“Getting To Heaven May Be Harder Than You Think” (Matthew 5:20-48 sermon)

I want to begin by congratulating Dewey Phipps, Josh Peterson, and Anthony Burdick for completing the Bear Run last week. If you aren’t familiar with that, it is a 5-mile run ALL UPHILL on Grandfather Mountain. I can’t imagine how challenging that run would be. When you are out driving up a little hill in your car, you don’t think much of it — If you saw someone out there running up that “little hill”, you might think, “That wouldn’t be too hard.” But when you are actually out there, running up any kind of an incline — it’s a lot harder than you think!

There are a lot of things in life that are a lot more difficult than we think. We often talk like getting to heaven is easy; that almost everyone is going there — “they’re going to a better place” — but are they? Are WE? If Jesus shows us ONE thing here in the last part of Matthew Chapter 5, it is that having the righteousness that actually gets you into the Kingdom of Heaven is a lot harder than many people think!

Jesus had just talked about “The Disciple’s Indispensable Book” in :17-19, and how important the word of God is for His disciples; how perfect and unchanging it is — and how we had better not change it, or we would be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven. Now He changes gears, and basically says: “Oh yes, and speaking of the Kingdom of Heaven — let me tell you that unless YOUR righteousness is greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you are not going there!”

Now I have said before: because many of us have heard these words of Jesus from this sermon for so long, we don’t realize how earth-shattering they were when He first spoke them. This was a SHOCKING statement! We are used to thinking of the scribes & Pharisees as hypocrites, but before Jesus came, these were the most respected spiritual leaders in all the land: they were leaders in the temple and their local synagogues; they had memorized the Old Testament Law; they were known for their prayers and their fasting. Most of the people could not HOPE to be as religious as these men were — but here Jesus tells them that if their righteousness was not greater than that of these men, they would never see the Kingdom of Heaven?! It was shocking!

To put it in a little better context for us today, think of someone you really respect spiritually. Who’s a person you’d say: “that’s one of the best Christians I know”? Maybe Billy Graham — or for this generation, maybe Franklin Graham, or David Platt, or Beth Moore, or a pastor or a godly family member you know, whoever. Imagine that Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness is greater than THEIRS, you can’t even enter the Kingdom of Heaven”! It is earth-shattering; it’s like a spiritual atomic bomb. When He said that, people had to be looking at each other: “Our righteousness has to be greater than the scribes & Pharisees, or we are not even going to get into heaven?!” These are the most spiritual men in our land! Then who CAN be saved?

What Jesus was trying to show them — and what He’s showing us today — is that it’s harder than you may think, to have a righteousness that will get you into heaven.


See, SO many people have wrong ideas about God, themselves, and their own righteousness. Most people, if you ask them the question, “Will God let you into heaven?”, they’ll say, yeah, sure. And if you ask them “Why”, they’ll say something like, well God is good, and I’ve tried to be a pretty good person, or I have kept most of the commandments, or something along those lines.

But those kinds of answers just show how little we understand the truth about God and ourselves. The truth is, God IS a good God. In fact, He’s much better than most of us ever realize. He’s totally pure and perfect and holy. Hebrews 12:29 says “Our God is a consuming fire.” And a sinner can no more stand in the presence of the holy God of consuming fire than a man can survive on the presence of the sun. We would be vaporized in His holy presence. God is perfectly pure and holy, and cannot tolerate sin.

And we, on the other hand, are NOT “good people.” We like to think of ourselves as “basically good”, but we aren’t. Sure, sometimes we come off looking pretty good when we compare ourselves to some of those around us, but that is not a good comparison.
It would be like if you grew up on Devil’s Island in French Guiana, in South America, where some good friends of ours served as missionaries. For 100 years, from 1852 to 1952, the French shipped their most notorious prisoners from their colonies around the world, to what they called “Ile du Diable”, “Devil’s Island.” If you grew up there (I can’t imagine how horrific that might be!) you might look around you and think: “You know, I’m a really good person; I haven’t killed anyone; I am not a mass-murderer; I’m pretty good compared to these folks.” And you might be right. But those other people are not your standard of right and wrong.

