How to Be Righteous (Matt. 5:20)


During your teen years, you are at this interesting crossroad where you are making decisions about what kind of person you will be, what values you will stand for, and what you want your life to be known for. With the myriad of different options of what kind of identity we will embrace, I am confident that none of you are thinking, “I’d really like to be a two-faced hypocrite. I’d love to just change my personality depending on who I am around.” I bet the idea of someone putting up some sort of fake front or show of any kind seems inherently wrong to most of you. No one woke up this morning and thought, “I sure hope I can be as fake as possible today!

However, if we’re honest, we know we are hypocrites. There are innumerable times where we put on a show, act differently than how we feel, or will even say or do things in direct contradiction with what we really believe. If you are trying to impress someone, do you feel like you can be authentically you? Sometimes this plays out in small or big ways, from pretending to like a band you don’t really like, all the way to maliciously bullying the outcast at school just so you fit in. We do this more than we would like to admit, but at the same time, we know that it is wrong. Why is that?

What is happening is a conflict between our values, what we hold to be right and true, and our desires and actions, what we actually do. We know that it isn’t right to do things just to impress others, but in our heart of hearts most of us ultimately desire to be liked. And at the end of the day, what you desire will eventually win out over what you know. So maybe you know that your parents are generally right most of the time, but at times it sure doesn’t feel like it, right? What we desire – freedom from being told what to do – overrules what we know – our parents love us and are much smarter than we are, so we should listen to them. We are divided persons.

But as long as we sense a conflict between what our hearts desire and what our heads know, we will feel this frustrating mixture of guilt. So, our only option then, if we are to have any freedom from a life plagued with duplicity and bitterness, is to make one conform to the other; our hearts need to come into submission under our heads, or vice versa. Pop-culture and romanticism tells us that we need to let our heart’s desires be the dominant driving force in our lives, while traditional religion and cold reason tell us the opposite. So which is it? Who are we? How can we know? Are we heads with unruly, disobedient hearts? Or are we hearts with a defiant, uninformed mind?

Surprisingly, the Bible’s answer is simply: “Yes”. We are both. Heads with unruly, disobedient hearts? Yep. Hearts with defiant, ignorant minds? Bingo. I’ll explain what that means throughout the rest of the sermon, but what we can know for certain is this: if we want to be free from being two-faced or hypocritical, we must resolve this tension we feel inside ourselves. 

The Bible’s Answer

I said the Bible’s answer isn’t that you are primarily a head with a faulty heart, or a heart with a faulty head, but rather you are both. The Apostle Paul explains the natural condition of mankind as such, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened,” (Rom. 1:21). Futile minds and darkened hearts are we. In other words, we can’t wholly trust that just because we feel like something is right or think something is wrong – it actually is. Just like you wouldn’t be able to totally trust a compass that kept telling you that North was in different directions. This is what the Bible describes as the effects of “sin”.

Now, imagine that a modern man today feels very powerfully that he is a woman. If he asks a liberal what he should do, what would they tell him? They’ll tell him that his identity is found in what he feels, they’ll tell him that he is his desires, and any objections he senses in his mind must subjugate themselves to his mind. But if he asks a conservative what he should do, what would they say? The exact opposite – his feelings must come under the will-power and discipline of his mind. The Bible however says that neither the common conservative or liberal answer is correct – neither the mind nor the heart is a trustworthy place to derive our identity from or follow as our standard of authority. We might argue that the conservative’s response is a slight degree better than the liberals, saying that it is actually better for the man psychologically and his family and society as a whole to identify himself with the gender he was born with. But, just forcing him to fabricate an external obedience through will-power and social pressure will do nothing to solve the inner turmoil of his heart – it will actually only make it worse.

Hypocritical “Holy” Men

By now you are probably thinking, “What on earth does this have to do with Matt. 5:20?” Well, actually a lot. In Matt. 5:20 Jesus warns us that if our “righteousness” does not surpass that of the Scribes and Pharisees, then we cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven. We’ll define righteousness in just a bit, but let’s take a moment to examine who these holy men are.

Scribes and Pharisees were extremely religious, devout leaders of the Jewish faith during Christ’s time. Pharisees were the hyper-conservative, literal-interpreters of the Old Testament, and Scribes were professional teachers of the Law. These men were the modern day equivalent of pastors and seminary professors. When Jesus said that the people’s righteousness must not only match, but exceed that of these men, there certainly would have been some bewildered looks given. These men were regarded as some of the holiest men there were – and Jesus is saying that we must lap them ten times over in our holiness. How could the be?

Here’s the catch: though these men had an appearance of holiness, Jesus taught that they were actually imposters, ‘“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses ‘seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice…They do all their deeds to be seen by others,” (Matt. 23:2-3, 5). Jesus teaches us that these religious men are nothing but fakers and con-artists. In fact, the most common word Jesus uses in the gospel of Matthew to describe the Pharisees is hupokrités (hypocrites). They have trained themselves to put forward a show of “holiness”, but it isn’t genuine. Addressing the Scribes and Pharisees, Jesus rebukes them, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me,” (Matt. 15:8). They were using their minds to suppress their hearts and manufacturing this plastic righteousness that Jesus saw through in an instant.

So when Christ says our righteousness must exceed theirs, he is simply calling to pursue actual righteousness. Paul, later writes of these men and describes them as, “For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness,” (Rom. 10:3).

