Jesus said in Matthew 5:20,
For 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.
As a young Christian I would read that verse with a degree of fear and trepidation. The Pharisees were pretty righteous, weren’t they? Who could jump this bar of righteousness better than they? Were they not professional models of righteousness, the top athletes of the Righteousness Games? Until I remembered (ah, of course!) Jesus was perfect – 10s across the board. What’s more, by his death, his righteousness is imputed to me! Now I have 10s across the board too. Thus fear dissolved away. I could, and still can, rest content in the gracious saving act of the Saviour on the cross.
One nagging doubt, though. Is that what Jesus really meant me to infer from Matthew 5:20? I thought that then, but not now. The trouble is it does not seem to fit with the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. For example, what did Jesus mean by verse 17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them“? I can understand this within the classical confessional view of the law as ceremonial, civil and moral. Ceremonially, Christ was the fulfilment of the OT sacrifices. He was the was the true sacrifice of which the OT was but a shadow. Civilly, the nationhood of Israel pointed to a future kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, about which Jesus preached in his earthly ministry. Jesus is the king of the new kingdom.
What of the moral law? We could argue that Jesus fulfilled that too. He lived a pure life after all. Doesn’t it avail for us? And therefore does that not mean that for us the law is abolished in the sense that there is no need to keep it any more? But if true the question would remain: why did Jesus teach about moral requirements in the Sermon on the Mount, commanding his disciples to live this way?
First of all, some background. I think the key to understanding Jesus teaching is the New Covenant promise of Jer 31:31-34. There, God says he will write the law in the hearts of his people. It will be no longer be an external code. There would be no point to this work of God if He did not require us to be conscious of the law in our lives day by day. Indeed, the fact that it is in our hearts makes it a motivating principle, a desire. Why would God do such a thing if the law were abolished? Rather, in the New Covenant, the moral requirements of the law are fulfilled in the believer in a new way. The believer sees the moral law as a delight, a joy. He or she wants to do it.
I believe this is consistent with Paul’s teaching in Romans 8:3,4 where he says “He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit“. Note the preposition: “fulfilled in us“. Paul is not talking about imputed righteousness, but about the grace of righteousness expressed in the believer – a righteousness worked out.
Now, this line of thinking brings us back to the original problem. OK I, as a Christian, need to live a holy life which conforms to the law. Doesn’t Matthew 5:20 show that, in the face of such excellence in righteousness from the Pharisees, it is impossible?
Here I think I have misunderstood the the true extent of the righteousness of the Pharisees. Yes, Jesus words sound daunting. Yet his subsequent exposition of the law showed that more was required than simply outward conformity. The law is deeply spiritual and applies to the parts people cannot see. It is inner, too. I believe that by this exposition Jesus showed that the righteousness of the Pharisees was no righteousness at all. At best it is an outward formalism which hides a deep hypocrisy in them. As a result, when Jesus is saying that the righteousness of the believer must exceed it, he is not presenting to them a hypothetical option which is impossible to achieve, and so implies the need for imputation. But he is saying that the keeping of the law is deeply spiritual for which the New Covenant arrangement is essential. It is no surprise then that at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount it is those who are poor in spirit who are identified as blessed, who will cry out to God for the help they need to keep the law. We knew from Paul in Romans that the power for this is given by His Spirit.
This raises the inevitable thought that Jesus is requiring a certain level of obedience in order to qualify for entry into the kingdom. However I believe this also to be a misreading of the text. Jesus is not saying “If you do this then you will get in. ” He is saying “If you don’t do this you won’t get in”. As you can see these are not saying the same thing. A simple illustration of the logic is: “If something is a square then it is a rectangle” is not the same as “If something is not a square it is not a rectangle”. (Pause for a moment to think about that!) What this means is that works cannot get you entry, but the absence of them will exclude you. Why? Because it is necessary that a believer’s life is transformed if he/she has been regenerated. The absence of works, therefore is evidence of the absence of regeneration, or to put it another way, evidence that that which was promised in the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31 has not been applied.
So, is righteousness that is greater than the Pharisees possible? When we remember, first, that the standard was actually lower than we thought, and, second, that God makes it possible for us in Christ by his Spirit. I think the answer is yes.
What do you think?