Surpassing Righteousness Explained – The Sermon on the Mount – Part III


In Matthew 5:21-48 of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is going to explain what it means to have surpassing righteousness.  He will walk through six commandments that the Pharisees commonly teach from the Law and show how mere adherence to a legal code has never been able to fulfill the Law.  Instead, obedience to the Law was always intended to flow out of the heart.  Surpassing righteousness means not only being obedient to the Law, but also having that obedience flow out of a righteous heart.

I think it is important to see that Jesus is not giving a new Law nor is He making the Law harder by saying it is about our heart condition, as is popularly taught.  Rather, He is correcting the errant way in which the Pharisees and Scribes thought about the Law.  God always intended the Law to be followed from the heart, but God’s people needed a change of heart to actually be able to follow the Law from the heart.  Christ fulfillment of the Law (Matthew 5:17) in the most basic sense is a life conformed to the Law and a demonstration of proper heart condition.  Christ also fulfills God’s law in several other ways, most importantly by taking the penalty for our sin that the Law prescribed.  Christ also fulfills the Law by becoming the ultimate sacrifice that the Law was pointing toward through the sacrificial system.  When we join ourselves with Christ, we fulfill the Law through His righteousness and receive a new heart that can begin to be obedient to the Lord from the heart.  Take a quick look at the following verses in Deuteronomy to see the way in which the Law was always intended to be followed from the heart: Deuteronomy 4:29, Deuteronomy 4:39, Deuteronomy 5:29, Deuteronomy 6:4-6, Deuteronomy 10:12, Deuteronomy 10:16, Deuteronomy 11:13, Deuteronomy 11:16, Deuteronomy 11:18, Deuteronomy 13:3, Deuteronomy 26:16, Deuteronomy 30:2, Deuteronomy 30:6, Deuteronomy 30:10, Deuteronomy 32:46.

In Matthew 5:21-26 Jesus deals with murder.  The command not to murder comes from Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17.  In Matthew 5:21-22 Jesus tells his disciples it is not good enough to not physically kill people.  Instead, their hearts have to be clean from murder in the form of anger, hatred, slander, and disrespect.  In fact this offense is Hell worthy (Matthew 5:22).  In addition the way we murder others with our heart affects our worship.  Matthew 5:23-24 tells us that we need to have reconciled with those we have something against before we come to worship the Lord.  We should let this command of Christ sink deep into our modern-day church psyche.  Every time a church body meets together its members should consider the ways they have wronged each other and work towards reconciliation before participation in worship.  We see this same theme throughout Paul’s letters as he stresses the unity of believers, particularly when believers take part in communion.  At my church we particularly like to urge members to be reconciled to each other before taking communion even if that means getting up out of your seat and walking over to another brother and confessing sin.  Finally, in Matthew 5:25-26 Christ uses a court room metaphor to urge us to right all offenses we have against anyone as soon as we can so that we might not face the just penalty.  I think it is hard not to see in these two verses a comparison to the coming judgment of Christ, although some scholars disagree.  In total, this section of the Sermon helps us to understand the magnitude of the offense of sin in general.

In Matthew 5:27-29 Jesus deals with adultery.  The command against adultery comes from Exodus 20:14 and Deuteronomy 5:18.  Again, Jesus is showing that it is not good enough to not have sex with someone who is not your spouse.  Rather, surpassing righteousness means that you are not lustfully looking upon anyone.  Jesus follows this commandment up with one of most ironic and funny explanations on the seriousness of sin in the Bible.  In Matthew 5:29-30 He speaks of cutting off the body part that makes us sin because it is more important to not be thrown into hell than to enter heaven maimed.  Now if that isn’t funny in light of what Jesus just taught on adultery, I don’t know what is!  Point taken.

In Matthew 5:31-32 Jesus deals with divorce.  The commandments concerning divorce can be found in Deuteronomy 24:1-4.  Jesus Himself further interprets the intent of this law in Matthew 19:3-12.  Jesus was dealing with the hard heart of the Pharisees and the way they were divorcing their wives for any and every trivial reason.  The only reason Moses gave the law concerning divorce was to keep the process orderly since the Israelites were unwilling to bear with their wives.  Jesus is saying it was never the intent of the Law that you could divorce your spouse for any and every reason, but rather marriage is a permanent institution only disturbed through the sin of adultery.  We have fallen into great adultery in the Church by permitting frivolous divorce.  May we ask God to point our hard hearts towards the Gospel and find forgiveness for our indulgence in divorce as well as finding a renewed sense of the importance of marriage.  The Church must learn to revere and fight for marriage once again.

In Matthew 5:33-37 Jesus deals with Vows.  The commandments concerning vows can be found in Leviticus 19:12, Numbers 30:2, Deuteronomy 23:21, and Deuteronomy 23:23.  Jesus again gives us commentary on vows and the Pharisees in Matthew 23:16-22. The basic problem with the Pharisees here was that they were making vows with there fingers crossed, leaving themselves a way out.  They were being deceptive with their promises.  Surpassing righteousness makes vows and fulfills those vows realizing that you are accountable to God. There should be not a hint of deception in the promises we make or our general speech.  This can only come about as God does a work in our heart through the Gospel.

In Matthew 5:38-42 Jesus deals with fairness in offense.  The commandments concerning offense can be found in Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, and Deuteronomy 19:21.  This particular saying by Christ is one of the harder passages of the Sermon to interpret, but I think the general tenor of this passage is to not take revenge.  The original intention of the Mosaic Law was to restrain excessive punishment, yet the Pharisees had turned this command into a legalistic right to have an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth.  Jesus again is concerned with surpassing righteousness and shows us the heart intent of this command is to give up ones right to self because you are a citizen of the kingdom of God.  Citizens of the kingdom of God can be patient for God to make things right.  We don’t have to demand fairness in this life since we have placed our hopes in the kingdom to come.  In addition, we can give freely in this life knowing from whom all things come and what we have secured in the future kingdom.  Surpassing righteousness means not demanding fairness but resting in God.  I agree with many commentators that do not see this passage lending support to pacifism, but rather the passage in context is concerned with the attitude of self and its demands.

In Matthew 5:43-47 Jesus deals with our neighbors and enemies.  A commandment concerning neighbors can be found in Leviticus 19:18.  This section of the Sermon is a fantastic saying from Christ; the key being Matthew 5:45.  Jesus wants us to be sons of our Father in heaven and to do that we must love our enemies and pray for them just as the true Son, Christ, did.  When we love our enemies we are imitating Christ as He came to the world and loved us, His enemies.  Surpassing righteousness loves people not because of what they provide for us but rather in a pattern after the Father’s love.  This section of the Sermon speaks volumes about how we should conduct evangelism today.

Finally, Jesus sums up this section in Matthew 5:48 calling the citizens of the kingdom of heaven to be perfect as God is perfect.  This command has roots in Leviticus 19:2 and Deuteronomy 18:13.  This command points us to how much righteousness we actually need.  Perfection.  God wants holy beings to dwell in His holy presence.  Christ describes a surpassing righteousness that no one could possible have.  This demand of God for holy perfection, which has always been the intent of the Law, can only be met through the person of Christ.  Remember Christ’s statement in Matthew 5:17 that He fulfilled the Law?  If we are to have surpassing righteousness we need to fulfill the Law.  Christ did that for us on many levels as I discussed above.  We when confess our sins and place our faith in Christ’s work on the cross, we obtain the hope of surpassing righteousness.  1 John 3:2 tells us that when Christ returns the citizens of the kingdom of God will become like Him.  Have you experienced the beginnings of surpassing righteousness in Christ?

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