February 25, 2024 | Doug Sauder
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“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 tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 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.”—Matthew 5:17–20 (NIV)
What does it take to enter the kingdom of heaven? What is the criteria, the requirements to reap the benefits, to enjoy and experience the glory of God’s presence? According to Jesus, it requires righteousness that “surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law.”
What does this mean? Well, the Pharisees and teachers of the law were very strict in their adherence to the letter of the law. Theologian Joseph Barnes said it this way: “Their righteousness consisted in outward observances of the ceremonial and traditional law. They offered sacrifices, fasted often, prayed much, were punctilious about ablutions, and tithes, and the ceremonies of religion.” This was their level of righteousness.
You see, the commandments show us what it means to live in right relationship with God—which is what righteousness means. But as Paul points out in Romans 3:20 (NIV), “no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.”
The same commandments that show us how to achieve righteousness are also meant to show us that on our own, we could never live up to this standard and achieve righteousness. This is what the Pharisees and teachers of the law missed. They believed that their outward adherence to the law was enough, but “their righteousness was very defective; it lay only in an external observance of the law; did not arise from a purified heart, or the principles of grace; nor was it performed sincerely, and with a view to the glory of God; but for their own applause, and in order to obtain eternal life” (John Gill).
This means that in order to exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees, not only do we have to live perfectly (every single commandment), but our hearts must also be perfect. This is something we could never do. And so, because we couldn’t approach Him and enter into His presence, God came near to us.
Galatians 4:4–7 (ESV) tells us, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”
God loves us so much with a perfect, unconditional, everlasting, all-encompassing, unrelenting, beautiful, unfathomable love that He sent Jesus to live the sinless life we could not, to follow and fulfill the commandments perfectly as we could not, and to take our sins upon His shoulders and bear upon Himself the full brunt of the penalty for our sins in order to restore us to right relationship with God. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21 NIV). Not because we earned it and not because we deserved it—it was a gift that was poured out generously through the blood of Jesus on the cross.
So, back to the original question: What does it take to enter the kingdom of heaven? How does our righteousness surpass that of the Pharisees? “What does Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness’” (Romans 4:3 NIV). Trust in Christ and His sacrifice, believe in Him, seek Him, know Him, and His kingdom is yours! This is righteousness, friends.
Pause: What is true righteousness? How do we achieve it?
Practice: How do you explain grace and true righteousness to someone who doesn’t know Jesus? Consider your answer and write it down. Research Scripture to support your answer. Go over it with a Christian friend.
Pray: Father, I know that “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good” (Romans 7:12 NIV). I know that “the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin” (Romans 7:14 NIV). I know that no matter what I do, how hard I try, I could never be righteous, right with You, on my own power and effort. I know that regardless of my outward actions, my heart is still sinful, that sin lives in me. And I declare as Paul did: “What a wretched man (or woman) I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:24–25 NIV)! I praise You for being righteous and holy and good and perfect and for giving me the gift of Your grace in Christ’s righteousness. May this reality propel me to love and good works, not for my reward or glory, but for Your kingdom and Your glory, that others may also see and believe! Amen.
Danny Saavedra is a licensed minister who has served on staff at Calvary since 2012, managing the Calvary Devotional and digital discipleship resources. He has a Master of Arts in Pastoral Counseling and Master of Divinity in Pastoral Ministry from Liberty Theological Seminary. His wife Stephanie, son Jude, and daughter Zoe share a love of Star Wars, good food, having friends over for dinner, and studying the Word together as a family.