The Surpassing Righteousness

May 3, 2010 2309

—Smuts van Rooyen

Jesus has brought us to the foot of a mountain, a mountain of righteousness. Who can climb it?

A friend of mine with a delightful talent for wry humour once said, ‘If you want to see a cat on a hot tin roof then tell a Christian that Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, requires him to be more righteous than a Pharisee.’ He was right. The saying of Jesus, ‘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’ (Matt. 5:20) often produces some very fine exegetical footwork.

Isn’t that rank legalism? How is such righteousness possible? Is Christ serious? What does it mean to be more righteous than a Pharisee?

Before answering some of these questions let’s address a more practical matter. How would these words of Jesus, if they did apply to Christians, help the Christian community? First, let’s take the conservative Christian with a nomistic life-style. (By nomistic lifestyle is meant a life-style that is law-oriented.) This Christian has allowed Christ to shape his theology, but not his way of life.

Before accepting Christ he carried a grievous burden of works on his shoulders in order to be saved. Now having accepted Christ, he carries a grievous burden of works on his shoulders in order to show that he has been saved. But the load is still as heavy. He gathers rules from the New Testament as the Pharisee did from the Old. Without realising it he tries to baptise Christianity into Pharisaism. He does not know that one cannot pour the new wine of the gospel into the old wine skin without making a mess of Judaism and Christianity. Yes, it is true theologically he believes that in Christ he is freed from condemnation—freed from sin—but, he is not yet free from moralism. For him the use or non-use of meat, drink, lipstick and movies is of crucial importance.

Now what can Christ’s saying do for him? It can remind him that being a Pharisee, even a Christian Pharisee, is not enough. It can lead him to a higher, truer form of morality. It can free him from a load that is oppressive. It can lead him from hypocrisy to honesty. It can make him care about people and this world again.

But Christ’s demand that the citizens of his kingdom be more righteous than the Pharisees also helps the Christian libertine. Such a Christian, too, has not let Christ have an impact on his life-style. This person is right in seeing that Christ stands in culture. Everything human is not wrong. He allows for Christ to be in human art forms and at human functions. He has seen Christ with the publicans and the sinners. But he has not seen that Christ also stands against culture. Much in human culture is wrong.

Immorality, violence, theft, unbridled power, war and discrimination are utterly wrong. To the Christian who no longer sifts his environment, Christ says, ‘You must be more righteous than the Pharisees.’And what can these words do for him? They can protect him from wrong. They can make him salty in a flavourless world. They can make him speak-up on society’s ills.


Dispensationalists hold that the Sermon applies only to a future Davidic kingdom. God postponed the Davidic kingdom when the Jews rejected Jesus. That kingdom is yet to come and its constitution, according to them, is still to be implemented. The Sermon must be seen for what it is, namely, a legal system of works for a future Jewish age. Therefore, the legalism of the Sermon should not surprise us, because it was meant for Jews who are saved by a covenant of works and not of grace. In short, the Sermon does not belong to our dispensation of grace.

I believe this stance taken toward the Sermon on the Mount and the kingdom of God to be incorrect. When Jesus the Messiah came, the reign of God on earth began in a special way never experienced before. His kingdom came. The proof of this is seen in the fact that he drove out demons. ‘If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the Kingdom of God is upon you,’ he said (Matt. 12:28 see also 4:23).

His favourite name for himself was the Son of Man. And who was the Son of Man? He was the One who would be given a kingdom and authority. In fact almost every chapter in Matthew deals with some aspect of Christ’s kingship. When he came the kingdom came, although not in its fullness.

This being the case, it is obvious that the Sermon on the Mount does apply to us. On that mountain the Messiah-King who had just overwhelmed Satan, the impostor to his throne, gives the constitution of his new kingdom. So the saying, your righteousness must surpass the Pharisees, still hits home.


We come now to the heart of the matter. What exactly is greater than Pharisee righteousness? What is Christ’s idea of a truly good person? To help us understand this Jesus does a shocking thing. He takes six biblically-based ideas held by the Pharisees (and by us) and declares them to be not good enough. Then he extends and reshapes those old ideas until they come up to his liking. But he does more than play around with ideas. Jesus takes us on an inward journey to the depth of our minds. He probes our priorities, our motives, our inner will, our state of being. He explodes our thinking and revolutionizes our attitudes.

I have tried to distil this one section of Christ’s Sermon into six principles of morality. It has been for me a profoundly moving and humbling experience.


