Let's have prayer together as we begin our study tonight. Father, we thank You for fellowship that You have provided in Christ. We thank You for how rich and rewarding, how satisfying and energizing, how thrilling and hopeful it is to know You and to fellowship in Your body. We thank You for the testimony that You love us and are coming to take us to be with You. We know that all of that is based upon one great thing, and that is that we really do know You. We really are redeemed, we really are new creations, we really are saved, born again, and regenerated. We really believe that we have truly acknowledged Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. We pray that as we examine the reality of our faith and the reality of true righteousness, that You would help us to understand clearly what it is that You are saying to us. Bless our fellowship around Your Word, in Christ's name, Amen.
We are going to be studying Matthew 5:17-20 again tonight, but to begin, I want us to look at Luke 18:9-14. This passage will serve as a fitting beginning for our study of Matthew 5. This is part four of studying Christ and the law from Matthew 5:17-20, but our thoughts can be set by examining Luke 18. Notice the parable that our Lord gives.
"And He spoke this parable unto certain who trusted in themselves, that they were righteous, and despised others." Now, we have to stop here for a moment. Here are some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous; self-righteousness, the religion of human achievement. So to those people, Jesus told this story.
"Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank You that I am not like other men -- extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.'"
Now, there is an exercise in futility by a self-righteous man. As a Pharisee, he was considered to be the most religious person in his society. In his own mind, he was convinced that that was true. He was thanking God that he wasn't like other people, that he went beyond the behavior of other people and fasted twice in the week. By the way, the Old Testament required one fast a year, so to fast twice a week would be about 103 times more than you needed to.
On the other hand, the tax collector stands far off (verse 13), "And would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but beat upon his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner.'"
There is the contrast. The least esteemed man in Jewish society was a tax collector because he was a Jew who worked for Rome. He exacted taxes from his own people. He was hired by Rome; he was the ultimate kind of traitor, and despised by his society. He had opted out for money; he had forsaken his loyalty and nationalism, even his religion, if you will, for money. This one is in a corner, beating on his breast, saying, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner."
In verse 14, Jesus gave the point of the story. "I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other. For whoever exalts himself shall be abased, and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted." That's the story about the bad man that went to Heaven and the good man that went to Hell. It serves as a fitting beginning to what we are going to look at in Matthew 5, because in this passage, we have a very similar situation.
The average person who reads the account of Luke 18 wouldn't quite understand it, because most people think that good people go to Heaven and bad people go to Hell. The man crouching in the corner, beating on his breast, and saying, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner," is admitting that he really is classed for Hell. On the other hand, someone who doesn't extort, or commit adultery, and who fasts twice a week, and gives tithes of all that he possesses, and is a super-religious person is certainly a person on his way to Heaven. Most people in human society believe that if you're good enough, you'll get there, and if you're bad, you won't. But Jesus told a story in Luke 18 that said the very opposite. Then He went further in Matthew 5; look at verse 17.
"Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men to do so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven."
And here is our verse for tonight. "For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven." What Jesus is saying here is that if you're going to get into Heaven, you have to be better than the scribes and Pharisees.
I've asked a lot of people in my life, "How do you get to Heaven?" and they say, "By being good." I said to one person one time, "How good do you have to be?" He said, "Very good." I said, "How good is very good?" He said, "It's very, very good." But the best of all the people in the society of Israel, the very best, will by no means enter the Kingdom of Heaven based on their goodness. And the worst in Israel's society, a tax collector, a traitor, went home justified, which raises the question, "How good do you have to be to get to Heaven? What is the criteria?" That is precisely what Jesus is attempting to teach here. This marvelous text is so rich and so informative, and we've only begun to scratch the surface.
Let me remind you of the thrust of verses 17-20 so that you'll understand the meaning of verse 20 in its context. Jesus came along and was teaching, and His teaching was extremely paradoxical. His teaching was radical, and very different from that of the teachers of that day - the rabbis, the leaders, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the scribes - it was very different. They were always dealing with the external, He was always talking about the internal.
