|Matthew 5:13-20||Read Online|
For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
He was very dedicated to his faith. He had the right upbringing and the right lineage and background. He was very zealous to follow the tenets of his religion, and was, in fact, blameless in this regard. His zeal compelled him even to go after those whom he believed were perverting his tradition.
He was an observant religious person. However, after an encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, Saul (Paul) would become a transformed follower of Jesus (see Philippians 3:3-6 for Paul’s background and Acts 9 for his conversion).
In the Sermon on the Mount, after Jesus declared that He didn’t come to destroy but to instead fulfill the Law and the Prophets, He made a troubling pronouncement: “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
I find this disturbing because the scribes and Pharisees were meticulous in their pursuit of righteousness. We sometimes caricature the Pharisees and make them easy straw men to knock down, but they were generally respectable people just trying to follow the teachings of their traditions.
So what does Jesus mean? Do you and I have to be even more meticulous, even more observant? Must we become more strict and stringent than the scribes and Pharisees?
Fortunately, the wider context of Jesus’ teaching on the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7) gives us clues to understand what Jesus was saying. He began the Beatitudes (5:3-12) by declaring that those with poverty of spirit are blessed. This opening blessing was the first hint that Jesus was undermining the self-righteousness He often saw among these observant religious people.
Jesus told His disciples they were the salt of the earth and the light of the world (5:13-16). Salt was primarily a preservative in the ancient world. From then to today, His followers are called to slow the natural decay of society by their influence, and to shine their light in a way that others see their good deeds and give glory to God. Religious people, on the other hand, have a tendency to erect barriers and walls between them and the world, rather than seeking to have a transforming influence.
In the second half of Matthew 5, Jesus contrasted what they had heard said in the Old Testament and what Jesus taught.
We learn that refraining from murder isn’t enough. We must also deal with the anger in our hearts. Keeping oneself from committing adultery, while laudable, was insufficient if we harbor lust in our hearts.
At every turn, Jesus raised the bar, but not in terms of stricter adherence to external regulations. Jesus called His followers to a greater righteousness that works from the inside out, because it first produces changed hearts and new motivations.
Religious people often fall into self-righteousness because they’re following God’s rules better than most others. Are you a religious person or a humble Christ-follower who understands your poverty of spirit and need for God and His mercy and grace?
Religious people often build barriers to others because they think themselves better, or at least they don’t want to become contaminated by the world. Jesus calls us to be salt and light, to have a transforming influence on the world. We often don’t for one of two reasons. Either we’re like the religious person described above, or because we’re so like the world, they can’t tell any difference in us anyway.
Religious people like to measure their observance by external means so they have something tangible to measure themselves. Jesus won’t settle for a righteousness that merely allows you to follow a bunch of religious score cards, like church attendance or standing for traditional values. Jesus standards are much higher because they involve dying to yourself every day (Luke 9:23) and allowing God’s Spirit to indwell and empower you and conform you to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29).
Jesus gives us a yardstick and tells us our righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees. What can we do?
We acknowledge that we can’t trust in our self-righteousness and are in need of a Savior who can save us by His grace (Ephesians 2:8-9). Then, we surrender ourselves daily to God and His Spirit who can transform us from the inside out so that we walk in the good works He’s prepared for us (Ephesians 2:10).
- What do you think Jesus meant when He said He didn’t come to destroy the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill them (5:17)?
- Give 2-3 specific examples of how followers of Jesus can be salt and light in the world in a way that can have an impact on others?
- Are you more likely to fall into the error of withdrawing from the world to remain pure and thereby lose any influence, or more likely to be like the world so that they cannot see any difference in you?
- Do you find Jesus’ standard of righteousness easier or more difficult than following the ways of observant religious people like the scribes and Pharisees? Why?
- What’s one area where you need God to help you live an inside-out righteousness that transforms who you are?