BY DAVE STEEL
If you could have asked Jesus’ contemporaries, “Who in your world are the models of moral, ethical living?” many would have pointed to the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. These guys were the recognized experts when it came to religious law. Nobody was more scrupulous about keeping the commandments than they were.
So when Jesus declared that “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20), he shocked some people. They must have thought, “If the Pharisees and the teachers of the law don’t meet God’s standard of righteousness, then what chance do I have of meeting it!”
And yet, when read in its larger context, Jesus’ statement begins to sound more like an invitation than an indictment. Jesus’ entire Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), of which this verse is arguably the theme verse, is meant to be an invitation to a life of radical righteousness—one that far exceeds anything the religious leaders were capable of through sheer discipline and willpower.
Sure, the Pharisees and teachers of the law were the epitome of man-made righteousness. But self-righteousness is bankrupt. Jesus doesn’t even recognize it as righteousness. His Sermon compels us to re-evaluate what it means to be right before God. There Jesus says things like, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27-28). He went on to say, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:43-44). What’s he saying?
True righteousness is a matter of the heart—not a matter of outward conformity to a set of rules.
Even if some were surprised by this talk of radical heart-righteousness, it was not entirely new. In fact, Jesus prefaced his statements about true righteousness by saying, “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” (Matt. 5:17). The Scriptures set forth a vision for true righteousness. But in our inability to attain this righteousness, we, like the Pharisees and teachers of the law, tend to reach for the cheap substitute.
God’s vision of true righteousness requires a radical change of heart—which is why centuries earlier he made a new covenant with his people, promising to write his law on their minds and hearts (Jer. 31:33), making them righteous from the inside out. Dallas Willard was right: “Biblical religion is above all a religion of the heart and of the keeping of the heart.”
To be a follower of Jesus is to learn from him how to attend to our hearts.
Wilkins writes, “Without a doubt, Jesus’ declaration in [Matthew] 5:20 is an interpretive key to the entire Sermon on the Mount and, by extension, to life in the kingdom of heaven.” Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 233.
Dallas Willard, The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s Essential Teachings on Discipleship (New York, NY: Harper One, 2006), 108.