Jesus has been teaching about the value and importance of the Word of God. Now He summarizes just how key it is to the life of the disciple of God 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.”
The word Jesus uses for righteousness is the Greek dikaiosynē – meaning adherence to what is required according to a moral standard. The key in question then is our ability to live according to the Word of God.
Many in society think that they are pure before God – both in our day and in Christ’s day. But a human standard of righteousness will never cut it, because the righteousness that Jesus speaks about is a right-ness before God, not in our own eyes. It is not even a right-ness that society attributes to us as we speak about the Law of God. If it were that, the Pharisees and teachers of the law would’ve been the high mark for sure. But just because we know about the Word of God or teach the Word of God or believe we are approved by the Word of God doesn’t mean that we are righteous. It that was the mark of righteousness, the Pharisees and teachers of the law would’ve been looking great from Jesus’ point of view. Yet they are so far off that He doesn’t even suggest we start there and try to get better. Instead, He says that off the start we need a righteousness that is higher in quality.
One commentator writes, “Clearly the Pharisees and teachers of the law had a particular interest in tithing, ritual purity, and sabbath observance. They had committed themselves to a set of shared views as to how these should be best lived out, which included the desire to apply aspects of temple purity law to society at large. The intensity of their interest in these matters is likely to relate to their concern to maintain the purity of Jewish faith against the inroads of Hellenistic culture. They functioned as a political interest group seeking to influence the governing classes and society at large, with sometimes more and sometimes less success, but with a level of public credibility which gave them the potential of being important opinion formers.”
Certain interest groups in our society do the same thing. But Jesus says that the resulting right-ness that the Pharisees and teachers got from their efforts is far too low a standard. That’s because the judge of their rightness was themselves. It wasn’t God. They did what the Word said and then said to themselves, “I am now righteous.” It was really just a form of mankind’s approval, and simply put, it was a right-ness that was not right-enough. To gain heaven we must surpass that, right out of the box. But if those who taught about the law of God were not attaining rightness before God, how can we hope to attain it?
The answer surely includes living a holy life, and that surely includes reading, studying and obeying the Word of God. But it means living that life with and by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and not depending on ourselves – or even others to do it for us. We can listen for the Lord’s voice through others, but we have to learn to discern what they are saying as people speaking to us vs what God is saying to us through them. That means putting God far ahead of the person(s) representing God, and certainly not mistaking their approval for God’s approval. The Pharisees and teachers of the Law should’ve known that, because even before Moses, and even before the establishment of the covenant marking out the Hebrew people, the Word said, “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.”
Abram believed what God had said to him. That was enough to be considered righteous before God then, and it is still enough today. Seek God with all your heart, wherever you are and whatever you are doing – and lean not on your own understanding of right-ness. For the righteousness that God credits us with is real right-ness. And that is enough. Amen.
Righteousness is the grace that equips us to live a moral life. It not only sets a standard but grants the freedom to live up to this standard.Donald G. Bloesch
Today, worship God by following His leading. Praise Him for the forgiveness He gives us, and the righteous He bestows on us on account of Jesus Christ.