And that’s how it is in life in general too. Many of us look around at other people and think, “Well, compared to them, I’m pretty good!” But the problem is, those other people are not your standard of comparison. God’s holy law is — the scriptures and the commandments He gave us in the Old Testament describe for us what God expects of us. And the problem is: we ALL fall short of it. There are hundreds of commands in the Old Testament, and the 10 Commandments are a brief summary of them. Some people look at them and think, “Well, I think I do pretty well by them” — but they don’t really understand just how convicting these commandments really are. So Jesus basically takes the rest of this chapter, Matthew 5, to show us that keeping these commandments as a means of “earning” the kind of righteousness it takes to get into heaven, is much harder than you think!

It starts here in :20, where the people thought the scribes and Pharisees were the paragons of the righteousness it takes to get to heaven. But Jesus said; “I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that”, “you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven”! It starts to dawn on them here: this is going to be much harder than we think!

Then beginning in :21 Jesus shares a series contrasts of what people generally think of as righteousness, vs. what He says righteousness really is:

— In :21 He says “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘whoever commits murder shall be liable to the courts.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever shall say to his brother ‘You good for nothing’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.”

Do you see what Jesus is saying here? He is quoting the 6th commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.” Most of us look at that commandment and say; “OK, well at least I’ve got THAT one!” But Jesus says: “NO YOU DON’T!” This commandment doesn’t just mean “don’t kill someone”; it goes a lot deeper than that:
— It also means that you don’t “kill them with your words”;
— it also means you don’t kill their reputation by gossiping about them!
— it also means you don’t get so angry with them that you WANT them to be dead, in your heart!
See, Jesus says, what it takes to make you really right with God is a lot harder than you think.

The same thing is true with the next commandment He addresses, in :27, “You have heard, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ Some people are going, “well, ok, I’m good with THAT one.” But Jesus says, no, it’s harder than you think! Like ALL His commandments, this isn’t just to be kept outwardly, but in your HEART. One of the biggest lessons Jesus came to teach us is that God is all about your HEART, not just your actions. So what that means, Jesus says, is that to be righteous before God means that you not only don’t commit adultery physically, it means you don’t even ever WANT to commit adultery in your heart. You don’t even LOOK at a person to lust for them. NOW how many people are good with the 7th commandment? See, being righteousness enough to get you into heaven is a lot harder than you thought!

And on down through the whole rest of this chapter. Jesus gives contrast after contrast:
— You think you’re ok ‘cause you got your divorce papers all in order, but He says, NO: breaking your marriage commitment for anything less than adultery is a sin too.
— And you “pulled one over” on someone in business, but you didn’t “swear” it was true, so you feel like you’re ok, right? NO, Jesus says in :37 every “yes” you say is to mean “yes”; and every “no” is to mean “no.” Every word you speak to anybody, at any time, in business or any situation whatsoever, is to be just and true.
— You say, I’m a pretty good person; I take care of my friends and loved ones. Jesus says that is not righteousness before God. To be right with God, He says in :43-47, you have to love even your ENEMIES, like God does, who gives sunshine and rain even to those who hate Him.

Then finally Jesus closes the chapter with this summary in :48, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” The bottom line is: It takes a perfect righteousness to get into heaven. It’s not good enough that you may be better than a lot of the others down here on “devil’s island”; it takes a perfect righteousness to get in to God’s perfect heaven — that’s a much higher standard than most people think!

This is what Jesus is showing us here in Matthew 5 — just how steep the climb is to heaven; just how righteous you have to be to qualify for it. It’s a lot harder than you ever thought. In fact, it’s so hard that NONE of us can do it!
— “ALL have sinned and fall SHORT of the glory of God.”
— “There is NONE good; not even one.”
— “There are NONE who are righteous.”
THE BOTTOM LINE IS: NO RIGHTEOUSNESS YOU CAN COME UP WITH ON YOUR OWN CAN SAVE YOU. When you look at what Jesus tells us here in Matthew 5 that it takes to be righteous, you realize it’s harder than you thought:
— God is holier than we ever thought;
— we are greater sinners than we ever thought.
— Getting into heaven is much harder than we ever thought.

Well then someone might ask: “Then who CAN be saved?” That’s the EXACT question the disciples asked after Jesus after He dealt with the Rich Young Ruler with some of these same truths. Jesus told them, “It is hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven.” Then verse 25 says the disciples were ASTONISHED and said, “Then who CAN be saved?”

