Posted by: stpowen | October 10, 2010

A Greater Righteousness

A Greater Righteousness

Taken from a sermon first preached at Crossroads Church, Seaton Devon.

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.’

I think this verse must be one of the scariest texts in the Bible.  There are others, like Luke 13:5 or Rom. 1:18, but I fancy this one is scarier.  The scribes and the Pharisees were considered the cream of the religious world when our Lord was on earth.  The scribes were the teachers of the Old Testament law; experts on the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible.  We read of Ezra that he was ‘a skilled scribe in the law of Moses, which the LORD God of Israel had given’ (Ezra 7:6).  Under God, we owe a debt of gratitude to these men, since they were the ones entrusted with making accurate copies of the O.T. Scriptures, a task that they undertook with painstaking accuracy.

The Pharisees were the strictest sect within Judaism.  The word Pharisee means ‘separated one.’   They believed that all the woes that had come upon Israel in the Inter-Testamental Period (1) had occurred because of her failure to keep the law.  They not only commanded obedience to every precept in the Mosaic law with scrupulous attention, but they added other regulations to them, the ‘traditions of the elders’ as they were called.  We see in Mark 7:3-4, that they prescribed a special washing of the hands before eating, and when they had been out in the market-place, jostling with sinners and unclean people, they would purify themselves by full immersion in water when they got home (2).  The Pharisees also held to high ethical standards, outwardly at least.  If we consider the Pharisee’s prayer in Luke 18:11-12, and take him at his word, we can see that he did not extort money, did not commit adultery and gave away a tenth of his income.

So here is the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees:  they were steeped in the Scriptures, scrupulous in their religious observances, ethically of the highest standards and generous to the poor.  Yet the Lord Jesus tells us that our righteousness must exceed all that if ever we are to enter the kingdom of heaven.  How on earth are we going to manage it?

In order to understand what our Lord is saying, it will be helpful to read again the whole of Chapter 5 before proceeding.  In v17, He is making a qualification.  His teaching up to this point has been absolutely remarkable- speaking of the poor in spirit, the meek, the hungry, the persecuted and calling them ‘blessed.’   Obviously this is the reverse of what we see in our society.  Today we say, blessed are the rich, the confident, the physically beautiful, those with high self-esteem.  Blessed are the footballers’ wives; for they shall get higher divorce settlements.  But our Lord’s words were also the opposite of what the Pharisees would have believed.  They would have said, blessed are those with a righteousness of their own; blessed are the proud and those who are well thought of.  So strange and remarkable was this teaching of the Lord Jesus that it was natural for people to ask, “Has this Jesus of Nazareth done away with the Scriptures?  Is this preaching of his something entirely new?”  So wise teacher that He is, He immediately deals with this question head on.

“Don’t imagine,” He says, “That this teaching of mine is replacing the Old Testament Scriptures (3).  I’ve not come to do away with the Scriptures; I am their fulfilment. I am where they have been pointing and heading.”  Elsewhere He declared, “these are [the Scriptures] that testify of Me” (John 5:39).  This is most important to understand.  When Paul declares in Rom 10:4, ‘For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes,’ he doesn’t mean that Christ has put an end to the law as, say, divorce puts an end to marriage.  Rather it’s the way that a terminus is the end of a railway line.  It’s where the train was always headed; its fulfilment, its very purpose indeed. That is why not one jot nor tittle- not the smallest letter nor the least stroke of a pen- shall disappear from the law until the end of time (v18).

I need to clarify this a little.  There are three parts to the law given by Moses, Ceremonial, Judicial and Moral.  The ceremonial law is all the sacrifices and other stuff that the Jews had to do.  These were signs and types of Christ.  He is the Burnt Offering, the Grain Offering, the Fellowship Offering, the Sin Offering, the Guilt Offering the Yom Kippur, the Red Heifer, the turtledove and the two pigeons.  All these sacrifices looked forward to Him in their various ways (4) and He is the fulfilment them all (cf. Heb 10:11-14). They served their purpose and are finished.

Then there are the judicial laws.  These included the laws governing the land of Israel and also the sanctions against sin.  Adultery, homosexuality, witchcraft and other sins were punishable by death.  These laws were given to Israel as a theocracy, but with the coming of Christ, and the Gospel going out into all the world, the penalties no longer apply.   They do show God’s hatred of these sins and He will certainly punish those who commit them and do not repent, but we are no longer stoning adulterers, but calling upon them to repent and trust in Christ for forgiveness.  “Go and sin no more!” (John 8:11).

Thirdly, we have the moral law, summarized in the Decalogue or Ten Commandments, and summarized still further by the ‘Royal Law’ as given by the Lord Jesus in Mark 12:29-31 etc.  The Decalogue is special in three different ways. Firstly, all ten of the commandments given in Exodus 20, can be found either in Genesis or in Exodus 1-19 if one looks for them.  Secondly, these commandments alone were written by God Himself on tablets of stone (Deut 5:22). The rest of the Mosaic law was given, apparently by angels (Acts 7:53; Gal 3:17; Heb 2:2), to Moses who relayed it to the people.   Thirdly, and following on from this, we see from Romans 2:12-15 that the Decalogue is actually written on the hearts of all men, Gentiles as well as Jews.  This writing is smudged, defaced and barely legible because of the fall of man and resultant sin, but it survives in the human conscience.  People know instinctively that murder, adultery and lying are wrong even if they continue to commit these things.  Likewise I suggest that people also know in their hearts the claims of God on their lives even if they reject Him, which is why God will be just when He judges them.

