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The Pursuit of Righteousness


February 12, 2023 |The Pursuit of Righteousness|Matthew 5:17-20, 48

JD Cutler



After teaching through what we call the Beatitudes and telling his disciples they were the salt and light of the world, Jesus, seemingly anticipating the person who would ask questions like, okay, how does this all fit within Judaism? How do these beatitudes fit within the law and the prophets? Is this a new thing that supersedes the law? Does this lessen the demands of the law? Begins teaching on the law.


We will see, far from lessening the demands of the law or setting them aside, Jesus takes his listeners deeper into it.

In our scripture today, Jesus calls his disciples to a higher standard of righteousness and encourages them to pursue it with all of who they are, both heart and mind, both intention and action.


Matthew 5:17-20 (ESV) 17 “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. 18 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. 19 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. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:48 (ESV) 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.


I want to share with you three statements from Jesus teaching on the pursuit of righteousness in the life of the disciple.


It is Jesus’ fulfillment of righteousness that allows us to understand true righteousness.

I don't know whether at this point in his ministry he had experienced the accusations that he violated the law yet, but they were coming. We know that the religious leaders of his day repeatedly claimed he violated the law by healing on the sabbath, for not rebuking his disciples for eating from the fields on the sabbath, for not washing their hands ceremonially before they ate, among other things.

So whether he is responding to actual criticism, or preemptively explaining what he was doing was in line with the law and the prophets, he begins what we would call the body of the sermon on the mount with three words. ‘Do not suppose’… or as in the ESV, ‘do not think’.


From the beginning, he wanted to make sure they didn’t misunderstand.

Misunderstand what?

Specifically here thinking that he had come to abolish, that is to subvert- (undermine the power and authority of) or to destroy, the law or the Prophets.

The New Testament often uses these two words to describe all of the Old Testament. The law being the first five books of the bible and the prophets being what follows.


So whatever else followed, Jesus sets out from the start letting his disciples know that what he is teaching and what he is doing is in line with and a continuation of what God has done and taught previously. He goes on to say that the standards and laws God has established will not be relaxed either until all is accomplished.


If Jesus did not come to replace the law, to do away with the law, or to redefine the law, what relationship does he have with it? How does the Jesus of the New Testament relate to the Old Testament? He says he came to fulfill it.


Fulfill- the word translated fulfill here carries the idea of literally filling something up to the top, or cramming a net full until it cannot hold anymore.

It is therefore used to describe completeness, as in filled to the top and therefore completed.

As in carrying a task to its completion or in the more figurative way to bring something to realization. This is like someone having a dream or idea and then bringing it to be completed or realized.

I am of the opinion that Jesus means this in the fullest sense of the word and we can see at least three ways that Jesus fulfilled the law and the prophets.

  1. Jesus reminded the people of the depth of God’s law, filled it up in the sense that he took what was lacking in their understanding and brought it up to God’s intended understanding.

  2. Jesus completed it, in the sense that he perfectly kept it by being perfectly in God’s will. Jesus never violated God’s law internally or externally, and he also perfectly fulfills the prophets in that he fulfills their repeated cries to turn to God in obedience, their prophetic hopes of a future work of God where God would deal with sin. He is the better Adam, the better Moses, the greater David, etc…

  3. Jesus brought it to its end, not that it was no longer active, but that he was the perfect fulfillment of it and now having brought it to its end he offers a law of grace for those who turn from finding their righteousness in the law.


The disciples of course could not fully grasp all of this in this moment, but we with the full revelation of God can see how Jesus perfectly fulfilled the Old Testament and its law in these ways.

For them, at this point, I think it was enough that they understood what he was calling them to when he called them to follow Him fit with what God had already done and said.

If Jesus did not come to do away with the law or the prophets, then what is our relationship with it now as his disciples?


This is part of what Jesus addresses in verses 21-47. We don’t have time to go through each one like we did in previous studies, but let’s take them as a whole.

Jesus says six times some variation of ‘you have heard it said, then states a commandment or law of God and their interpretation of it, and then he says’ ‘but I say’ and goes into the intention and motive behind the action.

For instance in verse 21, you have heard it said you shall not murder (commandment) whoever murders will be liable to judgment (their understanding of it). But I say, whoever is angry with his brother is liable to judgment.


He does this for the commandments relating to murder, adultery, to the issue of divorce and oaths, the Biblical allotment for retaliation in the event of injury or loss, and finally the issue of loving your neighbor, in the restrictive sense of those ethically, nationally, and morally like you.


But what we must understand is that Jesus is not adding to the law, he is exegeting it. He is explaining what God’s intentions were as the lawgiver. The law was meant to expose not just actions but the heart. Righteousness, which we will see, is what Jesus is addressing in much of the sermon on the mount, is more than outward obedience to a set of action governing laws.