(Matt. 5:21-26 cf. Exod. 20:13)

Jesus moves with the quickness and competence of a top-rate surgeon. It’s almost unfair to discuss ethics with him. In less than a minute the discussion moves from, ‘What is murder?’ to, ‘Are people a top priority with you?’ His argument runs like this:

  1. God cares when you murder someone. You’d expect him to notice something that drastic.
  2. But God cares even when you simply call someone a fool. You didn’t think he cared about such a small mistreatment, but he does.
  3. So if God cares about people that much, shouldn’t you? Shouldn’t they be your top priority?

The illustration that drives home the point is deeply unsettling. Jesus asserts that if I should be in church praying for the forgiveness of my sins, worshiping God with all of my earnestness, and then remember that my brother has anything against me, I must then get up from my knees and immediately go to him and make things right. Can this be right? Surely religion, prayer, worship, sacrifice and confession, are more important than a paranoid neighbour. But according to Jesus, people are more important than a Pharisaical religion. Next to God they are our top priority. Pharisees sacrifice people for the sake of religion. Christians value people more.


(Matt. 5:27-30 cf. Exod. 20:14)

This principle calls us to a total, unblinking commitment to stop sinning altogether. Jesus uses the issue of adultery to show us our shallowness, our superficiality of commitment.

The golf balls of yesteryear consisted of three layers. On the outside there was a hard white casing. This casing enveloped a layer of elastic twine which was wrapped around a tiny pouch of fluid. Many a stray golf ball underwent a radical dissection in my childhood surgery and did not survive. Jesus does the same to the layers of the human psyche. He moves from the outward action, to the inner thought, to the inmost will. Adultery is not merely the failure to act correctly, it is not merely the failure to think correctly. It is basically the failure to will correctly. To drive this point home Jesus uses two draconian figures of speech. ‘Poke out your eye,’ he says, ‘Cut off your hand but don’t give in to sin. Avoid hell at all costs.’ It is, to say the least, a staggering call to commitment. How shall we survive?


(Matt. 5:31-32 cf. Deut. 24:1-4)

This principle deals with our reaction to the genuine wrongs others do against us. A Pharisee could forsake his wife for a very small cause. His hand was quick to give her a bona fide certificate of divorce. Christ tells us to bear with others until their wrongdoing becomes extreme. Divorce, for example, is to be considered only when an act as serious as adultery is involved. When people are of value to us, we do not discard them simply because they no longer suit our fancy. This principle of long-suffering flies in the face of our modem conventions. It cries out against the casual way in which we dispose of people. It calls us to experience pain for the sake of others.


(Matt. 5:33-37 cf. Num. 30:2, Deut. 23:21)

Here the matter of oaths is used to emphasize simple, internal honesty. The Pharisee needs an external object to make his word stick. He swears by heaven, or by God’s throne, or by earth, or by Jerusalem to become believable. Something ‘out there’ is the basis of trust. Not so for the children of God. They can be trusted for what they are within themselves. Honesty is their core. They are not kept honest by contracts. Fairness is as basic to them as a right angle is to geometry.


(Matt. 5:38-42 cf. Exod. 21-23f, Gen. 4:23f.)

The Old Testament did not allow for unlimited revenge. If someone knocked your tooth out you were not to respond by chopping off an arm. Revenge was legitimate, but only as long as it did not exceed the provocation. Exodus 21:23f gives us the lex talionis (principle of revenge). An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. This principle seems fair enough. But not in Jesus’ view. He turns the principle of revenge into the principle of cooperation. If a Roman soldier forces you to carry his equipment for one mile, don’t plan a revenge in which you can somehow force him to carry your equipment for an equal distance. But rather, carry his equipment for two miles. If someone sues you, don’t counter-sue. Give him twice as much as he wants. When struck on the cheek, turn the other, but don’t strike back. But there is more. Kingdom people give of their possessions to others without pause or discrimination. Revenge becomes non-resistance and finally becomes giving. Who does not stand in awe?


(Matt. 5:43-48; cf. Lev. 19:18)

G.E. Ladd writes, ‘It is one of the deepest mysteries of human personality and character that a man can deeply and earnestly desire the best welfare of one who would seek to hurt him.’ (A Theology of the New Testament, p. 129). The call of Jesus to love our enemies is a call to mystery. Here our minds struggle to get around the ultimate psychological contradiction—love for an enemy. This is perfect love. If one can love in this way, then any other love is not only possible, but easy. Christ calls us to discover this love.

