Topical Scripture: Matthew 5:19-20
It’s been another challenging week in the news.
Lightning struck a tree at the Tour Championship in Atlanta yesterday. It exploded, injuring six spectators with debris.
A New York Times article warned us that if the Yellowstone supervolcano were to erupt, it would be “like nothing humanity has ever experienced.” It would cover large parts of Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah in up to three feet of volcanic ash.
The ash cloud would destroy crops, ruin power lines and transformers, plunge global temperatures, and devastate farming. One group of researchers called such an eruption “the greatest catastrophe since the dawn of civilization.”
In other news, an asteroid that could have leveled an entire city flew by our planet recently. What makes the story so frightening is that astronomers did not detect it until it passed us. If it had struck our planet, “it would have gone off like a very large nuclear weapon,” according to one scientist.
We could talk about the fact that shark attacks have doubled in highly populated areas in the last twenty years. Or the New Zealand teenager who may have exposed hundreds of people to measles when she visited Disneyland and other popular tourist destinations.
We are all mortal. This fact means that we must all prepare for what happens when this life ends. I cannot promise you that you will die this week, but I cannot promise you that you won’t.
But the good news is that if we will live for heaven on earth, we will live our very best life on earth. It’s as C. S. Lewis says: “Aim at heaven and you get earth ‘thrown in.’ Aim at earth and you get neither.”
How do we best “aim at heaven” today?
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” (v. 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 is great in heaven—not because he has preached to two billion people, but because he first practiced what he preached.
Dr. Graham would not step onto an elevator alone if a woman was in that elevator alone. An associate always went into a hotel room before he did. He would not eat a meal alone with a woman except his wife. He did not take one dollar from the collections given at his Missions, drawing only a salary that was publicly disclosed. His team always undercounted the crowds at his meetings, lest he be accused of exaggeration.
Billy Graham was on Larry King Live twenty-four times. During one of their interviews, 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 was 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 NIV).
“I tell you” shows that 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 six thousand 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. As an example, they had thirty-nine categories of Sabbath laws. Not thirty-nine laws—thirty-nine categories. 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, less than 20 percent of Americans attend worship services regularly, and about one in three read the Bible even once a week.
But only 2 percent of us are afraid we might to go hell. When Mother Teresa died, 78 percent of Americans said they thought she was in heaven, but 87 percent were sure they would go there.
Why? Because we’re “good people.” We believe in God and live good lives. Most have a church membership where they attend at Christmas and Easter and occasionally through the year. And our good deeds and religious beliefs are good enough, we’ve decided. But they’re 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?
I remember well my last visit to the Tower of London and the Crown Jewels. They are beautiful, but they are also 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 that 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 NIV). Paul added: “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of 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 preached all over the world. It is the only way to heaven there is, and the only way we need.
Are you sure you are going to heaven? If you are, are you sure you will be great when you arrive? Will you receive eternal rewards that far outweigh their cost on earth? Are you living by the word of God and helping others live by the word of God?
When Cecil Sewell retired as the pastor of First Baptist Church in Union City, Tennessee, a town of ten thousand residents, his decision made no headlines in Dallas or across the nation. But he will truly be great in heaven.
In 1973, Rev. Sewell was leading a thriving church in Birmingham, Alabama, when the pastor search committee from a start-up church in Houston came to visit. Their church was so small and unimpressive that they did not show him pictures of its buildings. When they finally persuaded him to visit their church, they drove him around the area, hoping to impress him with the new homes and nearby college before they showed him their tiny campus.
Against all odds, he agreed to resign his large church and become their pastor. Later that year, he started a bus ministry to reach kids in the nearby apartment complexes. In August of 1973, that bus ministry invited me to his church. His wife, Sharon, led me to Christ. He baptized me and my brother, licensed and ordained me to ministry, and performed my father’s funeral and our wedding.
I have never known a man more committed to prayer and evangelism than Cecil Sewell. Every person I reach with God’s word is an extension of his ministry. I will be in heaven because he will be great in heaven.
Who will be in heaven because of you?