Mt.5:20 - "Sunnyhill" Herne Bay Evangelical Free Church

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Mt 5:20 "For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."

The local church occupies an important place in God’s plan - the church is to act as a sort of embassy for the government of the King; it is to function as an outpost of the kingdom of heaven sending out its light into the surrounding darkness. If the church is to fulfil this high calling she must remain faithful to her Lord and proclaim him, his truth and his gospel.

In the words of our text Jesus spoke about the kingdom of heaven and related it to righteousness, righteousness is going to be our theme this morning.

If you are fearing a lecture on morals and being told that you will need to try harder let me straightaway allay those fears – I have no intention of moralising this morning.

But still I intend to preach on righteousness.

If thinking about righteousness stirs up negative reactions in us it is most probably due to the fact that we don’t understand very well what the Bible has to say about it. Let me give you an example from history: before Martin Luther the famous reformer became a real Christian he read about the righteousness of God in the Bible and it terrified him and he just couldn’t understand how such a thing was good news for the sinner to hear. At that time Luther didn’t understand what the phrase actually meant and in his misunderstanding he jumped a wrong conclusions. He thought it must refer to the fact that God was going to judge in a righteous manner and Luther was afraid because he knew himself to be a sinner. While it is true that God is a just judge the righteousness of God that is revealed in the gospel doesn’t refer to that at all instead it refers to the fact that God provides for us the righteousness we need and that is something very different.  It’s the same for us – if we don’t get the message straight we too will draw the wrong conclusions and end up taking all kinds of wrong decisions and actions.

Today if we do actually hear the word righteous being used in society at large it’s far more than likely to be with that little word self- tagged on the front. Maybe we’re just more used to meeting self-righteous people than we are those who are genuinely righteous. Perhaps we’ve been deceived so often in the past that we’ve become cynical and we suspect anyone who expresses an interest in righteousness.

Unlike our contemporary age the Bible is very positive when it comes to the ideas of righteousness and being righteous. If we can grasp what the Bible means we should be positive about it all too.

So what is righteousness all about?
To be righteous fundamentally means to be exactly what we ought to be.

The Bible tells us that God is righteous – he is exactly as he ought to be – he is upright and true always has been and always will be. In a more restricted sense it also means that because he is righteous he will justly render to each his due, to each what he deserves.

The Bible also tells us that Jesus too is righteous – "Jesus-Christ the righteous " is the way the apostle John puts it in his first letter. In other words Jesus is exactly as he ought to be: he has always done his Father’s will, always pleased his Father doing what his Father told him to do and teaching what his Father gave him to teach.

When it comes to the rest of humanity however the situation is very different. Created in God’s image, Adam and Eve began living life exactly as they were meant to, but this image of God was quickly effaced when Adam and Eve took matters into their own hands and decided to go their own way. The result for them was that they ceased to be just what God wanted them to be and their lives, as a consequence, became messed up and they failed to function properly in their relationship towards God and in their relationship to each other.

And this all has a direct bearing upon us today. All of us come from this flawed stock and none of us are naturally as we ought to be – we do not have the righteousness that we need to function as we were designed to function. This lack of righteousness is a great problem and is included in what the Bible refers to as sin. The lack of this righteousness will, in the end, shut us out of heaven permanently.

The message of the gospel of God which focuses upon the person and work of our Saviour the Lord Jesus Christ addresses this problem and provides us with the divine solution. We should all be very interested by the gospel and in particular we ought to be absolutely thrilled by the righteousness of God which is offered to us in it. This is something that is wonderfully positive, it is something to be embraced and enjoyed.

So let’s get to our text and think about what Jesus said. Here it is again:

Mt 5:20 "For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."

There are three things for us to think about here and only when we have done that will we be in a position to move on to see just how the gospel offers us exactly what we need.

  • There is a Kingdom of heaven to be entered

  • Righteousness is essential if we are to enter the Kingdom of Heaven

  • The scribes and Pharisees were generally considered to be the best examples of righteous people but we need a better righteousness than they managed to achieve

We’ll look briefly at each of these in turn.