A moment’s thought will reveal that these same commandments applied in the garden of Eden.  Imagine that Adam had strangled Eve or built an altar to the sun in the middle of the garden.  Do you suppose that God would have said, “That’s alright, Adam!   Just so long as you don’t eat the apple!”?  The very thought is ridiculous. No, no.  The Decalogue represents the eternal righteousness of God and His just demands on all people.  And it is in this respect that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.  You sometimes hear it taught these days that the Christian has nothing to do with the ten commandments, but has only to walk in the Spirit.  Walk in the Spirit by all means, but if you think that the Spirit is telling you to break one of the commandments , then I beg leave to question whether it’s the Holy Spirit of God that you’re hearing.    It is the moral law of God of which the Lord Jesus is speaking in v19 and calling ‘commandments.’  Read the verse again before continuing.

But not only are we to teach and keep these commandments, but we are to do so in a very different way to that of the scribes and Pharisees.  Our righteousness is to be greater than theirs. 

What is the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees?   It is an outward obedience to the law, not from the heart; a legal but not an evangelical obedience.  The Lord Jesus describes this righteousness in Matt 23.  “But all their works they do to be seen by men…..Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith……..For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence…….For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (vs 5, 23, 25, 27).  If you read on in Matt 5 from v21, you will see various examples that our Lord gave of legal and evangelical obedience.  It’s not enough, He says, not to murder; you must not have hatred in your heart.  It’s not enough merely not to commit adultery; you mustn’t so much as look lustfully at someone to whom you’re not married.  It’s not enough to love your neighbour; you must love your enemy too, and those who are attacking and abusing you.  And you need to perform this righteousness perfectly and continually always.

Now someone is going to say to me, “Now come on, Martin; no one can achieve that sort of perfection!”  Quite right!  That’s why the Bible says, ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’  That’s why Paul says, ‘For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin.  As it is written: “There is none righteous, no, not one….”’ (Rom 3:9-10).  But you may say, “Why is God so picky?  Why can’t He accept that I’m doing my best and put up with that?”  It is because of the holiness of God.  People today, if they think of God at all, tend to imagine Him a a sort of jolly Santa Claus in the sky; far too soft and feeble to punish sin.  But the truth is that ‘Our God is a consuming fire’ (Heb 12:29).  First of all, He is utterly holy.  The prophet declared, ‘You are of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look upon wickedness’ (Hab 1:13).  ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD God of Hosts!’  When Isaiah came face to face with the Lord, the first thing he was conscious of was his own sinfulness.  “Woe is me, for I am undone!  Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” (Isaiah 6:3, 5).  Likewise Peter, when he first came to realise who Jesus might be, wanted to be as far away from Him as possible.  “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8).

The second point is that God is utterly just.  Because of His justice, He must punish sin.  Psalm 7:11 tells us, ‘God is a just judge, and God is angry with sinners every day.’  So what hope is there for us?  ‘Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped and the whole world may become guilty before God.  Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin’ (Rom 3:19-20).  We have no righteousness of our own, and we can find none in our efforts to keep the law, since we inevitably fall short.  Where shall we find a righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees?

‘But now a righteousness from God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the law and the prophets’ (Rom 3:21).  We need a righteousness that is not in ourselves; we need a righteousness that comes from God, and in the Lord Jesus Christ we have it.  He has lived the life of perfect obedience to God’s law that we cannot live (Heb 4:15 etc.) and He has died the death that we deserve to die.  ‘For [God] made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him’ (2Cor 5:21).  There on the cross, God heaped upon Him all the sins of you and me (if you have trusted in Christ), and He imputed to us all Christ’s perfect righteousness and obedience.  ‘But of Him you are in Christ Jesus who became for us wisdom from God- and righteousness and sanctification and redemption’ (1Cor 1:30).  That’s the righteousness we need;  a righteousness from God that far surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, and it is attained by faith.  Do you have it?  Have you seen yourself as a sinner, justly under the condemnation of God, and have you trusted in Christ for your redemption.  I don’t ask if you have believed that there was someone called Jesus of Nazareth who did some good stuff, but have you grasped hold of Christ like a drowning man might grasp hold of a lifebelt, crying out  ‘For your name’s sake, O LORD, pardon my iniquity, for it is great’ (Psalm 25:11)?  If you have, then you can know your sins forgiven and that you have eternal life.  If not, then in God’s name, do it now.  Lay hold of Christ and get that righteousness that far exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees (5).    


(1) That is, the period between the close of the Old Testament in around 420 BC and the beginning of the New.

(2) The word translated ‘wash’ in Mark 7:3 is niptw (nipto) signifying a light ceremonial washing usually by water being poured on the hands.  In v4 the word is baptizw  (baptizo) meaning a washing by dipping or immersion.

(3) Whenever the phrase The Law and/or the Prophets is found in the New Testament, it refers to the whole of the Old Testament.

(4) Those interested may consult various books and commentaries.  Generally the 19th Century writers are better on this subject than the moderns.  Try Andrew Bonar’s commentary on Leviticus (Banner of Truth.  ISBN 0-85151-086-8) or The Law of the Offerings by Andrew Jukes (Kregel.  ISBN 0-8254-2957-9).

(5) God’s moral  law that was written on the heart of Adam before the Fall, but is smudged and defaced in the heart of his fallen descendants (Gen 4:3) and was written on tablets of stone for the Israelites, is now written again on the hearts of born again believers by the Holy Spirit (2Cor 3:3-7; Heb 10:14-18).  Instead of railing against God’s law and seeing it as an infringement of our liberty,  the true Christian can say, ‘For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments.  And His commandments are not burdensome’ (1John 5:3)


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