We must understand is that Jesus is not adding to the law, he is exegeting it.

Paul picks up on this in his writings in Galatians, when he says the law, having exposed the depth of our depravity, serves as a tutor or schoolmaster that brings us to Christ.


Galatians 3:23-26 (ESV) 23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.


The law does what it was always intended to do, it brings us to the end of ourselves and our righteousness so that we might turn to God and cry out for salvation, which is found in Christ and his perfect righteousness.


It is only by understanding the depth of the law and how utterly condemned we are by it that we can even begin to get a picture of what true righteousness looks like.


Why is this important? Why must we pursue righteousness, why must it exceed the Pharisees' righteousness, why are we commanded to see God as the standard of righteousness? Because…


Without possessing true righteousness, no one will enter the kingdom of heaven.

This is where Jesus reminds us that understanding true righteousness, is not merely the way we interpret the law, or in what religious category we fit in concerning the law (Scribe or Pharisee), but that the matter of righteousness, and specifically true righteousness is a matter of life or death.


Look at verse 20 again.

20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.


Now try to not just jump to your 21st century understanding where we already have this understanding of the Pharisees and Scribe being the bad guys.

Try and think about what that would have sounded like to 1st century ears.

The Scribes were teachers of the law, the Pharisees devoted their lives to understanding and teaching the ways of God. They were scholars, they were the religious elite, they led in the synagogues and taught in the temple. They interpreted the law for the Jewish people.If nothing else, in this moment, they had to understand that what Jesus was saying was that a high level of righteousness is necessary to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Let’s take a moment and look at the righteousness the Pharisees and Scribes possessed.


What righteousness is available through the letter of the law?

If we refrain from murder and adultery, if we offer the right sacrifices and tithe the right amounts. If we carefully obey the requirements of the law, what righteousness does it merit us? What did scribes and Pharisees hope to get from it?


There are competing theories on exactly what the religious leaders of Jesus’ day thought observance of the law could do. Whether they believed it would make them right with God or whether they thought they were right with God because they were Jews and keeping the law was a way of pleasing God or simply being obedient.

However we think they understood it, what we know for sure, is that somewhere along the way, they missed it. They reduced it to external observance and totally missed the depth behind the commandments of God.

We know this because Jesus repeatedly condemns this adherence to the letter of the law and not the spirit of the law.


Matthew 23:25-28 (ESV)

25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.


27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness. 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.


What is Jesus saying? He is pointing out that their external appearance gained through outward obedience to the law, cannot make up for their internal uncleanness caused by their sin.

...external appearance gained through outward obedience to the law cannot make up for internal uncleanness caused by sin.

This isn’t a new declaration, the prophet Isaiah described a similar problem in his days.

(ESV) Isaiah 64:6 We have all become like one who is unclean,and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. (Isaiah described what sin had done to God’s people and their hopelessness apart from the intervening and awesome work of God.)


So whatever righteousness they possessed from the law could not make them right with God, or truly righteous, because it did not deal with the root problem, their sinful hearts and natures.

Notice what Jesus says here, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Exceeds- the word there describes something that goes beyond, like overfilling a cup

Another way to say it is that your righteousness must be greater in abundance than the scribes and pharisees.


Do you see the conundrum for the disciples here?

The Scribes and Pharisees were the ideals when it came to keeping the law!

How would men like fishermen and former tax collectors ever have a more abundant righteousness than them?

How can we?


This is where the good news of the gospel comes in.

2 Corinthians 5:21 (ESV) 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.


Romans 8:1-4 (ESV) 1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.


True righteousness is necessary to enter the kingdom of heaven and true righteousness is only available through Jesus Christ.


What now? Since we have been set free from the law of sin and death, and we now possess the righteousness of Christ through faith, then what is the point of Jesus’ teaching here? If Jesus was going to fulfill the law then why bother exegeting it for the disciples in the first place, if the believer will never gain righteousness through the law, why deal with it at all? Because…


Righteousness is both a present reality and a pursuit in the life of the believer.

Although true righteousness is not found in the law, the law still reveals to us what God desires from his people, not just outwardly but inwardly.

We are to grow in maturity toward the perfection of our Father in Heaven.

We see this in verse 48, Jesus’ summary of what he has revealed about true righteousness.


Matthew 5:48 (ESV) 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

What does Jesus mean by perfect here?

Perfect g5046. τέλειος teleios;


This is, in my opinion, the second most important word to understand in the sermon on the mount. The first was blessed in the beatitudes.

Jesus uses this word twice in this sentence, you must be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.

