What does Matthew 5:20 mean?
ESV: For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
NIV: For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
NASB: For I say to you that unless your righteousness far surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
CSB: For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.
NLT: But I warn you — unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!
KJV: For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus has been forceful and clear about a point that can be difficult to understand: He has not come to abolish the law of Moses, but to fulfill it. It will not pass away until all has been accomplished. Those hearing Jesus' message should not be lenient on themselves or their students about obeying the commands of the law. Those who obey them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven; those who do not carefully obey will be called the least. This doesn't suggest that good deeds earn salvation, but it does make an important point about God's intent for those prior messages (Matthew 5:17–19).
Now Jesus demands a standard which would have sounded impossible to His listeners—exactly how it is meant to be taken. Scribes were professional experts on the Scriptures. The Pharisees were a sect famous for their extremely careful keeping of the law of Moses. They were so careful, in fact, that they added layers of detail, rules, and regulations on top of the law so they'd never come close to breaking it. Pharisees were extraordinarily strict with their students and with the common synagogue-goers about what it took to follow the law in order to be righteous.
Jesus is making two distinct points here. Matthew has already shown that the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is false. John the Baptist called them out as a "brood of vipers" in need of a repentance that will actually "bear fruit" instead of just looking good to other people (Matthew 3:7–8). Jesus, too, will clash with the Pharisees over the way they work so hard on outward appearances while sin decays their hearts. As Jesus will emphasize in the rest of this sermon, God cares far more about what is in a person's heart than how other people perceive them. God values true purity motivated by true love more than technical rule-keeping motivated by spiritual pride. So true "righteousness" is something better than the rotten version paraded by religious hypocrites.
The other point being made, which upcoming teaching will support, is that nobody can be truly, perfectly righteous. No person can live a life of moral purity worthy of heaven. As Paul will write in Romans 3:23, "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." He will add, though, in the following verse what Jesus' listeners will come to understand later on, that those who come to faith in Christ "and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus" (Romans 3:24). Jesus is prepping His listeners to understand that they need a righteousness only He can earn for us.
Matthew 5:17–20 sets up an important point about the nature of sin. To do so, Jesus first declares that heaven's standard of righteousness is beyond human ability. His purpose is not to discard the law of Moses, but to accomplish the purpose for which the law was given. A cornerstone of Jesus' teaching is that man cannot earn salvation, since we cannot hope to be good enough. This passage sets the stage for this idea, through exaggeration. In order to earn the kingdom of heaven, a person must be even more righteousness than the scribes and Pharisees—that culture's ultimate standard for ''good behavior.'' In later passages, Christ will expand on how sin involves not only what we do, physically, but our thoughts and motivations.
The Sermon on the Mount contains some of Jesus' most challenging teaching. It begins with the unlikely blessings of the Beatitudes. Jesus' disciples must do good works in order to be a powerful influence: as the salt of the earth and light of the world. The superficial righteousness of the Pharisees is not good enough to earn heaven. Sins of the heart, such as angry insults and intentional lust, are worthy of hell just as much as adultery and murder. Easy divorce and deceptive oaths are forbidden. Believers should not seek revenge. Instead, God intends us to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. In short, we should strive to be perfect, as God is perfect.
Matthew 5 follows Matthew's description of the enormous crowds that were following Jesus (Matthew 4:25). One day, Jesus sits down on a hill to teach them, in an address we now call the Sermon on the Mount. He describes as blessed those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, and who are persecuted. Christ also explains how God's standards of righteousness go far beyond behaviors and speech; they also include our thoughts and attitudes. Meeting God's standards means perfection. Chapter 6 continues this sermon, with more examples of Jesus clarifying God's intent for godly living.
The Gospel of Matthew clearly shows the influence of its writer's background, and his effort to reach a specific audience. Matthew was one of Jesus' twelve disciples, a Jewish man, and a former tax collector. This profession would have required literacy, and Matthew may have transcribed some of Jesus' words as they were spoken. This book is filled with references to the Old Testament, demonstrating to Israel that Jesus is the Promised One. Matthew also includes many references to coins, likely due to his former profession. Matthew records extensive accounts of Jesus' teaching, more than the other three Gospels.
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