Heaven – a place of righteousness
Firstly, we should note that there is such a thing as the Kingdom of God. In addition to that Jesus implies that none of us naturally belongs there for he declares that each of us must enter it. Elsewhere Jesus taught the same basic truth when he spoke about a broad road that leads to destruction and the many who are quite happy to journey on that road.

What this amounts to is this: you don’t need to do anything to go to hell! We all begin life on that broad road and if we don’t do anything about it that is the road we will continue travelling on until we come to that awful destruction Jesus warned about. On the other hand, if you want to go to heaven then something must happen, something must be done.

Do you want to enter God’s Kingdom? Do you want a future in heaven and not in hell? I do hope so.

Secondly, it is important for us to understand the characteristics of the kingdom of heaven and of heaven itself. What is it like? At this point the testimony of the NT is very clear:

2Pet.3:13 "But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells."

The kingdom of heaven is where God resides, reigns and rules and because he is righteous his heaven will be, must be, full of righteousness too.

Does such a kingdom look appealing to you? It won’t if you’re not interested in righteousness now. And what makes you think that the kingdom of heaven will hold any attraction for you then? It will only become attractive and desirable to you if you yourself undergo a fundamental change and that change must occur in you while you are yet alive for it is in this life that our eternal destinies are determined.

But knowing that the kingdom of heaven exists, what it is like and that it must be entered is not enough. We must know what the terms of entry are for not everyone will go to heaven, entry is not automatic even though many in our own day try to convince themselves that it is.

Jesus in the words of our text tells us what the entry requirement is and to that we now turn our attention.

Righteousness – the essential requirement
According to Jesus if we would enter the kingdom of heaven we must have the appropriate qualification and that qualification is righteousness.

Since the kingdom of heaven is the place it is we can easily understand why Jesus declared that entry would be dependent upon our being in possession of an appropriate and corresponding righteousness. Jesus says this is essential and the apostle Paul would later emphasize the same fact by insisting that the unrighteous would not certainly not have access to it:

Eph.5:5 "For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God."

1Cor.6:9 "Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God."

Paul went to tell the Corinthians that some of them who were now Christians had previously lived lives like that but something had happened and they had been changed. But the important thing to notice is that change was both necessary and possible.

So if we want to be brought in we too will need to undergo a change and we too will need to acquire the appropriate righteousness.

But what kind of righteousness do we need and how are we to get it?

Scribes and Pharisees
There was no-one in Jesus’ day who was more highly thought of in terms of righteousness than this group of people. They took God and his word seriously and made great efforts to conform their lives to the standards revealed in the Mosaïc law. We tend to think negatively of the Pharisees today because of the hypocrisy of some of them and the manner in which they were settled in their opposition to the Lord Jesus Christ but that was not how most people viewed them at the time – they represented the very best that there was.

The apostle Paul described himself as a Pharisee both before and after his conversion to Christ. In describing his personal spiritual attainments before becoming Jesus’ disciple Paul went so far as to describe himself as faultless with regard to the law and with regards to zeal an enthusiastic opponent of those he considered (wrongly as it turned out) to be the enemy of God’s true people. If anyone could have confidence in his own abilities and credentials Paul was sure that it was him!

Jesus mentioned the righteousness of this particular group not because they were failing but precisely because in terms of the law they were doing very well. And yet he insisted that their faultless righteousness was insufficient to secure an entry into the kingdom of God!

What on earth are we to make of that?

Better than that?!
When we first hear Jesus declaring that our righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees I guess our minds first turn to the need to make more effort and to try much harder and this is what most people think the Christian gospel is all about but they are wrong, so very wrong.

The Christian gospel doesn’t come to us and tell us that we must earn our way into the kingdom of heaven by manufacturing a righteousness of our own. How could we produce for ourselves a righteousness that surpassed that of the blameless righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees? At best all we could do by following the requirements of the law would be to attain to the same degree of righteousness that they did – we could never do any more.

