The Lord Jesus said to His disciples in Matthew 5:20, I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. Perhaps you should stop and read that again and in doing so, notice in particular the “certainly not”. The Lord does not want us to miss His declaration that if we have a righteousness like that of the Pharisees and law teachers we will not get into the kingdom of God. Such a statement has serious implications because if we are not in the kingdom of God then we are destined for eternal destruction. So that should make us take note about what our Saviour is saying here.
Let us consider, first of all, the issue of “surpasses”. Jesus does not say that our righteousness must be totally different to that of the scribes and Pharisees, but that it must surpass it. This leads us to conclude that the scribes and Pharisees were on the right track, but had not reached the desired destination. They were on the right track because they were seeking to base their righteousness on a scriptural basis. However, they had gone wrong because they were not using the scripture properly. In the rest of Matthew 5, the Lord shows five areas where these religious leaders had used scripture incorrectly. Each section is introduced by the phrase; “You have heard that it was said” (see 21a, 27a, 33a, 38a and 43a). In each instance the Lord shows that each statement made by the religious leaders had some connection to scriptural truth. However, the Lord goes on to show, in each section, how the righteousness which the religious leaders achieved was not the right righteousness.
The deficiency in their righteousness was on account of what they understood righteousness to be. The foundation was right, being in scripture, but the development of it was malformed. This was because they focused on the external and achievable. They came to the Word of God and processed it in such a way as to focus on what was within their ability. And as they achieved the standards they had set for themselves they “ticked off” their achievements. It was a “tick-box” righteousness. They set the standard according to what they could demonstrate that they had achieved and thereby show it off for all to see. If you look at all five of the examples given you will see that this is the reasoning. They have used the scriptural commands in such a way as to make sure the standard for murder, adultery, oath taking, getting revenge and loving others is both achievable and clear for all to see that it is being achieved by them.
When the achieving of righteousness is viewed in this way, people are led to glory in themselves. If there is a standard and I can reach that standard by myself then I glory in myself. I say “I must be a good boy/girl and God should be very pleased with me.” People are led to glory in man and not God.
The Lord, though, goes on to show that there is a better righteousness. In each of the five situations presented, He indicates what the righteousness that pleases Him looks like. The righteousness which He seeks to establish is that of the heart (inside) and is not achievable by us. So with regard to murder, He makes hating equivalent to killing, and with regard to adultery, He makes lusting equivalent to sex outside marriage. Through this approach He is dealing with the heart. For everyone who is honest there is the immediate conclusion that “I cannot do that”. When we look to the other three examples we see how the Lord continues with this demanding standard of righteousness. And when we look at these we are to think: “I do not reach these standards. I am sometimes evasive with my words, I am not as generous as I should be and I do show favouritism with regard to who I show kindness to.”
Through this the Lord is relentlessly pressing the point to prove that it is necessary to have a righteousness which emerges from the heart. However, as Jeremiah 17:9 tells us The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? Accordingly, we mess it all up in the heart and are not able to achieve this righteousness. We cannot reach the standard. It just cannot be done.
Our desperate plight is searchingly brought home in the final statement of the chapter Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5v48). It would seem that this statement should stand alone as a paragraph on its own because it does not just connect to the foregoing section on loving your neighbour. Rather, it connects to all the passage from v21. As we see this statement we cry “Lord it is impossible; it’s just not achievable; we cannot be perfect.” That is precisely the situation the Lord wants us in. He wants us to be crying for Him to give us this righteousness. Remember we have got to have this righteousness, otherwise we are eternally sunk. But we cannot get it ourselves. So we cry to God, knowing that we are failures who cannot please Him, and He says “I have given my Son Jesus to die, to take away your sins.” When we respond with faith, we are given a righteousness which comes from Him. Praise his Name. Furthermore, as we seek to journey on to live for God we realise that the good life which is pleasing to God can never be derived from my strength, rather, it must always be from God. So it is Jesus through His Spirit, the Holy Spirit, who works through us and works righteously.
I can never achieve this righteousness myself. So all the glory goes where? It goes to God. I am only accepted with God and in His family because He has given me righteousness and I can only live a righteous life because God works through me. I am dependant upon Him from beginning to end, and He has ALL the glory.
So make sure that your righteousness is not a righteousness based on your religious achievement. The consequences of getting the wrong righteousness are just too disastrous. If you get the wrong righteousness you are not in the Kingdom of God. And if you are not in the kingdom of God, you are set for eternal disaster.
(Taken from the Feltham Evangelical Church Newsletter of Oct 2014).