We are studying Matthew 5:17-20 again tonight, but our focus will be on verse 20. But before we do that I want us to look at Luke 18. This passage will serve as a fitting beginning for our study of Matthew 5:20.
Notice the parable that our Lord gives in Luke 18: 9-14, “And He spoke this parable unto certain who trusted in themselves, that they were righteous, and despised others." Here are some people who thought that they were righteous; in fact they were self-righteousness, the religion of human achievement. So to those people, Jesus told this story.
"10 Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank You that I am not like other men -- extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.'"
As a Pharisee, he was considered to be the most religious person in his society. In his own mind, he was convinced that that was true. He was thanking God that he wasn't like other people and that he went beyond the behavior of other people and fasted twice in the week. The Old Testament required one fast a year, so to fast twice a week would be about 103 times more than you needed to.
On the other hand, the tax collector stands far off (verse 13), "And would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but beat upon his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner.'" There is the contrast. The least esteemed man in Jewish society was a tax collector because he was a Jew who worked for Rome. He had opted out for money; he had forsaken his loyalty and nationalism, even his religion, if you will, for money.
This one is far away, beating on his breast, saying, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner." In verse 14, Jesus gave the point of the story. "I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other. For whoever exalts himself shall be abased, and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted."
That's the story about a bad man that went to heaven and a good man that went to hell. It serves as a fitting beginning to what we are going to look at in Matthew 5, because in this passage, we have a very similar situation.
The average person who reads the account of Luke 18 wouldn't quite understand it, because most people think that good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell. The man crouching in the corner, beating on his breast, and saying, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner," is admitting that he really is going to hell.
On the other hand, someone who doesn't extort, or commit adultery, and who fasts twice a week, and gives tithes of all that he possesses, and is a super-religious person is certainly a person on his way to heaven. Most people in society believe that if you're good enough, you'll get there, and if you're bad, you won't. But Jesus told a story in Luke 18 that said the very opposite.
Then He went further in Matthew 5: 20, "For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven." What Jesus is saying here is that if you want to go to Heaven, you have to be better than the scribes and Pharisees.
I have asked many people this question, "How do you get to heaven?" and they usually say, "By being good." I asked one person one time, "How good do you have to be?" He said, "Very good." I said, "How good is very good?" He said, "It's very, very good."
But Jesus just told us that the best people in Israel will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven based on their goodness. And the worst in Israel's society, a tax collector, a traitor, went home justified. This raises the question, "How good do you have to be to get to Heaven? What are God’s criteria?"
That is precisely what Jesus is teaching here. And His teaching was radical, and very different from that of the teachers of that day. Those teachers were always concerned with the external; what people can see, while Jesus was always talking about the internal, which only God can see.
He was so very different that the people felt that He must be just another revolutionary - just another reformer that comes down through history and brings some new revelation, just another wandering preacher, a would-be Messiah like so many others. His message sounded rather like a deviation of the Old Testament.
Jesus begins to articulate His Kingdom. Having established that He is King in the first four chapters, He now launches into this sermon. He wants them to know that His message is not something new; He is not rejecting the Old Testament or giving them something that nullifies, or abrogates the Old Testament.
Jesus says in Matthew 5: 20, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” What He means is, "The scribes and Pharisees have not lived up to the Old Testament standard. It isn't a new standard; however they have interpreted it wrong." So, in these marvelous verses, Jesus assures us that He is still totally committed to the Old Testament.
Why did God give the Scripture? Why does He give us all of these standards? What is the purpose? The purpose of God's law was to show you that you had to have more righteousness than you could come up with on your own; that's the point.
The law was to show us that even the very best in Israel - the scribes and the Pharisees, with all of their religious trappings, with ceremony and ritual - could not gain the righteousness required to enter the Kingdom. The law wasn't to tell us how good we are, but to show us how rotten and inadequate we are.
Galatians 3:24 articulates it with this statement: "Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith." The law was the schoolmaster, or the disciplinarian, to show us that we cannot achieve this by ourselves and then to bring us to Christ.
That's why the man in the corner in Luke 18, beating on his breast and saying, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner," went home justified, because he responded to what God's law intended to show him: that he was a sinner. Whereas, the Pharisee, who was so self-righteous, did not understand the meaning of God's law at all, for he never responded to it in the way that God had intended.
So this is really the theme of His whole sermon in Matthew 5-7, it's true righteousness. The Old Testament gives the absolute standard in the Law. So this great sermon, from the Beatitudes to the final illustration in chapter 7 of the houses built on sand and rock, is a wonderful sermon on the truths that govern a man's relationship with God.
Sometimes people after being baptized give testimony that for years and years they were a part of a system. They had gone to church, and some of them were sharing how faithfully they had done that. They had been involved in all the ritual, ceremony and trappings, but never knowing the reality. And that can happen to anybody in any church, where you substitute form for substance.
So the law came with the purpose of showing us that even the very best men couldn't make it into God's Kingdom. The kindest and the best, the noblest, the most religious, if they were depending upon their own goodness, would be excluded from the Kingdom.
Let us look for a minute to Matthew 5:3 and let's remind ourselves of what Jesus said in the beginning, "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." The religious system of the time was not poor in spirit but proud, boastful, arrogant, feeling that they had arrived spiritually, and this is the very opposite of that.