He was so very different that the people felt that He must be just another revolutionary - just another incendiary that comes down through history and brings some new revelation, just another wandering preacher, a would-be Messiah like so many others. His message sounded rather like a perversion of the Old Testament. Because this was somewhat the popular concept, Jesus felt it very necessary to clarify His relation to the Old Testament, the law of Moses, the Scripture.
In this passage, He begins to articulate the manifesto of His Kingdom. Having established that He is King in the first four chapters, He launches into this sermon. In this sermon, He wants them to know that His message is not something new, not a dramatic change, He is not rejecting the Old Testament or giving them something that obviates, or nullifies, or abrogates the Old Testament, but rather, He clarifies that He has a total commitment to the Old Testament revelation.
By saying, in verse 20, that true righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, He is simply saying, "The scribes and Pharisees have not lived up to the Old Testament standard. It isn't a new standard; they haven't even lived up to the old one." So, in these marvelous verses, Jesus assures us that He is totally committed to the Old Testament, totally committed to it correctly interpreted, totally committed to it down to the very letters (verse 18). He is totally committed to it so that obeying it is blessing and disobeying it is cursing, according to verse 19.
So He is not in any way inconsistent with the Old Testament, He is not violating the Old Testament, He is fulfilling it. In these four verses, He gives four great truths about the Old Testament. In verse 17, the preeminence of the law. I told you some weeks ago that what He meant by that was that it is still the preeminent thing; there is nothing like it. It was authored by God, affirmed by the prophets, and accomplished by Him. It is the highest source of revelation in existence; it is the only one. It is preeminent above all other books that have ever been written. So He established in verse 17 the preeminence of the law; He had not come to destroy it in any sense, but to fulfill it.
Secondly, verse 18 presents the permanence of the law. He came to show that the law would not pass away; no one could come and do away with it. It had to be fulfilled in every sense, and He, in fact, was the one in the process of fulfilling it. Remember that when Christ came the first time, He began to fulfill the law. He is still fulfilling it and will fulfill it even in His Second Coming. So we talked about the preeminence of the law. It is the highest and the best. We talked about the permanence of the law; it will be fulfilled, and until it is fulfilled, not one jot or tittle will be removed from it. That, by the way, is Christ's view of the Scripture. It is all, down to the very letters, the authoritative Word of God and will not be set aside, but rather, shall be fulfilled. He is the one who will fulfill it.
Thirdly, in our last study, we talked about the pertinence of the law; we discussed its preeminence, its permanence, and its pertinence. In verse 19, He says that this preeminent and permanent law is binding on the hearts of men. So, in verse 19, He says, "Whoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments and teach men to do so shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven."
It is so preeminent, it is so permanent, that incumbent upon us is obedience to it in even its least parts. Christ says that anyone who dulls the sharp edge of God's law, of God's holy Word, and teaches others a watered-down sense of obedience, or a watered-down set of principles, will be called least in the Kingdom. But whoever takes it at face-value and obeys it will be the greatest.
The preeminence and permanence and pertinence of Scripture lead finally, in verse 20, to the purpose. Why did God give the Scripture? Why a preeminent, permanent, pertinent law? Why does God give us this incredible statement of truth? Why does He give us all of these standards? What is the purpose? Verse 20 gives it to us by not saying it, but by implying it. "For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven."
The purpose of God's law was to show you that you had to have more righteousness than you could come up with on your own; that's the point of it, the purpose. Galatians 3:24 articulates it with this statement: "Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith." The law was the schoolmaster, or the disciplinarian, to bring us to Christ. The law was the perfect standard which would show us our sin; that was its purpose. The law was to show us that we couldn't do it on our own, that even the best - the scribes and the Pharisees, with all of their religiosity, trappings, ceremony, and ritual - could not gain the righteousness required to enter the Kingdom. In other words, if you want it simply, the law was given with the purpose of frustrating us, showing us our inadequacy. The law wasn't to tell us how good we are, but to show us how rotten we are.
That's why the man in the corner in Luke 18, beating on his breast and saying, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner," went home justified, because he responded to what God's law intended to show him: that he was a sinner. Whereas, the other man, who was so self-righteous, did not see at all the meaning of God's law, for he never responded to it in the way that God had intended.