The pragmatic Westerner views this concept as an impracticability that approaches near madness. This kind of thing cannot work in modern society. But Christians who have suffered in Russia and elsewhere would disagree. They would see it as the only practical way to bring about change. Anatoli Kusnyetsov, a former editor of the Gorki Institute of Literature, Moscow, said: ‘If in this world you are confronted with absolute power, power unmitigated, unrestrained, extending to every area of human life—if you are confronted with power in those terms, you are driven to realise that the only possible response to it is not some alternative power arrangement, more humane, more enlightened. The only possible response to absolute power, is the absolute love our Lord brought into the world’ (The End of Christendom, by Malcolm Muggeridge, p. 40).

Several crucial questions still haunt us: 1. Are we really expected to attain to this righteousness? 2. Is this not pure and simple legalism? We take them in order:

1. Can It Be Done?

Jesus has brought us to the foot of a mountain, a mountain of righteousness. It is higher than Sinai by far. We stand in its shadow and look up and up then wilt into deep despair. Who can climb it? We long for the lowlands of Pharisaism. Who really puts other people first? Who has a total commitment against sin? Who puts up with the genuine sins of others? Who is honest to the core? Who cooperates rather than take revenge? Who knows the mystery of love for our enemy? Can it be done?

The answer is yes and no. In what sense yes? Yes, we must now begin to climb the mountain although we may not reach its summit. Jesus told us to be salt of the earth, light on a mountain in order to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom. We can do neither if we do not take his ethical system seriously. We must pray the kingdom prayer every day: ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ The kingdom of God is already here, but not in its fullness. We can already attain to the principles of the kingdom, but not in their fullness. But this fact remains, that God in Christ has invaded our history and this makes an enormous difference in our ability to do what is right.

No, we cannot do all of God’s will. Not yet. We wait for the final consummation, for the adoption of our bodies, for the Second Coming. Then, when we see him as he is, we will be like him (1 John 3:2). It is no accident that the Sermon on the Mount is immediately followed by the story of the leper who cried, ‘Lord, if you are willing you can make me clean’ (Matt. 8). Standing before the Christ of the new righteousness we are filthy lepers. But there is a hand that reaches out to touch us and a voice that says, ‘I am willing, be clean!’

2. Is This Legalism?

The fact that Jesus asks that our righteousness surpass that of the Pharisees is disturbing, but it becomes doubly so when he ties this to entrance into the kingdom of heaven. On the surface at least it seems that this is outright legalism. Do such and such, be such and such, and the door of the kingdom will be opened to you. This, however, is not seen to be the case when the overall shape of the Gospel of Matthew is brought to bear on the issue.

Matthew simply was not a legalist and did not use the Sermon on the Mount for legalistic purposes. The evidence that would soften the apparent legalism in the text we are discussing is as follows:

  1. The righteousness which Christ speaks of is a gift bestowed on man. Earlier in the Sermon he spoke this encouraging beatitude, ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they shall be filled’ (5:6). God is the one who satisfies that hunger. Righteousness is a gift from him.
  2. The whole book of Matthew is a devastating argument against the Pharisees and their legalism. No one can read chapter twenty-three, for example, with its seven terrible, doom-filled woes against the Pharisees and not sense the writer’s and Christ’s revulsion against their legalistic practices. Nowhere else in scripture, even in Paul, is there anything quite as anti-pharisaical as this. Moreover, this gospel contains two accounts of Christ’s feeding of the masses. The crowds involved are five-thousand and then four-thousand in number respectively. These stories are retold with the expressed purpose of warning against ‘the leaven of the Pharisees’ (ch 14-16). Bread enough for every body and baskets and baskets of leftovers, show God’s extravagant grace, in contrast to the beggarliness, the miserliness, the abject poverty of pharisaical religion.
  3. If we were to ask Matthew if people are rewarded with heaven for their good works he would answer with a number of parables. He would tell of labourers in a field who were not paid according to the work they had done, because God does not pay us according to our work (Matt. 20). He would tell of the fantastic invitation to a feast by a king, and about the free robe he gave to the guests (Matt. 22:1-14). No, for him, it was all of grace and not of works.

I remember the time as a child I almost died of dehydration. It is a memory of a terrible, almost overwhelming thirst. We left home early in the morning, without our water, for a long hike across the African veld. The yearning and the agony of it is easy to recall. I had visions of water in every shape and form it takes and will never forget the green, creaming soda that finally quenched it. ‘Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they shall be filled.’


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