Though it was yet fairly early in his ministry, Jesus was already gaining a reputation for challenging the religious traditions of the Jewish leaders. To some, it might have appeared that Jesus was an up-and-coming rabbi who was cavalier in his approach to religious tradition. Anybody looking for a religion that prized liberty over restraint would perhaps have been attracted to him.
Jesus, however, would not be misunderstood. Though he would not be bound to manmade oral tradition, he wanted to be clear that God had standards that must be adhered to. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them” (5:17). God’s standards, however, went far deeper than the average Jew understood.
Jewish religious leaders taught that the written law was voided by misinterpretation and disobedience. Unfortunately, they were themselves guilty of both. Jesus came to correct this and to thereby fulfil, not abolish, the law.
The scribes and Pharisees had a twisted understanding of the law’s purpose. For them, the law’s purpose was to curry favour with God and to make themselves look good in the eyes of their followers. It certainly did the latter. The average religious Jew considered the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees to be a model. They considered the scribes and Pharisees to be paragons of virtue, whose righteousness, though idea, could hardly be attained.
How shocking Jesus closing words in this section must have been therefore: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (5:20). His followers must not consider the righteousness of the religious leaders a model to emulate but a standard to be exceeded.
In what way did Jesus want his followers’ righteousness to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees? The illustrations that follow make it clear that their surpassing righteousness must not be a mere external righteousness. Their righteousness could only exceed the righteousness of the religious leaders if it was an internal righteousness. To be sure, internal righteousness would produce external righteousness, but the source must be internal, not external.
We know that true righteousness comes only from the imputed righteousness of Christ. But the lesson here pertains to practical righteousness. That lesson is simply this: There is a difference between doing good and being good.
Churches can sometimes be guilty of looking for nothing more than “good” external behaviour from their members. They are happy when their members appear devout and participate in the appropriate religious activities, but too often ignore the hidden sins of the heart: bitterness, unforgiveness, greed, lust, partiality, etc. But to focus only on the external produces Pharisees, not disciples of Jesus Christ.
As you reflect on these words today, ask yourself, am I content with outward displays of piety, or am I asking for grace to be transformed from the inside out so that my righteousness adorns the gospel of Jesus Christ?