So this is really the theme of His whole sermon in Matthew 5-7, it's true righteousness. The Old Testament is the source of true righteousness. The Old Testament gives the absolute standard. So this great sermon, from the Beatitudes to the final illustration in chapter 7 of the houses built on sand and rock, is a masterful sermon on the righteous truths that govern a man's relationship with God. Because there was a phony system in existence at the time, and Jesus wanted it known from the very beginning that the standard of righteousness that He required, that God required, was not available to them under the present system.
You heard people being baptized tonight saying that, for years and years of their lives, they were a part of a system. They had gone to church, and some of them were sharing how faithfully they had done that. They had gone to church week after week, involved in all the ritual and ceremony and trappings, but never knowing the reality. That's true, and that can happen to you in any church, where you substitute the form for the substance.
So the law came with the purpose of showing us that the very best men among us couldn't make it into God's Kingdom. The very best people that there were couldn't cut it. The kindest and the best, the noblest, the most religious, if they were depending upon their goodness, would be excluded from the Kingdom. Except your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you can't come into the Kingdom, you can't even be a part. This is the standard of true righteousness.
Back up for a minute to Matthew 5:3 and let's remind ourselves of where it all began. "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Of course, the religious system of the time was not poor in spirit but proud, boastful, arrogant, feeling that they had arrived spiritually, and this is the very antithesis of that. "Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted." These people weren't mourning; they were blowing the horn of their own self-sufficiency. They were patting themselves on the back; instead of mourning in the corner like the man in Luke 18, they were parading before God and announcing to Him their greatness. "Blessed are the meek," says verse 5, and they were anything but meek; they were boastful.
Verse 6 says, "Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness." They didn't hunger and thirst for righteousness, they thought they had their fill of it already. "Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy." These people were not in the habit of showing mercy to anyone, they were merciless. "Blessed are the pure in heart." They were not pure in heart, they were white on the outside and filthy, vile, and wretched on the inside. "Blessed are the peacemakers." They didn't make peace, they took away peace. They set themselves up above everyone else and created division among the people. So it went.
In verses 13-16, they were neither the salt of the earth nor the light of the world. Jesus, you see, is running right smack into the system of His day, right into the Pharisaical legalism of the hour that said, "A man gets to Heaven, gets to the Kingdom, on the basis of his own goodness." Jesus comes in and says, "No! It is on the recognition of his own wretchedness. The law is not established for you to show how good you are; it is established to prove to you how bad you are because of your inability to keep it."
They figured they were so good, there must be something wrong with the law, so they changed the law. They came up with a whole bunch of rabbinical traditions that they could live by. So figuring from the basic theological concept that, "We are good," they had accommodated the standard to them. Whereas the sinner in the corner, beating on his breast, accepted a divine standard and saw that he didn't match up.
Jesus says, "I am a King, and I have a manifesto, and it's no different than the Old Testament; it is the Old Testament standard, it is the law of God down to the very smallest letter, none of it has been abrogated, and it demands a righteousness out of you that you on your own could never attain."
I want to answer some questions as we look at verse 20, and we'll get the picture very clearly. Question number one: who were the scribes and Pharisees? If we have to have a righteousness that exceeds them, we ought to know who they were. Scribes, grammateon, from which we get the word 'grammar, grammatical,' were simply those who dealt with the letter of the law, the interpretation of the law, the recording of the law. They wrote down the law, studied the law, were authorities on the law, scholars of the law. They were those who struggled with the fine points of the law.
By the way, there were scribes among the Sadducees (who were theological liberals), and there were scribes among the Pharisees (who were theological conservatives). The scribes' job was simply to copy the law, to study the law, to get the basic text of the law, to interpret the law, and so forth. These scribes later became known as rabbis, they really were the forerunners, or precursors, to the rabbis. The term 'scribe' refers to an office; they were official scribes.
By the way, in Israel, there were two kinds of scribes. There were civil scribes, and then there were ceremonial scribes. Civil scribes wrote down the affairs of government. The were like notaries, and they would take care of the civil duties. Ezra 4:8 discusses one of them by the name of Shimshai. In addition, there were the ceremonial, or ecclesiastical, scribes, and they were always involved in studying the Scripture and expounding it, and determining what it said, and meant, and so forth. They were the interpreters of the law of Moses and originally came from the tribe of Levi. They literally gave their entire lives to studying the Old Testament and amazingly enough, they came up with the wrong conclusions.