That’s the question Jesus WANTS you to ask when you read this Sermon. He wants you to see how holy God is; He wants you to see how sinful you are; how there is NO WAY you can be good enough to be saved — and then look to Him for what only HE can do for you. Jesus answered the disciples’ question: “Then who can be saved’ —“With men this is impossible; but with God, all things are possible.”

See, Jesus wants you to look at Matthew 5 and say, I am not good enough to be saved. THAT is the First Beatitude; being “poor in spirit” — THAT is what it takes to get into the Kingdom of Heaven. When you realize you’re poor in spirit, then you ask HIM to do what only HE can do for you, and have mercy on you and save you.

Many of us have heard the old question:
“If you were stand before God and He were to ask you, why should I let you into My heaven? What would you tell Him?” In Matthew 5 here Jesus teaches us:
— NOT to say: “I am a pretty good person.” Jesus shows us here: you aren’t!
— NOT to say: “I have kept the Commandments.” Jesus shows us here: you haven’t!
— NOT to say: “I have tried to be righteous” — but Jesus shows us here you are NOT righteous, and neither am I. Based on our own righteousness, NONE of us would get into heaven. “There is NONE righteous; not even one … all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.”

None of those answers will work. I love the answer my favorite preacher, Mark Dever, gives to that question. He said “If God were to ask why He should let me into His heaven I’d tell Him HE SHOULDN’T! I’ve sinned against You and owe a debt I can never pay back.” But he said, I wouldn’t stop there. I’d say: But because of YOUR mercy, I trust that Jesus’ death on the cross paid the debt I could not pay; and that HE gives me the righteousness I need to make me right with You.”

See, Romans 3 says “For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God — being justified as a GIFT, by His GRACE, according to the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.” Verse 22 says He GIVES us “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe.” When you put your trust in Jesus as your Savior, God GIVES you the perfect righteousness that Jesus earned, and you get to go to heaven, NOT because YOU are so righteous, but because HE is! II Corinthians 5:21 says, “He who knew no sin, BECAME SIN on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” We are GIVEN the perfect righteousness of Jesus when we put our trust in Him — which qualifies us for the heaven we couldn’t earn for ourselves.

It’s just like the words of the great hymn:
“My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness … On CHRIST the Solid Rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand. All other ground is sinking sand.”
If you want to be saved, then make the words of that hymn, the words of your heart: “My hope is built on nothing less than JESUS’ blood and righteousness.” Say: my own righteousness is not good enough; I am trusting in what Jesus did to save me — and you will enter heaven.


Now, someone might say: well, that’s not hard; that’s easy! Just give up trying to be good enough and trust in what Jesus did, and you get heaven — that’s easy! Well, in a way it is — but then again, for many people, “it may be harder than you think”, for several reasons:

First of all, what Jesus had to do in order to save us was not easy.
Just receiving Jesus’ righteousness is “free” to us; but it wasn’t cheap, and it wasn’t easy, for HIM — it was the most costly thing that has ever been done in all history. We say it so quickly, so easily: “Jesus lived a perfect life & died on the cross for our sins” … but it was harder than you think:

— Think about what it took for Jesus to live A PERFECT life. He had to be perfect in order to be our sacrifice on the cross. “He was tempted in all things as we are — yet without sin.”
You know what that means? That means that all the righteousness Jesus described here in Matthew 5, as the perfect righteousness it takes to get into heaven — that is what HE had to do in order to save us!
— It means He not only couldn’t kill, but not even say an evil thing against someone.
— It means He not only couldn’t commit adultery, but He couldn’t WANT to in His heart!
— It means He not only had to love His friends, but also His enemies who persecuted Him.
— It means He never said a bad word. It means He never had an evil THOUGHT! It means He never left anything done undone that He should have done. It means that He totally fulfilled Matthew 5:48, and He WAS “perfect as His Heavenly Father is perfect” in this life. We can’t even begin to understand that level of holiness. The righteousness that He had to live out, in order to be able to give us salvation, is harder than you think.

— And then there was the death He died. We quote I Peter 2: 24, “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross.” But we can’t even comprehend what that meant — “He who knew no sin, BECAME SIN on our behalf …” (II Cor. 5:21) Jesus took our sins upon Himself. He bore the wrath of God on the cross as the payment for all our sins. We can’t begin to imagine the agony of that.

