Verse of the Day Devotion: Matthew 5:20 

“For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 5:20    

These verses address an important concept within Jesus’ teachings here.  He starts by speaking of the Law given to Moses in the Old Testament.  “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.  He did not come to destroy the law, which is what the scribes and Pharisees believed He did.  On the contrary, He came to, as the preacher John Wesley put it, “to establish, illustrate, and explain its highest meaning, both by His life and doctrine.”  In other words, live it out as it was intended. 

He then goes further, ”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. 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 5:18-19.  The law is still in place.  Until heaven and earth pass away, meaning when the new heaven and earth is created, the law will still be in effect.  Now no part of it, no matter how small, will be done away with.  Additionally no part of the law  should be  annulled,  and no-one should be encouraged to ignore any part of it, for if they did, they will be seen as least in the kingdom of heaven. 

Now we come to the critical verse in this section.  “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.  Now, how can this be?  What does Jesus mean by ‘righteousness that surpasses the scribes and Pharisees?”  We must understand how these Jewish leaders saw the keeping of the law.  They saw righteousness as literal obedience to rules and regulations.  And if this is what is meant, it would be hard to know of anyone who attempted it more rigorously and consistently then the scribes and Pharisees.  However, this is not completely what is intended.  Jesus here in the following verses has a much deeper meaning in mind.   He now gives six examples of items in the law where He intends a much deeper idea.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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
  4. 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 5:33-27.
  5. 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.
  6. You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR 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.” Matthew 5:43-45.

Jesus gives these six instances to show that the law taught by the scribes and Pharisees is not necessarily wrong, but as presented by them does not go far enough.  He says, “you have heard it said”, literal interpretation.  Then “but I say”, deeper meaning, what is intended.  He was giving the spirit of the moral and ritual idea; how to walk in them in a manner that truly pleases God, one that points to the Christ, and how He follows them.  The scribes and Pharisees were only interested in following the letter of the law, not interested in becoming one who becomes it on the inside as well. 

Jesus does not want us to only do, but to become as well.  He wants us to live it out because we love Him and want to please Him.  Are we to follow the law?  Yes, but not as a way of salvation, but as a way of life itself.  And He is always there to help us fulfil this calling.  He has given us the Holy Spirit to lead and guide us into all truth.  “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come.” John 16:13.  We can only know the whole truth by studying His word.  And when we apply it to our lives, we are transformed into the very image of Christ by His Spirit.  “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.” 2 Corinthians 3:18.

William Funkhouser MDiv, ThD, Founder and President of True Devotion Ministries, Inc.

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