Unless Your Righteousness Exceeds

Sermon preached on Matthew 5:20-48 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 4/6/2014 in Novato, CA.

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
Matthew 5:20-48

“Unless Your Righteousness Exceeds”

How to enter the kingdom of heaven. That’s a key question on people’s minds as Jesus preached about the coming of the kingdom. It was the question Nicodemus and Jesus talked about when Nicodemus visited Jesus secretly at night. And it’s a key question raised in this sermon. We see it in verse 20. And in verse 20 Jesus relates that question to someone’s righteousness. Let me read verse 20 again. “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” So, how will someone enter the kingdom of heaven? Well, Jesus says here that it won’t be through the righteousness of the Pharisees. And so this is our topic for today. I want us to think about how someone enters the kingdom of heaven, and how that relates to their righteousness. Specifically, I want to think about the critique Jesus makes here about the lacking righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees. This will point us to the kind of righteousness we do need to have in order to enter into Christ’s kingdom. Now if you remember last week’s sermon, you’ll note that I addressed this topic at the end of my message. But I’m going to delve further into this subject today.

So then, let’s begin by considering what was lacking in the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees. That’s what Jesus said in verse 20. That someone’s righteousness would need to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. That means there was a major deficiency in their righteousness. What was this deficiency? Well, when we look in the New Testament, two major problems with their righteousness stand out. Problem #1 is that they thought their own personal righteousness could earn their way into the Messiah’s kingdom. This is the problem sometimes referred to as moralism. It’s thinking that your own personal righteousness can be the way for you to enter the kingdom of heaven. Problem #2 for them was that they lowered the standard of righteousness. They made the law’s demands actually less than what God demanded. This is the problem sometimes referred to as externalism. It’s the problem of seeking to keep the letter of the law but missing the spirit of the law. The verse right before verse 20 makes a distinction between greater and lesser laws, but Jesus says we must not disregard either. Not even the least. Jesus talks about how the scribes and Pharisees disregard some laws and only hold to the externals and not the substance of others.

This in sum, then, is the problem with the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. Problem #1 is their moralism — pridefully thinking they can earn their way into heaven. Problem #2 is their externalism — their moral standards just don’t measure up to God’s standards. These are interrelated. Jesus shows that their failure in problem #1 is in part because of their problem #2. In other words, even if we grant that hypothetically someone could earn their way into heaven by their own personal righteousness, their own personal righteousness was not good enough.

Let me give you an example of this. In Luke 18, Jesus gives a parable about this. It shows Jesus’ general concern about the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees. In that parable, Jesus describes a Pharisee who goes to the temple and justifies himself by looking at a tax collector and thinking himself so much more righteous. That Pharisee makes a list of bad people that he thinks himself more righteous than them, and quickly thinks through some of the good deeds he does regularly. But Jesus in the parable says that such a Pharisee does not go home justified before God.

We see similar thinking in Philippians 3:6. Paul, speaking in the context of his past Pharisaism said that when he was a Pharisee he was considered blameless according to the law. It’s not that Paul really thought he had kept the law perfectly; Paul’s letters show that no one could. But from the Pharisaical system and understanding he had. Because they had instituted a very external way of keeping the letter of the law, but had missed the spirit of it. It’s this same attitude that the Rich Young Ruler had when he came to Jesus in Matthew 19 asking about how to have eternal life. Jesus asked him about his keeping of a number of the Ten Commandments, and the man rather audaciously claimed to have kept them all from his youth. Jesus knew better of course. But the point is simply that we see in the New Testament this thought by the scribes and Pharisees that they could earn their way into a right standing before God by an outward observance of the Law. But Jesus declares right here — that way isn’t good enough.

Jesus point here really sets up the direction for the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, and especially this chapter. What we see in the rest of this chapter is six examples given of various laws held by the scribes and Pharisees. To clarify, most of these are direct quotes from Moses, though not entirely. And Jesus doesn’t attribute these to Moses, though we can definitely notice which ones are quotes of Moses. Instead Jesus says that these are teachings of old. These begin at verses 21, 27, 31, 33, 38, and 43 — these teachings of old concerning righteousness. And so when you hear Jesus describe them as teachings to those of old, and the fact that they are not all exact quotes from the Bible, you should think tradition. This is Jesus critiquing not the specific commands of the Old Testament law — remember Jesus said he did not come to abolish those laws but to fulfill them. Rather, Jesus is challenging the Pharisaical tradition that had taken those laws and interpreted and applied them in a legalistic way: in a way that lowered the standard to some mere outward one that someone could theoretically keep. But Jesus challenges these teachings of old. He challenges them on his own authority. For these six teachings of old he challenges them by saying, “But I say to you,” verses 22, 28, 32, 34, 39, and 44. He pits his authority against the traditional interpretations and applications of the Pharisees — and he says his authority trumps their authority. That makes sense because it’s his kingdom.