People will say today, "All these people who are in all these other systems of religion that claim to be Christians - liberals, cults, all these others - they study the Bible." Well, so did the scribes, and they came up with the wrong answers. So did the Sadducees, so did the Pharisees. They all came up with the wrong answers, so don't be shocked if it happens today. Unless your heart is right, and you're truly redeemed, and you're being taught by the Spirit of God, you'll come up with a human conclusion even though you're using a divine Word.
The scribes did spend their entire lives in the text of the Old Testament; they were the official scholars. What about the Pharisees? The Pharisees was not an office, it was a sect. Within Judaism, there were several sects. There was the zealot sect, and the zealots were basically the political radicals. There were the Essenes, and they were kind of the drop outs, the hippies of the time of Christ. They lived down in the Qumran community, on the edge of the Dead Sea, in a bunch of caves. They were the spaced-out, antisocial types.
So on the one hand, there were the political radicals who were trying to overthrow Rome and going around stabbing Romans, and doing all kinds of things in a sort of underground. Then there were the Essenes, a mystical, almost monastic order, who were stuck out on the edge of the Dead Sea, near nobody. Then in the mainstream, there were two other groups: the Sadducees and Pharisees.
'Pharisee' comes from a root word which means 'to separate.' They were the separatists, the super-duper fundamental legalists of their day. They separated themselves from everything. They separated themselves from all Gentiles - they wouldn't get near one, they didn't want to be defiled. They separated themselves from any Jew who lived with less concern than they had for the law. So the Pharisees kind of lifted themselves out of Jewish society as a super-elite group who alone knew what it was to really walk with God. They convinced themselves that they were the real spiritual hot-shots.
The Pharisees differed from the scribes inasmuch as they didn't particularly study the law as a scholar would; they simply developed out of the law a system of ritual, they developed a sect. So the scribes could be, for all intents and purposes, Sadducees or Pharisees. They didn't necessarily have to identify with either. The Pharisees took the Word of God and developed a rigid, ceremonial, ritualistic system, not so much based on the law of Moses as it was on tradition. The problem was, they really couldn't keep the law of Moses.
So, as I said earlier, if you believe you're righteous and you can't keep the standard, then you change the standard to accommodate your righteousness. That's what everyone in the world who doesn't know God does. If they have any concept of the afterlife, or any concept of Heaven and Hell, they figure out a system they can keep and then figure they're good enough to get to Heaven.
One woman was giving her testimony tonight, and she said, "I decided that I could do anything I wanted in the area of sin if I just did it in moderation. Then God would understand, and I would go to Heaven." You see, that's what people do. They can't live up to the biblical standard, so they drag the standard down to where they can make it, and then convince themselves, and work on their minds, to try to prove to themselves that they're alright. The fact of the matter is, if you believe the standard of the Word of God is absolutely true, and you know you don't live up to it, you'll drive yourself crazy with guilt. So you have to lower the standard, and that's exactly what the Pharisees did.
The Pharisees developed a codification of rules that they themselves could at least attempt to keep, did the best they could with that, and convinced themselves that God didn't have anyone better than them in the world; so if anyone would be in Heaven, it would be them. In fact, the Jews used to have a saying, "If only two people go to Heaven, one will be a scribe, and the other will be a Pharisee."
I mean, you couldn't get any better than them. The average guy on the street in this time in history would say, "I can't be as good as a Pharisee! I can't be like a scribe. I mean, those guys study the Old Testament day and night, day and night. They have every hair split and every fine point memorized and they know that stuff cold." In fact, most scribes could probably recite verbatim the entire text of the Old Testament from copying it so many times. The average citizen would say, "I have no chance. I can't do that." Then he would look at a Pharisee and say, "I can't live like that; I can't keep all those rules. I'll never make it to Heaven. Those people are so holy! Their whole life is given to the religious, moral, spiritual pursuit." But our Lord says they aren't going to make it.
