The Righteousness of the King (Matthew 5:17–48)

One of the unpardonable sins in our culture today is telling someone they’re unqualified—that they don’t meet the standard necessary for participation in a given activity, employment in a specific field, or identification with an individual group. To tell someone that they can’t be or do whatever they want is actually considered by some to be an act of aggression and evidence of hatred. The problem is that we know intuitively (and certainly biblically) that carte blanche affirmation is unsustainable and, in many cases, incredibly unloving. Jesus, as he continues in his famous Sermon, tells an entire nation that they’ve missed the mark and that they don’t qualify. And just as his message wasn’t politically correct in the 1st-Century, so we’re going to be reminded that it’s the same today: That salvation and godliness are built atop a divisive reality, but that the declaration of that reality is not at all hateful but immeasurably loving.

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One of the unpardonable sins in our culture today is telling someone that they’re unqualified—that they don’t meet the standard necessary for participation in a given activity, employment in a specific field, or identification with an individual group.

To tell someone that they can’t be whatever they want or do whatever they want is actually considered by some to be an act of aggression. Some claim feeling “unsafe” or “abused” when not totally affirmed and encouraged.

The problem is that we know intuitively (and certainly biblically) that carte blanche endorsement is unsustainable and, in many cases, it’s actually the most unloving thing one can do or another person.

Today we’re going to hear Jesus tell an entire nation that they’ve missed the mark; that they don’t qualify. And just as his message wasn’t politically correct in the 1st-century, so we’re going to be reminded that it remains that way today. That salvation and godliness are built atop a divisive reality, but that the declaration of that reality is not at all abusive but immeasurably loving.

The Nature of Scripture

Jesus begins the section of the Sermon we’re considering today by affirming the divine nature of Scripture. He assures his disciples, and those in the eavesdropping crowd, that he has a very high view of what we call the Old Testament.

Apparently, his ministry to date had people talking. Jesus seemed to march to the beat of his own drum, religiously speaking. He didn’t look, act, teach, or minister in a way that was consistent with how a good rabbi at the time would. Maybe it was because Gentiles were in the crowd (4:24–25) or because he called fisherman to be the first to follow him (4:18–22).

Whatever the reason, Jesus felt it necessary to declare clearly his view of the nature of Scripture, referred to here by the common shorthand, the “Law and the Prophets.”

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”

Matthew 5:17–18

The “smallest letter” of the Hebrew alphabet is yod and it looks like an English apostrophe. It’s tiny. Similarly, a “stroke” refers to parts of letters, like one of the horizontal lines in a capital E.

The point is clear: Not the minutest, tiniest part of the Scriptures will disappear until the whole is accomplished. In fact, it’s just as likely that heaven and earth implode then a fraction of God’s word is voided. Scripture is ever-abiding in its nature.

And, because of that:

“Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

Matthew 5:19

The Jews ranked God’s laws by perceived importance. Later in his ministry, Jesus is approached by a lawyer who asks him: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law” (22:36)? In other words: “Which is the top one—the one I need to make sure I keep?”

The answer Jesus gives is consistent with his teaching in Matthew 5. He refuses to pit the law against itself. There are dire—and eternal—consequences for anyone who ignores even “the least of these commandments.” Why? Because it’s all connected like a spiderweb of revelation and to pluck one inspired tread is to affect them all.

The apostle James makes this clear: “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all” (2:10). The law isn’t component parts as much as it’s a vibrant whole. Scripture is totally-binding in its nature.

Only a fool would pop the hood of their vehicle and start removing parts they deemed “less important” or open the side of their computer and begin ripping out components claiming them to be “less essential.” In both cases, for the car and the computer to operate as intended, everything inside is important.

Jesus, with disciples at his feet and crowds swelling around him, declares his view of the nature of Scripture: It’s ever-abiding and totally binding.

A brother in Christ once told me, “I like the New Testament and I love Jesus, I just can’t get on board with the Old Testament.” To which I responded, “Jesus kind of liked the Old Testament.” In fact, he said not a speck of it will become irrelevant and all of it is important. 

The Standard of Scripture

Now, why did Jesus feel the need to affirm the nature of Scripture? Because of where he was going next in his lesson, and what could be considered the point of the whole Sermon: The standard of Scripture. Jesus wants to teach what Scripture demands of the human race; the expectations God has for us revealed in his word. It’s the standard of Scripture. 

