Greater Righteousness

October 18, 2013 Preacher: Cameron Arensen Series: Book of Matthew

Topic: Expository Scripture: Matthew 5:17–20

In Matthew 5:20, Jesus shocked (and, no doubt, dismayed) his audience by telling them that unless their righteousness was greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees, they would not be able to enter the kingdom of heaven. What did he mean by that? And what hope does that leave for us? Find out in this sermon entitled Greater Righteousness, based on Matthew 5:17-20.


Hinges are not very exciting things, are they? We don’t give hinges for Christmas presents or birthday presents. Nobody comes to work or school and says, “Hey, I had a great time over the weekend. We went shopping for hinges!” How many of you have a favorite hinge?

But while hinges are not exciting, they are very important and very necessary to our lives. None of us could have arrived here today without depending on multiple hinges – to get out of your homes, into your car or taxi, and even to get into the building and into the worship hall.

There are some important “hinge” passages in the Scripture. They don’t usually make the hit parade of our favorite passages. But they are important to the correct understanding and interpretation of God’s Word. The whole Gospel of Matthew could be considered a hinge between the Old Testament and the New Testament. Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience, who were saturated in the Old Testament or the Old Covenant. He writes to introduce them to the Gospel of the New Testament or the New Covenant.

Within the Gospel of Matthew, there are some important “hinge” passages. We are looking at one of those today. Hinges are often quite small, and so the passage we are looking at today is quite short. But it is vital to our understanding, not only of the Sermon on the Mount, but the whole Gospel of Matthew and really of the whole New Testament. We read the passage in the Scripture reading a few moments ago. As we explore this passage, I want to do so under two major headings or topics; the first one is Jesus and the Old Testament in verses 17-18. The second one is The Christian and the Commandments in verses 19-20.


Why do I refer to the whole Old Testament? I do so because Jesus himself does. In his opening statement in this paragraph, he says, Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets.

This phrase was often used in Scripture as a shorthand reference to the whole Old Testament. After all, they didn’t call it the Old Testament, because at the time it was the only Testament they had. So when Jesus refers to the Law and the Prophets, he is not referring just to selected portions of the Old Testament but to the whole. In like manner, in the next verse when he mentions only the Law, he has not dropped his consideration of the Prophets. He is simply using that one phrase, once again as a shorthand way to refer to the whole Old Testament.

So what is Jesus’ relationship to the Old Testament? In verses 17-18 we have a statement and then an explanation or underlying principle. I want to look at the underlying principle first, as recorded in verse 18:

For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

This is a clear and ringing endorsement of the Old Testament as God’s Word and the clear affirmation that God Word is true and stands forever. This affirmation is given clearly in the Old Testament. In Isaiah 40:8 we read: The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.

For Jesus, the Old Testament was the Word of God. It had come from God, delivered through the prophets and writers of Holy Scripture. Because it came from God, not one small stroke of the pen was insignificant or erroneous. All had its purpose and God intends that every purpose should be fulfilled. Since this is true, what was Jesus’ relationship to the Old Testament?

Verse 17 tells us: Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

The word “abolish” means to do away with or to invalidate. Jesus did not come to invalidate the Old Testament, but to fulfill it. So the question we must address is this: In what sense did Jesus fulfill the Old Testament? I would like to suggest several ways.

First, Jesus kept the Old Testament laws. Throughout his earthly life, Jesus perfectly fulfilled the commandments of God. Galatians 4:4 tells us this: But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law.

In other words, when Jesus was born into this world, as a human being, and even as a Jew, he made himself subject to the law.

We then read this in 1 John 3:4-5: Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. 5 You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.

Put those two passages together: Jesus was born under and therefore subject to the law. Sin is lawlessness. In Jesus there was no sin. So that means he kept the law. Perfectly. This is the first way he fulfilled the Law.

Secondly, Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies. We’ve been seeing this already in Matthew’s gospel, haven’t we? He frequently used the prophetic fulfillment formula. “This happened to fulfill what was written by the prophet…” In the genealogy, in the details of Jesus’ birth, in the geographical details of his life and ministry; detail after detail fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament. As we read in 2 Corinthians 1:20: For all the promises of God find their Yes in him.
And the ones he has not fulfilled yet he will come again to fulfill in the future.

Thirdly, Jesus fulfilled the types and foreshadowing of the Old Testament sacrificial and ceremonial laws.

Hidden just beneath the surface of the whole Old Testament sacrificial and ceremonial system were numerous pictures and prophetic types of the coming Messiah: the veil of the temple, the blood on the altar, the Lamb of God, the high priest in his robes, the different feasts. They are far too many to mention and I suspect there are many that we have not even discovered yet. Jesus came to fulfill them all.

And finally, and possibly most importantly, Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament’s demands. What do I mean by that? The Old Testament law demanded: The soul that sins must die. It also says, Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.

