Exceedingly Greater Righteousness Matt 5:17-20

Introduction (318)

In the first quarter the year our sermons focused on the beatitudes in a series called “Blessed – enjoying God’s fullness”.  We will now continue on to the rest of the Sermon on the Mount.  We will work through this teaching by Jesus for the next 14 weeks which will basically take us up to Back to Church at the beginning of September.

The purpose of the Sermon

Many consider the SotM to be a summary of the ethical and moral teachings of Jesus; how to live a good and godly life.  The New York Times published an article that said, “The (sermon) is widely attractive, with non-Christians and even some atheists professing admiration for what Sullivan (quoting Thomas Jefferson) calls ‘the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered.’”[1]

But Jesus’ purpose was not to upscale or correct the Ten Commandments, it was not a call for people to live a good life.  In fact, the part of the Sermon that we are looking at this morning sets the tone for the rest of chapter 5 and into 6 and 7.

Read Matt 5:17-20

Like any good preacher, Jesus has a great conclusion: he compels people to choose one of two ways: there are two gates, two tree, two foundations.  Too often preachers have interpreted this as Jesus offering either (a) living God’s way according to the teachings of the Sermon, or (b) rejecting the teachings and living an immoral or disobedient life.  And if that were true you would certainly expect to see Jesus start there and build towards his conclusion.

But what we see in our reading is that Jesus is contrasting the Pharisees way and Jesus’ way, a righteousness like the Pharisees or a righteousness that “surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law”.  What could that righteousness be?

Jesus is going to preach to our hearts and not to our actions; to the internal state of your life, not mere external compliance; to motivation, not merely to deeds.   He is going to contrast the motives of fear, insecurity and pride against the joy of God’s grace freely.

His challenge to the congregation that gathered in the hill side was: do you obey so that you can be accepted by God, or does your acceptance by God motivate you to obey.  The problem is that, from the outside it can be almost impossible to tell these two apart.  My great concern is that Jesus would say to someone who attended ECCC: away from me, I never knew you.  And they will protest, but look at all I did…

Christians and the Law

Read verse 17-19

What has Jesus said that would make his congregation think that he is doing away with the law?   It is a preparatory remark: he is about to say several times (5:21, 27, 31, 35, 38, 43), “You have heard it said… but I tell to you…” addressing laws that are found in Leviticus, Exodus and Deuteronomy.  He emphatically states that he is repealing OT law, but in a greater sense he is coming to “fulfil” the Law and Prophets and everything in the law will be “accomplished”.  What could this mean?

Fulfilled and accomplished

Firstly, the OT revealed who God is, and how man can live in right relationship with God.  There is teaching, there is narrative and there is prophecy, all the hope of the OT is fulfilled in Christ.  Jesus would be:

  • the fullest revelation of God

Hebrews 1:1-3 In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.

Colossians 1:19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him,

  • He was the fulfilment of the temple (meeting place of God and man)

John 1:14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

  • He would accomplish the purpose of the sacrificial system as the Lamb of God

John 1:36 When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”

  • The book of Hebrews tells us he is the greater Moses (leading people from slavery into freedom)
  • It also says he is the greater Aaron (the high priest who would enter the holy of holies on behalf of the people)

Secondly, he actually lived the moral requirements of the law perfectly – fulfilled, accomplished.  He never failed or faltered.   He never left anything that he should have done undone.  He kept the ethical requirements of them law.

Misuse of the law

Read verse 19-20

Jesus now takes aim at the Pharisees and Teachers of the law.  They are the ones who had the OT scrolls and read them (not like today where you got it on your cellphone) and they had studied it (many people were illiterate or unable).  So the people were at their mercy.  And Jesus will go on to say,

Matthew 23:1-4 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2 “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.


What Jesus will go on to show is that they were relaxing the laws to make obedience less of a challenge.  We will see in the next couple of that they (a) restricted the commandments and (b) extended the permissions.[2]

The true purpose of the law

Read Galatians 3:21-25

I know that came past quiet quickly, but here is what Paul is saying – and I would like you to go back and reread it again later to digest it.  Paul has been making the argument that the law is good.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with the law when it is used properly.  The OT was given to shepherd and guide the people of God until the coming of Christ – because he fulfills the law!

The purpose of the law was to restrain sin (which is what the law does generally in society).  But more particularly, it was there to bring sin to light:

Romans 3:20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.

