Speaker: Jerry Cisar
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)
As a teenager, I often heard preachers say that the Bible is so easy to understand we’d have to have help to misunderstand it. My 57 years of experience assures me that we actually don’t need help to misunderstand the Bible. Nonetheless, at times, I certainly think we’ve had plenty of help misunderstanding it. This text serves as an example.
Matthew 5:20 is difficult for us because we don’t want it to say what it apparently says, so we tend to focus on what it must be saying. It goes something like this: Jesus couldn’t possibly mean that for us to go to heaven we have to be better at living in the law than the Pharisees (true enough), therefore, he must be talking about Jesus’ righteousness which is perfect, and imputed to us (given as a gift through faith in Jesus), and not about how we actually live.
Trying to make this about imputed, or free gift righteousness, is, at best, misguided. No one could come to that conclusion by reading Matthew from beginning to end multiple times. F.D. Bruner, commenting on this tendency says, “I find the intention of this argument praiseworthy—the intention of preserving the gospel of free grace and faith. But the exegesis is wanting.” In other words: Good intentions; lousy reading!