“For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” — NKJ Matthew 5:20
“I’ve got good news and bad news. Which one do you want to hear first?” When someone tells me that, I usually opt for the bad news first, in the hope that it might be sugarcoated by the good news.
In this verse from the first book of the New Testament, Jesus gives us all some bad news about ourselves. It centers on the word “righteousness.” Righteousness is the perfect keeping of God’s holy law. One single sin enters in, and you have unrighteousness across the board. “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all.” — James 2:10
The Jews to whom Jesus was speaking looked up to the religious leaders of their day as being way above average in holiness. And those scribes and pharisees loved the praise because they believed it themselves. They acted and taught that they were more holy, or righteous, than the common person. When Jesus told the Jews that in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, they had to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and pharisees, it was a crushing blow, like demanding something from them that they could never achieve. Could you live a life as holy as, say, your pastor? It is always good to respect your Christian pastor, not because he deserves it, but because he is sent by God. When you respect the pastor, you are giving glory to the Lord.
Some people have an overly high opinion of their pastor, thinking he is above average in holiness. This is simply never true. Any pastor worth his salt will tell you (like the Apostle Paul did) that when it comes to being sinful, he considers himself to be the “chief.” (1 Timothy 1:15)
Righteousness is necessary to enter the kingdom of heaven. That’s the bad news. By yourself, you don’t have the righteousness to enter the kingdom of heaven, and neither do I.
The good news is that the one who is telling us this is Jesus. Knowing our sin-problem, true God came down from heaven, took on our human nature, and never sinned his whole life. Then he offered up that righteous life in your place and mine as the perfect sacrifice on the cross that completely, and once and for all, paid for every sin of all time. Now, by faith, the righteousness of Jesus Christ is accounted to you. Believe it! Now, by faith, you are in the kingdom of heaven — the church of our Savior Jesus, who rules his kingdom in your heart and mine and all believers.
Your current account in God’s book is without debt. He sees you as sinless, holy and righteous. All on account of Jesus. God, by grace, has justified you — it’s just as if you never sinned. That’s why one of Jesus’ names is “The LORD our Righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:6). In the end, heaven itself will be your reward and the result of God’s grace and mercy. Hell will be for those who don’t believe.
Until then, be aware that your sinful nature will always try to get you to believe otherwise — that you can get into God’s kingdom by trying to do good things. Don’t fall for that. Let’s encourage each other to think, say and do good things. But, my friends, let’s do them because we ARE saved, not in order to BE saved.
Now that you know by faith that you are righteous though Jesus, let’s spread the news! Go ahead and give them the bad news first, but then pour on the good news of the righteousness of our Savior Jesus Christ accounted to us through faith by God’s grace.
“The LORD has revealed our righteousness. Come and let us declare in Zion (the Church) the work of the LORD our God.” — Jeremiah 51:10
Pastor Dave Naumann serves St. John’s Lutheran Church in Clarkston and Peace Lutheran Church in Orofino.