Summary: Making clear His attitude toward the Old Law, Jesus challenged the religious leaders teaching and raised the bar when it came to righteous living.

Righteousness Begins in the Heart

Matthew 5:17-20

To some who were confident of their own righteousness (don’t miss that statement) and looked down on every¬one else, Jesus told this parable:

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Phari¬see stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people—robbers, evil¬doers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justi¬fied before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be hum¬bled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Luke 18:10-14)

Here is the most religious man in his society, one who in their eyes went above and beyond when it came to keeping the laws of God. Like a world-record high jumper who sets the standard by which all others are measured, here is the one to whom all others compared themselves and saw themselves as coming up short. The other guy is the least esteemed in that culture. A tax collector employed by Rome, considered by his countrymen as the ultimate traitor with no spiritual worth. Isn’t it interesting how Jesus sees things differently? Jesus sees the best as the worst and the worst as the best. He condemns the seemingly right¬eous rule keeper and commends the cowering tax collector.

Jesus in the beatitudes had just pre¬sented a radical view of one blessed by God. One can only imagine what went through the minds of those present when told they were fortunate if they saw themselves as sinners, mourned that condition, humbly submitted to God’s leading, lived with an insatiable desire for holiness, exhibited a merciful spirit, cultivated a pure heart, and then, as a result, would pay dearly for such attitudes and actions. And then to be told that they and they only were the salt of the earth and the light of the world. When told how blessed and important they were, they had to won¬der who was this guy making these strange proclamations? His teaching was radical and very different from the other religious teachers of His day. Was He a prophet? Was He the promised Messiah? Was He just another want-to-be reli¬gious leader? He was different, and the sharp contrast between His view of the Old Testament and the religious leaders’ view was apparent. In fact, Jesus’ com¬ment (vs. 20) that “unless your right¬eousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of God,” was beyond radical, as these were the “law keepers,” the religious world’s example of righteousness, the world-record hold¬ers when it came to law keeping. Their righteousness was the standard by which everyone else was judged. And Jesus openly questioned their righteous¬ness!

In questioning their righteousness, Jesus challenged their approach to the law and raised the bar when it came to righteous living. To the Phar¬isee, righteousness was a matter of keeping the myriad of rules that the scribes had deduced from God’s law. They were concerned with details not principles, actions not motives, doing not being. While striving to keep the letter of the law, they forgot the spirit. For the remainder of chapter 5, Jesus will challenge this thinking. But for now He wants to be clear where He stands on the Law of God.

To begin with, Jesus is clear that He did not come to destroy the Law or present a rival system but to fulfill the intended purpose of the Law. That purpose according to Paul (Galatians 2:24) was to be our “schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that by Him, we might be justified by faith.” Jesus Himself was the fulfill¬ment of the Law in that He came to bestow a righteousness upon sinful man to which the Law only pointed.

Furthermore, Jesus taught that the Law was unchangeable for all time and eternity. In His words, “one jot or tittle” would not change. The “jot” was the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet resembling an apostrophe, and a “tittle” was like a serif, a small mark on a letter that makes it differ¬ent from another letter (example: the small mark at the bottom that turns an O into a Q). Jesus was saying even something as small and insignif¬icant as these two marks could not be removed from the Law.

Finally, Jesus makes it clear that the Law is binding. Greatness in God’s kingdom is determined by one’s willing¬ness to first do what it says. God has and always will demand obedience.

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