Vol. IX — No. 31 August 4, 1968


Needed—a Far Better Righteousness than the Best!

Matthew 5:20-26

For I say unto you. That except your righteousness shall exceed by far the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time. Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgments But I say unto you. That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift. Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee. Thou, shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the utter most farthing.

In Christ Jesus, who would give us and have us have that righteousness which is able to pass divine inspection, Fellow Redeemed:

The clash between Jesus and the religious leaders of His day developed early in His ministry. On His first trip to Jerusalem Jesus cleansed the temple and so clashed head-on with the religious authorities. On His visit to the unknown feast, as recorded in John 5, Jesus healed the man who had been sick for thirty-eight years. He did that on the Sabbath, telling the man to take up his bed and walk. Again He clashed with the authorities. The breach widened when Jesus testified that He was and is the Son of God, equal with His Father.

What was it all about? What was the point at issue? We can say that the entire clash between Jesus and the religious leaders of that time revolved about the question of what righteousness is acceptable to the Lord God. What way of inner life and what way of outer life, of conduct, is acceptable and pleasing to God? The scribes and Pharisees appealed to Moses and the law as providing the only valid standard for an acceptable righteousness. But they misread Moses and had become blinded by and hardened in their own pattern of thought. They considered Jesus as one come to destroy the righteousness that Moses taught in the law—the only righteousness that they believed could find divine approval. And so they considered Jesus an enemy of true religion, of morality, of righteousness, of godliness.

Our text is a small section from the Sermon on the Mount. In the verse preceding our text the Lord answers the charges of His critics. He says to His disciples, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.” The Jews were constantly accusing Jesus of sacrilege, of breaking and teaching others to break the laws of Moses, especially the Sabbath laws. Jesus disavows this charge. He had not come to destroy, but to fulfill. Notice that He doesn’t say “keep” but “fulfill.” He would do more than just keep the law. He would fulfill it and the prophets. The moral law is a reflection of the holy will of God. It is God’s summary of righteousness, but no man can live according to the law and so live righteously Jesus could and did. All the ceremonies and institutions of the Jews, including also the Sabbath, were but shadows, types, forms that needed to be filled with reality—spiritual reality. Jesus had come to do just that. He had come to prepare and to be the Rest that the Sabbath pointed to. The prophets spoke of One to come and what He would do for man’s salvation. Jesus came to fulfill all those prophecies, to convert anticipation into realization. In so fulfilling the law and the prophets He would bring from heaven to earth that righteousness which alone can stand divine inspection. He was accused of destroying righteousness; He had come to bring and to give and to teach men the righteousness they needed.

With this background you can understand the opening verse of our text, “For I say unto you. That except your righteousness shall exceed by far the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Unfortunately the King James translators omitted the little word “by far.” The scribes and Pharisees accused Jesus of destroying righteousness; Jesus told His disciples that they needed a far better righteousness than that possessed, advocated and taught and practiced by the scribes and Pharisees. Let us examine this need of all disciples of Jesus, a need that you and I also have:


Let us realize first of all that—

I. The best—social and religious respectability—is never good enough.

The basic error of man is that he believes, without a shadow of a doubt, that God will and must accept man’s standards for righteousness. What man considers righteousness, including attitude of mind and conduct, man believes God must also accept. So the scribes and Pharisees believed that their righteous ness had divine approval. They believed it to be the best that man could produce. Jesus tells His disciples that they will need a far better righteousness than the best that the religious leaders of that day had to offer.

If we examine the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, which provided them with social and religious respectability, we shall find that the basic ingredients are common today yet. The scribes especially were the religious intellectuals. They studied and they pondered and they debated the law. They multiplied rules and regulations. They split hairs and argued fine points. The general public was amazed at their learning. They were respected and that highly in social and religious circles. We have the same thing today. We have a degree conscious clergy. If a clergyman earns or receives an honorary degree of doctor of divinity or theology, he stands in high regard. If a lay person is well versed in the Scriptures, able to quote chapter and verse, he enjoys respectability among his peers and in the community. The doctor of divinity and the Scripture quoter may be blasphemers of the Word of God, but they are still highly respectable, and the general public believes that God must be well pleased with them.

