Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Righteousness Redefined

Part 11 of Kingdom Life

Text: Matthew 5:17-20

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). 


Over time, words often change their meaning. Referring to someone as a “bully” in the sixteenth century was like calling them “darling” or sweetheart.” In the fourteenth century, “awful” meant “inspiring wonder” and was a short version of “full of awe.” The original meaning of a “nice” person was a “foolish” or “silly” person. In the fifteenth century, a “nervous” person was actually “sinewy and vigorous.” [1]

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus redefined “righteousness.”

Entrance into the Kingdom

Jesus declares, “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (v. 20). “Righteousness” is obedience to God’s commands. Does entrance into God’s kingdom depend on our obedience to God’s law? No, we enter God’s kingdom through faith in Jesus. [2]

Those who have entered God’s kingdom possess a different kind of righteousness. 

Jesus wasn’t saying that we need to be more righteous in the way that the scribes and Pharisees were righteous. He was saying that our righteousness is to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees because it’s a better quality of righteousness.

Jesus Didn't Abolish the Law

Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets” (v. 17). “The Law [and] the Prophets” refers to the Old Testament (OT) Scriptures. People were accusing Jesus of setting aside the OT. [3] But Jesus makes four statements in verses 17-20 that show the falseness of this accusation.

(1) He had not come to abolish the OT but to “fulfill” it (v. 17). How did Jesus fulfill the OT? He fulfilled the OT’s messianic prophecies, satisfied the OT’s demands by his death on the cross, perfectly obeyed the OT’s commands, and he taught the full meaning of the OT.

(2) All of the OT—even “the smallest letter” and “the least stroke of a pen” (NIV) [4]—is relevant “until heaven and earth pass away” (v. 18).

(3) Every OT commandment should be taught and obeyed (v. 19). Of course, there are many commands that Christians don’t obey in the same way as God’s people did before the coming of Jesus.

(4) The scribes and Pharisees’ obedience to the OT was deficient (v. 20). “Jesus was so far from being the one intent on annulling the Law that he believed that those who had the reputation of being especially punctilious about the details of the Law were totally failing to take it seriously enough.” [5]

Some Christians like to say, “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship.” But Christianity is a relationship with God and a religion. We obey God’s commands because we love him. But didn’t the apostle Paul write that “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4)? Yes, but this “does not mean that we are free to disobey [the law], for the opposite is the case. It means rather that acceptance with God is not through obedience to the law but through faith in Christ….” [6]

A Different Kind of Righteousness

“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of God” was a shocking statement in Jesus’ day. The Pharisees were admired for their obedient to the OT, but their righteousness was merely outward conformity to rules. Jesus desires a different kind of righteousness.

1. It is a righteousness that comes from a transformed heart. 

The scribes and Pharisees impressed others by their outward appearance, but their hearts were full of sinfulness. Jesus said to them,
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside may be clean.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to other, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matt. 23:25-28). 
The kind of righteousness that Jesus desires is an inside-out righteousness. It’s righteousness that comes from a heart that loves God because of what he has done for us (i.e., because of the cross).

2. It is a righteousness that produces acts of love. 

Jesus was once asked, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Matt. 22:36). His answer:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (vv. 37-40). 
Jesus rebuked the scribes and Pharisees for their lack of love:
Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:  
“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me
teaching as doctrine the commandments of men’” (Matt. 15:1-9). 
In Romans 13:8-10, Paul wrote,
Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law

What About Your Righteousness? 

Here’s a question we should all ask: “Does my righteousness exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees?”

What is your motivation for obeying God’s commands?

Are you more concerned with the letter of the law or the spirit of the law (i.e., love for God and others)?

[1] http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/words-literally-changed-meaning-through-2173079
[2] Matthew 4:17 says, “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” To “repent” means to turn from one’s sin, which also implies turning to Jesus.
[3] In Matthew 12, Jesus’ disciples picked grain on the Sabbath, and the Pharisees accused Jesus and his disciples of breaking the OT law (see vv. 1-8). Actually, they broke the Pharisees’ rules, not the OT law.
[4] An “iota” refers to “the Hebrew letter yod, the smallest of the alphabet,” and a “dot” (kepaia) refers to “the small stroke that is used to distinguish letters or an ornamental stroke added to a letter” (Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, 182).
[5] John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text, 225.
[6] John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, 73.

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