Text: Matthew 5:17-26
In John 3, the Pharisee Nicodemus came to visit our Lord under the cover of night. As a member of the Pharisees near the beginning of our Lord’s ministry, he couldn’t be seen taking a positive attitude toward our Lord; yet, he desired to hear more from Him, so he went by night. We know from the end of the Gospel that Nicodemus was brought to faith – he assisted in the burial of our Lord – but, as yet, he wasn’t quite there. He said to our Lord, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” (John 3:2, English Standard Version) If you take this out of context, it doesn’t sound so bad. But, really, what Nicodemus is doing is buttering Jesus up. He’s flattering Him. Now, our Lord saw right through this and said to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (3:3)
This might seem an odd way for our Lord to respond, but there is a logic here. Jesus said to Nicodemus that he was trying to approach Him by human reasoning and logic. Nicodemus was relying on his own mental capacity to propel him into a position of faith, but it doesn’t work that way. Jesus later said that flesh begets flesh, while Spirit begets Spirit. One cannot approach Christ through human means and methods; one must be “born again,” Jesus said. The word that Jesus used, though, isn’t the word for again. It means, “from above;” as in, “You must be born from above.” This confused Nicodemus, which is why he wondered if an old man could go back into his mother’s womb. What Jesus taught is that, to enter God’s kingdom, something’s got to change. We must become different than we are now, we must be born (given birth to) from above. We must receive a righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees and scribes. That righteousness is Christ’s, which He counts to us by His grace through faith.
Our text this week is one that we might be familiar with. It comes from a portion of our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, just shortly after the Beatitudes. In this passage, our Lord covers a lot of ground very quickly. And so, this time, I’d like us zoom in on this verse: Jesus said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20) Up to this point, our Lord had been speaking about His relationship to the Old Testament. His ministry and teaching weren’t the abolishment of the Old Testament, but its fulfillment. Through the lens of Christ we receive the correct understanding of the Old Testament and a new relationship to it. He also taught that the Law must continue to be preached in its full sternness, so that we might learn to recognize our sin and look to Christ for forgiveness. The fact is, Jesus said, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Now, let’s ask the Lutheran question. What does this mean? What is the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees? To be sure, there is a righteousness associated with the Pharisees and scribes. In Jesus’ time, the Pharisees were viewed as the good guys – the holy ones. They were viewed like this because the Pharisees and the scribes had devised a system, a system by which they could keep the Ten Commandments. They took the Commandments and broke them down into 600+ little pieces so that, with each of the Ten broken down, they were easier to keep. The problem was, these smaller commandments were man made; they were in addition to Scripture. Often, they contradicted or negated it. Still, the Pharisees (or, some of them) believed that by keeping these commandments – which they believed they could do – they would be holy, righteous, and good. There’s a word for this type of thinking, this type of righteousness which Jesus condemns – works righteousness.
We ourselves are not immune to this sort of thinking, by the way. We all, by nature, bear within ourselves the corruption of original sin – the Old Adam. And, the Old Adam, well, he loves this sort of thing. See, we’re always measuring ourselves against others and saying, “Well, I’m not as bad as so-and-so.” Or, when we hear a Commandment that speaks against something we have done, we try to weasel around and find some way that we have kept at least part of it. In the text, Jesus brought up the Fifth Commandment. How many times have you heard someone say, “Well, it’s not like I killed someone?” And we do this with every Commandment. We always try to find some way to excuse ourselves from the condemnation of the Law, some way to claim that we have kept the Commandments when we stand rightfully accused. We are all Pharisees, and a Pharisee’s righteousness by works will not help us. If we try to count on our works to carry us into eternal life we will end up in hell. The righteousness of the Pharisees and scribes must be exceeded, and there’s only One to do it. Christ.
St. Paul wrote to the Philippians,
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ.Philippians 3:8-9
The righteousness which abounds beyond that of the scribes and the Pharisees is the righteousness of our Lord, Jesus Christ. He is the author and source of all life, the creator of all that exists. For us men and for our salvation, He came down from heaven by uniting Himself to our human flesh. Though He is the author of the Commandments, He subjected Himself to them – and He kept them, fully. He made no excuses; He kept Law according to the letter and spirit. But, then, He submitted Himself to the penalty of the Law and suffered the outpouring of the Father’s wrath in place of all mankind. He is truly righteous and the Righteous One. His, alone, is the righteousness which surpasses the scribes and Pharisees, and He counts it to us by faith.
Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be born from above. He must be born in a different way, become different than he had been born naturally. Same for us. We each were born with the same corruption of sin, just like our parents, and their parents before them. Knowing that we, too, needed to be born from above, our Lord made it happen in the washing of Holy Baptism. In the washing of Baptism, Christ claimed us as His own. He united to His own death and resurrection so that we, too, might die to sin. In Baptism, Christ clothes us in His righteousness. He counts His righteousness to us when we believe these promises, which He also brings about by the Holy Spirit. || This last week the funeral pall has come up in a couple conversations. When we clothe the casket of our Christian brother or sister in that white garment, it symbolizes exactly St. Paul said in the Epistle. In Baptism, we were united to Christ. His death became our death, His life our life, His righteousness ours by faith. And that is the righteousness that exceeds the scribes and Pharisees.
There’s a hymn that sums this up probably better than I can. It’s “All Christians Who Have Been Baptized.” It’s number 596 in our hymnal. Stanza 2 goes,
You were before your day of birth, indeed, from your conception, condemned and lost with all the earth, none good, without exception. For like your parents’ flesh and blood, turned inward from the highest good, you constantly denied Him.“All Christians Who Have Been Baptized,” from Lutheran Service Book. Stanza 2.
But all of that was washed away – immersed and drowned forever. The water of your Baptism day restored again whatever Old Adam and his sin destroyed and all our sinful selves employed according to our nature. In Baptism we now put on Christ – our shame is fully covered with all that He once sacrificed and freely for us suffered. For here the flood of His own blood now makes us holy, right, and good before our heavenly Father.“All Christians Who Have Been Baptized,” from Lutheran Service Book. Stanzas 3-4.
Jesus said that if we would like to enter heaven, our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees. Of ourselves, we could never do this. Therefore, He gives us His own, washing us in Baptism and counting His righteousness to us by faith.