(Matthew 5:20 NIV) 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 Sermon on the Mount is one of the most misunderstood messages that Jesus ever gave. One group says it is God’s plan of salvation, that if we ever hope to go to heaven we must obey these rules. Another group calls it a “charter for world peace” and begs the nations of the earth to accept it. Still a third group tells us that the Sermon on the Mount does not apply to today, but that it will apply at some future time, perhaps during the Tribulation or the millennial kingdom.
I have always felt that Matthew 5:20 was the key to this important sermon: “For I say unto you, that except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” The main theme is true righteousness. The religious leaders had an artificial, external righteousness based on Law. But the righteousness Jesus described is a true and vital righteousness that begins internally, in the heart. The Pharisees were concerned about the minute details of conduct, but they neglected the major matter of character. Conduct flows out of character.
Whatever applications the Sermon on the Mount may have to world problems, or to future events, it is certain that this sermon has definite applications for us today. Jesus gave this message to individual believers, not to the unsaved world at large. What was taught in the Sermon on the Mount is repeated in the New Testament epistles for the church today. Jesus originally gave these words to His disciples (Matt. 5:1), and they have shared them with us.
In this chapter, Jesus gave three explanations about true, spiritual righteousness.
What True Righteousness Is (Matt. 5:1-16)
Being a master Teacher, our Lord did not begin this important sermon with a negative criticism of the scribes and Pharisees. He began with a positive emphasis on righteous character and the blessings that it brings to the life of the believer. The Pharisees taught that righteousness was an external thing, a matter of obeying rules and regulations. Righteousness could be measured by praying, giving, fasting, etc. In the Beatitudes and the pictures of the believer, Jesus described Christian character that flowed from within.
Imagine how the crowd’s attention was riveted on Jesus when He uttered His first word: “Blessed.” (The Latin word for blessed is beatus, and from this comes the word beatitude.) This was a powerful word to those who heard Jesus that day. To them it meant “divine joy and perfect happiness.” The word was not used for humans; it described the kind of joy experienced only by the gods or the dead. “Blessed” implied an inner satisfaction and sufficiency that did not depend on outward circumstances for happiness. This is what the Lord offers those who trust Him!
The Beatitudes describe the attitudes that ought to be in our lives today. Four attitudes are described here.
Our attitude toward ourselves (v. 3).
To be poor in spirit means to be humble, to have a correct estimate of oneself (Rom. 12:3). It does not mean to be “poor spirited” and have no backbone at all! “Poor in spirit” is the opposite of the world’s attitudes of self-praise and self-assertion. It is not a false humility that says, “I am not worth anything, I can’t do anything!” It is honesty with ourselves: we know ourselves, accept ourselves, and try to be ourselves to the glory of God.
Our attitude toward our sins (vv. 4-6).
We mourn over sin and despise it. We see sin the way God sees it and seek to treat it the way God does. Those who cover sin or defend sin certainly have the wrong attitude. We should not only mourn over our sins, but we should also meekly submit to God (see Luke 18:9-14; Phil. 3:1-14).
Meekness is not weakness, for both Moses and Jesus were meek men (Num. 12:3; Matt. 11:29). This word translated “meek” was used by the Greeks to describe a horse that had been broken. It refers to power under control.
Our attitude toward the Lord (vv. 7-9).
We experience God’s mercy when we trust Christ (Eph. 2:4-7), and He gives us a clean heart (Acts 15:9) and peace within (Rom. 5:1). But having received His mercy, we then share His mercy with others. We seek to keep our hearts pure that we might see God in our lives today. We become peacemakers in a troubled world and channels for God’s mercy, purity, and peace.
Our attitude toward the world (vv. 10-16).
It is not easy to be a dedicated Christian. Our society is not a friend to God nor to God’s people. Whether we like it or not, there is conflict between us and the world. Why? Because we are different from the world and we have different attitudes.
As we read the Beatitudes, we find that they represent an outlook radically different from that of the world. The world praises pride, not humility. The world endorses sin, especially if you “get away with it.” The world is at war with God, while God is seeking to reconcile His enemies and make them His children. We must expect to be persecuted if we are living as God wants us to live. But we must be sure that our suffering is not due to our own foolishness or disobedience.
How True Righteousness Comes (Matt. 5:17-20)
Certainly after the crowd heard our Lord’s description of the kind of person God blesses, they said to themselves, “But we could never attain that kind of character. How can we have this righteousness? Where does it come from?” They wondered how His teaching related to what they had been taught all their lives. What about Moses and the Law?
In the Law of Moses, God certainly revealed His standards for holy living. The Pharisees defended the Law and sought to obey it. But Jesus said that the true righteousness that pleases God must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees—and to the common people, the scribes and Pharisees were the holiest men in the community! If they had not attained, what hope was there for anybody else?
