The Sermon on the Mount was one of the first passages I tried to memorize upon discovering the Bible in high school. Yes, all three chapters. I was a bit of an overachiever throughout the first few years of my Christian walk, and the idea of having all those moral guidelines recorded to memory really appealed to me. But it didn’t appeal to me because I thought Christ’s instructions were legitimate and important. It appealed to me because I constantly strove to make my religious sincerity apparent to the people around me.
Ironically, this is the essence of what it is to be a Pharisee. I never succeeded in memorizing the entire Sermon on the Mount, but if I had actually gotten past the first set of verses, I’d have found an exhortation that matched my condition perfectly due to my fragmented and self-focused understanding of righteousness:
“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. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” [emphasis mine].
The modern church’s understanding of what it is to be a scribe or Pharisee causes us to scratch our heads at this last verse. I think one of the most popular but harmful misunderstandings promoted in contemporary Christian teaching is the idea that Christ’s main issue with the scribes and Pharisees was their obsession with obedience. This is why you’re likely to be called a Pharisee or “legalist” if you’re passionate about the importance of understanding and obeying the Word. Think we should take Scripture’s commands literally and plainly? Pharisee. Think it matters deeply that the Western church seeks to redefine who God is according to personal preference? Pharisee. Think we should consider following biblical commands that contradict the interpretation of the majority? Pharisee. Think there is a link between growth in holiness and personal assurance? Pharisee.
The spirituality heralded in our age, with its emphasis on moral subjectivism, internal reality, and liturgical spontaneity, sees a direct link between rule-following and false religion. (My thoughts on the “religion or relationship” controversy can be found in this post.) But in the eyes of Christ, according to what we see of His addresses in Scripture, the problem with the scribes and Pharisees was not their supposed zeal for obedience or proper interpretation. Whenever Jesus criticized the scribes and Pharisees, it was because their zeal was motivated by a love of self instead of a love for God. The heart behind obedience (or behind sin) is the theme that binds the Sermon on the Mount together. He was calling them out for only seeming to love the things of God, but not genuinely having this love.
Matthew 5:17-20 makes more sense with this understanding in mind. Verse 20 does not contradict the ones that precede it. To have “a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” is to have a faith-based righteousness. It is to be justified by the works of Christ alone and motivated to obedience by real love for God. Christ condemned the religious zealots of His day because their apparent passion for obedience was little more than an obsession with worldly self-glorification (see how he uses them as a negative example in the guidelines for giving and praying in Matt. 6:1-6).
So, when Christ calls believers to have a righteousness that exceeds this false righteousness, He is not saying that in order to have eternal life we must keep the particulars of the Mosaic law even more stringently than the scribes and Pharisees. On the other hand, people may wrongly assert that the remedy Christ offered for the mistakes of the “extremists” of His time was a more lenient attitude toward moral and religious matters. Just before His comment about law-keeping and the Pharisees, we see Christ paint a picture of Himself that spites both of these assumptions. He says,
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish these things but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place.”
Jesus cares deeply about obedience and righteousness. However, genuine Christian obedience and righteousness – the kind, He says in verse 20, that belongs to people who have eternal hope and security – is not hollow beneath the surface. Worldly “righteousness,” which includes not only false religious morality but also false secular morality, has no power or substance behind it other than what the sin-bound self can produce. Consider the current popularity of self-help books and media. We are captivated by pragmatic programs that guarantee to change our life forever – dieting, decluttering, wanderlust-ing, routine enhancing, you name it. And while such efforts might look very similar to true righteousness on the outside, they are worth no more than filthy rags to God (Isaiah 64:6).
This is why Jesus’ proclamation about exceeding the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is so significant. We will not enter the kingdom of heaven unless we have a righteousness of the heart, which is wrought only through the regenerating and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. We cannot produce the required spiritual substance to round out our attempts at righteousness. Christian righteousness is rooted in and founded upon the perfect righteousness of Jesus Himself. When God looks at those who rest in Jesus and obey out of love for Him, not out of a desire to save themselves, He sees them covered in the robe of Christ’s obedience. Only when we truly accept this will we be empowered to the kind of grateful, humble, inside-out godliness that characterizes genuine believers.
I never expected God to give me the hope of the Gospel in a passage that condemns the very people whose miserable heritage once enslaved me. How good He is to spite our plans and expectations, sovereignly using our failures to point us to truth, empower us to greater faith, and free us to respond in loving obedience.