Matthew 5:17-20 : How to become a Saint

Would you like to become a saint? (pause) There are two ways. The first way is to apply for sainthood through the Church. You must live an exemplary life, displaying the four cardinal virtues and the three theological virtues. These are prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice, as well as faith, hope and charity. During your lifetime, you may be considered a saint, but the official process cannot start until five years after your death (An exception was made for Mother Teresa). The next stage involves sifting your case through the Vatican bureaucracy. First, an official is named as 'promoter' of your cause. A dossier is prepared, which can become a quite extensive document listing your possession of the necessary virtues. In the case of Cardinal Newman, who was a good Anglican, his dossier was 9,000 pages long. The dossier is then sent to the Office of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in the Vatican which has processed applications since 1588. This has 30 Cardinals judging the work of 22 full time and 72 part-time experts. There the dossier is meticulously examined, and the promoter's claims are carefully sifted.

Thankfully there is no longer a person with the title Advocatus Diaboli, or Devil's advocate. His job was to try and disprove your claim to sainthood. Finally, if the paper documentation is approved - and the process can take between 5-30 years or more - the candidate is declared to have shown 'heroic virtue'. This means that as far as human judgment is concerned he or she is a saint. But it then necessary to produce evidence of a miraculous cure, attested by doctors, before you can be beatified. After that stage has been reached, one further miracle is required before the final stage of canonisation, where the Pope, who must approve the recommendations of the Congregation, proclaims that you are indeed a saint in heaven.

According to the Times this week, Pope John Paul II has made more saints in the last few years than all his predecessors put together. So there has never been a better time to consider sainthood. But I said there was a second route to becoming a saint. And its my privilege to offer you a special deal this morning. You don't have to wait until after you are dead, the virtues may help but no miracles are necessary. Lets have a look at what Jesus says in our Gospel reading this morning to see how we can become saints. I want to examine this passage under three headings. In each Jesus tells us something about what it means to be a saint.

1. The Preeminence of Scripture Matthew 5:17
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them."

1.1 Scripture is Authored by God
By including the definite article (the) Jesus made clear to His audience what Law He was talking about—the Law of God. The giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai was prefaced by the statement: "Then God spoke all these words, saying …" (Ex. 20:1). The law given there is the only law because the Lord is the only God. The Lord does not change (Mal. 3:6), and His law does not change. Jesus reminds us here that it was not given to be adapted and modified but to be obeyed. It was not given to suit our will but to reveal God's will.

1.2 Scripture was Affirmed by the Prophets
The prophets reiterated and reinforced the law. Their warnings, admonitions, and predictions were based on the Mosaic law. God's revelation to the prophets was an extension of His law. The prophets spoke on idolatry, adultery, lying, stealing, and all the other Ten Commandments. The role of the prophet was to preach the law of God. Exodus 4:16 gives an excellent definition of a prophet when it records the word of the Lord to Moses regarding the service of Aaron: "it will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God to him." Authored by God, affirmed by the prophets and,

1.3 The Scriptures were Accomplished by Christ
The first step to becoming a saint involves recognising that Jesus and only Jesus has been able to fulfill the demands of God's Law on our behalf and in our place. Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament by being its fulfillment. He did not come simply to teach and model righteousness; He came as divine righteousness. The demands of the law were fulfilled by Jesus and set aside. They ended at the cross. This then is the first step to being a saint. Recognising that the law is authored by God, affirmed by the prophets and accomplished by Christ. We are declared saints not because we are good enough but because of the opposite. Jesus tells us we are not and never can be good enough. A saint is someone who knows this. A saint is someone who has faith in Jesus who has made us right with God by fulfilling all the terms of sainthood on our behalf. The second step to being a saint is found in verse 18.

2. The Permanence of Scripture (Matthew 5:18)
"I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished."

The second step to sainthood is to recognise not only what Jesus has done in our place but also to acknowledge that what he says is true and authoritative. When we use terms like Christian or saint we should ask by what authority. On what basis is someone declared a saint? By a majority vote? By a Church Synod? By a Pope or Archbishop? or by the Bible?

2.1 The Inspiration of God's Son

By introducing His statement with the words "truly I say to you", Jesus confirmed the special importance of what He was about to say. Ameµn (truly) was a term of strong, intense affirmation. Jesus was saying, "I say this to you absolutely, without qualification and with the fullest authority." His teaching was not only absolute but also permanent. Our faith rests on the authority of Jesus.

2.2 The Inerrancy of God's Word

Many people today are very much turned off by the Bible. But that is hardly a new phenomenon. Just as in Jesus' day or in the days of Moses and of the prophets people would much rather hear new ideas than the Word of God. But opinions that do not square with Scripture leave people superficially contented, but also leave them in darkness and sin. Jesus said, "Not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law" The smallest letter translates the word ioµta, the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet. To Jesus' Jewish hearers it would have represented the yodh, the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which looks something like an apostrophe. Jesus is saying not only will the smallest letter not be erased, but even the smallest part of a letter will not be erased from God's word until all is accomplished.