Jesus explained His own attitude toward the Law by describing three possible relationships.
We can seek to destroy the Law (v. 17a).
The Pharisees thought Jesus was doing this. To begin with, His authority did not come from any of the recognized leaders or schools. Instead of teaching “from authorities” as did the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus taught with authority.
Not only in His authority, but also in His activity, Jesus seemed to defy the Law. He deliberately healed people on the Sabbath Day and paid no attention to the traditions of the Pharisees. Our Lord’s associations also seemed contrary to the Law, for He was the friend of publicans and sinners.
Yet, it was the Pharisees who were destroying the Law! By their traditions, they robbed the people of the Word of God; and by their hypocritical lives, they disobeyed the very Law that they claimed to protect. The Pharisees thought they were conserving God’s Word, when in reality they were preserving God’s Word: embalming it so that it no longer had life! Their rejection of Christ when He came to earth proved that the inner truth of the Law had not penetrated their hearts.
Jesus made it clear that He had come to honor the Law and help God’s people love it, learn it, and live it. He would not accept the artificial righteousness of the religious leaders. Their righteousness was only an external masquerade. Their religion was a dead ritual, not a living relationship. It was artificial; it did not reproduce itself in others in a living way. It made them proud, not humble; it led to bondage, not liberty.
We can seek to fulfill the Law (v. 17b).
Jesus Christ fulfilled God’s Law in every area of His life. He fulfilled it in His birth because He was “made under the Law” (Gal. 4:4). Every prescribed ritual for a Jewish boy was performed on Him by His parents. He certainly fulfilled the Law in His life, for nobody was ever able to accuse Him of sin. While He did not submit to the traditions of the scribes and Pharisees, He always did what God commanded in the Law. The Father was “well pleased” with His Son (Matt. 3:17; 17:5).
Jesus also fulfilled the Law in His teaching. It was this that brought Him into conflict with the religious leaders. When He began His ministry, Jesus found the Living Word of God encrusted with man-made traditions and interpretations. He broke away this thick crust of “religion” and brought the people back to God’s Word. Then, He opened the Word to them in a new and living way—they were accustomed to the “letter” of the Law and not the inner “kernel” of life.
But it was in His death and resurrection that Jesus especially fulfilled the Law. He bore the curse of the Law (Gal. 3:13). He fulfilled the Old Testament types and ceremonies so that they no longer are required of the people of God (see Heb. 9-10). He set aside the Old Covenant and brought in the New Covenant.
Jesus did not destroy the Law by fighting it; He destroyed it by fulfilling it! Perhaps an illustration will make this clear. If I have an acorn, I can destroy it in one of two ways. I can put it on a rock and smash it to bits with a hammer. Or, I can plant it in the ground and let it fulfill itself by becoming an oak tree.
When Jesus died, He rent the veil of the temple and opened the way into the holiest (Heb. 10:19). He broke down the wall that separated the Jews and Gentiles (Eph. 2:11-13). Because the Law was fulfilled in Christ, we no longer need temples made with hands (Acts 7:48ff) or religious rituals (Col. 2:10-13).
How can we fulfill the Law? By yielding to the Holy Spirit and allowing Him to work in our lives (Rom. 8:1-3). The Holy Spirit enables us to experience the “righteousness of the law” in daily life. This does not mean we live sinlessly perfect lives, but it does mean that Christ lives out His life through us by the power of His Spirit (Gal. 2:20).
When we read the Beatitudes, we see the perfect character of Jesus Christ. While Jesus never had to mourn over His sins, since He was sinless, He was still a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3). He never had to hunger and thirst after righteousness since He was the holy Son of God, but He did delight in the Father’s will and find His satisfaction in doing it (John 4:34). The only way we can experience the righteousness of the Beatitudes is through the power of Christ.
We can seek to do and teach the Law (v. 19).
This does not mean we major on the Old Testament and ignore the New! Second Corinthians 3 makes it clear that ours is a ministry of the New Covenant. But there is a proper ministry of the Law (1 Tim. 1:9ff) that is not contrary to the glorious message of God’s grace. Jesus wants us to know more of the righteousness of God, obey it, and share it with others. The moral law of God has not changed. Nine of the Ten Commandments are repeated in the New Testament epistles and commanded to believers. (The exception is the Sabbath commandment, which was given as a sign to Israel, see Neh. 9:14.)
We do not obey an external Law because of fear. No, believers today obey an internal Law and live because of love. The Holy Spirit teaches us the Word and enables us to obey. Sin is still sin, and God still punishes sin. In fact, we in this present age are more responsible because we have been taught and given more!