The Code of Righteousness

Jesus emphasized the importance of righteousness when He declared that citizens of His Kingdom would be those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (vs. 6) and would be “persecuted for the sake of righteousness” (vs. 10). Simply put, righteousness is concerned with doing right. And since only God is qualified to determine right (see Jeremiah 10.23), righteousness is  a matter of doing what He declares to be right. Thus, righteousness is determined by our approach to the word of God. Jesus revealed the right approach in Matthew 5.17-20…

17 “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 “Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus’ approach to the word of God (vss. 17-18)

The Pharisees, the keepers of the Law in the minds of the people, had already determined that Jesus was a breaker of the Law. He associated with sinners (Mark 2.16-17) and disregarded their Sabbath traditions (Mark 2.23-3.5). So, by the time Jesus’ uttered His great sermon on the Kingdom, the Pharisees were already seeking a way to kill Him (Mark 3.6). They had doubtlessly tried to turn others against Jesus, perhaps claiming that He was seeking to abolish the Law. What was Jesus’ attitude to the word of God? “I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.”

Jesus’ words should shape our view of the Old Testament. The regulations and provisions of the Mosaic Law were still in force during His life, and even though we have been freed from them, they still serve the essential purpose of pointing to Jesus. The history of God’s people, the sacrifices, the rewards for obedience and punishments for disobedience, the prophecies, all pointed to Jesus and what He would accomplish (cf. Luke 24.25–27, 44–48; Gal. 3.24-25)

How important was the word of God to Jesus? All of it, even the smallest letter (jot) and smallest stroke (tittle) would endure until it was fulfilled in Him. The Pharisees may have claimed to be the keepers and teachers of the Law, but their reverence for God’s word paled in comparison to that of the Lord.

How Kingdom citizens must view the word of God (vs. 19)

This verse may fill us with dread when we consider that we all sin (1John 1.8). However, Jesus is not condemning those who stumble, but those whose attitude toward the Law would lead them to disregard its teachings. This verse has great relevance today as many disregard the commands of God, claiming that grace frees them from such concerns. But the object of Jesus’ condemnation were the legalists whose reverence of tradition blinded them to the truth of God’s word.

While some matters of God’s will are considered “weightier” (Matthew 23.23), they are all of great importance. What might be considered  a commandment of “least” importance, must be kept and taught. Our attitude toward even these “insignificant” commandments determine our position in the Kingdom. But how could those who “annul” a commandment still be considered least in the Kingdom? Does this mean that people who purposefully disobey God can still be in the Kingdom? The rest of Jesus’ sermon argues against this idea (Matt. 5.21; 7.21, 24-27). Remember, God rules over all, so to be considered “least” by Him indicates His regard, or lack thereof, for those who would willingly break His commands. I think this paraphrase by R.T. France accurately expresses Jesus’ point: “So anyone who treats even the most insignificant of the commandments of the law as of no value and teaches other people to belittle them is an unworthy representative of the new régime, while anyone who takes them seriously in word and deed will be a true member of God’s kingdom.”

A righteousness greater than that of the Pharisees (vs. 20)

The Pharisees were the epitome of righteousness among the people. Not only did they stress obedience to all the rules of the Law, they also developed a system of traditions to aid them in observing these precepts. Yet, the keeping of rules did not make them righteous (see 15.3-6; ch. 21). What went wrong; why was their standard of righteousness not enough to be in the Kingdom?

The Law emanated from the Holy One and was designed to make the people holy (see Leviticus 11.44-45). It was given to be obeyed, but it also pointed the people to the holy principles behind the Law. The Pharisees went no deeper than obeying the Law. But the righteousness of Kingdom citizens will be seen in their obedience to His commandments AND in their desire to embody the holy principles behind the commandments. This will be Jesus’ focus throughout the rest of Matthew 5.

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