You can imagine the shock of verse 20, because Jesus doesn't talk in generalities. Today it would be like saying this: "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of this or that organization," and literally naming systems. It was a shock, because these people have looked up to them. But that was the standard.
Let's ask the second question. What was the nature of their righteousness? What was the nature of the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees? If we're going to find out what true righteousness is and it has to be more than theirs, what was theirs? The question could be this: what were they depending on for their salvation? You know the answer. What was a scribe or Pharisee depending on? He was depending upon the external, the system of human achievement, "Look what I've done! I don't do that, I do this, I fast twice a week, give tithes of all I possess," and so forth. "We're holy on the outside; we've developed a whole system."
Let me give you several thoughts. First, their righteousness was external. In fact, it was external only, an outward observance of the law. The didn't get involved in adultery, theft, murder, idolatry, but they had a lot of impure and rotten thoughts, and they coveted like mad, and they hated with a fury, and they were cold in their hearts toward God. The inside was all fouled up, but the outside, they were able to maintain.
That's why, as the Lord goes on, He illustrates the phoniness of their external religion by saying in verse 21, "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder,' but I say to you that whoever is angry shall be in danger of the judgment." Verse 27. "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart." Verse 33. "Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.' But I say to you, do not swear at all."
In other words, "You've been living a system of external observance, but I'm telling you that what God wants is to see what's on the inside." That's what we'll be studying in the weeks to come. They were never concerned with the internal, they were always preoccupied with the external.
Look at Matthew 23:25. We'll be going back to Matthew 23 later, because so much of this is paralleled there. This gives us a good picture of the external character of their religion. It says, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and excess." In other words, "You're great on the outside, but you don't do anything with the inside."
"Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity." That's pretty straight stuff, wouldn't you say? "You are rotten on the inside, although you've cleaned it up on the outside." Exacting observance of ceremonies was the big issue, and their whole system was superficial.
People, examine your own heart in this regard, because it is very easy to get wrapped up in a superficial kind of religion. It is very easy to go through the motions of prayer, reading the Bible, attending church, going to a Bible study, but there's nothing going on on the inside. Life can be superficial. These people had it all on the outside, but not on the inside, and that's why when they said to Him, "What is the greatest commandment?" He didn't give them some external thing, He said, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, strength. This is the first and greatest commandment." In Romans 13, the Apostle Paul said, "If you just keep that one commandment, you'll be able to keep all of them, because it's internal."
Look back in Matthew 23:1. "Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying, 'The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat.'" They did have a seat of authority; they were the ones who dispensed the law of Moses. "Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do." In other words, "When they sit in Moses' seat, and preach to you Moses' law, do it." It was like saying that even if a jackass speaks the truth, respond to it. But on the other hand, if an angel from Heaven tells you something that isn't true, don't listen (Galatians 1).
In other words, "If you hear the law of Moses from them, obey it. Listen to what they say." But the end of verse 3 says, "But do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do to be seen by men." In other words, "When they speak the law of Moses, do it, but don't pattern your life after them. They say and don't do."
By the way, Jesus began His sermon with eight Beatitudes directed primarily at the Pharisees, and He closed His message to them in Matthew 23 with eight woes to fall upon them, one woe for every Beatitude they didn't respond to. So the scribes and Pharisees are working hard, shining up the outside and doing nothing at all with the inside. That's why our Lord confronts them as self-righteous hypocrites.
In Luke 16:15, the Scripture says similarly, "You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God." In other words, "You have a great religious reputation, but God knows your heart. What men highly esteem about you is an abomination to God, because it's all external hypocrisy."
So these people were trying, as so many have done, to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, but it can't be done. In Galatians 2:16, it says, "Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law," and at the end of the verse, "Not by the works of the law," and again, "For by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified." You cannot be justified by the law or the flesh; it's impossible. So all of their externals were fruitless and useless.
Secondly, in understanding the nature of their righteousness, it was not only external but partial. Matthew 23:23 says, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin," that's herbs, some kind of plant, and seeds, little tiny things. "You tithe your little tiny things, you're right down to the nub on those externals, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone." In other words, "You strain at a gnat and swallow a camel." In those days, when they wanted to drink something, they had a little strainer to get gnats out of it. They were picking the little gnats out of things but swallowing a whole camel.
