Matthew 5:20 (NIV) For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
These days the Pharisees and teachers of the law (scribes) are looked down on as absolutely evil people. Some had bad hearts, bad enough to plot to kill Jesus and to persuade others that it was God’s work to do so. So many think that the bar of being more righteous than them is pretty low.
But the vast majority of those men were intently focused on pleasing God and obeying His every command to the letter. Their whole lives were focused on little else than that. As such, on the whole, they were about the best, most righteous people of Jesus’ day.
The biggest problem that these men had, as Jesus pointed out (Matthew 23:13-36) was their hypocrisy. These men worked ceaselessly to ensure that their outward presentation was perfect, while inside they wrestled furiously with a heart that was just as black and misshapen by sin as any of the “sinners” they so vehemently denounced. Their righteousness was merely a mask that they hid behind, because they had no idea what, if anything, could be done about their hearts.
It’s no wonder that after fiercely denouncing the hypocrisy of these leading religious figures that Jesus immediately switches to mourning over the destruction that He knew awaited them. (Matthew 23:37-39) These men were pitiable to both Him and to God. They sincerely believed that their man-made righteousness would be adequate when they stood before the judgment. They believed that God would not peek behind the mask and see the darkness that lay in their hearts. And so they sought no solution for the evil in them. They didn’t really believe that there even was a solution.
But Jesus’ own righteousness showed their masks for what they truly were. He made them look bad. When it came down to it, they couldn’t find a single legitimate wrong that He had ever done – they had to try to dig up false witnesses at His trial (Matthew 26:59), and even they weren’t convincing. Plus, Jesus could do amazing miracles that no one could deny, proving an even deeper level of righteousness and intimacy with God.
It was the darkness in their hearts that moved them to put Jesus to death at any cost – a darkness that no amount of external righteousness could ever really cover up. And it was in that area of darkness of heart that Jesus is pointing out that the people of God’s kingdom had to be better, more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees.
Jesus carried within Himself the kingdom of God, and all that that entailed. In Him real heart purity could actually be found. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are not merely being given a new list of rules; they can actually be filled with the real thing – their hearts legitimately purified by the fire of the Holy Spirit and the very real presence of the risen Jesus.
Some see in the Sermon on the Mount an extended and deeper level of rules and laws. But external obedience, even to an enhanced series of laws would make Jesus’ followers, at best, only AS righteous as those men. The righteousness that Jesus requires to even enter God’s kingdom is greater than that, deeper, a righteousness that goes to the very heart of each follower. That righteousness can only come from Jesus, and He has promised to give it freely to everyone who legitimately hungers and thirsts for the real thing.
Father, help me to never try to get by on my own righteousness. The best I can work up on my own is a poor, sickly thing compared to Your real righteousness. Help me to open my heart fully to You, so that Your Holy Spirit has complete access to change whatever parts of my heart are necessary to change, to burn away any impurities that He finds, and to make me legitimately holy, legitimately righteous, from the inside out. Amen.