Jesus comes and says, "No! It is only when you recognize your own wretchedness and come to Me. The law is not established for you to show how good you are; it is established to prove to you how bad you are because you are unable to keep the law." And that is true for all of us.
The Pharisees and scribes figured they were so good, there must be something wrong with the law, so they changed the law. They came up with a lot of rabbinical traditions that they could live by. So based on the theological concept that, "We are good," they had lowered the standard for themselves. On the other hand the sinner in the corner, beating on his breast, accepted the divine standard and understood that he could not attain this.
Who were the scribes and Pharisees? If we have to have a righteousness that exceeds them, we ought to know who they were. Scribes were simply those who dealt with the letter of the law, the interpretation of the law and the recording of the law. They were those who struggled with the finer points of the law.
In addition, there were other scribes, the ceremonial, or ecclesiastical scribes, and they were always involved in studying the Old Testament and determining what it said. They originally came from the tribe of Levi. They literally gave their entire lives to studying the Old Testament and amazingly enough they still came up with the wrong conclusions.
People might say, "All these people who are in all these other systems of religion that claim to be Christians - liberals, cults, all these others - they study the Bible." Well, so did the scribes, and they came up with the wrong answers. So did the Sadducees, so did the Pharisees. They all came up with the wrong answers, so don't be shocked if that also happens today.
What about the Pharisees? Within Judaism, there were several sects. 'Pharisee' comes from a root word which means 'to separate.' They were the separatists, the super fundamental legalists of their day. They separated themselves from everybody.
They separated themselves from all Gentiles - they wouldn't get near one because they didn't want to be defiled. They also separated themselves from any Jew who lived with less concern than they had for the law. So the Pharisees kind of lifted themselves out of Jewish society as a super-elite group who according to them alone knew what it was to really walk with God.
The Pharisees differed from the scribes because they didn't particularly study the law; they simply developed a system of ritual, they developed a sect. So the scribes could be either Sadducees or Pharisees. The Pharisees took the Word of God and developed a rigid, ceremonial, ritualistic system, based more on tradition then the law of God. They knew they really couldn't keep the law of Moses.
The Pharisees developed many many rules that they themselves attempted to keep. They even convinced themselves that God didn't have anyone better in the world; so if anyone would go to heaven, it would be them. In fact, the Jews used to have a saying, "If only two people go to Heaven, one will be a scribe, and the other will be a Pharisee."
What were they depending on for their salvation? A scribe or Pharisee was depending upon the external system of human achievement, "Look what I've done! I don't do that, I do this, I fast twice a week, give tithes of all I possess," and so forth. "We look holy on the outside because we've developed this system."
They didn't get involved in adultery, theft, murder, idolatry, but they had a lot of impure and rotten thoughts, and they coveted like mad, and they hated with a fury, and they were cold in their hearts toward God. Their heart inside was all fouled up, but on the outside they were able to maintain their appearance of being good.
Beloved brothers and sisters, examine your own heart, because it is very easy to get wrapped up in a superficial kind of religion. It is very easy to go through the motions of prayer, reading the Bible, attending church, going to a Bible study, but there's nothing happening on the inside of your heart. Life can be superficial and this is very dangerous.
That's why when they asked Him, "What is the greatest commandment?" He didn't give them some external thing to follow; He said, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, strength. This is the first and greatest commandment."
Their righteousness was not only external but also partial. Matthew 23:23 says, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin," that's herbs and seeds, little tiny things. "You tithe your little tiny things, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone."
In other words, "You strain at a gnat and swallow a camel." In those days, when they wanted to drink something, they had a little strainer to get gnats or bugs out. They were picking the little gnats out of things but swallowing a whole camel.
The point that He's making here is that it was partial; they only accommodated themselves to what they could handle without thinking of the rest. It was a ritual religion, made to fit their capability. By keeping the traditions that they invented, they thought they were serving God. But they were not loving God with their heart, soul, mind and strength. They only cared for themselves.
Their righteousness was also redefined. They made up their own rules, and what they wound up doing was redefining everything. "Yes, that's what God said, but we think that He meant this," and so instead of following God exactly as written, they gave it all a wrong meaning.
How and where do you get true righteousness? Let's go back to Galatians 2:16, "Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified."
We then are made righteous by faith in Christ. It says in Romans 8:4, "Through Christ, the righteousness of the law is fulfilled in us." Wow, if this does not affect you, then you don’t care about the greatest truth in the entire Bible. God has set a standard we can never attain, but then given us the fulfillment of that standard as a gift by believing in Jesus Christ.
How good does a man have to be to get to Heaven? He has to be as good as God, and how do you get to be as good as God? Only by one way: God giving you His goodness. How does God give you His goodness? When you accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, the Bible says the righteousness of Christ is imputed to you. Isn’t that amazing?
Examine your life. Are you really righteous, or is it just a ritual? Do you really know Jesus Christ or are you counting on your own goodness? The standard is faith in Jesus Christ; it's God's Heaven, He determines the requirements, and all you can do is respond. You enter on His terms only or you stay out. Please receive Him, let’s pray.