February 6, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
[Jesus said]: “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The bar to entry into the kingdom of heaven has been set very high. It is what the Lord’s Law spells out. Righteousness is required. That is found by fulfilling the Law of God. The Psalmist declared: “Blessèd is the man who fears the Lord, who greatly delights in His commandments!” Fearing the Lord and delighting in His commandments requires that an individual would recognize His authority and obey His instructions.
That bar to entry presents a problem. For the history of mankind does not present a long record of fulfilling the Lord’s commandments. Instead, the opposite is seen—whether the whole of human history is considered or the lifespan of individuals. This has been true from the very beginning of human life. No matter if the Lord’s commandments have been few or many, His creatures have not obeyed them. And yet, people want to have entry into the kingdom of heaven. They desire to have a share of the greatness that the Lord has.
But instead of acknowledging their fault and recognizing their guilt, humanity has devised ways to convince themselves that they have fulfilled the Lord’s commands. This is the situation that Jesus addresses in the portion of the Sermon on the Mount that you heard this morning. Jesus attempts to correct this type of thinking. He must do so, because the deception of self-righteousness leads nowhere except to eternal condemnation. It drives people away from the Lord and His perfection to themselves and their inabilities.
Jesus begins His corrective teaching by telling His disciples that the Law of God is valid and binding: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” His statement shows that the Law of God cannot be set aside. It is in effect “until heaven and earth pass away.” Nothing will be set aside or disappear. Every little bit—“not an iota, not a dot”—stands until a new heaven and new earth arrives, just as the Lord promised.
Such a statement must be heard by humanity in every age. It must be heard by you. Those words of Jesus tell you about righteousness: the Lord’s commandments are the standard now, just as they were when He first spoke them. If you would know what righteousness is, you can look to what the Lord says. If you would know what is required of you, what your Creator demands of you, you can look to what the Lord says. You cannot set those words aside. You cannot say that they are just something spoken to a particular time or a particular culture. No, “until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” That great cosmic event has yet to happen: the heavens and earth are still here. So what the Lord commanded concerning love of Him and love of neighbor still is valid.
But that Law of God is unrelenting. It always accuses. It always shows your faults. It always reveals your imperfection. And you don’t like that, just like your ancestors didn’t. Righteousness is not found in you, but you want what the Lord presents to those who are righteous. That dilemma leads to people attempting to relax His Law, to take out some of those iotas and dots, so that the lessened requirements can be met. But that simply puts up the veneer of righteousness, a surface level appearance of perfection. Trust in that is the delusion of self-righteousness—achieving a right relationship with the Lord due to your actions.
This was the way of the Pharisees. They had the Law of God. They knew the iotas and dots. But instead of being bound by them, they invented new ones—iotas and dots of their choosing and their capabilities. The Pharisees had many rules and regulations. These were related to the Lord’s Law. But instead of being all-encompassing and demanding of obedience in thought, word, and deed, their rules and regulations were externally achievable. And the Pharisees were teaching that fulfillment of their rules and regulations gained entry into the kingdom of heaven.
This delusion of self-righteousness is what Jesus alludes to: “Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” The Pharisees’ practices and teachings appeared to be placing extra demands. But in reality, what they were doing was relaxing the Lord’s commandments. And they were teaching people to do the same. It is a lesson that has unfortunately been learned well by people in many generations.
But Jesus stands in contrast to the Pharisees and those who would relax the Lord’s commandments and teach that the amended way is the path to entry into the kingdom of heaven. That is why He says: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus compares the righteousness that the scribes and Pharisees were peddling to what the Lord’s Law demanded. The righteousness accomplished by obedience to the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees was surface level. The externals looked good. The appearance is of holiness. But when the stringent demands of every iota and dot of the Lord’s Law was applied, there was no true righteousness to be found.
Instead of following the humanly-crafted ways of the Pharisees, Jesus takes the people back to what the Lord declared. That is why He says: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” Jesus is telling His disciples that He isn’t a Rabbi who is just putting forward His own devised way of righteousness. No, His purpose, His reason for being present in this world, is to fulfill every single thing that the Law and the Prophets set forth. He says: “Whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” And with those words, Jesus testifies about Himself. He will obey every requirement of the Lord’s Law and He will teach His disciples about all the iotas and dots.
That is what the Sermon on the Mount is all about. Jesus goes through a long teaching of what the Lord requires. He will not substitute lesser commands for what came from the Lord’s mouth. Rather, He will show what the basic letter of the Law demands and what the full requirements of the Law are. And yet, Jesus does not give that teaching to His disciples as a path to salvation. Instead, He will give His disciples details of what He will accomplish, a sort of forward-looking résumé.
The Sermon on the Mount is a statement of Jesus’ righteousness, a righteousness that stems from His own obedience of everything that the Lord demands. Jesus’ righteousness will exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees because He does the Lord’s commandments and teaches them. So He fulfills the demanding statement: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” He is the One who will be called “great in the kingdom of heaven.” He is the man that the Psalmist described: “Blessèd is the man who fears the Lord, who greatly delights in His commandments!”
Jesus reveals this, so that you and all His disciples will not be deluded into self-righteousness. He takes you away from the misguided attempts to try to enter the kingdom of heaven by what you do. Even more so, Jesus drives the thought of attempting to devise your own checklist of rules and regulations and calling them the way of your salvation. There will be no clever gate-crashing the kingdom of heaven by loosening or molding the commandments.
The criterion will remain: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” But that is exactly what Jesus has. His statement is to move you away from yourselves and the appearance of obedience to Himself and the reality of His total perfection. You cannot attain a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, but you can have what Jesus possesses. That is what Jesus bestows upon His disciples—those whom He calls to believe in His identity and work.
Jesus’ righteousness is what you have received. The Lord gives it to you because of Jesus’ work. It is given to you through His words that reveal who Jesus is and what He has accomplished for you through His perfect life, sacrificial death, and glorious resurrection. It is what the Holy Spirit brings to you, just as the Apostle Paul declared: “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.” Because of what Jesus has done, you have entry into the kingdom of heaven granted freely to you.
Hearing what Jesus says about the righteousness required to enter the kingdom of heaven, you know that it isn’t found in you. But you now know that it is found in Jesus and what He has done. And so, you can hear His other words from the Sermon on the Mount—“You are the salt of the earth. . . . You are the light of the world.”—and know that they are true because of the righteousness that Jesus gives to you. For that is what makes you heirs of the kingdom of heaven. It is what brings you a new life, causing “your light to shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” This isn’t caused by what you are, but what Jesus has made you. Living in the righteousness that He possesses, you are renewed and given a new identity.
Like the Lord’s commandments, Jesus’ words still stand true today: “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” But thankfully, there is One who has that righteousness and grants it to you: your Lord Jesus Christ who has fulfilled the Law and the Prophets on your behalf. Trust in Him and receive the benefits of what He has done, and the Lord will grant you a place in the kingdom of heaven because of it.
T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.