Among the many challenging things our Lord taught in the Sermon on the Mount is this: “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. (Matthew 5:20)”
When we consider the nature of the righteousness pursued by the Pharisees, it must get our attention when we read Jesus telling us that we must surpass them in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. Are we to gather up all their religious exercises and then add to them our own in order to surpass them? This would prove a burden too heavy to bear. But there is a way of reading Jesus’ teachings that robs us of our motivation to even try.
The legal code into which the Pharisees had adapted Moses’ law simply could not change the hearts of people. It couldn’t save people who were forever falling short of its requirement. It succeeded only in causing people to compare themselves with other people in an attempt to outdo them, and so to feel religiously superior to them, or it caused people to turn from religion as a hopelessly complex and legalistic system to which they could never measure up.
Listen: Our Lord didn’t come to give mankind a more rigid and thorough legalistic code than before! He came to bring life, not death. He came to show us a better way. Actually, He came to be that better way. He came to fulfill the Law and the prophets. And in fulfilling them, He revealed the only, the true, the best way to righteousness.
The way to the righteousness that surpassed that of the Pharisees was not to out-perform them. It was rather to appeal to a completely different standard.
Our Lord did not disparage good works. His life was full of them. Our Lord did not undervalue discipline or sacrifice. Again, these were part and parcel of His life. But these things cannot qualify as the basis of our righteousness. We can’t do enough good things in good enough ways to cancel out even one of our sins. If we are to be righteous – to be declared righteous – we need another way.
Jesus is that way. What are we seeing in the beatitudes? Are we merely seeing a more scrupulous standard by which we will be judged and found wanting? What are we to learn as we reflect on the poor in spirit; the mourners; the meek; those hungry and thirsty for righteousness; the merciful; the pure in heart; the peacemakers; and those persecuted for righteousness sake? Are we not seeing Jesus in these blessed attitudes? Are we not being pointed to Him as the way of righteousness?
If the New Testament is simply a more searching and severe legal code by which God intends for us to gain our salvation, we may as well quit now and go on our hopeless way. But that is not what it is. The poet said,
To run and work the law commands,
Yet gives me neither feet nor hands;
But better news the gospel brings:
It bids me fly, and gives me wings.
The Gospel gives us wings to fly in grateful service to the God Who saves us in Jesus Christ. In Jesus we find the surpassing righteousness that admits us to the kingdom of heaven. We enter Him by faith when we are baptized (Galatians 3:26f). In Him we live, move and have our beinG; we love, serve, sacrifice and worship. We work not to earn salvation; we work out of the joy of salvation.
Doug Oakes is minister at the Woodlawn Church of Christ in Zanesville.
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