Matthew 5:19-20 by Robert Dean
Must I be good to be a Christian? Listen to this lesson to learn that Jesus told His disciples in the Sermon on the Mount that the kind of righteousness the religious Pharisees demanded was not what He was talking about. Neither was Jesus referring to how you had to be good to be saved but instead, He was talking about spiritual growth after we have been justified. See how He taught that the character qualities we need to rule in the coming Kingdom of heaven are a result of walking according to the light of God's Word, and not by trying to be good.
Series:Matthew (2013)
Duration:41 mins 27 secs

What Kind of Righteousness?
Matthew 5:19-20
Matthew Lesson #028
March 30, 2014

It is so important to understand the framework for this particular passage in this particular section. We went through the first sixteen verses of this chapter and that focused on the beatitudes, these character qualities that were expected of a disciple. It is so important to understand contextually to whom Jesus is speaking. He is speaking to His disciples. He is not speaking to a large multitude, although the multitude does come to Him over time as He is teaching His disciples and they are listening in. But His focus of attention is on the disciples. We will see this several more times in Matthew. Some of the things He says here are said in some of the other contexts that are focused on disciple training. Therefore we have to understand that when Jesus is talking to them He is not talking to them as unbelievers, He is not giving them criteria to evaluate if they are truly believers, He is telling them as believers what is expected of them in terms of their spiritual life. That is the first important thing to understand contextually.

The second, as I keep pointing out, is that this is not in the dispensation of the church. This is till in the dispensation of the Mosaic Law in the age of Israel. But the principles that are here are timeless. They are not restricted to the Old Testament period under the age of Israel or the church age, and it has been pointed out as we have gone through these passages how these principles are stated not only in the Old Testament context of the Law but also they are repeated in the New Testament epistles.

The other part of the context that we have to remember is that Jesus is challenging His hearers to be prepared for the coming of the kingdom. The message of John the Baptist, His message, the message that He will be having His disciples teach as they go out is to Israel—not to the Gentiles yet, but to the house of Judah, the house of Israel, to those who are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who have the promises, the prophecies down through the ages that God is going to establish a literal, physical, geographical kingdom in Israel with a ruler, an eternal King, a descendant of David on the throne of David in Jerusalem. And that this kingdom is yet future but it is designed for Israel. He is announcing that as the Messiah He is offering this to Israel but they have to meet a qualification before that kingdom will come into existence, and that is that they must be rightly aligned with God in terms of their spiritual life. Failure to do so means that they are not qualified yet for the kingdom to come. If they reject Him as Messiah then the kingdom will be postponed.

So where we see the parallel for us is that just as they were in a period anticipating the coming of the kingdom that was not yet inaugurated, so we too anticipate the coming of the kingdom. Even though their destiny as Jewish believers in the future kingdom is not identical to the destiny of church age believers and their role in the future kingdom, nevertheless the character qualities that God expects from those who will have privileges in the kingdom are the same. These are the character qualities that are the result of walking according to the light of God's Word and walking in obedience to Him.

Having said that we have to keep that in mind because when we come to certain challenging message here there is a tradition in many theological backgrounds where they are taken as passages related to getting saved, i.e. securing an eternal destiny in heaven as opposed to understanding that these are spiritual life passages. They are addressed to not how to gain a spiritual life, how to become a believer, but they are addressed to believers in terms of how they should live as disciples. In Matthew 28:19, 20 Jesus commissioned His disciples to go and make disciples. This is the mission of the church. This is why it is called the great commission. This is what Jesus directs us to do. It is not just evangelism; it is to train believers to grow to spiritual maturity.

So as we get to the heart of the Sermon on the Mount starting in verse 17 Jesus begins to begin to contrast the kind of righteousness that should characterize a believer's life versus the kind of superficial righteousness that was being taught and popularized by the religious leaders of His day.

Jesus began by looking at an issue at the very beginning, before He began to teach, to make sure that everyone understood that He was not contradicting Moses. He was contradicting the false teaching of the Pharisees, the wrong teaching of the Pharisees. But before He starts to contrast what He was saying was the truth with the false teaching of the Pharisees He wanted to make sure the people understood that he wasn't violating the Torah or throwing out Moses.

Matthew 5:17 NASB "Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. [18] 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."     

