Jesus, in His sermon, which we call the Sermon on the Mount, describes the righteousness of the believer by looking at His relationship to the law as well as that of His followers (Matt 5:17-20). What is meant by righteousness? Righteousness is an attribute of God. It is His uprightness of person, standards, and judgments. God, Himself is perfectly righteous, as are His ways in creation, providence, salvation, and consummation. In Deuteronomy, we read, “The Rock [God], His work is perfect, for all His ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is He” (Deut 32:4). As righteous Himself, God establishes moral standards that reflect His nature, and He requires conformity to those standards. It is these standards that Christ addresses in His sermon.
We discover in Matthew 5:17-20 three truths relating to Christ’s fulfillment of the law and how this reality directly impacts the Christian’s relationship to the law. Christ begins by declaring, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (v. 17). The first truth is that Jesus came to fulfill the law and the prophets. In other words, He fulfilled the demands of the law. He did this by living a perfect life of obedience to the law (Heb 4:15) and taking the law’s punishment for our sin (Gal 3:13). Jesus also did this by fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies (Lk 24:25-27, 44; John 5:39-40). Lastly, Jesus fulfilled the law by revealing its true meaning (Rom 13:9-10).
The second truth we discover in verses 18-19: “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 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.” Here Jesus affirms the continuing authority of the law. The word of God stands forever (Isa 40:8; Matt 24:35; 2 Peter 3:18), and every part of the law matters (2 Tim 3:16; John 10:35). In other words, as revealed through His Word, no part of God’s will for His people will ever change. Therefore, we must practice and teach all of the law (Matt 28:20; John 14:15). Law here describes the revelation about God, salvation in Christ, and the path He calls His children to walk in the Bible.
The third, and last truth, is found in verse 20, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus proclaimed the need for a greater righteousness. The righteousness of the Pharisees and teachers of the law was self-serving (Matt 23:5-7), incomplete (Matt 23:23), and merely external (Matt 23:25-28). The righteousness Christ calls the believer to is greater than the Pharisees because it is deeper, being a righteousness of the heart. The Pharisees were content with their external, incomplete, and self-serving righteousness. Jesus teaches in His sermon a more radical demand of God of His children. The righteousness that God calls believers to is an inward righteousness of mind and motive.
We will never be perfect on this side of paradise but are to be perfecting into greater Christlikeness. Jesus asks for a deeper obedience from the heart that is only possible when we receive Christ as Savior and Lord. When we receive Christ, we are gifted His Spirit, and when we cooperate with Him, we partner in His work of making us more like Christ (sanctification). This righteousness, Christ’s righteousness, only becomes ours when we receive Him as Savior and Lord, partnering with His Spirit to grow in becoming more and more like Him. In 2 Corinthians 5:21, we read, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Jesus was our sin offering [He died in our stead], reconciling us with God by removing our sin. In His death on the cross, He took our punishment for our sin so that we might be forgiven. When we receive Him, the righteousness of God becomes a reality in our lives.
The Pharisees observed the law, in part, but often rejected God’s will and failed to show genuine love towards God and others. Such hypocrisy and legalism are not acceptable to God. We are called to accept Christ in this life and walk in His Spirit from today into eternity.
It is easy to cheapen grace by lessening or even disliking the law. For sure, we are saved by grace, but this does not mean that we don’t desire to love God with everything and others with the love He has poured into us (Mk 12:28-34). This, after all, sums up all of the law. We need to be mindful that the believer must never set law against love.
In short, the greater righteousness Jesus calls His followers to is testified to by the law and prophets and fulfilled in Christ (Rom 3:21). It is credited to us by faith in Christ (Phil 3:9). It is worked in us by the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:4) and is the only righteousness that will get you into heaven (Matt 5:20). It is this righteousness Christ requires, provides, and works in those who choose Him. Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God Alone)!