Jesus, by his death on the cross, fulfilled the Law’s demands that blood be shed for the forgiveness of sins. See how the writer of Hebrews describes it in Hebrews 9:23-28:

Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. 24 For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. 25 Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, 26 for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

Jesus fulfilled the law by meeting its demands for us. And on the cross he cried out: It is finished.

That is why Jesus could proclaim to the audience assembled around him on the mountain: I did not come to abolish (or invalidate) the Law or the Prophets. I have come to fulfill them – every jot and tittle, every stroke of the pen.

Jesus did not come to invalidate the Law and the Prophets. He came to validate them in every detail.

Now, though, we want to consider a second, different but related topic.

II. The New Testament Believer and the Commandments

Again we will be considering two verses: one a statement, the second an explanation or statement of underlying principle. And again, I want to take the second, or explanatory statement first in verse 20:

For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

It is difficult for us to recapture the shock and dramatic effect Jesus’ words must have had on his audience. In the religious honor rolls of the day, the Pharisees and the scribes (or teachers of the law) were at the very top of the list. I hesitate to make an equivalent list today, because we all come from such different backgrounds, and therefore probably have different lists. But take a minute to assemble your own list of the 5 most righteous people (or categories of people) you know; the 5 you think most likely to go to heaven.

Do you have your list in mind? Now Jesus says to you: “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of these people, you will certainly never enter the kingdom of heaven.” You won’t even get past the gate.

In this statement, Jesus turned their whole spiritual hierarchy upside down. Jesus’ audience thought of the scribes and Pharisees as those who guarded the gates of the kingdom. And now Jesus tells them that they are not even inside the gates themselves. And what’s more, unless your righteousness exceeds theirs, you won’t get in either!

So, what do you think it means to be more righteous than the Pharisees? What was wrong with their righteousness? And how must our righteousness be different from theirs? Some might think it is a matter of degree.

The Pharisees calculated that there were 248 positive commands in the Old Testament and 365 prohibitions. That is a total of 613. Now does that mean that to be more righteous than the Pharisees, we need to have a list of 650? If it is not the length of the list, maybe it’s our success in keeping the list. If a Pharisee manages to keep 450 of the commands on his list, are we more righteous than he is if if we succeed in keeping 460 or 470? How righteous is righteous enough?

But that is wrong thinking. What Jesus is talking about is not degree, but kind of righteousness. I will admit here that I am stealing a march on Jesus’ audience that day when Jesus first spoke of this “greater righteousness.” I have read ahead to the rest of Jesus’ sermon and other teachings to be able to define the righteousness that is greater than that of the Pharisees.

First of all, Greater righteousness is internal as well as external.

In a later teaching, Jesus will castigate the Pharisees for their obsession with external righteousness. He will compare them to white-washed tombs, pure on the outside but full of contamination and decay on the inside. He also exposed the fallacy in their concerns about eating with clean hands and eating only “clean” foods by telling them that the real source of contamination was not what they put into their mouths, but what came out of their mouths and out of their hearts.

We will also learn in Jesus’ sermon that Greater righteousness extends to one’s motivation as well one’s actions. He will speak of right things done for the wrong reason; of practicing our righteousness in order to be seen and praised by other people. True righteousness is right action done for the right reason.

Another way of saying this is that Greater righteousness is righteousness of the heart as well as the hands. We have already seen this in the sixth beatitude. Blessed are the pure in heart. True righteousness is more than skin deep.

So at this point we might all be ready to ask: How can we achieve this greater righteousness. Who measures up to this standard that Jesus set? Jesus’ disciples asked this same question on another occasion: Who then can be saved? Do you know what Jesus answered? He simply said: What is impossible with men is possible with God. Can we be good enough to earn our entrance to the kingdom of heaven? The clear answer of Scripture is a resounding, “No!”

Romans 3:20-22a says this: For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. 21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe…

I believe this passage clearly exposes to us one of Jesus’ purposes in the Sermon on the Mount. This sermon was given for those who looked at the laws of God and by making them a matter of external observance only, thought they could succeed in keeping them. In this sermon, Jesus will reveal that the law is not a matter of externals only, but of the heart. And when we allow the requirements of God’s righteous law to penetrate our hearts, we see just how sinful we are and how far short we fall of God’s standards.

This should bring us to the point where the sermon begins, with the first two beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.

As the Apostle Paul will explain later in his Epistle to the Galatians, the law becomes our school master to bring us to Christ to accept his sacrifice on our behalf. So then, once we have repented of our sin and admitted our own inability to attain this “greater righteousness,” and once we have received the grace of God that is offered through faith in Jesus Christ, what will be our attitude and relationship to the commandments of God?

Let’s look now at verse 19: Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

I would first point out that the distinction here is not between those who are in the kingdom and those who are not. The distinction is between those who are least in the kingdom and those who are called great.

Another question of interpretation arises over the translation of the original language. The English Standard Version translates the word “relaxes”. The NIV translates it “breaks” and the NASB translates it “annuls”. The word that is used here is actually a form of the word that was used in verse 17 and was translated “abolish”: to render inoperative. The form in verse 17 is a stronger form of the word: to abolish or annul absolutely. In verse 19, it has the sense of to loose or relax. This word is used of laying down one’s load at the end of a journey.

