Surpassing the Righteousness of the Professionally Righteous

Guest post by Rob Tims

In preparing to teach a Sunday school this Sunday, I’ve been examining a challenging text: Matthew 5:17-20.

17 “Don’t think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass away from the law until all things are accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever does and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven. (CSB)

Unlike the religious leaders of his day, Jesus did not spend all of His time expounding the law, teasing it out and creating minute details of application. He tended to preach the extraordinary doctrine of the grace and love of God in parables like the Prodigal Son. He also lived his teaching. He mixed regularly and intentionally with every-day citizens and real sinners. Not only did it seem that He was not observing all the rules and regulations the Pharisees taught, it seemed as if He were deliberately breaking them. In short, He criticized the teachings of Pharisees in word and deed.

So very early on the questions began: “Does this new teacher not believe in the Scriptures?” It’s the very question Jesus answers in this passage.

Jesus did two very important things in the first two verses: he affirms the necessity and authority of the Scriptures, and rightfully claims that He is the fulfillment of those Scriptures. When Jesus used the phrase “the Law or the Prophets,” He referred to the entire Old Testament: the known Scriptures for His immediate audience. Wherever that phrase is used throughout the New Testament, it is a reference to all of the Scriptures. Thus, Jesus affirmed the necessity and authority of the entire Old Testament. But He also rightfully claimed that He is the fulfillment … the center … of the Scriptures. He is the theme of the Old Testament; every bit of it is His story.

So, if we have need for the Scriptures and must affirm the authority of the Scriptures, and Christ Himself is the fulfillment of the Scriptures, what is the relationship between us, Jesus, and the Scriptures? How are we disciples to live the Beatitudinal life and be salt and light, and what role do the “law and the Prophets” play in that? And how does all of that relate to Jesus? In academic terms, “What is the relationship between the Christian and the Law?”

Enter Matthew 5:19. “Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever does and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Martin Lloyd-Jones is very helpful to me here. In his sermon on this text, he explains that the Christian is no longer under the law in the sense that the law is a covenant of works by which one tries to earn salvation. The Christian is the under the law to the extent that it acts as our “schoolmaster” or “consultant” that takes us to Jesus. Let me put it to you another way. The grace of God in Christ has brought you to love God and saved you. And now you will keep his commandments because you love him. That’s what v. 19 means.

And how does that look in your every-day life? Enter Matthew 5:20. For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.

We need to remember that the scribes and Pharisees were in many ways the most outstanding people of the nation. The scribes spent their time teaching and expounding the law … giving their whole life to the study and illustration of it. No one could claim to care more for the Word of God than these people. Everyone looked up to them for their great care of and commitment to the copying, studying and illustrating of the law. And as for the Pharisees, their personal holiness demonstrated by their strict adherence to a code of ceremonial acts connected to that law was the envy of all.

Thus, when the average person hears Jesus say that their righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees, they freak out. They think to themselves, “I have no hope of ever being as good as the scribes or Pharisees. They are just outstanding people who have given their whole life to holiness, and that is well beyond me.”

But there were some things wrong with the Pharisees. Their religion was external (Luke 16:15). Their faith was driven by a desire to be socially admired. They were selfish and conceited, obsessed with their own righteousness. And the best way to feel better about yourself is to compare yourself with others who have obviously lower standards. And the Pharisees were more interested in doing than being. They were legalistic, not loving.

And Jesus says that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees, meaning that our so-called righteousness can’t be picked by us at our convenience, and we can’t make ourselves feel better about our righteousness by comparing it to someone we think is doing a far worse job than we are. If we do that, we reveal that we never look at ourselves through the eyes of Jesus, but through our own fallen eyes … and we live smug, glib, self-satisfied lives.

That is a righteousness we must exceed, and to think we can do it ourselves is to not exceed it. The righteousness Jesus speaks of is His own, and it must be given to us by grace.  

Aren’t you glad He did?!

Rob Tims is husband to Holly and father to Trey, Jono, Abby Jane and Luke. He’s the author of Southern Fried Faith: Confusing Christ and Culture in the Bible Belt, and manages the team behind smallgroup.com at LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville. He writes regularly at RobTims.com and blogs every Friday at Forward Progress.

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