Then He continues to explain this:

Matthew 5:19 NASB "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 5:20 NASB "For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses {that} of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven."

We need to work backwards to understand some things in this context. The last thing He says has to do with "entering the kingdom of heaven," a phrase that we often think of as getting justified as equivalent as going from spiritual death to spiritual life, equating the kingdom of heaven with heaven itself, and therefore this is a phrase for getting saved. However the phrase might mean that in some other contexts it clearly refers to something beyond simply getting saved. It refers to experiencing the fullness of the future kingdom. This is seen in Acts 14:22 NASB "strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and {saying,} 'Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God'." He is talking to believers. If entering the kingdom of God means getting saved in the sense of securing your eternal destiny in heaven then it is not by faith alone in Christ alone; it would mean you can only get saved by overcoming tribulations. That would be a works gospel. So obviously entering the kingdom here means something more than just moving from spiritual death to spiritual life. So Jesus is talking about something more. He is talking about entering the fullness of the future kingdom.

So in vv. 17, 18 Jesus sets this up and says He is not overturning, abolishing or nullifying what is taught in the Old Testament. He is going to fulfill what is in the Old Testament. He fulfills it in His own life, demonstrating perfect righteousness, but He is going to show how this is then the basis for developing experiential righteousness.

The other concept we have seen is that the word saved is often used in three phases or tenses. When we trust in Christ as savior we are saved from the penalty of sin. Our eternal destiny is no longer the lake of fire; it is heaven. That occurs instantly the moment we trust in Christ as savior, when we believe He died on the cross for our sins. That is called justification. Immediately after that, as we have been born anew and have new life in Christ, that new life has to grow. 1 Peter 2:2 NASB "like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation". That is the spiritual life, and as we grow and apply the Word under the filling of the Holy Spirit that produces an experiential righteousness. Sometimes when the Scripture talks about righteousness it is talking about the imputed righteousness that is the basis for justification in phase one. Sometimes it is talking about experiential righteousness in the spiritual life in phase two. That is going to be the issue in understanding what Jesus is saying in Matthew 5:20.

Let's understand the first kind of righteousness, which is imputed righteousness. God is absolute perfection; He is perfect righteousness. No one can have fellowship with God apart from perfect righteousness. Even though we may do many relatively good things and there are many wonderful people in this world who do many beneficial things for everyone, it is not the kind of righteousness that qualifies us to have a relationship with God. We can only have a relationship with God if we have perfect righteousness, absolute righteousness. And the problem with us because of sin is that we lack righteousness. Our righteousness is relative. In comparison to other people we may be pretty good but in comparison to God we are all miserable failures. Isaiah 64:6—"Our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment".

At the cross Jesus Christ who is perfectly righteous bore in His body on the tree our sins. 2 Corinthians 5:21 NASB "He made Him who knew no sin {to be} sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." Our sins are imputed to Him. He pays the penalty so that when we believe in Christ His righteousness is imputed to us so that it becomes our righteousness. It is not that we become righteousness but that we are now credited with His righteousness, and it is on the basis of His righteousness that we are declared righteous. He doesn't make us righteous; He doesn't change our nature so that we are no longer sinners; we are still sinners but we have a new reality, we are new creatures in Christ; we have received His perfect righteousness and we are saved on the basis of His righteousness. So God blesses us, not because of who we are but because of who Christ is. That is imputed righteousness. That is the foundation for our destiny in heaven.

Going back to our passage we see that this is all connected together. Jesus is giving the disciples specific instructions. "I say to you." The "you" here is plural. Jesus is talking to His disciples, explaining these principles to them. So just as in v. 18 He is explaining to His disciples that He will fulfill the Law, in verse 20 He is still speaking to the same people as disciples. You can read commentary after commentary and hear sermon after sermon on this and all of a sudden they get to verse 20 and they say He is talking about imputed righteousness—that He is talking to unbelievers at that point. If we are going to be consistent we have to understand that He is giving instructions to His disciples related to their spiritual life. He is not suddenly shifting to where He is talking about how to get the kind of righteousness needed to be saved. That changes everything.