The point that He's making here is this: they were really big on the little things, the external things, and ignored justice, mercy and faith. Imagine! It was partial; they only accommodated themselves to what they could handle, nothing more. It was a ritual religion, made to fit their capability. They had their own little traditions. In fact, they substituted them for the law of God. By keeping the traditions that they themselves had invented, they decided they were serving God.
In Mark 7:7, Jesus said, "In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men, such as the washing of pots and cups, and many other things that you do. You full well reject the commandment of God that you might keep your own tradition." Imagine! They abandoned the law of God that they couldn't live up to, invented their own, and then convinced themselves that they were spiritual.
Their righteousness was external, partial, and thirdly, it was redefined. I'll just make a brief statement on this. As I said earlier, they made up their own rules, and what they wound up doing was redefining everything. "Yes, that's what God said, but what He meant was this," and so they gave it a new meaning. Just redefining it in terms of their own comprehension, taking an internal thing and making it external. They redefined it and made it a system they could maintain. Of course, way back even in Leviticus 11:44, Scripture says, "For I am the LORD your God. You shall be holy; for I am holy." Peter picked it up in I Peter 1:15, and said, "Be holy as I am holy." Yet what did they say? "I thank You that I am not as other men," and go on to recite their own holiness.
The standard of holiness was God! Look at Matthew 5:48, "Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect." The Scripture was saying to them, "You are to be as holy as God, as perfect as God." They knew they couldn't be that if they took the Bible at its face value, so they redefined it to accommodate their own unholiness, lowering the standard.
Fourth, not only was their righteousness external, partial, redefined, but it was self-centered. They gained their own righteousness by themselves; they did it on their own. They manifested a lack of dissatisfaction, they weren't dissatisfied, and true holiness always comes out of dissatisfaction. When you are dissatisfied with your life, mourn over your sin, cower in a corner as a beggar, hunger and thirst for a righteousness that you know you can't earn, then that's true righteousness. But they knew they were righteous, they had worked out their own righteousness, all of themselves, so we know it was self-centered. They didn't need God to make them righteous because they were righteous already. It is to this issue that Paul spoke when he said, "For by grace are you saved through faith, not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast." They boasted because they had their own righteousness.
Here they were, scribes and Pharisees, with righteousness that was external, partial, redefined, and self-centered. Now we come to a third question: what is the nature of the righteousness that Christ requires? I already told you the answer; He requires absolute holiness, absolute perfection, internal and external righteousness.
In Psalm 45:13, there is an interesting illustration. "The king's daughter," it says, "Is all glorious within and her clothing is of wrought gold." God wants you all glorious on the inside, and pure gold on the outside. It's just like He said about the Pharisees, "You do what they do, that's alright, just don't be on the inside what they are. Keep the law of God on the outside, but be glorious on the inside." The standard of righteousness that Christ sets is absolute righteousness.
Listen, beloved, man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart. I Samuel 16:7 says that true righteousness is inside, and has to meet the standard. You say, "How good must I be to get to Heaven?" You have to be as good as God. "How perfect do I have to be to enter His Kingdom?" As perfect as He is. "How holy do I have to be to get into the Kingdom?" Just as holy as God is holy, that's how holy. You say, "Wow. No matter how religious I am, I can't do that on my own. I can't be as holy, as righteous, as perfect as God."
That leads us to a fourth question: how is that kind of righteousness obtained, where do you get that? I can't do it on my own. I can't be that righteous on my own, and that's what Jesus meant when He said, "Except that it exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees." You say, "I can't be more righteous than a scribe or Pharisee on my own; how am I going to get that righteousness?"
I have a wonderful story to tell you. Let's go back to Galatians 2:16, "Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified." How then are we justified? By faith in Christ. How then are we made righteous? By faith in Christ. That, beloved, is the message of the Apostle Paul.
Romans 3:21 says, "But now the righteousness of God is apart from the law." You cannot attain the righteousness of God by trying, in your own flesh, to keep the law. It is in the next verse that he says, "The righteousness of God is by faith in Jesus Christ to all and on all who believe." Isn't that great? You say, "Where do I get that kind of righteousness?" By faith in Jesus Christ.
