Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 9, 2020 (Matthew 5:13-20)
In the last verse of Sunday’s Gospel Jesus declares, For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
When most people consider righteousness they think of being a very good person, a person who obeys the Ten Commandments. This is not wrong thinking. Certainly God desires that we be good people and that we obey His Commandments. In Jesus’ day the Pharisees were viewed as the most righteous people on earth. They had dissected God’s law (Ten Commandments and special Jewish laws) into over 630 laws, and they maintained that they kept such laws; they were indeed outwardly righteous, and people considered them to possess the ultimate righteousness.
Jesus said that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees. How can we be more righteous than the most righteous people on earth? It can happen—as revealed in both the Old and New Testaments—because we can have a righteousness that does not come from our obedience to God’s laws.
An Old Testament example of this righteousness is found in the classic verse about Abram’s faith: And he believed the Lord, and he [God] counted it to him as righteousness Genesis 15:6. Abram was given righteousness; it was a righteousness that was from outside of Abram, for it was a righteousness that came by God’s declaration based upon Abram’s faith. This declared righteousness is called justification.
Why would God do this? Why would God declare someone righteous? Is their faith considered the greatest act of righteousness? No, God declares someone righteous—including Old Testament believers—because their faith is in Christ. Jesus, the object of faith, gives righteousness. Abram’s faith was in the Christ who was at the center of God’s promises given in Genesis 15.
In his letter to the Romans (3:20-24) the Apostle Paul clearly presents the differences between righteousness that is derived from keeping God’s law and righteousness that is given as a gift to a believer in Jesus. Of the righteousness from keeping God’s law he wrote: For by works of the law no human being will be justified [declared righteous] in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. For us there is no righteousness before God in keeping God’s law; instead, sin is thus exposed. But of the real righteousness before God Paul then wrote: But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law [writings of Moses] 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 [declared righteous] by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
Indeed here is the righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of Pharisees—a righteousness that does not come from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ. This righteousness is literally a gift from God, a gift that is given because of the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, a redemption that was purchased with the blood of Jesus.