The Christian, the Law and our Need for Righteousness - Matthew 5:19-20

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As Jesus began His ministry, He began proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. He was calling people to repentance and to following Him. But as His influence grew so did the questions about His teaching.

In the day of Jesus our Old Testament was their Scriptures. As the ministry of Jesus grew and people became familiar with His teaching questions began to arise about His views of the Old Testament Scriptures. Does He believe in the Scriptures? Is He teaching a Gospel apart from the Old Testament Law? Is He trying to abolish the Law or replace it?

In the last sermon we considered the relationship between Jesus and the Old Testament (Matthew 5:17-18), but that question lays the foundation for the next: What do we do with commands of God? What’s our relationship with the Law, and how do we obtain righteousness? 

The Law Should Not Be Ignored – As Christians we are called to a life of obedience (5:19)

  • A warning for those who neglect God’s commands (vs. 19a) – While Jesus made it clear in the previous verses that He came to fulfill the Law, He’s now making it clear that the Law of God is not to be ignored. He warns those who would minimize His commands or teach others to do the same.
  • A blessing for those who obey God’s commands (vs. 19b) – The emphasis is clear in the contrast – there’s a warning for those who neglect His command and blessing for those who do them and teach others to do the same.
  • The Law and the Sermon on the Mount – The emphasis of verse 19 seems to be further confirmed by the rest of Matthew 5. Starting in verse 21 Jesus is teaching about the Law and laying out requirements for those who belong to the kingdom of God. 

The Law Is Not Sufficient for Salvation - The Righteousness God Requires (5:20)

  • An impossible call? In verse 19 we recognize the importance of the Law of God, but then Jesus says something that should give us pause – He says that the kingdom of God is only for those whose righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. But is that possible? Is this standard too high? 
  • A greater righteousness – Accomplished through Christ – While it’s true that in our flesh we can never produce the righteousness we need to meet God’s standard, the Scriptures are clear that Christ met and exceeded that standard. Jesus lived in perfect obedience to the Law, He died as a sacrifice for sinners and rose from the dead so that all who believe in Him can be granted His righteousness (Romans 3:19-31; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:23-24). (The example of Paul – Philippians 3:3-9)
  • A heart of righteousness – Produced by the Spirt – While it’s true that Jesus provides us with righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, through Him we are also enabled to live in righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees. Their righteousness was external and from a heart of flesh, but the Spirit of God enables us to live in a way we never could on our own. In the Spirit we can live out a righteousness that those apart from Christ never could (Jeremiah 31:33; Romans 8:1-11). 
  • John R.W. Stott[1]Christian righteousness far surpasses Pharisaic righteousness in kind rather than in degree . . . Christian righteousness is greater than Pharisaic righteousness because it is deeper, being a righteousness of the heart . . . The righteousness which is pleasing to God is an inward righteousness of mind and motive. For the Lord looks at the heart.

Conclusion – While the Law of God was not intended to save us, it’s also not meant to be ignored. God’s grace is not meant to free us to live however we please (Romans 5:20-6:2). Instead, God saved us by grace and unto good works. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:8-10).


[1] John R.W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, Christian Counter Culture, Revised Edition, The Bible Speaks Today Series, Editor John R.W. Stott, IVP Academics, 1978, 2020, pg. 56.