The Superior Righteousness of the Kingdom
(Matt. 5:17-20)


Every kingdom has laws. And not just a few laws, but a multitude of laws. When the U.S. Congress passed a healthcare bill, the bill itself encompassed over 2,000 pages of rules, laws, and regulations. And that was just ONE bill. Whether you agree or disagree with that piece of legislation is irrelevant for the purposes of our discussion because NO ONE claimed that the Congress didn't have the right to pass law. What is relevant is that what happened shows that the passing of laws is an accepted and expected element of nations and kingdoms.

The same applies to the Kingdom of God: it too has laws and regulations, laws and regulations which the King in this kingdom expects us to carry out. As was said earlier, Bonhoeffer actually had the audacity to insist that we are to carry out those laws (specifically the ones in the Sermon on the Mount).

Now this may seem strange to us who cut our spiritual teeth on the belief that we are saved by grace through faith and that the Christian life is maintained not by works of the law but by daily faith in Christ. Does this seem to be a contradiction? No. Probably the greatest treatises on salvation by grace through faith are Paul's letters to the Romans and to the Galatians. Romans spends 8 of its 16 chapters on this, whereas Galatians spends almost 5 of its 6 chapters on this topic. Yet, in Romans 3 1/2 chapters and in Galatians 1+ chapters focus on the way the Christian is to live once he has been saved by grace through faith. Grace which does not transform us is what Bonhoeffer calls "cheap grace," not NT grace. Christ set the tone for this first by dying for us (salvation by grace through faith) and second by delivering to us this sermon on the way to live in the Kingdom of Heaven. Although only God's grace and power can enable us to carry out these "laws", Christ, nevertheless, still expects us to carry them out. There is no contradiction.

Just a note here. Too often people misunderstand the concept of grace. When a standard is elevated and enforced, people say that we are NOT being gracious. They claim that we should not apply the standard in those cases. That is a perverted form of Christian grace. Christ first FORGIVES us because we have not met that standard, and then He comes to live in us to TRANSFORM us so that the standard is made real in our lives. Christianity collapses if the standards are not maintained; when that happens, the light of the world is extinguished, the salt of the earth becomes tasteless--and the world plunges into darkness.


Correcting a Misunderstanding

"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.

Almost with incredible foresight, Jesus knew that people could misinterpret His teachings to mean that He had come to abolish the Law. For example, (at least according to the Pharisees) what were some of the laws Jesus violated?

  1. Mark 3:1-5:

    To make matters worse, when you read the gospels you almost come away with the impression that Jesus refused to do miracles on any day other than the Sabbath!

  2. Mark 7:1-7:

  3. Mark 7:14-23:

The early followers of Jesus (especially Paul) "seemed" to make matters worse by teaching a gospel of salvation by grace through faith APART from the works of the Law (Rom. 3:21). For this reason, James spends an inordinate amount of space on speaking of works completing faith, or rather, true NT faith producing works just like a fig tree naturally producing figs and the vine naturally producing grapes.

Yet the Sermon on the Mount and the ethical portions in Paul show that a lawless ethic contradicts the concept of salvation by grace thru faith. Neither Jesus nor Paul ever condoned lawlessness. In fact, what does Paul call the Antichrist in 2 Thess. 2:3 "the man of ______________________ is revealed, the son of destruction"?

Yet Jesus clearly wasn't following all the regulations and stipulations of the OT (dietary code, ritual purification). Rather Jesus was following in the steps of the prophets who had taken the teachings of Moses to a much deeper level. What we see in the OT and what is climaxed in the teachings of Jesus is a true development of the Law from being one of mere observance to strictly physical rules to being that of the spiritual transformation of the person. The strict observance of physical rules (washing hands, etc.) didn't produce the holy person. In fact, what did God do to the Israelites which showed that they were not holy even though they had had the law for almost 900 years (2 Chronicles 36:14-20)?

By the time of the later prophets, we are seeing a "spiritualization" of the laws so that the inner man is more important than the outer. For example, instead of physical circumcision what did Jeremiah insist upon? In other words they were to circumcise themselves and remove the foreskins of what (Jer. 4:4)?

Instead of animal sacrifices, the psalmist claimed that God desired what (Ps. 51:16-17)?

Jesus takes keeping of the Law in this sense very seriously. According to Jesus, what will happen to the man who annuls or abrogates even the tiniest part of the Law (Matt. 5:19)?

On the other hand, what will happen to the person who not only teaches the whole Law but also keeps it (5:19)?

A Righteousness Surpassing That of the Most Religious (5:20)

For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees,
you will not enter the kingdom of heaven."

Unfortunately, some have misinterpreted this verse to mean that it doesn’t take much to be more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees because they were so bad—seen in the fact that they led the way in crucifying Jesus. That is NOT the meaning of what Jesus is saying. In this context, Jesus is actually viewing the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees in a favorable light. They actually were doing righteous deeds. We shall see this better as we study Matt. 5:21-48 which deals with the scribes and Matt. 6:1-18 which deals with the Pharisees. In many cases what they were doing was not bad; it just wasn't enough, or it was done for the wrong motives. Unfortunately for us, many of us are actually a lot less righteous than the Pharisees and Scribes. According to Jesus, is the righteousness of the Pharisees and scribes good enough to get a person into heaven?