“For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Matthew 5:20

You want to walk the streets of the kingdom that you’ve been anticipating? Being a child of Abraham isn’t enough. You have to be righteous like the King is righteous. And that level of righteousness is so great that it puts even your religious leaders to shame.

For the rest of the chapter, Jesus fleshes out that bold claim by providing six illustrations of how Israel, led by their religious leaders, had misinterpreted the law and, because of that, fell short of the standard of righteousness set in Scripture and necessary for entering the coming kingdom.

Illustration #1: Murder

“You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’

“But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.”

Matthew 5:21–22

When they read the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder,” the scribes and Pharisees mistakenly interpreted it as simply a homicide deterrent. 

But Jesus explains that’s not what Moses meant and that the standard is much higher than simply not killing someone. Wrongful anger toward someone else, thinking lowly of them, and insulting them are all offences of the same law. Why? Because the unrighteousness leading to hatred is the same leading to murder. Both fruit have the same root.

Jesus says, “You’ve misunderstood the standard. It’s so much higher than you’ve realized and you need to meet it to enter the kingdom.”

Like he does with the other illustrations also, Jesus then offers application:

“Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, so that your opponent may not hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Truly I say to you, you will not come out of there until you have paid up the last cent.”

Matthew 5:23–26

When you rightly understand the standard of the law against murder, you’ll go to great lengths to live at peace with all people, because that’s actually what the law demands.

Illustration #2: Adultery

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

Matthew 5:27–28

Jesus says, “You think you’ve met the standard of righteousness set in this law by simply not sleeping with someone who isn’t your spouse. No! You’ve misunderstood. Lust is to adultery what anger is to murder. It is the underlying sin that, while it doesn’t always go to the extreme, is still committed when it doesn’t.

Next comes the application:

“If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell.”

Matthew 5:29–30

Stated another way: Do whatever you have to do to avoid breaking the law. Why? Because it’s all connected and it’s all binding. 

Now, some people may object here: “By this logic, if I’ve lusted after someone I might as well sleep with them. I mean, the damage is already done, right? If I’m mad at someone I might as well kill them, according to Jesus’s logic.” Obviously that’s not the case and that’s not what Jesus is talking about. For one thing, the further you go in sin the more people it implicates and the greater the earthly and heavenly consequences. But, for another, that’s not the point of the Sermon here and so we don’t want to make it the point. Jesus is simply explaining the high standard set forth by Scripture, showing it’s much higher than they had thought.

Illustration #3: Divorce

“It was said, ‘Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce’; but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

Matthew 5:31–32

At the time the Jews thought that so long as they did it in a certain way, divorce could be righteous and in keeping with God’s law. Jesus says they’re wrong. With only one exception can it be done in a righteous way and, even then, we know it’s not part of God’s perfect plan.

Illustration #4: Vows

“Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil.”

Matthew 5:33–37

The Jews believed that any oath taken that did not invoke the name of the Lord was invalid (a misinterpretation of Leviticus 19:12). Jesus teaches them that the standard for righteousness in vows is much higher. Don’t do it. Humans don’t own the heavens, earth, Jerusalem, or even their own bodies. Don’t swear by things that belong to God. 

You want to meet the righteousness set forth by the law? Be consistently honest and trustworthy, never wavering in honesty.

Illustration #5: Retaliation 

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.”

Matthew 5:38–42

While they understood the law to give permission to a wronged party to retaliate in kind—“eye for an eye”—a true understanding of biblical justice meant leaving vengeance to the Lord. If you’ve been personally injured, wronged, or cheated, God’s standard demands a gracious response that benefits the offender.

Illustration #6: Love

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”

Matthew 5:43–47

The religious leaders taught righteous consistency: Love those you should love, hate only those you should hate. Be fair. But Jesus says they missed the whole scriptural point of love. Love is sacrificial and selflessly permeates all boundaries, bringing wholeness, healing, and unity. Like the Father doesn’t discriminate who receives the grace of sun and rain so too God’s people are not to discriminate in the distribution of love. That’s righteous love.

