In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus states “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. (Matthew 5:17)”
This verse teaches us that righteousness matters, that obedience to God matters, and that what’s in our hearts matters. Jesus goes on to say, “For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)”
That’s pretty intimidating, when you consider how religious the Pharisees really were.
If you’ve been around 21st Century Christianity any length of time, you know that Pharisees are often presented in scripture as the bad guys. They hated Jesus because He challenged their pride. They hated poor people because they felt the poor were inferior and not worth their time. They misused and abused people. And their religion was often a show.
The same criticisms, for what it’s worth, have been levelled toward modern churches and Christians. Whether such criticism is warranted or not is a discussion for another day. However, I think we can all agree that Christians have failed from time to time. However, Christianity has done a lot of good in the world.
The same can be said for the Pharisees. Their benevolence (alms) programs raised large amounts of money for the poor. They were very devout in their faith. They prayed constantly and spent their entire lives in the scriptures, and taught others the scriptures.
They desired to strongly adhere to the law of God and to honor Him with their lives. What could be wrong with that?
And it’s that brand of righteousness that Jesus said we must exceed if we want to see the Kingdom of God.
To understand what the Lord was calling us to, we must understand what righteousness is. Thayer’s Bible dictionary defines righteousness (and the Greek word it was translated from) as “the doctrine concerning the way in which man may attain a state approved of God.” In other words, righteousness is about gaining God’s approval.
The standard for righteousness, what it takes to earn God’s approval, is the law of God. The law of God is summarized in the 10 Commandments, 10 rules that God gave to Israel telling them what standard of righteousness they must hold in order to enter into His presence. For the sake of this study, we will examine the same two commandments that Jesus referenced in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5.
That shalt not kill, and thou shalt not commit adultery. Basically, don’t take anyone’s life, and don’t take anyone’s wife. It seems pretty simple. If you haven’t killed anyone, and you haven’t cheated on your spouse, you are well on your way.
However, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus pointed out that if you have committed these sins in your mind, then you are guilty of them in your heart. Jesus said if you are angry with your brother without cause, you are in danger of the judgment. And, if you have looked upon a woman with lust, you have committed adultery with her in your heart.
In speaking these words, Jesus taught us that righteousness is not just about what you do (or don’t do), but also about what’s in your heart. Therefore, you can do all the right things, but still have the sin in your heart, and still be found unrighteous.
This is a tough truth, because we all have sin in our hearts. That was a problem for the Pharisees too, whom Jesus said were like sepulchres, ornate on the outside, but full of death on the inside.
Romans 7:18 tells us that in our flesh dwells no good thing, and Jeremiah 17:9 says the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.
By His teaching in Matthew 5, Jesus has held a spiritual mirror up to our souls to reveal to us our true condition in order to show us the way of salvation, which is through faith in Him.
Galatians 3:24 says the law is our schoolmaster to drive us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. Romans 4 tells us that faith is counted as righteousness.
The Pharisees’ faith was in themselves, and their own version of obedience to God. Christ said for true righteousness, one must trust Him. And as Charles Spurgeon said, “Any faith that falls short of the cross will leave you short of Heaven.”
So the way to have the righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees is to trust Jesus for your salvation and righteousness. He will grant you that righteousness if your faith is in Him.