The Greek is even clearer. Jesus claims (in the Greek) that unless a person’s righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, he will NEVER, NO NEVER (a double negative in the Greek), NEVER, NO NEVER enter into the kingdom of heaven. That is how serious Jesus is about our righteousness. He will develop this even further in Matt. 5:21-6:18. In fact, much of the rest of the Sermon focuses on the superior righteousness Jesus expects of His followers.

AND NOW FROM BONHOEFFER: From the Righteousness of Christ

Earlier we discussed the influence of Luther's Theology of the Cross not only upon Lutheranism in general, but upon Bonhoeffer in particular. It is in this passage that we see clearly the impact of Luther's Theology of the Cross upon Bonhoeffer:
"But the disciple had the advantage over the Pharisee in that his doing of the law is in fact perfect. How is such a thing possible? Because between the disciples and the law stands one who has perfectly fulfilled it, one with whom they live in communion. They are faced not with a law which has never yet been fulfilled. The righteousness it demands is already there, the righteousness of ___________________ which submits to the cross because that is what the Law demands. This righteousness is therefore not a duty owed, but a perfect and truly personal communion with God, and Jesus not only possesses this righteousness, but is himself the personal embodiment of it. _____________ is the __________________ of the disciples. By calling them he has admitted them to partnership with himself and made them __________________ of his righteousness in its fullness."

Although there is some similarity between Bonhoeffer and Lewis, there is also a vivid contrast. From Lewis:

Now I must turn to Faith in the second or higher sense: and this is the most difficult thing I have tackled yet. I want to approach it by going back to the subject of Humility. You may remember I said that the first step towards humility was to realise that one is proud. I want to add now that the next step is to make some serious attempt to practise the Christian virtues. A week is not enough. Things often go swimmingly for the first week. Try six weeks. By that time, having, as far as one can see, fallen back completely or even fallen lower than the point one began from, one will have discovered some truths about oneself. No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good. A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness.

They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means—the only complete realist. Very well, then. The main thing we learn from a serious attempt to practise the Christian virtues is that we fail. If there was any idea that God had set us a sort of exam, and that we might get good marks by deserving them, that has to be wiped out. If there was any idea of a sort of bargain—any idea that we could perform our side of the contract and thus put God in our debts so that it was up to Him, in mere justice, to perform His side—that has to be wiped out. . . . .

I am trying to talk about Faith in the second sense, the higher sense. I said last week that the question of Faith in this sense arises after a man has tried his level best to practise the Christian virtues, and found that he fails, and seen that even if he could he would only be giving back to God what was already God's own. In other words, he discovers his bankruptcy. Now, once again, what God cares about is not exactly our actions. What he cares about is that we should be creatures of a certain kind or quality— the kind of creatures He intended us to be—creatures related to Himself in a certain way. I do not add "and related to one another in a certain way," because that is included: if you are right with Him you will inevitably be right with all your fellow-creatures, just as if all the spokes of a wheel are fitted rightly into the hub and the rim they are bound to be in the right positions to one another. And as long as a man is thinking of God as an examiner who has set him a sort of paper to do, or as the opposite party in a sort of bargain—as long as he is thinking of claims and counterclaims between himself and God—he is not yet in the right relation to Him. He is misunderstanding what he is and what God is. And he cannot get into the right relation until he has discovered the fact of our bankruptcy. . . .

Now we cannot, in that sense, discover our failure to keep God's law except by trying our very hardest (and then failing). Unless we really try, whatever we say there will always be at the back of our minds the idea that if we try harder next time we shall succeed in being completely good. Thus, in one sense, the road back to God is a road of moral effort, of trying harder and harder. But in another sense it is not trying that is ever going to bring us home. All this trying leads up to the vital moment at which you turn to God and say, "You must do this. I can't." . . .

I know the words "leave it to God" can be misunderstood, but they must stay for the moment. The sense in which a Christian leaves it to God is that he puts all his trust in Christ: trusts that Christ will somehow share with him the perfect human obedience which He carried out from His birth to His crucifixion: that Christ will make the man more like Himself and, m\in a sense, make good his deficiencies. . . .

The Bible really seems to clinch the matter when it puts the two things together into one amazing sentence. The first half is, "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling"—which looks as if everything depended on us and our good actions: but the second half goes on, "For it is God who worketh in you"— which looks as if God did everything and we nothing. I am afraid that is the sort of thing we come up against in Christianity. I am puzzled, but I am not surprised.

You see, we are now trying to understand, and to separate into water-tight compartments, what exactly God does and what man does when God and man are working together. And, of course, we begin by thinking it is like two men working together, so that you could say, "He did this bit and I did that." But this way of thinking breaks down. God is not like that. He is inside you as well as outside: even if we could understand who did what, I do not think human language could properly express it. . . .

I think all Christians would agree with me if I said that though Christianity seems at first to be all about morality, all about duties and rules and guilt and virtue, yet it leads you on, out of all that, into something beyond. One has a glimpse of a country where they do not talk of those things, except perhaps as a joke. Every one there is filled full with what we should call goodness as a mirror is filled with light But they do not call it goodness. They do not call it anything. They are not thinking of it. They are too busy looking at the source from which it comes. But this is near the stage where the road passes over the rim of our world. No one's eyes can see very far beyond that: lots of people's eyes can see further than mine" (MC, Book 3, chapters 11, 12).