Romans 8:3a For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering.

The law is not able to save because of the essential and foundational problem of human beings – our sinful nature.  But what the law does do is show us our need – it shows our inability to keep the law and our need for something more and “trying harder” if we are going to be accepted by a perfect God.

Righteousness that greatly exceeds that of the Pharisees

When the crowd head Jesus say that their righteousness had to (lit.) greatly exceed that of the Pharisees they would have felt gutted and disempowered.  The Pharisees had calculated that the law contained 248 commandments and 365 prohibitions – and they were experts at practicing them!  But Jesus was not saying: in the Pharisees do 240 you have to do 245!  Jesus is not saying, you need to be better at obeying.

Too many people view Christianity as a self-improvement project (do better) whereby you put God in your debt: “I work hard and live according to Biblical principle, then God will accept and bless me”.  God becomes a means to an end; he is not worshipped simple for who he is.  But Jesus says you do not need more obedience to more laws, but a deeper work of God that produces a righteousness of heart and mind (not outward veneer of actions).

This comes through the miracle of salvation whereby God replace our heart of stone with a hear of flesh and in which he writes the law of the God on our heats (Jeremiah 31:33) and in which

Ezekiel 36:27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.


The problem is that the “righteousness” of the Pharisees was motivated by fear and pride: “If I don’t obey God he will punish me and he won’t bless me” or “I must not do this because I am a good Pharisee (Christian)”.  What motivates you as a Christian or someone looking into Christianity?

Martin Luther had this insight 600 years ago: the default setting of the human heart is an, “I obey, and therefore I am accepted”.   Where are you with regard to that statement?

The gospel says, Jesus obeyed the law perfectly on my behalf.  And he was the one and only innocent person who did not deserve to be hung up on the cross.  Yet, because of his love for me, he allowed himself to be crucified.  He took my disobedience on the cross and I receive his obedience in its place.

The glory of His gift of salvation:

  • destroys pride: because he had to do this for me, I could not do it for myself; I receive with empty hand and he gives all I need;
  • destroys fear: because if he would do this for me while I was still his enemy, then he values me infinitely and nothing I can do will wear out his love for me.

This is how the gospel brings a deeper righteousness – I don’t obey to earn acceptance.  The gospel says: I am already accepted and embraced eternally (free from fear and pride) therefore I joyfully obey.

Jesus is going to dig deep into our hearts over the next few weeks, and challenge us so that our obedience is motivated by grace.


Sermon Questions

Please use / augment / discard these questions so that your group has a fruitful discusssion

  1. The Sermon on the Mount is ‘the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered.’  How is this statement both correct and incorrect?
  2. What is the whole Sermon on the Mount alerts you to the fact that Jesus is distinguishing between a Pharisaic righteousness and a deeper righteousness offed by Christ?
  3. What did Jesus mean when he said he came to “fulfil” the law and to make sure everything is “accomplished”?
  4. How had the Pharisees used the Law incorrectly? Cf. Matthew 23:1-4
  5. What was the true purpose of the Law? Cf Galatians 3:21-25, Romans 3:20, 8:3-4
  6. Read Jeremiah 31:33 and Ezekiel 36:27. How do these passages relate to Matt 5:17-20?
  7. How does the gospel destroy fear and pride as motivations for obedience?
    1. What are the true motivations of the gospel (replacing fear and pride)?
  8. How should our righteousness “greatly exceed” that of the Pharisees?
    1. How is this true on your life?
    2. Discuss this quote: The gospel is “I am accepted through Christ, therefore I obey” while every other religion operates on the principle of “I obey, therefore I am accepted.” Martin Luther’s fundamental insight was that this latter principle, the principle of ‘religion’ is the deep default mode of the human heart. The heart continues to work in that way even after conversion to Christ. Though we recognize and embrace the principle of the gospel, our hearts will always be trying to return to the mode of self-salvation, which leads to spiritual deadness, pride and strife and ministry ineffectiveness.[3]
  9. Close your time with quiet self-inspection:
    1. Are you motivated by pride or fear;

Is there spiritual deadness, pride, strife or ministry ineffectiveness in your life

[1] https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/19/returning-to-the-sermon-on-the-mount/?_r=0

[2] John Stott make this point (Sermon on the Mount, pg 79)

[3] From Article, “Preaching in a Post-Modern City” Tim Keller