In verse 17 Jesus said that He didn't come to destroy the Law or the prophets. He didn't come to destroy but to fulfill. This is the Greek word KATALUO, a compound word made up of the preposition KATA and the verb LUO. There are about five or six different forms of LUO found in the New Testament, each of which builds on the basic meaning of LUO which means to destroy something, to annul or to abolish, to set it free, to release it. It is used for divorce in 1 Corinthians 7. The reason for pointing this out in verse 17 is because in verse 19 He uses the root word LUO when He brings in this second point. His first point is He is not going to destroy the Law; the next point He makes is that whoever therefore does attempt to change, annul or abolish a commandments as it stands in the Torah. So He uses LUO rather than KATALUO, but He is drawing a connection.

The reason for going into detail is because sometimes people go in and take these verses individually without correlating the context. Jesus said: "I didn't come to abolish the Law, but there are some who may teach a false view of the Law. They may minimize it or rationalize even the least commandment. Verse 19, "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 …" Many people read this as, "they are not in the kingdom". It doesn't say that. It says, "shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven". Where are they? They are in the kingdom. It is not talking anywhere in this context about unbelievers. Jesus is talking about distinctions among believers. Here we have somebody who is minimizing the Law. He is till in the kingdom but he is the least; he is the low man on the totem pole.

In contrast: "… but whoever keeps [does] and teaches {them,} he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven." Doing the Law is application. It is not trying to earn righteousness through obedience; it is simply doing what God says to do. "Whoever does and teaches them"—whoever honors the intent of the Law—"shall be called great in the kingdom".

We see from this passage that there are going to be distinctions in the kingdom. There are going to be some who are great and some who are less, who are least. It depends on how they have handled the Word of God in terms of what they do in terms of application to their own life, as well as what they communicate and teach to others. Both the least and the great are in the kingdom; they are both justified/saved. So the context in vv. 17 & 18 talks about the fact that Jesus did not nullify the Law. In contrast He is saying that there may be some who do try to nullify, minimize, rationalize obedience to some aspects of the Law, but the ones who do that will have insignificant roles in the future kingdom. But they are still there. So far He is talking about believers.

Now He brings in another level of explanation in verse 20, as indicated by the first word GAR. There is not a break here. If He were changing the focus this would be indicated by a number of different conjunctions. He uses an explanatory conjunction here, which indicates that verse 20 is further explaining what He has already been saying. If He has already been talking only about believers and distinctions among believers, then it must follow on the basis of grammar that what He is going to talk about in verse 20 is still talking about these distinctions among believers, not distinctions between unbelievers and believers.

So when Jesus says in v. 20, "For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses {that} of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven." So if entering the kingdom of heaven doesn't mean getting eternal life, it means entering into the richness and the fullness and the blessing of the future kingdom; then Jesus isn't talking here about the kind of righteousness you need to be justified, He is talking about the kind of righteousness that should characterize the life of a justified believer. That is further developed in the rest of this passage as He contrasts the kind of righteousness that the Pharisees taught, which was a superficial and external righteousness, versus the kind of righteousness that is expected of a believer.

"Entering the kingdom". 

The context of Matthew chapter eighteen is a context of Jesus giving instruction to His disciples. He is not talking to unbelievers.

Matthew 18:1 NASB "At that time the disciples came to Jesus and said, 'Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?'" What did we just learn in Matthew chapter five? That the person who teaches obedience to the Law and does it, will be the greatest in the kingdom. So we have two similar passages talking about being great in the kingdom. They are not talking about how to get there in terms of salvation; they are talking about these different degrees of recognition in the kingdom. So Jesus is going to give them a little object lesson. He calls a small child to Him and sits him down in the midst of the disciples. 

Matthew 18:3 NASB "and said, 'Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven'." Converted here is in the sense of turning to God and related to phase one salvation. Trusting in Jesus and becoming a little child is not one of the conditions we usually hear today. But that is what Jesus is saying here. Is this an additional thing we have to do in order to make sure our eternal destiny is heaven and not the lake of fire? No. He is not talking about getting into heaven when we die. He is talking to His disciples who are already justified about how they should live today in light of eternity. That is again showing that the phrase "enter the kingdom of heaven" has to do with entering into the fullness and the riches and the blessings in the kingdom.

Matthew 18:4 NASB "Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." Again He is talking about being prepared to live in the future kingdom. [5] "And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me; [6] but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea."