Other features of that righteousness which appeals so to people is what we call formalism and externalism. If a person is very conscientious in the performance of his religious duties and obligations, regardless of whether his acts of worship are sacrilegious, he will enjoy the reputation of being a very religious person. And again people believe that God certainly must be well pleased with such people. Certainly He will receive and accept them into the mansions above because they’ve been so good and so decent and so religious! The Germans have a rather down to earth descriptive phrase for this kind of righteousness and respectability. They call it “stinkende Heiligkeit,” a holiness that tends to smell. Whenever a person reduces his religion to a system of external “dos” and “don’ts” and then becomes quite ostentatious and proud of keeping all his rules and regulations, reminding the other persons “I don’t smoke,” “I’ve never drunk a drop,” “I never work or even buy a nickel’s worth of merchandise on Sunday”—about that time you can rest assured that you have before you a case of the best righteousness that man can produce. But it’s not good enough. Jesus told His disciples of all ages: “Except your righteousness shall exceed by far the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees—of all ages, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. A better righteousness is needed. Let us realize that—

II. The far better and necessary is the righteousness of Christ.

When people are socially and religiously respectable and when they believe that this constitutes a righteousness that God must also accept, then they will have no time or use for the righteousness of Christ. This explains why the scribes and Pharisees became such enemies of our Lord. This explains why they did not and could not rest until they had Him out of the way. Jesus kept calling these people to repentance. That was an insult to them because they believed that such highly respectable people as they, who certainly enjoyed God’s favor, would surely need no repentance and no proxy righteousness.

Things haven’t chanced a bit over the centuries. I have been explaining to individuals and groups the great falling of the many semi-religious organizations that are characteristic of our society. Their concept of God is so vague that they make the confession of Jesus Christ optional. When that is done, the result inevitably is a religious philosophy of salvation by good works. When one points these things out, a most usual response is, “But they do so much good!” It’s the same old argumentation. Man does some outward good, maintains some charity or whatever it may be. This is respectable in the sight of the community. And so man concludes that what is respectable in the sight of the community must be righteous and good and acceptable in the sight of God. No, no, no! Man needs a far better righteousness.

The best that all of us and every human organization and every human religious effort can produce is as filthy rags in the sight of God. This is a hard truth, but a basic truth. It’s a most humbling truth, but it’s a true evaluation. The good and respectable in the sight of man is filthy rags in the sight of God. Why is this so? Because God’s standards are not “Do the best you can,” “Make it look good on the outside,” but rather “Ye shall be holy,” “Be ye therefore perfect.” These demands make our best to appear as filthy rags in the sight of God. Man’s righteousness, social and religious respectability, simply will not stand in the day of judgment. Me need something better. And that is the substitute, proxy righteousness of Christ. He fulfilled every demand of God’s holiness. He fulfilled every demand of God’s justice. He is our Righteousness. That is why He came down from heaven to earth—to replace the filthy rags of our own righteousness with the heavenly garments of His righteousness. He gave instructions that His disciples proclaim His righteousness. He sent the Holy Spirit so that He would work faith in our hearts so that we learn to trust His righteousness. Clothed in His righteousness we can stand in the day of judgment. Without it we perish.

Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness
My beauty are, my glorious dress;
In these before my God I’ll stand
When I shall reach the heav’nly land.

But there is also a righteousness of life that corresponds to this righteousness that is ours by faith. In the Sermon on the Mount our Lord impressed upon His disciples—

III. He who has that righteousness by faith is to cultivate the corresponding righteousness of life.

The Jews had externalized the law of God, making just the overt act a sin, Jesus pointed out in example after example that the law is directed to the heart of man, that it governs not only the act, but also the word and thought. The fifth commandment does not only forbid the overt act of terminating someone’s life, No, anger also is forbidden, “Whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment,” The person who harbors anger and hatred in his heart against anyone stands condemned by God—no matter how righteous and respectable he appears to men. On the other hand the child of God who possesses the righteousness of Christ by faith is to purge his heart from such lusts of anger and hatred. He is also to curb his tongue. Our hostile feelings towards others so easily find expression in name calling that be littles the other person, that insults, that hurts his feelings. All of this also falls under the condemnation of the Lord. This understanding of the law also reveals our guilt and our need for the righteousness of our Lord, Having received that righteousness by repentance and faith, we are to strive daily for grace to reflect Christ’s righteousness in the righteousness of our daily lives.

The next section our Lord dedicated to holding grudges. So many Christians imagine that they can harbor a grudge against someone without any spiritual harm to themselves. To the Jews the Lord said, “Leave your gifts before the altar and first be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gifts.” Those words are warning and instruction for us. Refusal to forgive another cuts one off from divine forgiveness. That means that refusal to forgive another cuts one off from heaven. That is why we are urged to agree with our opponent while we are “in the way with him”—while we are still alive. There will be those in hell who believed themselves to be good Christians, but who cut themselves off from the grace of God in Christ by refusing to forgive someone that had sinned against them. Such forgiving is part of that righteousness of life that corresponds to and reflects the righteousness of Christ. We are to cultivate it.

Oh let us hold fast to the better righteousness that we need—the righteousness that is ours by faith in Christ. Let us also strive to grow in righteousness of life. Amen.

—Pastor Paul F. Nolting

Preached July 21, 1968
Holy Trinity Independent
Evangelical Lutheran Church
West Columbia, South Carolina

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