So what on earth did Jesus mean?

Let me try to explain. The righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was a righteousness that was bound up with the law but the law was never given to men and women as a means of salvation – it was given to order the lives of men and women in their fallen state as sinners, it was given to restrain sin and to stop it developing as fully as it might otherwise have done, and it was given in order to make people realise that they were sinners. The righteousness that proceeds from following this law of Moses has simply nothing to do with the righteousness that we need if we are indeed to enter God’s kingdom.

I’ve been trying to think of an illustration that might help us to understand because we are so tempted to want to try to earn our way to heaven and we’re so proud that we think that we could do what was required of us if only we set our minds to do so.

Imagine a football team playing extraordinarily well in the FA Cup. They play every game to a level no-one has ever seen before and they win every match – their record is perfect and they win. But what they win is the Cup not the Premiership! In fact their total dominance of the Cup means absolutely nothing as far as the Premiership is concerned.

Similarly, any work of righteousness proceeding from the law has absolutely no bearing upon our relationship with God, because as Paul told the Romans:

Rom.3:20 "For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin."

Or again it would be like a snooker player scoring 147 in every frame and expecting to be crowned the Champion of Wimbledon. Success is only relevant in the appropriate sphere and success in one sphere does not equal success in another.

The scribes and the Pharisees could strive to attain a wonderful righteousness proceeding from the law but in terms of gaining entry into the kingdom of God something else was needed – a totally different and better righteousness was needed, one that was wasn’t tied to works of the law.

This is the type of righteousness you and I need. We don’t need to try harder, to make lots of new resolutions, to attend more meetings, to make sacrifice after sacrifice and to pray until we wear holes in the carpet but we do need this other kind of righteousness.

Do you know where it is to be found? Do you know how it may become yours?

The apostle Paul did. That is why he was ready to turn his back upon everything in which he once placed his confidence. He was ready to give up his confidence in what he had previously laboured so hard to achieve – indeed he was ready to call it refuse (and worse) when he discovered where this other more precious more valuable righteousness might be found.

Paul came to realise that the righteousness that everyone would need in order to enter the kingdom of God was available and available to all and it had nothing to do with the law!

Rom.3:21-24 "But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus"

Small wonder that Paul was excited about the gospel!

Rom.1:16-17 "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, "The righteous shall live by faith."

The gospel offers us Jesus Christ and as we put our faith and trust in him and give up relying upon our own efforts to secure God’s favour God freely gives us the righteousness we need. Not only are our sins forgiven but we are also declared to be right with God!

In embracing this righteousness of God by faith Paul didn’t suddenly become lawless and live a life of total disregard for God’s law but he did stop relying on his law-keeping as for his status with God. Similarly no true Christian who understands the gospel ever wants to live a reckless life or feels free to live a life of sinful rebellion against God. After all Christian is freedom from sin not freedom to sin!    

My friends this morning I must ask you some questions:

Do you understand what I’ve been saying this morning? Do you realise that if you are to enter God’s kingdom then you must get off the broad road that leads to destruction? Do you see that God isn’t telling you to do what you can or to do your best? Do you understand that God is offering you a free gift of exactly what you need? You’re neither good enough for God nor too difficult to God. You are simply a sinner and Jesus died for people like you and me. He offers us his own righteousness for us to wear as a fresh suit of clothes in God’s presence – all we must do is to repent and to take by faith the gift that is held out to us.

Have you done that? If not, why not? What holds you back? Don’t delay – you see how glad it made the apostle Paul when he realised and embraced Christ – how it transformed his life for the better! It will be the same for you. Come to Christ today.

If you have already come, don’t be tempted to imagine that you need to add to the righteousness that is yours in Christ – but rejoice and be glad and let others know how good it is to be a Christian. About all give praise and honour to God for his inexpressible gift.


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