The word itself can of course and obviously can mean perfect in the way we normally think of the word because Jesus uses it of the Father. God is perfect. But it can also carry the idea of maturity or wholeness.

Jesus is telling us that we are to be growing toward maturity or wholeness because this is what God desires and who God is.


Let’s look at another place Jesus uses this word to get a better understanding of the way it can be used that way. (Rich young ruler’s righteousness)

Matthew 19:21 (ESV) 21 Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

(if you would be perfect, if you would be whole, complete, mature)

If you really desire righteousness inwardly, you have to deal with the greed in your heart.


Paul uses the same word to describe his pursuit of righteousness in Philippians 3

Philippians 3:12-16 (ESV) 12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.


Look at what he says about why he presses on towards maturity. Because Christ Jesus has made me his own. The believer has been purchased by the blood of Christ, redeemed from sin and death, released from the demands of the law, and nothing can ever change that, nothing can remove us from his hand or remove the righteousness of Christ that has been given to us.


And yet, Paul says, rather than causing him to throw his hands up and live anyway he wants to, it drives him to grow in Christ, to (Philippians 3:10-11) know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.


Paul wants the inside to match the outside, so his life became an effort to be conformed to the image of Christ by any means possible, by suffering, by persecution, by proclaiming the gospel and the kingdom, by successes and failures. He both possesses the righteousness of Christ and he pursues the reality of that righteousness being fully evident in his life.


I believe in the moment we are saved, we are covered with the righteousness of Christ, that is we are now reconciled to God and right with him, and I also believe that for as long as we remain here we are to spend our lives in pursuit of that righteousness becoming a reality in our lives.


Think about the institution of marriage. In the ceremony there is a moment where the pastor presiding over the ceremony pronounces the couple husband and wife.

Marriage is not the declaration, but the living out of the reality of that declaration. In a sense we are continually living out that declaration by pursuing being good partners.

Marriage is not the declaration, but the living out of the reality of that declaration.

How do we pursue righteousness?

We take Jesus' teaching here seriously, that God desires our obedience in the innermost parts of our being, not just in our outward actions. That right outward actions must come from right inward motives.

We live striving to be in obedience to the commands of Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit; striving to allow God to clean the inside of the cup and bring alive more and more of what was dead in sin.

This is the true righteousness Jesus calls his disciples to. God wants to redeem every aspect of your life. Your actions, your motives, your thoughts, every bit of it.


Listen, one day that reality will be yours. When God purifies our best efforts and burns away our failures, when we stand before him face to face, glorified in and through Christ.


Conclusion: I am going to conclude this morning where Jesus concludes the sermon on the mount. With a choice.


After Jesus teaches about true righteousness and the pursuit of it, he gives an illustration of men building on a solid foundation or an unstable one. We studied this on Wednesday night this past week.

He warns through his picture of a storm, of rain descended, or flood waters rising, and of winds beating on the house, that there will be a day when our righteousness will be tested to see if it is true or not.

If we have been placed in the righteousness of Christ and have built our lives in pursuit of it, we will survive, if we have not, if our righteousness is built on anything lesser, it will be destroyed.


Recently, that picture was brought to life for me as I watched the news. Some of you may have seen the story.

Turkey was hit with massive earthquakes a couple of days ago. As they dig through the rubble of ruined buildings something is becoming more and more evident. During the economic boom of the last twenty years, many buildings have been erected. Beautiful, tall, strong looking buildings.

And despite a reform in building codes two decades ago, and despite repeated warnings from experts in construction, construction codes were poorly enforced during this boom.

As you can imagine, these buildings are now flat and as they dig through the rubble and access the damage they are realizing that although the top of the building was solid, the penthouses were nice, the foundations and parking garages were built very poorly. So when the earthquakes hit, these foundations crumbled, bringing down the buildings completely.


Jesus is warning us this morning, he is telling us plainly, if we build our lives on the weaker, inferior righteousness of the Pharisees and the Scribes, only focusing on the outside, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven, our lives will be flattened in the coming judgment, but if we will come to Jesus in faith and then build our lives in obedience to him, we will see him face to face one day.


What are you building on? The solid foundation that Paul describes, are you consumed with straining forward to know Jesus more, to walk in that upward call, or on the foundation of yourself, your good works, or the foundation of generational Christianity, you’ve always been a Christian because your mom or grandmother was, or the foundation of saying a prayer or walking an aisle, of asking Jesus into your heart?

There is not a more important question.


Each one must choose what righteousness they will pursue.


Jesus has revealed that his disciples must pursue true righteousness.


Because he has made it possible, because it is the indicator that we are his now and his forever, because although we stand in his righteousness, our lives need to be conformed to it and by it.











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