What should our attitude be as members of the kingdom of heaven toward the commandments of God? I must admit to a certain sense of trepidation here. Especially as a teacher of God’s Word and this Sermon on the Mount particularly; am I one of those who is guilty of relaxing the demands of God’s commandments and teaching others to do the same? It is a serious responsibility that rests upon all of us who seek to interpret the Scriptures.

First, I do think it is valid to distinguish between the different kinds of commands in the Old Testament. There were ceremonial laws and sacrificial laws. These laws we are clearly told that Jesus fulfilled and they are no longer in force today because they have been fulfilled. Secondly, there were national and civil laws for the nation of Israel which were specific to them as a nation in the land that God had given them. These laws were part of their unique covenant with God. But thirdly, underlying all of these, there is the moral law of God, encapsulated in the Ten Commandments and in the two Great commandments: to love God and to love our neighbor. This question of which laws were binding on the New Testament church was debated fiercely in the early church.

It is the commandments revealing the moral law of God that I believe Jesus is speaking about here, most of which are also repeated for us in the New Testament. What should our attitude be, as those who have been saved by grace, toward the moral law of God? Are we free to ignore it, to do as we please? Since we are saved by grace, shall we continue in sin?

No! Jesus tells us here that the path to promotion, to greatness in the kingdom of heaven is the path of obedience to these commandments, and we also have a responsibility to teach others to obey them as well. After all, in the kingdom value system, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. And in the moral law of God we have the expression of that righteousness which we hunger and thirst for. In the kingdom value system, we are told that “blessed are the pure in heart.” And the Old Testament commandments, along with Jesus’ exposition in the Sermon on the Mount are a great description of what it means to be pure in heart.

You see, Jesus came, not to make righteous living unnecessary. He came to make righteous living possible. He came to institute a kingdom in which kingdom members demonstrate a righteousness that is greater than that of the Pharisees. A righteousness that is internal as well as external; a righteousness that extends to our motivation as well as our actions; a righteousness of the heart as well as the hands. This is the path to honor, blessing and true greatness in the kingdom of heaven.

This passage today is critical to our understanding of the rest of the Sermon. For it points out the two primary uses of the Sermon on the Mount. And I will come back to this distinction again and again as we work our way through the text in the next few weeks.

First, it is intended for those who believe, like the Pharisees, that they will inherit the kingdom of heaven based on their own good deeds and their righteousness; who believe that they are “good people.” Listen carefully. For you, the law of God and the application of that law through Jesus’ words in this sermon are a description of the righteous life that God requires. This is God’s standard. This is the bar you have to clear. To be “good enough” in God’s eyes, this is how good you have to be: “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

If you do not and cannot meet this standard, then you need to repent of your sins and your failure and seek the mercy of God. You have to get down to get in. Blessed are the poor in spirit, the spiritually bankrupt and those who mourn. To them belongs the kingdom of heaven.

But I believe there is a second, equally important use for this sermon, for those who have repented of their sin and trusted in Christ as Savior. For us, this sermon and the commandments of God represent the righteous life that God desires. This is the righteousness God wants to produce in us. Rather than seeking to relax or annul the commandments of God, let us allow the Holy Spirit within us to rekindle our hunger and thirst for righteousness and purity of heart. This is the path to greatness in the kingdom of heaven. This is what it will take to be salt and light in the world. Then people will see our good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven.

Discussion Questions

1. Quiz each other on your progress in memorizing the Beatitudes. If you don’t have them mastered yet, challenge each other to do so by the next time you get together.

2. Read Matthew 5:17-20. In the sermon, Pastor Cam explored the passage under two headings and we will use the same two headings in our discussion.

Jesus and the Old Testament

3. What was Jesus’ view of the Old Testament?

4. How does Jesus’ describe his relationship to the Old Testament?

5. What are some ways Jesus did this? (Fulfilled the Law) Note: Pastor Cam mentioned four in his sermon. Can you recall all four? Can you add any others?

The New Testament Believer and the Commandments

6. What effect do you think verse 20 would have had on Jesus’ audience? What equivalent statement might Jesus make to have the same effect on an audience today? How does this verse make you feel?

7. What is our relationship as New Testament believers to the Old Testament commandments?

8. In the sermon, Pastor Cam makes a distinction between the ceremonial/sacrificial laws, the civil laws and the moral laws of the Old Testament. How does this aid us in our understanding?

9. In what ways did the New Testament church wrestle with this question? What did they decide?

10. What effect does Jesus’ Sermon (in Matthew 5-7) have on our understanding of the moral law of God? In what ways does this help us understand the greater righteousness Jesus was talking about?

11. If we cannot measure up to this righteousness, what should we do?

Note: For further discussion of these subjects, compare these verses with Hebrews 7:18 and Hebrews 8:13. Are they contradicting each other? If not, how do we reconcile them?

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