Exceeding Righteousness

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[Jesus said:] “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Any religion worth its salt is concerned with righteousness—righteousness among people and especially righteousness before God. In fact, I would go so far as to say: All religions except Christianity teach that people must find a way to make themselves righteous enough to be acceptable to God, to earn their own salvation. Such was the case with the scribes and the Pharisees. And if it were possible for anyone to ever pull it off, it might have been the scribes and the Pharisees. They were so serious about their religion, they established their own set of rules to make sure they kept God’s law. But that very addition to God’s law weakened the killing, condemning power of the law, turning it into “manageable law,” a self-help manual on how to win friends and influence God. That is what legalists do. And the Pharisees and scribes were legalists of the highest caliber.
In catechism class, we all learned that there are three functions of the law: the curb, mirror, and guide. The law gives the world some semblance of order so it doesn’t fall into complete chaos. The law shows us our sin. And the law is a guide for God’s children who seek to live according to His will. The legalist has only one function for the law: the measuring stick. The laws shows its keepers’ high level of goodness. We say that the law shows us our sin; for the legalist, the law shows his righteousness. Or at least it shows how much better he is doing than the rest of us. For even the Pharisees were not haughty enough to think that they were living perfect lives. They were satisfied that God would be pleased because they were trying hard. Certainly, more than most people.
So, with this legalism in mind, listen again to our text for today: [Jesus said:] “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
Now, we can imagine the reaction to Jesus’ words. The crowds must have thought: “What, more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees! I can’t even imagine that kind of righteousness. If you must be that good, I don’t stand a chance!” And the Pharisees and scribes would have thought: “Who is this guy, and what’s He talking about? Is He upping the ante? Is He bringing us a more legalistic legalism? Is He abolishing the Law and Prophets, giving us a new set of laws?
No, Jesus didn’t come to bring a new religion. He didn’t come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them. “The Law and the Prophets” is a designation for the Old Testament, the same 39 books we have in our Bibles today. From Genesis to Malachi, there is one primary message to be found: All people are sinful and deserve God’s wrath; but God, in His mercy and grace, promised to send a Savior from sin. Through faith in that coming Savior, people living before the time of Christ received God’s forgiveness and eternal salvation. Like Abraham, they “believed the Lord, and He credited it to [them] as righteousness.”
Jesus was (and is) that promised Savior. He came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. He came to keep all of God’s commandments perfectly and to fulfill all the promises about the Savior that are contained in the Old Testament. This will not fail to take place, Jesus assures His disciples here, for not a word, not the smallest letter, of the Scriptures may be set aside as long as this world endures.
Ironically, the Pharisees and the scribes were the ones who were setting aside God’s Word. They were abolishing “the Law and the Prophets” as they sought a place in God’s kingdom based upon their own personal righteousness. They believed that God would be fully satisfied with their keeping of the law, and they were confident that their place in God’s kingdom was secure because of it.
But Jesus declares that if you want to use the system of the Pharisees and the scribes to get into the kingdom of heaven, you must do a lot better than they at keeping the law. You must keep it perfectly. Now, that is exceeding righteousness!
The Lutheran Confessions declare: “Merely preaching the law, without Christ, either makes proud people, who imagine that they can fulfill the law by outward works, or forces them utterly to despair. Therefore, Christ takes the law into His hands and explains it spiritually (Matthew 5:21–48). He reveals His wrath from heaven on all sinners and shows how great it is. In this teaching sinners are directed to the law, and from it they first learn to know their sins correctly.”[i]
In the following verses, Jesus goes on to explain that this involves not only outward acts, but also words and even one’s inmost thoughts and desires. Have you been angry with your brother? Then, you’re guilty of murder. Called someone a fool? That deserves the hell of fire! Looked at a woman with lustful intent? You should be stoned to death! And this goes for all the commandments. If you think you’ve kept them, you’re sadly mistaken.
Now, our minds say: “Come on! This is going a bit too far, don’t you think? It’s one thing to hit a man on the head with a rock; it’s another thing to be angry with him. And that fool who pulled out in front of me at the stop sign would have thought it was a lot worse if I had given in to my road rage impulse!” We think that way because, at heart, we’re legalists, too. We also use the law to measure things up, to see how good we’re doing, to justify ourselves and our sin, and to make sure we feel good about how we live.
But Jesus won’t have it. He brings the law in its full force, with its intended purpose: to accuse us of our sin, our failure. To show us our need for the Savior. The law comes and shows us our own desperate wickedness. It tears down our self-righteousness. Honestly applied and accepted, it brings an end to all legalism. The law wakes us up and shakes us up. It humbles us, kills and condemns us.
The law says, “I don’t care what you think of yourself or what others think about you! If you are proud of how good you are or you are despairing over your sin. I come with a true judgment: You are a poor, miserable sinner who justly deserves God’s temporal and eternal punishment. You are a murderer, an adulterer, a thief, blasphemer, and idolater, and for all of this you deserve the hell of fire.
So the law is swung like a hammer to break you down. There is no righteousness to be found in the law. Only curses. Only death.
God, through His holy Word, demands perfect righteousness. Such perfection is obviously beyond the ability of any of us, so we need to look beyond ourselves for the righteousness that exceeds the Pharisees and the scribes, the righteousness that avails before God. We must go to that righteousness that is credited to those who believe in God’s promise of a Savior.
Only Christ can provide this exceeding righteousness for us. He gives us the credit for His perfect obedience to God’s law and His death on the cross as the full payment for our sins, and God welcomes us into His heavenly kingdom.
St. Paul writes: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:21–25).
Christ has redeemed you, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won you from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that you may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.
In your Baptism, you were clothed with Christ’s righteousness; you were brought into the kingdom of heaven. Baptized into His death and resurrection, your old Adam is put to death with all of his sins and evil desires through contrition and daily repentance, that the new man may arise to live in righteousness and purity forever.
You, dear saints, who stand condemned by the law in every part, also stand absolved by Jesus, in every way. The law that was aimed at you, crushed Jesus instead, and now His perfect keeping of the law is credited to you. You are His righteous ones, His forgiven children. You have the righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees and scribes—the exceeding righteousness of Jesus Himself. And by His righteousness, given you, you shall enter into the kingdom of heaven. For the sake of Jesus and His exceeding righteousness, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[i] McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (pp. 553–554). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.


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