Matthew 18:8 NASB "If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be cast into the eternal fire." Is entering into life the same as getting justified. If we say it is, then maybe we need to be cutting off our hands and feet a little bit! But that doesn't make sense. It violates the whole principle of salvation by faith alone in Christ alone. So entering into life again has something more to do with our role and responsibilities in the future kingdom.

But notice what He says at the end of the verse: "it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be cast into the eternal fire." Wait a minute. It says "everlasting fire". How can it be said this is talking about discipleship and not eternal destiny? Look at the next verse.

Matthew 18:9 NASB "If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and throw it from you. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, than to have two eyes and be cast into the fiery hell." Once again, it is hell fire! But this doesn't say hell fire in the Greek, it says, Gehenna, the Valley of Hinnom. The Valley of Hinnom is used about 13 times in the New Testament and it never refers to eternal destiny. Every English translation translates the Valley of Gehenna or the Valley of Hinnom in reference to eternal destiny. We will go through this next time and show that the Valley of Hinnom is basically a metaphor for despair, for sorrow, for regret, and for punishment in time, not punishment in eternity.

There is a parallel verse to this in Mark 9:47  

 Mark 9:47 NASB "If your eye causes you to stumble, throw it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into hell"—Gehenna. Gehenna is one of those phrases that tells us immediately that we are talking about sorrow, regret, temporal punishment, and loss of rewards at the judgment seat of Christ.

But then the phrase "enter the kingdom of God" also is used in some places to refer to phase one justification. In John chapter three Jesus is talking to Nicodemus about regeneration. John 3:3 NASB "Jesus answered and said to him, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God'… [5] "Jesus answered, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water [regeneration] and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God'." This is where the phrase clearly means it is related to phase one. It is not a technical phrase that has the same meaning every single time it is used. Context determines what the significance of the phrase is.

Back to Matthew 5:20. Jesus is telling His disciples that the righteous life that God expects of disciples in relation to their future position in the kingdom is a reference to the kind of righteousness that surpasses that which is taught by the scribes and the Pharisees. There are six sections coming up in the rest of Matthew chapter five where Jesus begins by saying, "You have heard it said." That is a reference to the oral tradition that had been passed down by the rabbis over the last 2-300 years where they were teaching based on the oral tradition rather than the written Word of God. And so they minimized the righteous requirements of the Law in terms of experiential living. What Jesus is saying is, if you really want to experience the richness of the kingdom and be qualified and prepared for the kingdom then you have to have a different kind of righteousness. Remember back in Matthew chapter three when the scribes and the Pharisees came out to John the Baptist and he called them a brood of vipers? He said that they needed to produce works in keeping with repentance. He didn't say that they needed to repent because they apparently went through the external motions of saying that they repented. But there was no change in character, no change in the quality of their life that went with the claim of repentance. Therefore they weren't going to be qualified for their coming of the kingdom.

All through this section the emphasis is on the lifestyle of the believer, not on how to get into heaven in terms of justification. All through the Old Testament there is this emphasis of experiential righteousness, the righteousness that should characterize the life of the believer.

Psalm 106:3 NASB "How blessed are those who keep justice, Who practice righteousness at all times!" That is not imputed righteousness or positional righteousness; that is the kind of righteousness that characterizes the life of the believer.

Psalm 15:1-3 NASB "O LORD, who may abide in Your tent [tabernacle—fellowship with God]? Who may dwell on Your holy hill? He who walks with integrity, and works righteousness, And speaks truth in his heart. He does not slander with his tongue, Nor does evil to his neighbor, Nor takes up a reproach against his friend."  

Cf. Deuteronomy 6:25; 24:13. God expected righteousness from His people. If the Israelites were unrighteous God threatened to remove them from the land, which He eventually did. They were still God's people. By analogy we are still saved, we don't lose our salvation, but when we are disobedient God disciplines us, and He removes blessing from our lives. When we are obedient we are not only blessed in time but when we are walking by the Spirit God the Holy Spirit produces fruit in our lives that has eternal value, and it is for that fruit that we are judged and rewarded at the judgment seat of Christ. And it is that which qualifies us to rule and to reign and for other privileges in the coming kingdom.