How’s your righteousness? At what level is your righteousness? That’s an important question. Listen to these words of Jesus in Matthew 5:20, “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Our righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and the Pharisees. In Jesus’ sermon on the mount which is Matthew 5,6 and 7, He appears to use the term “righteousness” to refer simply to obedience to the will of God. Our obedience to the will of God must be above the level of the scribes and Pharisees. That verse, I really think, is Jesus’ thesis statement for His whole sermon on the mount. It’s the main point that He drives home in the sermon.
The verses that come before it, v3-19, form an introduction to the sermon. They’re about who it is that is blessed, who it is that has the kingdom of heaven. And of course it’s very different from what the scribes and Pharisees would say about who has the kingdom of heaven. Jesus says they are the poor in spirit. They’re the people who mourn over their sin. They’re meek. They hunger and thirst for righteousness. They really genuinely want to do God’s will in their lives. They’re merciful. They’re pure in heart. They’re peacemakers. And they endure persecution and they keep doing what’s right. They’re the salt of the earth and the light of the world. And then in v17-19 Jesus clarifies something for His audience, because what He’s going to teach them in this sermon is going to be very different from what they’ve heard taught by the scribes and Pharisees who claimed to teach the Law and the Prophets. Since Jesus’ teaching will be so different, these folks might get the impression that Jesus is suggesting that we don’t have to follow the Law and the Prophets anymore. So Jesus clarifies that that’s not at all what He’s suggesting. The laws of the old covenant were still binding on these Jewish folks at this point in history. It wasn’t until the death of Christ that the old covenant was replaced by the new covenant (Gal 3:24-25; Eph 2:14,15; Col 2:16-17; Heb 7:12; 8:13; etc.) So Jesus tells them that until He has accomplished what He came to earth to accomplish, every letter of the Law of Moses is still binding on them. They do need to continue to follow that Law. Then He makes the point that the rest of the sermon will elaborate on. “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
What do you mean by that, Jesus? Our righteousness must surpass the Scribes and Pharisees? Jesus says, “Well, here’s what I mean. Take for example the area of…
Conflict with people (5:21-26)
Do you have any conflict or strife or discord or disagreements between you and somebody in your life? Do you have people that you have problems with or people that have problems with you in your life?
Well, 5:21, “You have heard that the ancients were told…” This is what the scribes and Pharisees would teach that God told our forefathers. This is what they would say the Bible says. This is their righteousness in the area of conflict with people. They’d say, “Just don’t murder. Just don’t kill anybody, or you’ll be liable to the court if you do.”
Jesus says, “That’s not going to cut it. I say to you that everyone who continues to be angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court.” What court? No human court that I know of would find you guilty for just being angry with someone. I think He means the Court with a capital C. The heavenly court, God’s court. “You mean I can’t harbor anger in my heart toward someone?” “Not only that, but don’t expect the kingdom of heaven if you’re one who heaps insults on your brother, like raca or moree in the original text. Those were words in their language that would be used to really belittle someone and just tell them how worthless and nothing they are. The kingdom of heaven is not for people who verbally abuse other people. Sounds like Paul over in Ephesians 4:31, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor (which means shouting) and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.” That’s the same thing Jesus is saying.
But that’s not all when it comes to conflict in your life. Jesus says, “You also do what you can to reconcile any relationships that you’ve damaged. If you’ve hurt someone, don’t bother to come worship God until you’ve first tried to make things right with that person.” Remember – “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9) “for they shall be called sons of God.”
So your righteousness must surpasses just not killing anybody. Let go of the anger and the grudges and the bitterness. Stop tearing people down with your words. And say, when you’ve hurt somebody, “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Is there any way I can make it up to you?”
And let’s talk about…
Purity and fidelity (5:27-30)
The scribes and Pharisees would say, “Just don’t actually sleep with somebody else’s husband or wife. Don’t commit the act of adultery.”
And Jesus says, “That’s not going to get it. If that’s all your righteousness is in the matter, that’s not enough. I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye makes you stumble [if you have a looking problem], tear it out and throw it from you [do whatever it takes to stop that]; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. If you right hand makes you stumble [if you have a touching problem], cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell.” So Jesus says, “You need to keep your eyes and your hands on your own spouse. Practice true purity and fidelity from the heart.” The world says “You can look but you can’t touch.” But that’s not what Jesus says. Jesus says you need to be faithful to your spouse from your heart outward.
Here’s another example. Let’s talk about…
The scribes and Pharisees would say “Divorce is fine, just divorce nicely when you do. Give her a certificate of divorce. Give her all the paper work that she needs.” That’s what our culture says today, “Just divorce nicely.”
But that’s not what Jesus says. Jesus says, “Unless your spouse is sexually unfaithful to you, to divorce and go marry somebody else is adultery as far as God is concerned.” God doesn’t release you from the marriage bond and permit you to marry someone else, just because you’re tired of your spouse or you don’t like something about your spouse.