No other statement made by our Lord more clearly states His absolute contention that Scripture is verbally inerrant, totally without error in the original form in which God gave it. "Until heaven and earth pass away" represents the end of time as we know it, the end of earthly history. As God's Word, the law will outlast the universe, which someday will cease to exist. I want to stress the logical deduction of this fact. It is quite impossible to accept Christ's authority without accepting Scripture's authority, and vice versa. They stand together. To accept Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord is to accept what He taught about Scripture as binding. To be a saint then is to accept what the King says about saintliness. Scripture's authority is Christ's authority, and to obey the Lord is to obey His Word. The Inspiration of God's Son, the Inerrancy of God's Word and,

2.3 The Immutability of God's Purposes

As I was putting Michael to bed a few years ago we had a discussion about tigers. They featured prominently in his life before the age of dinosaurs took over. Tigers eat people. Correct but there were no tigers in our house. They are in the television. Yes. They are on the video. Yes. Then they are down stairs.... At three and a half year old his logic was impeccable. It is just that he had yet to distinguish between fact and fantasy, between the real world and the recorded world. There's a sense in which life is a little like that. People think the world of the Bible and Church is irrelevant. A load of myths while they are living in the real world.

The fact is we and this world were created by God, to know him and serve him. His purposes for us are scripted here in His Word. But we are not actors, we are free, the plot is interactive, we are responsible for our choices and our actions. At the end of the day His perfect will shall be accomplished, with or without our cooperation. God is in control in a world that appears out of control. His purposes are certain in a world full of uncertainty. What He has promised will happen. What he says is true.

And what does God say about saints? Saint = hagios = holy. It is simply a word used to describe a Christian. Someone who trusts and believes in Jesus. (Philippians 4:21; 2 Thessalonians 1:10; Jude 14; Revelation 15:3; 18:20).

Sainthood therefore is reserved for those who recognise first of all that although they can never be right with God in themselves, Jesus has fulfilled the conditions of the law on their behalf. Secondly, they believe this is so on the basis of the authority of God's Word which is inspired, inerrant, immutable. The third step to sainthood is found in verses 5:19-20.

3. The Practice of Scripture (Matthew 5:19-20)
"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. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven."

Our status as saints in God's kingdom is determined by our practice. Jesus reveals here that there are different kinds of righteousness.

3.1 There is a Righteousness God Condemns
The consequence of practicing or teaching disobedience to any of God's Word is to be called 'least' in the kingdom of heaven.

An External Righteousness

The religious leaders of Jesus day concerned themselves with what they wore, what they ate, the external observation. They took little consideration of motives or attitudes. (Luke 16:13-15)

A Partial Righteousness

They were meticulous, for example in tithing a tenth of their herbs and seeds, something the law had not even required, while they had a total disregard for showing justice and mercy (Matthew 23:23). They were concerned with long and pretentious prayers but disregarded the poor. (Mark 7:7-8)

A Self-Centred Righteousness
It was practiced for their own glory. They liked to give and receive approval and special titles and positions. (Romans 10:3). This was the kind of righteousness Jesus condemned.

3.2 There is a Righteousness God Requires
The righteousness God requires of His kingdom citizens far surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees. The term "surpasses" is used of a river overflowing its banks. It emphasizes that which is far in excess of the normal.

So if you think it would be hard to gain sainthood in the Church, the righteousness Jesus describes is far more exacting. "Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). To be qualified for God's kingdom we must be as holy as the King Himself. That standard is so infinitely high that the purpose of the Law was to show how impossible is it possess or attain. That impossibility leads the sincere person to ask the question Jesus' disciples one day asked Him, "Then who can be saved?" And the only answer is the one Jesus gave on that occasion: "With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" (Matthew 19:25-26). The righteousness God condemns and the righteousness God requires, should lead us to,

3.3 The Righteousness God Gives
The One who demands perfect righteousness also gives perfect righteousness. The One who tells us of the way into the kingdom is Himself that way. "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me" (John 14:6), Jesus said. The King not only sets the standard of perfect righteousness, but will Himself bring anyone up to that standard who is willing to enter the kingdom on the King's terms.

Martin Luther never feared men, but when he stood up to preach he often felt his knees knock together under a sense of great responsibility to be true to the Word of God. He said once, "The Bible is alive. It speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me." When George Friedrich Handel's servant brought him his morning refreshment, "he often stood silent with astonishment to see his master's tears mixing with the ink as he penned his divine compositions." And a friend calling upon the musician when in the act of setting those pathetic words, "He was despised and rejected of men" found him absolutely sobbing. Is that how you feel when you realise all that Christ has achieved for you?

So greatness in God's kingdom is not determined by gifts, success, popularity, reputation, or even canonization by the Church. We have considered two ways to become a saint. The one lowers the standards to a level only some can fulfill. These will be judged by God's law and excluded from God's grace. The other path recognises the impossibility of obtaining the righteousness God requires and so flees from the righteousness God condemns and clings to the righteousness God gives. That is the path to true sainthood and it is open to all. Ultimately it is only what we are called by God in eternity that is of any importance. Lets pray.

An after thought from Charles Spurgeon,

"I cannot speak out my whole heart on this theme which is so dear to me, but I would stir you all up to be instant in season and out of season in telling out the gospel message, especially to repeat such a word as this: 'God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.' Whisper it in the ear of the sick, shout it in the corner of the streets, write it on your tablet, send it forth from the press, but everywhere let this be your great motive and warrant. You preach the gospel because the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it."

I am grateful to John MacArthur and his commentary on Matthew for some of the ideas used in this sermon