This has been our first point then — to observe in general the lacking nature of the scribes and Pharisee’s righteousness. What I want to do next is to observe what it looks like to exceed their righteousness. See, Jesus says that to enter his kingdom, you have to exceed their righteousness. What would it look like to exceed their righteousness? Well, verses 21 through 48 give an answer to that. That’s these six examples of these teachings old in contrast to what he says about those same areas of righteousness. In the weeks to come we are going to work through in detail each of the six examples. But, today I want to notice the big picture among them. I want us to observe the main points he’s making here. Because this is what he is talking about — what it would look like to exceed their defective righteousness.

So then, I’m going to briefly mention seven ways we see here to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, based on verses 21-48 taken as a whole. First, we need to go beyond the bare letter of the law. For example, in Jesus’ first example starting in verse 21 he deals with the prohibition of murder; that’s the 6th Commandment. The Pharisees evidently though they could check off that command as kept if you but didn’t physically take someone’s life unjustly. But Jesus says that the spirit of the law is so much more extensive than that. He makes the same point with regard to adultery beginning in verse 27. More than just the very specific prohibition is embodied in the commands. We must consider the full ramifications both positively and negatively in terms of how we act. We must understand the broader intention and purpose of the specific command. That’s beginning to get at the spirit of the law, and not just the bare letter of it.

A second way to exceed their faulty righteousness is that we need to extend the commands that deal with what we do, also to what we say; to our words. The example on murder says that if we speak in evil or wrong ways toward our brothers, we can break that commandment. It’s not enough just to not murder with our hands. But the spirit of the law is to not injure our neighbor, and we can do that with our words. Words can and do injure others. The righteousness that is better than the scribes and Pharisees acknowledges that.

A third way to exceed their defective righteousness is that we need to extend the commands to our thoughts. Like concerning the command about adultery in verse 27, we can use our eyes to lust after someone who is not our spouse. That thought of lust, is a breaking of this command. The Pharisees’ evidently limited it to just the physical action, but Jesus stresses the full demand of the spirit of the command. Even what we think can rebel against the Lord’s righteousness and be sin.

A fourth way to exceed their failing righteousness is that we need to get to the heart. For example, when dealing with the subject of murder, Jesus doesn’t even stop at our words or thoughts. It extends to what is in our hearts. Verse 22 warns that we must make sure we are not inwardly angry with someone without cause! Likewise in verse 33 he challenges those who would try to make lesser oaths likely thinking they could get away with a falsehood if they swore on someone or something other than God. But instead we must from the heart be people of integrity. Who do what they say and say what they truly mean, from the heart. True righteousness begins in the heart. That’s why Jesus says elsewhere that it’s the heart which is the source of uncleanness — not outward and external things which the Pharisees seemed to think by all their added ritual washing, etc.

A fifth way to exceed their lacking righteousness is that we need to go beyond the concessions held out in the law. Let me explain what I mean. In verse 31, Jesus addresses the subject of divorce, that interacts with a provision in the Mosaic law that governs divorce in Deuteronomy 24 through the use of certificates of divorce under certain circumstances. Elsewhere, we see that Jesus says that Moses gave this law because of the hardness of men’s hearts. In other words, this law in the Mosaic covenant provided some legislation around divorces, but the law wasn’t advocating that should get a divorce for any reason at all. But that’s how some of the scribes and Pharisees took it. Jesus said that was not sufficient righteousness. Jesus taught that we had to realize what was at the heart of each law. That some laws, like this one on divorce, provided legislation around divorce, but that didn’t mean God’s people should actually get divorces for whatever reason. Christ’s righteousness saw beyond the concessions held out in the Mosaic law to understand God’s way of righteousness more fully.

A sixth way to exceed their limited righteousness is that we need to live out the idea of going above and beyond the legal demands of the law. This is the spirit that turns the other cheek in radical mercy, even when strict justice would say an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth — verse 38. Jesus makes the same point in a different way in verse 43 that says we should even love our enemies, even though they maybe have earned our hatred. This means we go the extra mile for someone, or give them even more than they demand of us. In other words, Christ’s demand of righteousness is one that complements the strict legal demands of the law with radical love, grace, and mercy. That was something the scribes and Pharisees especially struggled to understand, particularly when they saw Jesus spending time with the more notorious sinners of their soceity.

A seventh and final way I’ll mention to today, to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is this: We need perfection. Divine perfection. This is the final verse of the chapter. Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect. This is such a wonderful way to end this chapter. After mentioning these six examples of Jesus’ more thorough righteousness, what some have been tempted to do, is to say that this is a complete list of Jesus’ moral ethics. Verse 48 tells us that is not true. Verse 48 helps us to see that Jesus gave us six examples here of his standard of righteousness. But he sums it all up with verse 48 — moral perfection in all ways. And so, Jesus’ standard of righteousness is far more demanding than that of the scribes and the Pharisees. That’s because the scribes and Pharisees focused on externals that they thought they could actually attain. Jesus says that his standard is far greater. It is nothing less than perfect. Divine perfection. God’s perfect righteousness is the standard of righteousness for his kingdom. His six examples here are then six examples of the failing externalism and moralism of the scribes and Pharisees.