Jesus says, “You want to enter the coming kingdom, the kingdom I’m going to bring? You have to be righteous; more righteous than those you think are righteous. You have to live up to the righteous standard that the Scriptures, rightly interpreted, set up for you. For example, don’t hate or dislike anyone, never lust, divorce appropriately, never lie, leave all vengeance to the Lord, and love your enemies liberally and sacrificially.”

In other words:

“Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Matthew 5:48

Let’s cut through all the noise. That’s the standard: Perfection. According to the Law and the Prophets, to enter the kingdom of heaven, you have to be like the Father who’s in heaven: Perfectly righteous and without blemish.

You see now why Jesus first laid the sturdy foundation of the nature of Scripture, because the standard of Scripture be built on top is so high. It’s because Scripture is ever-abiding and totally-binding that God-fearing people have to take its standard so seriously. 

And, when faced with that standard, that demand for absolute perfection, we today, like the disciples then, feel a punch to the gut of helplessness, powerlessness, hopelessness, and inadequacy. Like going to an amusement park and stepping up to the coolest, most amazing ride ever constructed and then seeing the sign: “You must be this tall to ride” and the line is 40-feet high. I can’t reach that. No one can! And that’s the point. That’s what Paul meant when he later wrote that “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). None are tall enough to ride. All miss the standard.

The Satisfaction of Scripture

Now that we’ve seen the nature and standard of Scripture, I want us to circle back to the beginning of our passage and notice how Jesus began: With a little comment about the satisfaction of Scripture. That is, how that standard gets met, because it sure seems hopeless when it’s explained for us, doesn’t it?

Look again at verse 17:

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.”

Matthew 5:17

The disciples couldn’t meet the standard of righteousness set in Scripture. Not even the scribes and Pharisees could. And neither can you and I. It’s too high. We’re too imperfect.

And that’s exactly why Jesus came. He came, not to abolish, but to fulfill, to establish completely, to satisfy the demands of the law and to meet its standard of righteousness. 

Peter, looking back on the life of Christ, declares: “[He] committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in his mouth” (1 Pet 2:22); he was “a lamb unblemished and spotless” (1:19). 

And when Jesus, the righteous law-fulfiller, died on the cross he made it possible for us—those who fall short—to meet the unreachable standard of perfection.

Paul writes later, “[God] made [Jesus] who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor 5:21). Paul loves that last phrase to describe those who put their faith in Christ: “In him.” Jesus is righteous, we’re not. Jesus met the standard of Scripture, we didn’t and don’t. But when we believe in him, the Bible says that his righteousness is credited to our account and that we get placed in him so that when the perfect heavenly Father looks at me he doesn’t see my unrighteousness but his Son’s righteousness.

As Martin Luther once wrote: “The law says ‘Do this!’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘Believe in this man!’ and immediately everything is done.”

Jesus comes along as Israel’s long-awaited King announcing the kingdom of heaven is at hand. But then he drops some hard news: If you want to experience that kingdom, you have to be more righteous than you even understand. You have to be perfect. 

There are three typical responses to this truth and I wonder if you can hear yourself in one of them. 

First, some will ignore it and hope for the best. You may think, “If Jesus said it publicly like that, it must be obtainable. Maybe I’m doing better than I think!” But to respond this way is really to turn a blind-eye to your own depravity, weakness, and imperfection. As one author says: “The standard of righteousness Jesus set isn’t adjusted for our fallen condition. God’s standard of right living, even in a fallen world, isn’t on a sliding scare … He doesn’t grade on a curve.” Those who respond this way end up redefining sin, just like the Pharisees did, in order to avoid constant depression and disappointment with themselves.

Second, some recognize it as extremely difficult and determine to get to work and do their best. Practice makes perfect! They may see perfection as a goal to be met by incrementally pulling ourselves toward it. Those who think this way tend to understand salvation as being determined by weigh scales rather than what it really is, a “height chart” of unobtainable stature.

Third, and this is where I’m going to plead with you to land, some recognize this standard for what it is: Impossible in our own strength. We just can’t do it by ourselves. But, as Christians, it’s been done for us. Christ came and fulfilled righteousness and we, being in him, are the righteousness of God. Thus, when we strive for godliness it’s not to earn salvation or merit, it’s an expression of the freedom we have because we have salvation based on Christ’s merit.


Josiah Boyd

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