“A Deeper Righteousness”

"For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."

(Matthew 5:20)

In Jesus' Sermon on the Mount he teaches us about the true righteousness of the kingdom, a righteousness that "exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees" (Mt. 5:20). This would have been surprising to the early disciples because the scribes and Pharisees were known for their strict obedience to God's law. They calculated that the Law contains 248 commandments and 365 prohibitions and they aspired to live by them all. And yet, Jesus says, their righteousness disqualified them from participation in the kingdom. Why wasn't their righteousness good enough? 

Kingdom righteousness far surpasses Pharasaic righteousness not in terms of quantity (as if Christians must fast three times per week because the Pharisees fasted twice per week, Lk. 18:12) but in quality. Kingdom righteousness is greater in the sense that it is deeper. It penetrates beyond our actions and words to our thoughts and motives. It goes beyond the letter of the Law to its intent.

Jesus was accused of being soft on the Law of Moses because he endorsed practices that many of his contemporaries viewed as lowering its spiritual and moral standards (Mt. 9:10-14; 12:1-13). In addition to his (apparently) unorthodox approach, Jesus spoke in his own name and with his own authority (Mk. 1:27; 2:23-3:6). This led many to believe that he was setting himself up as an authority over against the Law of Moses. But this view couldn't have been further from the truth.

Jesus clarifies his attitude toward the Law by stating that he did not come to "destroy [the Law or the Prophets] but to fulfill them" (Mt. 5:17). He did not come to downplay the Law or lessen its demands. On the contrary, he came to bring them to completion and show their true meaning. He believed in the absolute authority of God's word and taught that its demands touched every facet of human life. His reverence of the Law extended not only to each letter but to each pen stroke (Mt. 5:18).

Jesus went on to illustrate his view of the Law, and to describe the true righteousness that the Law meant to inspire, in a series of antitheses (Mt. 5:21-48). Each one begins with a contrast introduced by the same formula: "You have heard that it was said... But I say to you." In each of these contrasts, Jesus is not contradicting the Law ("It is written...") but rather the scribes' and Pharisees' twisted interpretation of the Law ("It was said..."). The scribes and Pharisees were guilty of doing the very thing they accused Jesus of doing, relaxing the commandments of the Law (5:19) to make them more attainable. 

  • The scribes and Pharisees restricted the Law's commands - For example, they restricted the prohibition of murder and adultery to the physical acts alone, whereas Jesus shows the intent of the Law included the prohibition of the attitudes of heart that lead to the physical acts themselves.
  • The scribes and Pharisees extended the Law's permissions - They widened the permission of divorce beyond adultery to include the husband's every whim. They widened the permission of retribution beyond the public law courts to include personal revenge. Jesus reaffirmed the Law's original intent by restoring the Law's permission of divorce except on the grounds of adultery (while also restoring God's original design for marriage) and he strictly prohibited all revenge in personal relationships.

This abuse of God's word and this shallow righteousness are not the way of the Christ. Kingdom righteousness never seeks to lessen the Law's demands or extend its permissions to make obedience more attainable. Rather, disciples of Christ should seek to uphold the demands of Scripture with all their uncomfortable implications without trying to limit their scope or find loopholes to escape them. Kingdom righteousness goes deep and concerns itself with the spirit, as well as the letter, of the Law.

But who can live this life of heart-motivated obedience to God's word? Who can be "perfect" even as our Heavenly Father is perfect? (Mt. 5:48) The rest of the New Testament makes clear that, left to ourselves, this "righteousness" is beyond us. Righteousness is only found by faith in Christ who has fulfilled the righteous requirement of the Law for us who live according to God's Spirit and not according to the flesh (Rom. 8:1-4). In this age of the New Covenant, the function of the Spirit within the heart of the forgiven sinner is to write God's law there and help us obey it (Jer. 31:33; Ezek. 36:27). Therefore, Paul's statement in Romans that "Christ is the end of the Law" (Rom. 10:4) does not mean Christians are now free from its moral demands, for the exact opposite is the case (Rom. 3:31; 8:4). It means that acceptance with God does not come through obedience to the Law but through faith in Christ. The Law itself bore witness to this good news of salvation by faith (Rom. 3:21).

Because we have been shown the unfathomable love of God in his forgiveness of our sins in Christ we are free from the slavery of sin to live a life of freedom; freedom not from the demands of Scripture to live however we want, but freedom to live the full, forgiven, abundant life of obedience to God's commands. Only Jesus exhibited this perfectly, which is why the gospel calls for "the obedience of faith in Christ" (Rom. 1:5; 16:26) rather than "faith in our obedience."

This leads us to one last distinction about this deep righteousness: the scribes and Pharisees "trusted in themselves that they were righteous" (Lk. 18:9) whereas those who possess kingdom righteousness are "poor in spirit" (Mt. 5:3) and recognize their total dependence upon God's grace and mercy to make them righteous (Lk. 18:10-14). May God give us the insatiable craving for this inner righteousness and find total satisfaction! (Mt. 5:6)