The Righteousness Greater than the Scribes’ and the Pharisees’
Trinity 6| Matthew 5:17-26| Pastor James Preus| Trinity Lutheran Church| July 23, 2017
It’s a common misconception that Jesus presents a completely different religion than that of the Old Testament. Some Christians might even disregard certain uncomfortable passages in the Bible saying, “Well, that’s the Old Testament. It’s the Pharisees and scribes, who want to harp on the Old Testament. Jesus is here to bring something new.” But our Lord makes clear, “I have not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill them.” And Jesus does.
Jesus will not remove anything from Scripture. This includes the Ten Commandments, which tell us what is right and wrong. If you follow the Ten Commandments, you are righteous. If you fail to follow them, you are unrighteous. Righteous is a word we don’t use too often in our everyday lingo. But we Christians should know what the word righteous means. To be righteous means to be in a right relationship with God. It means that you are pleasing to him. You obviously are pleasing to God and therefore righteous if you follow God’s commandments. If you are righteous you will go to heaven. If you are unrighteous you will go to hell.
The scribes and Pharisees thought they were righteous. Everyone thought they were righteous. They taught God’s Law and followed it (so it seemed) to the letter. But listen to what Jesus says! “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus is God. He knows the correct interpretation of God’s Law. And Jesus is not satisfied with outward appearances. He wants you to follow his law both outwardly and inwardly.
So you’ve never taken the life of another human being? Good for you. But have you been angry at your brother without a righteous cause. Have you ever insulted anyone? Or called him a fool? Or thought him a fool? Well, then, Jesus says you’re a murderer. Not only does he call you a murderer, but he says you are liable to the “Gehenna of fire.” Gehenna was a garbage pit near Jerusalem where they burned trash; a very descriptive word for hell used by Jesus.
And Jesus goes on. Have you ever cheated on your spouse or had sex outside of marriage? You haven’t? Good for you. But have you lusted after a woman, or viewed pornography, or used filthy language? Christ says you have already committed adultery in your heart.
You see, Jesus doesn’t want you to have the righteousness of scribes and Pharisees. No, this is just outward righteousness. Jesus says in Matthew 23, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence!” (Matthew 23:25)
Jesus permits no leeway as he preaches the Law. You must obey the Ten Commandments perfectly, not just outwardly to be seen by others, but in secret, yes, even to the innermost parts of your heart! You must love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind; at all times; 24-7. You must love your neighbor as yourself. No, I didn’t say your wife or mother as yourself (that is difficult enough). Jesus wants you to love your enemy, pray for those who hate you and forgive them. You must be righteous. Your righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees.
Then who can be righteous? No one. St. Paul writes, “None is righteous, no, not one.” And “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:10, 23) We sang rightly in our hymn of the day, “All mankind fell in Adam’s fall; One common sin infects us all. From one to all the curse descends, And over all God’s wrath impends.”
No one can say he is without sin. No one can claim that his righteousness meets the mark to go to heaven. We are all sinners.
It is important now that we discuss the main function of the Law when it is used in sermons. The Law tells us what God wants us to do and be. But as we have just heard, we are not righteous. This is called the mirror of the Law. It shows us that we are sinners. We cannot save ourselves by our own good works. We must repent and ask God for mercy.
There is a strange phenomenon that takes place when people hear that all are sinners and all fall short of the glory of God. Many people seem to be okay with saying that they are sinners, as long as everyone else is a sinner too. It’s like they find some sort of comfort knowing that they’re in the same sinking ship as everyone else. They’re fine saying everyone’s a sinner, but if you address their specific sin, then they get upset or respond, “Well, everyone’s a sinner.” As if the statement, “everyone’s a sinner” is the Gospel. Is someone who is dying of a terminal illness comforted if everyone else on the ward is also dying of a terminal illness? I don’t think so. Yet this is how people behave with the statement everyone’s a sinner. “Fornication is a sin. You should stop fornicating.” “Yes, well, everyone’s a sinner.” Yes, and all are likewise children of wrath. There is no comfort in sin.
“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” is meant to send a message to you about yourself, not a message to you about your neighbor. Everyone is a sinner. This means you are a sinner. Don’t look to the person next to you. His sin is irrelevant right now. God wants you to focus on the fact that you are a sinner. The law must personally condemn you, so that the Gospel will personally comfort you.
But naturally, people don’t want to confront their own sin. It’s a lot easier to say, “everyone’s a sinner” or even, “I’m a sinner” than to address our personal sins. “You’re a sinner.” “Yes, I know I am a sinner.” “You should stop slandering your neighbor.” “Don’t judge me!” “You’re a sinner.” “Yes, everyone’s a sinner.” “You should stop yelling at your wife.” “Mind your own business!” “You’re a sinner.” “What else is new?” “It’s a sin to live with your girlfriend before you’re married. That is fornication. You should repent.” “Stop being so hateful!”
Is this not the way we behave to God’s Law? We tell God to mind his own business, to stop judging us. And if a pastor or other brother or sister in Christ addresses a particular sin, this is often the reaction they’ll get. But the purpose of God’s Law is not for you to simply say that all are sinners, but to repent of your actual, real sins and believe in the Gospel. As Solomon writes in Proverbs 9, “Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you.” (vs. 8)
St. Paul writes, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and he continues, “and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” All are sinners. And all are justified by grace through faith. To be justified is to be declared righteous. Not to be declared righteous like the scribes and Pharisees, but to be declared righteous with a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, the righteousness of Christ himself.
How can this be? Did we not just learn that our works are not good enough to make us righteous and that we are all sinners? Yes, but this righteousness does not come from your own works. It comes from faith in Jesus Christ. Your righteousness will never get you into heaven. Yet, Jesus’ righteousness can and does. Jesus’ righteousness is the only righteousness that can get you into heaven. For this reason we cannot boast in our own good works or trust in them or trust in the fact that everyone else is a sinner too. We must trust in the righteousness that comes not by works, but by faith, as St. Paul writes in Philippians chapter 3:
Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith. Philippians 3:8-9
Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Does your righteousness exceed the scribes and Pharisees? Will it get you into heaven? If you look at your righteousness by your works (what you think, say, and do), you must answer, no, no matter how good you or others think you are. But if you claim the righteousness of Christ through faith, then your righteousness certainly is sufficient. What could possibly be lacking? Your righteousness certainly gets you into heaven, because it is Christ’s righteousness!
This brings great comfort to those, who felt the laws painful sting. If the law personally convicted you, then you can be joyful that the Gospel applies directly to you as well! St. Paul again writes, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1) Are you in Christ Jesus? Then you are not condemned! You have peace with God! You have entered the kingdom of heaven!
Jesus redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us on the cross. Jesus fulfilled the Law and the Prophets not only by obeying the Ten Commandments and loving God and his neighbor perfectly, both inwardly and outwardly. Jesus fulfilled the Law and the Prophets by winning our salvation according to God’s plan. He died the death we should have. He suffered for the punishment of your sins. Just as he fulfilled God’s Law perfectly, so did he perfectly suffer for all your sins.
Romans 5 states, “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.” (vs. 18) Just as the law condemns everyone as a sinner, so the Gospel gives righteousness to everyone to be received by faith. So just as you should not deflect God’s Law to “well, everyone’s a sinner.” so, do not deflect the Gospel. Jesus died for you. He forgives your sins. Jesus gives you his righteousness. And the righteousness he gives you exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees and gives you access to eternal life in heaven. Amen.