EXCEPTional Bible Verses, Part 1

robe-of-righteousness

Righteousness

Matthew 5:20

 

The key verse of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount is verse 20:

For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.   (Matthew 5:20, KJV)

If we were to put Jesus’ words in modern English, we might say something like this:  Unless you Christians are better people than the really good people of society; the cream of the crop of citizens, you will never get into heaven.

In Jesus’ day, the scribes and Pharisees were considered to be the best of the best:  the best behaved, best mannered, best educated, most ethical of citizens.  We, with the perspective of hindsight and history have come to believe that the scribes and Pharisees were a bunch of hypocrites, but 2,000 years ago that was not how most people saw them.  In fact, not all these men were hypocrites.  Many were not.  Nicodemus was a Pharisee whose heart was right and as we read the Gospels we note that many Pharisees either followed Jesus or were very sympathetic toward Him.

The scribes and Pharisees were great religious leaders and moral leaders, who were trying to keep the Jewish faith pure in the face of pagan Roman beliefs.  “Pharisee” means “separate,” and they did their best to live up that name, living separate from the Romans and even some Jews.  A good description of them is found in Luke 18—

The proud Pharisee ‘prayed’ this prayer: ‘Thank God, I am not a sinner like everyone else, especially like that tax collector over there! For I never cheat, I don’t commit adultery, I go without food twice a week, and I give to God a tenth of everything I earn.’  (Luke 18:11, 12  TLB)

Pride was the downfall of the Pharisee, but if we read their prayer, could any one of us quibble with it?  That prayer—pride notwithstanding—tells us that they were punctual in attending worship services, they believed in and practiced private prayer and fasting, they were temperate in food and drink, they gave generously, and did their best to live moral lives in a very immoral culture.  They cared very deeply about their faith.  These people—Pharisees—sound a lot like good Christians!  They have the same kind of characteristics we’d like to see in our own lives.  And yet, according to Jesus, there is NO hope for us unless we are better than they.

What was the problem with these men?  Outwardly you could not fault them at all.  Their problem was something other than their behavior.  Elsewhere in Scripture, we read something that sheds some light on what Jesus is getting at:

We are all infected and impure with sin. When we put on our prized robes of righteousness, we find they are but filthy rags. Like autumn leaves we fade, wither, and fall. And our sins, like the wind, sweep us away.  (Isaiah 64:6  TLB)

This was their problem.  In modern language, the problem with the scribes and Pharisees amounted to “lipstick on a pig.”  In God’s eyes—His pure eyes—even our very best is no better than old, filthy rags.  If that is God’s estimation of our best, what must He think of our worst?

Our first EXCEPTional verse serves to contrast man’s righteousness and God’s righteousness.

1.  Man’s righteousness is prospective, God’s righteousness is possessive

This verse actually sets the stage for what comes after it:  very specific examples of two types of righteousness.  For example, the rabbis taught the people “You shall not kill.”  But Jesus will teach what that really means, and what “You shall not kill” really means is not at all what the rabbis said it meant.  The religious leaders of Jesus’ day, and even the religious leaders of today, teach that doing righteous things makes a person righteous.  But Jesus taught that under grace, a person does righteous things because he’s righteous.  That’s a huge difference!

Man says:  Do this good thing and you will be righteous.  But God says:  Do this good thing because you are righteous.  Man hopes to win God’s favor by becoming righteous through his struggles to live right and do good.  Yet grace looks at the situation differently.  One who is living in grace lives right because of the grace he has experienced.  The Christian has already found favor in God’s eyes; he doesn’t have to do anything to get it.

Man is concerned with what he DOES, but God is concerned with who he IS.

2.  Man’s righteousness is external, God’s righteousness is both external and internal

This is further described by our Lord in Matthew 23:28—

You try to look like saintly men, but underneath those pious robes of yours are hearts besmirched with every sort of hypocrisy and sin.  (TLB)

Man’s righteousness is concerned with life that is seen by other people; life on the outside, but God’s righteousness is concerned with both life on the outside and on the inside.  In a sense, living a righteous life man’s way is easier because God expects so much more from us.  Anybody can be given a list of do’s and don’ts and be told to live in obedience to that list.  It takes no particular skill or thought to obey a list.  But God wants to engage the whole person; his actions and his mind.  God made us thinking, reasoning, and rational beings.  Grace, not legalism, exalts a man; sets a man free to live according to God’s will because he himself wills it and the Holy Spirit enables him to do it.