This explains why Jesus cried out to God at Gethsemane, “If possible, let this cup pass from Me”, and why His soul was in torment, and why He sweat drops of blood. We’ve all heard stories of men who faced their death with courage; was Jesus not as courageous as these? NO; it was not that He lacked courage — “it was harder than we thought”; Jesus wasn’t “just” going to die — He was going to bear the sins of the world: every stinking, filthy sin you and I and all the people who have ever lived in this world have ever committed: every hatred, every prejudice, every lust, every anger, every selfishness, every pride, every self-righteousness, every wicked word, every perverse thought, every horrific deed — ALL put on HIM — and then the PUNISHMENT of the wrath of God Almighty for all the sins of the world was about to fall on HIM! And He knew what was coming! He knew the power of the wrath of God which was about to fall on Him — and so He cried out: “If there is any other way, let this cup pass from me!”

But listen: this is so important: THERE WAS NO OTHER WAY! It was harder than we think! All these people who think there must be all kinds of ways to get to heaven; that one way is as good as another; they don’t realize: it’s harder than they think. There was only ONE way that all of our sins could be paid for — through a perfect God/Man who would die on the cross bearing our sins. It’s harder than they think — that’s why despite the pleading of His Son, God sent Jesus to the cross to pour out His wrath on Him as He died for our sins! It’s “easy” to “just trust Jesus”? No, it was all harder than we will ever, ever know.

I think of my son David, who is a very good steward of his money. It shocked me the other day when I found out how much he and Ashley have already put aside in Abigail’s savings for college — all while he’s been in seminary! But David works hard. He has put himself through seminary by working full-time at a pest control company. He crawls under homes and inspects them for insects and termites. He has to push aside spider webs, and deal with snakes and spiders and all kinds of garbage. The other day he was crawling under a house, and he heard the toilet flush upstairs — and the next thing he knew, he felt the water and saw the paper wash by him in that crawl space! (I told him that’s gonna help him see some of the “hard problems” of his future church ministry with a little bit of perspective!) But David has worked hard, and he’s saving his money for himself and his family. But imagine with me: one day, 15 years down the line; Abigail is now 18 years old; and she goes to college, and enrolls, and it costs $7000 or whatever for her first semester. And she takes a check from her dad, pays the registrar, and as she walks away, she might be tempted to say: “Well that was easy!” Well, it was easy for HER — it wasn’t so easy for her Father, who worked, and crawled, and stunk, and scrimped, and saved. It was harder than she might ever know. Free for her — but very costly for him. (And let me just say: every hard-working father who provides for his kids is giving them one of the greatest gifts of life: a picture of what their Father in Heaven is like!) Because that’s the way it is with our salvation. It’s “free” for us; we get this gift of perfect righteousness that qualifies us for heaven — but it wasn’t easy. It was harder for Him than we may ever fully know.


— And even on OUR side; it can be harder than we may think. It can be hard for us to give up the idea of our own self-righteousness. It’s hard for us to think that we don’t “earn” or “deserve” heaven somehow. It’s so hard to humble ourselves. It’s hard for some people to admit that they are sinners; that they “don’t have what it takes” in righteousness to get them into heaven.

Especially here in America; especially here in Burke County, where we value a hard work ethic. We like to see ourselves as “self made men.” We pull our share of the load. We pay our way. And you hear many woman say this too: “My husband left me, but I worked hard and raised my kids as a single mom, and I put them through school” and so on. We’re hard workers. We’re self-reliant. And that’s good — but sometimes, spiritually it can make it hard for us to admit, “I can’t earn my way to heaven”; I have to humble myself, and admit I can’t do it — and ask Jesus to give me what I can’t earn on my own.

That’s hard. That’s why Jesus said “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” You’ve got to humble yourself, and admit that you’re not good enough, to ever be saved.
See, “it’s harder than you think”, this “free salvation”: It cost God immensely to be able to give it to us; and it costs us all of our pride to be able to receive it.

But as John says, “as many as DO receive it; they shall be called the sons of God.” If you’ll admit that you don’t have what it takes to get into heaven, but believe that Jesus bought it for you, and you are willing to turn and follow Him, you can be saved today. The only question is: Will you do it?


About Shawn Thomas

My blog, shawnethomas.com, features the text of my sermons, book reviews, family life experiences -- as well as a brief overview of the Lifeway "Explore the Bible" lesson for Southern Baptist Sunday School teachers.
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