So then, this brings us back to the original question. How does someone enter the kingdom of heaven? The scribes and Pharisees may have thought they could get in by their righteousness, but their standard of righteousness fell short, and so they fell short of earning their way into the kingdom. And yet this was supposed to be a shocking thing for Jesus to say. We tend to think so negatively about the scribes and Pharisees, that we just probably nod and say “Of course, those wicked Pharisees aren’t going to make it into Christ’s kingdom!” But that wasn’t the people’s perspective back then. The Jewish people had several different religious sects; Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Essenes, Herodians, etc. Of all the sects, the one that was clearly perceived as having the most strict form of righteousness was the Pharisees. In a similar way, the Jewish historian Josephus writes that the Pharisees were the most well respected sect among the people. Paul even mentioned in Acts 26 that the Pharisees were the most strict religious sect among the Jews, Acts 26:5. But Jesus says here that their view of righteousness was not strict enough. When Jesus gives this teaching here, surely the response of most people were to say, “Who then can be saved?”

That’s where this teaching should lead you. You should come to a point of futility when thinking about trying to earn your way into heaven. You should come to realize that you can’t do it. Your righteousness isn’t good enough. That’s what will then drive you to Christ and the gospel. You see, that’s the conclusion the disciples came to later in Matthew 19:25. They too asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus’ answer was, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” What we needed was a better righteousness, and we couldn’t muster it up ourselves. So that is why we need God in Christ to save us. Jesus is the one with that better righteousness. You see God’s standard of righteousness never changes. The righteousness of Christ’s kingdom is what he spelled out here. It is the standard of perfection that we talked about today. Christ is the only human that has lived this standard out. His righteousness really does exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. And yet by repenting of our sin, and putting our faith in him, and his atoning work on the cross, we are forgiven of our unrighteousness. And Christ’s righteousness is credited to our account. That is how we can enter the kingdom of heaven. We enter Christ’s kingdom in Christ. On his back, so to speak. By his righteousness, not our own. We get his righteousness, by faith. That’s the only way a fallen and sinful human will be able to enter into the kingdom.

So then, if you have never entered into this kingdom — do so today. Turn to Christ in faith. Repent of yours sins. Believe in him. Trust that he paid for all your unrighteousness by dying in your place on the cross. Believe that his righteousness is sufficient for you. Because it is. That is how we enter into his kingdom.

So then, as those who have entered into his kingdom, how shall we live? Let us strive for righteousness. Let us not live as a scribe or Pharisee. But let us live as a Christian. As a follower of Christ. As one who embraces Christ’s standard of righteousness. And that is what we have in this chapter and in this Sermon on the Mount. We have a picture of Christ’s kingdom ethics. It’s a picture of what a righteous life look like.

Again, take care. Don’t look to live this out in order to be right with God. That’s impossible. Yet, as a Christian, affirm that this is righteousness. Christ’s righteousness. As his disciple, he calls you to repent from unrighteousness and to strive for righteousness. Not the mere external righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. But the superior, perfect, righteousness of Christ and your Heavenly Father. That we won’t do it perfectly is never an excuse for not seeking it with all your heart. This is at the heart of you having become a disciple of Christ. And praise the Lord that this is what God is growing you in. We’ll continue to see in this sermon that this is why God is giving us his Holy Spirit. To grow us in righteousness. And it’s his good pleasure to grow us in this way.

It’s ironic that sometimes today if you as a Christian really endeavor to live this out, people might call you a Pharisee. In other words, you might really trust Christ and his righteousness to save you. You might have no thought that you are earning your way into the kingdom. At the same time, you might also be growing to say that Christ’s righteousness has the greatest demand on your life. You might really strive for that as his disciple. It might affect how you interact with others. Too often Christians look at a brother striving for this perfect righteousness, to have an extreme and strict form of godliness in all areas of their life, and sadly label that brother a Pharisee. Now yes, some in the church do fall into Pharisaism. We must challenge such with a sermon like this. But far too often the slur of calling other Christians a Pharisee happens far too often when it’s not actually justified. Maybe that brother’s righteousness is actually convicting you of your lack of devotion toward living for the Lord. And so be on guard for this. For example, if someone is genuinely looking to keep the extreme demand of righteousness shown here, not to be justified, but as part of his sanctification, and you come along, not knowing their heart, and criticize them as being a Pharisee, then you likely are actually being the Pharisee, because you are actually advocating the lesser righteousness that the Pharisees advocated.

This is my way to caution against using that label. I rarely see people use it properly. Let us instead be more concerned that we are ourselves never fall into this trap of pursuing the inferior righteousness described here. Let us look to Christ’s superior righteousness for both our justification and sanctification. For our justification in that he earned it with his perfect record. For our sanctification in that he is our teacher, our model, and our strength to grow us in living it out: being in Christ and Christ in us. That’s our discipleship, and our grace-supplied privilege as those who belong to the kingdom of heaven. Praise be to God. Amen.

Copyright © 2014 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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