Martin Lloyd-Jones observed:

The trouble with the Pharisees was that they were interested in details rather than principles, that they were interested in actions rather than motives, and that they were interested in doing rather than being.

What Jesus taught was really revolutionary in His day.  He was far more concerned with the inner, spiritual, man than the outward man.  If a man be made righteous on the inside, he will be righteous on the outside.

How can we be righteous on the inside?  When we are born again, that inner righteousness in imputed to us!  Jesus pours His righteousness into our hearts.  And when we live and interact with the world around us, we take that imputed righteousness and impart it to others; we bless others with the righteousness of Christ in us.   That’s a radical thought!

3.  Man’s righteousness in ceremonial, God’s righteousness is spiritual

The scribes and Pharisees thought their ceremonies were the most important part of their faith; that they were the be-all and end-all of their relationship with God.   Not so, according to Jesus.  The righteousness demanded by God is nothing less than complete conformity to God’s holy law in all that person does and all that he is.  That demand goes way, way beyond any ceremonial observance or liturgy.  This radical righteousness is a matter of the heart, not of deeds.  This righteousness is spiritual because it is God-given.  True godliness is not a matter of creeds, confessions, or ceremonies.  It is an inward, spiritual reality.

4.  Man’s righteousness is one-sided, God’s righteousness is deep and wide.

Man’s righteousness benefits other men.  In other words, any human being regardless of his standing before God can perform righteous deeds that help other people.  An atheist can feed the hungry.  A generous Muslim can help a poor person.  But that kind of righteousness is NOT God-ward; it does not benefit Him in any way.  True righteousness—righteousness of the whole person—benefits both God and man.  True righteousness—the kind of righteousness God demands—is directed man-ward and God-ward at the same time.  That’s why Jesus said this to His disciples:

“And if, as my representatives, you give even a cup of cold water to a little child, you will surely be rewarded.”  (Matthew 10:42  TLB)

When an unbeliever gives a cup of cold water to a thirsty person, that thirsty person is blessed.  But when a believer does the same thing, not only is the thirsty person blessed, but God is blessed and glorified.  Why?  Because the believer has done a righteous thing with the righteousness of Christ at work in Him.

I have been crucified with Christ: and I myself no longer live, but Christ lives in me. And the real life I now have within this body is a result of my trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  (Galatians 2:20  TLB)

5.  Man’s righteousness is an “It”, God’s righteousness is a “He”.

This is the most important point, and it is driven home by the prophet Jeremiah:

And this is his name: The Lord Our Righteousness.  (Jeremiah 23:3  TLB)

Man apart from God is capable of doing great things, undoubtedly.  Man apart from God is capable of wondrous acts of kindness, compassion, and righteousness.  But all those “good deeds” don’t do a thing to change that man’s standing before God.  He is still apart from God.  He may possess good deeds, but he is not in possession Christ’s righteous, and that is the crux of the matter.  A Christian is one who possesses the righteousness of Christ because he himself is possessed by Christ.

When He becomes our righteousness, our righteous acts will far, far exceed those of the scribes, Pharisees, and all the good people around us.  It is the presence of Jesus that makes all the difference.

For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.  (2 Corinthians 5:21  NKJV)

Jehovah Tsidkenu, “the Lord our righteousness.”  Is He yours today?  If you are relying on simply being a good person to get into heaven, you might as well give up.  Being a good person may help your reputation on earth among your fellow man, but it doesn’t do anything to improve your standing before God in Heaven.  Hell will, in fact, be overrun with good people.  You can’t be good enough to qualify for Heaven.  You need something more, and that “something more” is a Someone:  Jesus Christ.  Only He can do for you what you cannot do for yourself.

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