In Romans 4:3, he says, "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness." How righteous did Abraham have to be? Just as righteous, just as holy as God. You say, "Well, Abraham isn't going to make it, because he committed a lot of sin!" You're right, so how could he ever attain that righteous character? It says right in Romans, "He believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness." What a fantastic thing. In Romans 5:17, he says it again. "For if by the one man's offense death reigned through the one, much more those who receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ." The gift of righteousness - isn't that great? You can't earn it, it's a gift. If you're trying to gain your own righteousness, you'll become lost forever. If you want to reach out and take the free gift by faith in Jesus Christ, His righteousness is offered to you.
What a tremendous thought. Romans 5:21 says, "As sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." Listen, the only way that you can ever be righteous enough to get into Heaven is by the Lord Jesus Christ imputing to you His own righteousness. It is a gift from Him that you could never earn. Romans 8:4 says, "Through Christ, the righteousness of the law is fulfilled in us." It is a tremendous concept. If you're complacent about hearing this, then you're being complacent about the greatest truth in all the Bible, as far as we're concerned, that God has set a standard we could never attain, and then given us the fulfillment of that standard as a gift by simply putting our faith in Jesus Christ.
On the other hand, the Jews, according to Romans 10:3, are ignorant of God's righteousness, ignorant of the standard, and they go about establishing their own righteousness and have not submitted themselves to the righteousness of God. What is it? Christ, who is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. If you want to know what Romans chapters 3-10 are about, they're all about how to gain a righteousness that's unattainable by receiving it as a gift through believing in Jesus Christ. That's how you obtain the required righteousness.
I Corinthians 1:30 says, "But of Him are you in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom and righteousness." When God looks at John MacArthur, he sees me just as righteous as He is. When He looks at me, He sees me just as holy as He is. When He looks at me, He sees me just as perfect as He is. Why? Because Jesus Christ, when I put my faith in Him, imputed to me His own righteousness, and I stand as pure as Christ, as undefiled as Christ. That's my standing before God.
How good does a man have to be to get to Heaven? He has to be as good as God, and how do you get to be as good as God? Only by one way: God giving you His goodness. How does God give you His goodness? When you accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, the Bible says the righteousness of Christ is imputed to you. What a fabulous thought!
So we ask the question, who were the scribes and Pharisees? What is the nature of their righteousness? What is the nature of the righteousness that Christ requires? How does that righteousness become ours? Then, the final question, what is the result to those who do not obtain this righteousness? What happens to people who don't ever take this righteous gift, who will very religiously work like mad to get in? They pass out their information from door to door.
I always think of that when I see the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses and all these cults. Man, they are working themselves to a frazzle to get in the Kingdom, and are striving with all their might to obtain their own righteousness. They have said that Jesus Christ is not God, and thus they have not only denigrated His personhood, but they have removed, abrogated, and nullified His work on the Cross and in the open tomb. Without Christ as God, without a substitutionary death on the part of the God-man, and without a literal, bodily resurrection of the God-man, there is no attainable righteousness for men. So these people are working themselves right into the deepest Hell imaginable, and that's precisely what's happening.
Our Lord says in Matthew 5 very simply, "Unless your righteousness exceeds one that is external, partial, redefined, and self-centered, you will in no case enter the Kingdom of Heaven. It doesn't matter how religious you are, how good you are, you will be excluded from God's Kingdom." I think that is exactly what He is saying in this sermon. "Here is the standard of righteousness. You reach the standard by faith in Me, and you'll enter My Kingdom. If you try to do it on your own, and be as religious as you want, you'll never get there." The Kingdom of Heaven is the sphere of God's blessing now and forever, and you'll never enter that sphere apart from faith in Christ.
Later on, in Matthew 7:13, He points out these two possibilities. He says, "Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it." Did you know there are many people who think they are on the road to Heaven? They think that the broad way here is not the road Hell, it is the road to Heaven. They think that the broad road is on the way to Heaven, that they're on that road. They are all religious, it says, "There are many who go in that way," and the 'many' who go in are defined in verse 21.
"Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven." They're going to say, "Lord, Lord, here we all come! We're the religious!" There are many, according to verse 22. It's the same 'many' in verse 13. "Lord, Lord, we prophesied, and cast out demons, and did wonderful works." Jesus says, "I will profess unto them, 'I never knew you. Depart from me you workers of iniquity.'" Then He goes on to illustrate how the fact is that they had built a religious house, but built it on the sand. When the waters of judgment come, their religious house will crumble, and they will be doomed to Hell forever.
On the other hand, He says in verse 14, "Enter the narrow gate; for narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it." You know what He is saying? He is saying, "There are lots of religious people. There are few regenerated people." That's what He's saying. Examine your life. Are you really righteous, or is it just a ritual? Do you really know Jesus Christ or are you counting on your own goodness?
Jesus said, "No, I am not setting God's law aside. I will uphold God's law, purge it from the barnacles of man-made corruption, reestablish its preeminence, its permanence, its pertinence, and reiterate that its purpose is to show you that you're a sinner. When you turn that standard into one you can attain to yourself, you have lowered it to the point where it will exclude you forever from the Kingdom."
They had developed a religion of human achievement that was going to do nothing but damn them. Listen, you can't make your own standard. When I taught the book of Galatians, I told you an illustration. Imagine going to a football game, and tickets are $5. You arrive at the gate and object furiously, and say, "I know both these teams well, and neither one of them is worth $5. I'll only pay $2, no more." The guy is going to say, "Get out of line, buddy. Let someone else come up here. The tickets are $5."
No matter how much you hold the point of view that they are lousy teams, no matter how much you impose upon the gatekeeper, he is not interested in all your arguments. You either pay the $5 and go in, or go home and forget it. Why? You're not in the business of fixing prices, you're just in the business of responding to the standard. God has set the standard, and God doesn't want people coming up to negotiate. The standard is faith in Jesus Christ; it's God's Heaven, He lays down the terms, and all you can do is respond. You enter on His terms or you stay out.
Once, there was a Pharisee who tried the Pharisees' system. Man, this guy was super-Pharisee. Listen to him in Philippians 3:4; Paul is his name. "Though I also might have confidence in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I have more." He says, "If you want to talk about self-centered religion, about how good a man is in his own flesh, I was the best." He says, "I was circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless." You say, "Man, you're OK, kid. What credentials! You're a shoo-in."
Verse 7, "But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss [literally, 'manure'] for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord." Verse 9, "I will be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith." Paul says, "I am a living illustration, a Pharisee who had all the credentials, but I count it manure in order that I may gain Christ and have His righteousness."
Beloved, that's what salvation is all about. Is that what you believe? Or are you among those who are spending their lifetimes trying to accumulate the right to enter Heaven? One of the great hymns says it this way, "Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to the Cross I cling. Naked, come to Thee for dress, helpless, look to Thee for grace. Foul I to the fountain I fly; wash me, Savior, or I die. Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in Thee." Let's pray.
I know most of you here tonight are Christians; you love the Lord Jesus Christ. Some of you, perhaps, have never given your life to Him. You are standing in your own righteousness, but it's fruitless. I promise you that if you will pray that simple prayer, "Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in Thee. Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to the Cross I cling. Naked, come to Thee for dress, helpless, look to Thee for grace. Foul I to the fountain I fly; wash me, Savior, or I die." If you pray that prayer, God will wash you, cleanse you, give you a righteousness you could never attain, a righteousness for now and forever.
Father, we pray right now that all of us would examine our hearts, and those of us who find there the confirmation that we truly have Your righteousness, we offer our thanks. Lord, for those who may have doubts or questions of whether or not theirs is the righteousness of Christ, whether they have truly received that gift of righteousness which is given to those who believe, Lord, we pray tonight that they might reach out with an empty hand to take the gift, bringing nothing of their own, seeking no personal aggrandizement, offering not the deeds of the flesh, but as beggars, reaching out an empty had to receive a gift of righteousness. May they receive the abundance that You give.
God, may no one leave this place tonight who has not received the righteousness of Christ that makes our standing before You as holy as Your very self. What a gift! How grateful we are. For the glory of Christ we pray, Amen.