not make a permanent mark, he is not guilty” (Barclay 1.129).
No group in human history has been more religious than were the Pharisees. If it were possible to go to heaven through human effort, their reservations in paradise would have been guaranteed.
But they were not: “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” “Certainly not” is a double negative: “by no means,” “there is no way that” you can enter heaven unless you are more righteous before God than were the Pharisees, the most religiously righteous people on earth.
In other words, you cannot do enough or be religious enough to go to heaven. The ladder doesn’t climb high enough. Religion won’t work, no matter how much of it you do. If it didn’t work for the Pharisees, it won’t work for us.
But we try, and we think we’re successful.
Most Americans are nowhere as religious as were the Pharisees. By some estimates, only 28% of Americans even attend a single worship service in a given week, and less than one in three read the Bible every week.
But only 2% of us are afraid we might to go hell. 78% of Americans believe Mother Teresa is in heaven, but 87% are sure they will go there.
Why? Because we’re “good people.” We believe in God and live good lives. Most of us have a church membership where we attend at Christmas and Easter and occasionally through the year. And our good deeds and religious beliefs are good enough, we’ve decided.
Jesus predicted that it would be so to the very end of history. Speaking of the end of time, he told his disciples, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'” (Matthew 7:21-23).
Saying the right religious words and even doing the right religious deeds is not enough to go to heaven. Whether we think it is or not.
How to go to heaven
So, how do we get there? How can our “righteousness” surpass that of the most religiously righteous people who have ever lived?
A week ago, our mission team stopped in London before returning from Russia to Dallas. While there I visited the Tower of London and the Crown Jewels. They are beautiful, but off limits to me. There is literally nothing I can do to earn the right to wear them.
I could renounce my American citizenship, move to England, and become a British citizen. I could serve in the British armed services and rise to their highest rank of office. I could immerse myself in British politics and become elected prime minister. But there is literally nothing I can do to achieve the status of royalty, for I was not born into the royal family. I need a different kind of achievement than is possible for me to realize.
So it is with the righteousness of God required to enter heaven. I cannot achieve it, nor can you, or the Queen of England for that matter. Only God can give this to us. This is the righteousness he gives to those who accept his Son as their Savior. Then we become the children of God—born into the family of God, born again into royalty.
This is the “righteousness” which surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees. This is the only righteousness which brings us to heaven.
Jesus explained it this way to the religious leader Nicodemus: “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3). Paul added: “A man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Christ Jesus. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the Law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16). No one. No Pharisee. No Baptist. Not Billy Graham. Not you or me.
You cannot get to heaven by what you do, but only by what Jesus has done. It’s not what you know, but Who you know. We must “put our faith in Christ Jesus.” Is Jesus your Lord and Master? Do you know him personally, intimately? Does he know you?
Today Jesus has shown us how to get to heaven, and how to be great when we are there. Make him your Savior, your Lord. Then do his word and will, and teach others as well. Follow Jesus, and help people follow Jesus. This is the Gospel. It is so simple a child can understand it, and so profound we will spend our lives living it.
This is the Gospel Billy Graham is preaching in Dallas this weekend. It is the only way to heaven there is, and the only way we need. Now you must choose it for yourself.
In 1776, a Calvinist preacher in England named Augustus M. Toplady reportedly took shelter from a storm under a rocky overhang near a gorge. There, on the back of a playing card, he wrote a poem which captures better than I can this day’s message:
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,Let me hide myself in Thee;Let the water and the blood,From Thy wounded side which flowed,Be of sin the double cure;Save from wrath and make me pure.
Not the labor of my handsCan fulfill Thy law’s demands;Could my zeal no respite know,Could my tears forever flow,All for sin could not atone;Thou must save, and Thou alone.
Nothing in my hand I bring,Simply to the cross I cling;Naked, come to Thee for dress;Helpless look to Thee for grace;Foul, I to the fountain fly;Wash me, Savior, or I die.
While I draw this fleeting breath,When mine eyes shall close in death,When I soar to worlds unknown,See Thee on Thy judgment throne,Rock of Ages, cleft for me,Let me hide myself in Thee.
Are you hidden in him today?