So your spouse spends money frivolously, your spouse is kind of lazy, your spouse has really let herself or himself go physically, your spouse is unaffectionate, your spouse pays more attention work than to you, your spouse has this fault and that problem, God doesn’t want you to quit on them. God wants you to keep loving that man or that woman and to be His instrument in touching their heart and changing their heart.
And let’s talk about…
The scribes and Pharisees would say, “You need to keep your vows to the Lord.” And then they’d be real sneaky and deceptive with people by saying things like “I swear by heaven to pay you this amount.” Or “I swear by earth that I’ll be there.” Or “I swear by Jerusalem…” Or “I swear by my own head that I’ll do this.” And then they wouldn’t keep their word and they’d justify themselves saying, “It wasn’t a binding oath. I didn’t swear by the Lord. I swore by heaven or the earth or whatever it was. That’s not binding.” Like when you were a little kid lying with your fingers crossed behind your back, like that made it okay to lie.
Jesus says “If that’s your righteousness when it comes to honesty, you’re not going make it. Don’t be making these oaths by heaven or by earth or by Jerusalem or by your own head, because all of that is God’s stuff and those oaths are binding. In fact don’t even be a person that needs to take an oath. You be a man or woman of your word. Be one that people know if you say “I’ll do it” then you will either do it or die trying. Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Anything beyond that is evil.”
If you say, “I’ll pay x amount every month until the bill is paid.” Well, pay it then if you say you’re going to pay it. If you say “I’ll help out next Saturday,” then show up and help out next Saturday. If you say, “I’ll take care of that for you. Don’t worry about that. I got it covered.” Then take care of it. Do it if you say you will do it. It shouldn’t make any difference to us whether we’ve signed documents or taken an oath or just given somebody our word.
Let’s talk about…
When you’re wronged (5:38-42)
When somebody hurts you in some way, when somebody insults you or cheats you or takes something from you. The scribes and Pharisees would take a verse out the Law of Moses, out of the book of Exodus, that in its context was telling the judges of the nation of Israel how to deal with people convicted of crimes. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” That was for the nation’s courts and justice system. They’d rip that verse out of context and apply it to how we should deal with anybody who wrongs us in our personal life.
Jesus says “No. You leave all the vengeance to God. Don’t concern yourself with getting even with people. That’s God’s job. But not only that, you respond to evil done to you with good. You think of something kind, something beneficial that you could do for the person who wronged you and surprise that person and change that person’s heart by doing that good thing for them. They sue you for your shirt, apparently they need clothes, give them your coat too. That Roman soldier who drops his baggage and orders you to pick it up and carry it for him for a mile, carry it for him two miles.”
And let’s talk about…
Love for others (5:43-48)
The Scribes and Pharisees would say “Here’s what God said. Here’s what He told our forefathers. Here’s what the Bible teaches. Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” Of course only the first part, “love your neighbor” was in the Scriptures. That second part “hate your enemy” was something they added to clarify what they took “neighbor” to mean. They didn’t take neighbor to mean what God meant by it. God meant whoever you come in contact with in your life. They took neighbor to mean basically friend. They took neighbor to mean somebody who has the same politics as you, that likes the same stuff as you, that’s the same color and speaks the same language and is from the same part of the country as you, people that you kind of like and who like you. They said you need to love those people. But that’s all that you need to love. It’s okay to hate your enemies. Well, that’s the ethic of the world. Most everybody loves their friends. Most everybody greets and shows kindness to their friends.
Jesus says, “You need to do better than the world. Look at how God treats ungrateful and evil men. He sends His sunshine on the good and the evil, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. God doesn’t have to do that. God could cause dark little clouds to overshadow the unrighteous people and follow them everywhere they go to keep His sunlight from them. And God could prevent His rain clouds from watering their fields. But God does good to people who don’t care about Him at all. And to be sons of the heavenly Father, you need to imitate Him. You need to love also your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Let’s talk about…
When we practice our righteousness (6:1-18)
Scribes and Pharisees were like the man who comes before the assembly at church and leads the most beautiful prayers, uses all the right phrases, and everybody thinks, “Wow, wasn’t that a beautiful prayer. What a godly man he is.” But he has no private prayer life. Nobody would ever find him at home in his room on his knees talking with God. Nobody would ever find him just holding the hand of his wife at the kitchen table or just holding the hands of his kids in their room and honestly thanking God for His goodness and asking for His forgiveness and begging God for His help. But at church or before a potluck he’ll say beautiful prayers. Or when people are going to know about it, when people are going to see it, he takes out a big wad of money and he gives to a good cause and people think he’s wonderful. But when there’s nobody else around, when there’s just somebody needing help, when only God is going to see it, he decides to hold his money until there’s lots of people to see it. That’s the righteousness of the Scribes and the Pharisees.
