Kingdom Righteousness: Matthew 5:17-20
April 20, 2015 by Bob Putman 0 comments
In the Beatitudes we get a summary of what radical righteousness meant to Jesus’ hearers, and what it means to us. Jesus follows the Beatitudes with six examples of how that righteousness works out in our lives. Matthew 5:17-20 are some of the more difficult New Testament verses to understand. We need to look at the context in which Jesus spoke them. He was a Jew speaking to first-century Jews. His categories were aimed at that audience and crafted to correct some of their erroneous teaching.
First we need to understand who he was referring to when he spoke of the scribes and the Pharisees. A scribe was a teacher and expounder of the Law. He was important because he could write. The scribes were the caretakers of authority and business.
The Pharisees were a political and religious group, but they were not a specific leadership group. Some members of the Sanhedrin (religious rulers) were Pharisees, some Sadducees were Pharisees, some Pharisees were neither―some were poor people trying to obey God’s Law. The Pharisees were not a formal, organized group.
They had developed a code of 230 rules to help people interpret the Law, and the Pharisees were very popular. They were the righteous ones. Their religion was external and outward. They taught adherence to the ceremonial while neglecting the moral basis of the Law. They held to their traditions at the expense of proper application of their own teachings. They often had greater concern for themselves than for others. Their reaction to Jesus was: This man is circumventing the Law. He is not behaving and teaching accurately about our religion. He is not teaching with authority because he is not teaching the Law [as we have interpreted it].
Christ and the Law
In these verses Jesus begins by saying he is not superseding or replacing the Law, he has come to fulfill it. He is not taking authority over Scripture, as the Pharisees accused. Instead he is restoring the Law by clarifying and fulfilling it. He begins each of his examples by saying, “You have heard it said, but I say to you….” He is contrasting the scribes’ and Pharisees’ teaching with the correct intention of Scripture.
The continuing validity of the Law.
In what sense is the Law fulfilled by Jesus and in what sense is it still valid for us today? How do we begin to fulfill the intention of the Law? The requirements of the Law are fulfilled as we walk by the Spirit. The Law, properly understood, goes hand-in-hand with the gospel. In what sense has Jesus fulfilled the Law?
• He fulfilled the messianic prophecies.
He was born in Bethlehem, performed many miracles, was crucified, died and rose from death to bring us eternal life.
• He satisfied the Law’s demands.
Justice was demanded to pay for sin. On the cross it was satisfied once for all. The whole Jewish sacrificial system was intended to show what Jesus would do. Like sacrifice, certain aspects of the Law were completed in Jesus―no longer needed to be done.
• He kept the Law’s commands.
He was born under the Law, righteous and kept the Law perfectly. No one gets into heaven without righteousness. But the only way I’m getting into heaven is on somebody else’s righteousness. We all have fallen far short of God’s standard. Because of the cross, God’s Son’s righteousness is credited to us.
• He fulfills the Law in believers through the Holy Spirit.
In Romans 8:1-2 we see that the Spirit fulfills the Law in us. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ from the law of sin and death.” God says, in Ezekiel 11:19, “I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them.”
• He brings fruition to the Law through his teaching and person.
The Pharisees accused Jesus of abolishing the Law. Their interpretation weakened its power to search the hearts of men. They said, “If you live up to these codes and prohibitions, you’re keeping the Law.” Jesus said the Law was meant to show decay on the inside, to drive people to God’s mercy and grace. He was so angry with the Pharisees because their rules were keeping people from being saved. Jesus didn’t abolish the Law, he set it free from the dungeon in which the Pharisees had imprisoned it.
Christians and the Law
In this passage Jesus makes a vital connection between the Law and the kingdom of God. The Law is not above the kingdom of God; the Spirit is at work in us fulfilling the Law. The Law provides the rails on which the Spirit of God fuels our lives to get us moving toward righteousness. It doesn’t restrict us, it gives us the freedom to guide us in the direction led by the Holy Spirit. The call to deeper obedience. Jesus is not lowering the standard, as the Pharisees did, so people can meet it. He is raising it to a level that can only be fulfilled through the power of the Spirit.
The weakness of the Law to save us is not in the Law, but in us, in our “flesh.” Jesus says, “…unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Our righteousness is not to exceed that of the Pharisees not in number but in kind. It is to be internal, real and spiritual. It’s a call to deeper righteousness. It distinguishes the nature of true righteousness. We enter the kingdom by free grace.
But that doesn’t mean we are to take the Law lightly. The Law is not the basis of our salvation, but it distinguishes how we ought to live. If we use our liberty to dismiss the Law’s standards, we miss the mark just like the Pharisees. We loosen the Law’s grip on our hearts. Jesus didn’t disagree with the Law’s authority, he clarified and fulfilled it. Christianity is not some feeble-minded do-goodism. The righteousness demanded by Jesus is more challenging than that of the Pharisees. And more liberating.
In Roman’s 3, Paul said “…a righteousness from God is revealed.” In his teaching, Jesus is laying the foundation for justification by faith through grace and sanctification by walking in step with the Holy Spirit’s leading. Therefore Paul called his own Pharisaical righteousness filthy rags. Put you faith not in your righteousness, but in Jesus’ righteousness on the cross.
You can listen to the entire sermon here.
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