Advancing the Conversation of Jesus
I see this passage as containing the key to the entire book of Matthew. This is the primary theme of what Matthew intended to communicate: “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever, then annuls one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever, keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:12-19)
Jesus positions his teachings with the Mosaic Law. Jesus makes it clear that he does not nullify the Law in any way, but has come to fulfill it. To fulfill literally means to fill it full. Imagine an empty glass as the Law and filling up the glass with Jesus. The Law was the form and Jesus is the substance!
The Law of Moses spoke and illustrated Jesus throughout, then Jesus shows up to fill up the form set forth by that Law.
NOTE that Jesus in no way excludes the Jewish people and their Law of Moses, but only has difficulty with their application of it. In fact, Jesus presents Himself in an inclusive manner. He is always inclusive. Jesus unites. Everything and everyone else tends toward dividing. I don’t know many people like this, like Jesus.
For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)
NOTE that Jesus gives the requirement for entering the kingdom of heaven. Your righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees. Wow! Is Jesus saying that we are to be more religious than these Jewish leaders? Not at all—just the opposite!
The scribes and Pharisees were some of the most religious people ever. Their religiosity was all about external matters—separation from sin and sinners and cleansing oneself. The Pharisees were known for: 1. Professing righteousness without possession of it! 2. Being hyper-critical, not hypocrites in the normal sense, but hair-splitters, nit-pickers, feather-pluckers! 3. Emphasizing the letter over the spirit of the Law—all truth and little grace! 4. Making absolutes out of non-absolutes—listing as many rules and regulations as possible! 5. Drawing the condemnation of men on righteous acts before God, such as praying, fasting, giving.
Jesus was not saying to outdo these super-religious people. He was saying that your righteousness must surpass their righteousness. I believe he is saying that your righteousness must go deeper—from the externals into the internals. Remember, God looks on the heart (internals) while man looks on the outward appearance (externals). Righteousness as Jesus teaches it is a matter of the heart!