Jesus says, “When you give, don’t announce it. Don’t draw attention to yourself. Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Give when only God is going to know about it. Go in your closet and pray. When you fast, don’t tell anybody, don’t neglect your appearance or give hints to people that you’re fasting. Practice your righteousness just to please God and to help people, not to receive the praise of men.”
And let’s talk about…
The Scribes and Pharisees heaped wealth upon themselves. They justified selfish extravagance. People around them were hungry. People around them were inadequately clothed and needing medical attention. People around them were suffering. But their daily concerns were just things like, “Which pair of shoes should I wear with this outfit? What kind of latte should I get this morning? Should I sell that piece of property I have north of town and by a motor home with the money? Should I have lunch at ‘Famous Daves’ or that new fancy place down town? I wonder when the new i-phone is coming out. I want to be the first person at work to get one. Should I remodel that 6th bathroom in my house? Should I golf or take the jet ski out on Saturday?” Luke 16 gives a story about a typical Pharisee. It says “There was a certain rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen [very expensive clothes in the day], joyously living in splendor every day.” And at his gate was that poor sick hungry man named Lazarus, covered in sores and longing to be feed with the crumbs that fell from his table. They heaped wealth on themselves and ignored the needs of others.
Jesus says “Your righteousness must surpass that. Don’t store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal.” How do you store up treasures in heaven? Luke 12:33 Jesus told His disciples, “If you sell your possessions and give to the needy, and you’ll have unfailing treasure in heaven.” It involves being generous with what you have. And Jesus says “Don’t kid yourself thinking that you can serve God and wealth.” If building wealth for yourself is your priority, then you are not a servant of God, because God says things like “If you have 2 tunics, give to the one who doesn’t have one. If you have food, give to the one who does not have food.” It’s not that it’s necessarily sinful to be rich, but it is when you’re disobeying the will of God and ignoring the needs of others in order to be rich.
“And I promise you,” Jesus says, “if you put God first, then there’s no reason for you to worry about what you will eat or what you will drink or what you will wear for clothing. Like God provides for the birds and clothes the lilies of the field, God will provide for all your needs if you put His will first in your life.”
And let’s talk about…
Judging other people (7:1-6)
The Pharisees were a strict denomination of Judaism known for upholding the traditions of the elders. Elders were rabbis or teachers of the past who were considered to be experts in the Law of Moses. And their traditions were their interpretations and opinions about how to properly observe the Law of Moses. So for instance there was that command for the Jews in the Law of Moses that they not work on the Sabbath day. And so these ancient Rabbis came up with 39 general categories of things that qualified as work that were unlawful in their opinion to do on the Sabbath. Like plowing, sowing, harvesting, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, washing, baking, carrying a burden, writing, etc. All those things they said qualify as work. And then they came up with countless rules about what actions in their opinion fell under each category of work and thus were unlawful on the Sabbath. So for instance they would have rules about what qualifies as carrying a burden. They’d say “a burden is food equal in weight to a dried fig, enough wine for mixing in a goblet, milk enough for one swallow, honey enough to put upon a wound, oil enough to anoint a small member, water enough to moisten an eye-salve, paper enough to write a custom-house notice upon, ink enough to write two letters of the alphabet, reed enough to make a pen…” and on and on. Those things qualify as burdens, they said. And to carry a burden is work. And therefore to carry any of those things on the Sabbath day is unlawful. Those where their interpretations, their opinions.
But they would bind these on people as if they were the word of God. And they’d accuse people of sinning whenever they did something against one of these opinions of theirs. And so one Sabbath day when they saw Jesus and His disciples walking through a field and Jesus’ disciples picked some heads of grain as they walked and rubbed them in their hands to knock the chaff off and then blew the chaff away and ate the grain (it didn’t really take any work for them to do that), but they jumped all over them for that. “Jesus, if you were really a teacher from God, you wouldn’t let your disciples do what is not lawful on the Sabbath.” Because in their opinion picking heads of grain was a form of harvesting, and rubbing them in your hands was a form of threshing and blowing the chaff away was a form of winnowing, each a form of work. They would condemn Jesus for healing people on the Sabbath, even though all He did was speak a word and the person was healed. But their opinion was that healing in any way was work and forbidden on the Sabbath. They would condemn Jesus and His disciples for eating without first washing their hands in a certain manner, and for associating with tax collectors and sinners because their interpretation said that was wrong. They nitpicked and condemned people for these little things when they didn’t have a clear word from God that condemned it.
Could we be the same way, judge people when we don’t have a clear word from God on the matter? “Did you see what he wore to church today? I don’t know if he thought he was going to the beach this morning or what. Total disrespect for God!” “Oh I saw her one day out there, I kid you not, smoking a cigarette! I couldn’t believe it.” “Oh I saw him at the grocery store purchasing lottery ticket! Can you believe that?” “You know, they didn’t even come out and help us with our service project. If they really loved the Lord they would have been here.” “If they were really committed to the Lord they’d be here Sunday evenings and Wednesday evenings.”
It’s okay to have your opinions, to have your views of right and wrong. The Bible says we each need to live according to our conscience. If you feel something is wrong then don’t do it. If you feel you should do something, then do it. Don’t violate your conscience. But don’t bind your opinions on people. Don’t condemn people when you don’t have a clear word from the Lord on the matter.
And the Pharisees failed to critically examine and scrutinize the one person they really should have – themselves. They had so much stuff in their own hearts and lives that was displeasing to God, Jesus pictures it like they have a log protruding out of their own eye and they can’t see too well because of the log. But they think they see a speck of sawdust in somebody else’s eye and they say, (Gasp) “Don’t you realize you have wood in your eye!”
Jesus says you really don’t want to be nitpicking people, you really don’t want to be hypercritical, because God will judge you like you judge people. By your standard of measure, it will be measured to you in return.
So Jesus calls us to be salt in the earth and light in the world. He calls us to be peacemakers, not angry grudge holders. He’s calls us to pursue purity and fidelity and decency from our hearts. He calls us to respect marriage. He calls us to integrity. He calls us to respond to evil done to us with good. He calls us to love even our enemies. He calls us to practice our righteousness to please God, not to gain the praise of men. He calls us to be unselfish with our money, to lay up our treasures in heaven not on earth. He calls us to not be judgmental, but give people the benefit of the doubt. Does that sound difficult? Do you feel incapable of living such away? I think Jesus knew we might feel like that. So He made some wonderful promises to us, 7:7,
Keep asking and it will be given to you, keep seeking and you will find; keep knocking and the door will be opened to you (7:7-11)
In other words you ask God for His help and you seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, you honestly try to do what Jesus calls us to do, to surpass the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, and God will give you the help you need and God will see to it that you make it in His kingdom.
Then Jesus gives a
He says “Here’s what I’m saying when it comes to how you treat other people, how you treat all people in every circumstance of life. Treat people the same way you want them to treat you.” You want to know the will of God in any given situation with people? Put yourself in the other person’s situation and ask yourself, “If I were them, how would I want to be treated by someone like me?” Well, if I were them, I’d want me to be patient. I’d want me to be merciful and forgiving. I’d want me to give another chance. I’d want me to give the benefit of the doubt. I’d want me to lend a helping hand. That’s how you treat other people.
And Jesus warns us about
3 things that tend to prevent people from following the way of life that He’s taught us to live (7:13-23)
One, is the fact that,
The majority of people are not living this way (7:13-14)
You might be tempted to think, “Well, if nobody is doing that and everybody doing this, then surely this is okay. God will excuse it.” So Jesus says, “Enter though the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” You follow most people, you’ll end up in destruction.
Another thing that prevents people from living how Jesus has told us is
False prophets (7:15-20)
Some people don’t follow Jesus because they’re following religious teachers who claim to be leading them to heaven. They follow these teachers because they look like they know what they’re talking about. I mean they claim to know what they’re talking about and they look very professional and they speak eloquently and they’re very respected by many people and they seem sincere and they’re friendly, they seem harmless. But Jesus says “False prophets don’t come with signs hanging from their necks that say “Hello, I’m a false prophet.” They are like wolves in sheep’s clothing. And if you follow a wolf you will be devoured. Anyone who tells you that you can get to heaven by some other road than the narrow road that Jesus told us to take is a wolf that will lead you to destruction.
And some people don’t put into practice the teachings of Jesus, because
They feel confident in their relationship with Him because they call Him Lord and they do religious things in His name (7:21-23)
For some reason, maybe it’s what their preacher told them or their parents told them or their friends told them, they think that’s all that’s really necessary to be right with the Lord. Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.’”
We’ve got 2 options with these words of Jesus that we’ve heard (7:24-27)
Option 1 is we can put them into practice in our life. We can trust the word of the Lord and really try to live by them. And if we do that, Jesus says that’s like building the house of our whole life on a rock solid foundation. And when the storm of judgment comes our house will stand the test and we’ll be alright.
Or option 2 is to let these words of Jesus just go whoop, right over our head, just go on living however we like and forget about what Jesus has said. But if we do that, Jesus says, that’s like building the house of our life on sand. And when the storm of judgment comes our house will not stand the test. It will end in destruction for us.
None of us are perfect. But unless our righteousness surpasses that of the Scribes and Pharisees we will not enter the kingdom of heaven. That’s not me saying that. That’s the Lord Jesus Christ, Matthew 5:20.
– James Williams