True Righteousness

The surpassing righteousness that Jesus is describing in Matt. 5:20 that is superior to the Scribes and Pharisees is a righteousness that differs both in quantity and quality. Picture it like two piles of golden coins: one the false righteousness, the other the true. If you bite into one coin and find a metallic taste of metal on your tongue, and bite into the other and find the sweetness of chocolate, you will know that these two golden coins differ in “quality”. If you have a handful of one type of golden coins and a mountain of the other, you will know that these differ in “quantity”. This is how Jesus is comparing the righteousness between someone who follows Him, and the counterfeit righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees.

What is “righteousness”? Well, back in our sermon on Matt. 5:6 we defined righteousness as, “Righteousness simply means being morally right, living and conforming to God’s law, or acting justly. So, in the beginning God made us in His image, meaning that we were made to reflect His character and nature. To be “righteous” is to reflect that character and nature perfectly – to follow God’s commandments and image His moral purity.” That is a broad-brushed understanding of righteousness, but let’s think about it like this: living a righteous life is when you strive to obey God and there is no conflict between your head and your heart. A righteous life, a life that perfectly reflects the character and nature of God, is the life that we were made for, and therefore is the most joyful, fulfilling life there is.

False Righteousness

Awhile ago I saw something on Facebook where someone said something to the tune of, “True happiness isn’t found in doing whatever you want to do, but in what you ought to do.” And in many cases, I applaud that sentiment – I just used a similar saying last week in my sermon. However, there are two problems with that. First off: whose definition of “what you ought to do” are we using? What if I think that I “ought” to just use women like objects for my own gratification, or I “ought” to throw a brick through the window of the guy who cut me off in traffic? Or maybe a man who feels like he is a woman will think he “ought” to become a so-called woman? This is the problem of our current moral landscape – we don’t have our minds filled with Truth, so we just follow whatever our hearts feel like doing and call that “truth”.

But the second problem with this little pithy statement is this: righteousness isn’t found in merely doing what we ought to do, but also wanting to do what we ought to do. The Scribes and the Pharisees would not have had a problem (to the same degree our society does) with knowing what they “ought” to do. They knew Scripture backwards and forwards. In fact, I am often surprised at what Jesus said in Matt. 23:2-3, where He encourages the listeners to actually listen to the preaching and teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees, but not follow their pattern of life. They knew the truth, they knew the rituals and ceremonies of the faith very well, but they lacked genuine belief and desire to love God. Despite all of their in depth theological knowledge, Jesus still describes them as blind guides, fools, and hypocrites. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self- indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness,” (Matt. 23:25-28).

The Scribes and the Pharisees, the highly religious and disciplined on the outside, were dead on the inside. They would follow the technicalities of the law the way a man in an unhappy marriage might technically follow the stipulations of their marriage license, but deep down has no love for his wife. God is not pleased with that. True righteousness is when you strive to obey God and there is no conflict between your head and your heart. This is why the conservative response to the transgender man won’t work either. Just saying, “Grit your teeth and bear it,” won’t work. You can’t put a gun to someone’s head and force them to obey God. God does not want begrudging submission – He wants hearts that eagerly desire to obey Him because they love Him. This is why Jesus spends the next half of the chapter teaching about obedience to the law that flows from the heart, not external technicalities.

How to Be Righteous

I’ve been saying that we all experience a tension at times between our hearts and our minds, constantly vying for control of our lives, trying to tell us, “This is your identity! This is who you are!” which often makes us two-faced and hypocritical. The Scribes and Pharisees thought that they could find a solid foundation for an identity, for their righteousness, in the mind and the subjugation of the heart. Our culture today is the exact opposite, it tells us to a solid foundation for our identity is found in the heart’s desires and feelings, and the mind must align itself with it. And both are wrong and won’t lead to the kind of righteousness that Christ is calling us to have here.

Trying to say that you must have one at the expense of the other is like asking if you want a boat with a rudder or a sail – if you have one but not the other, you will either be a victim to wherever the wind blows, or your forward movement will only go so far as you can row. The Scribes and Pharisees will-power, mind-oriented righteousness was hollow and imaginary, and our desire-driven, heart-oriented “righteousness” continually disappoints and frustrates us. So what do we do?

If True Righteousness is having our hearts and minds aligned with obeying God, then how on earth can we achieve that level of integrity in our obedience? You can’t try and use will-power or just learning more knowledge – you can’t use your mind to force your heart into desiring something it does not desire. But you also can’t swing to the other extreme and just give yourself whole heartedly to whatever your heart is feeling and just hope your mind will go along with it. Our hearts are very often wrong and can be easily manipulated. What hope do we have?

Paul explains, “For in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Rom. 1:16-17). Paul tells us that in the gospel God’s righteousness is revealed. This is odd. We explained that the righteousness of God is found in living life the way God had designed it to be lived, in a way that reflects His own holiness. Now, there certainly is moral teaching in the gospels, but no biblical writer, and no one even today, would think that the main point of the gospels is their moral teaching. No, the primary purpose of the gospel is Jesus and His work on the cross and resurrection from the grave. Wait, you say, how does this reveal the righteousness of God? Well, we could simply say, “WWJD.” Jesus is our model, so He showed us the righteousness of God in His own moral obedience and we can strive to pattern our lives after Him. While it is true that Jesus displayed the righteousness of God in His obedience, that doesn’t actually solve the problem – it actually makes it worse. Now we just filled our minds with a more shining and sparkling standard that does nothing but reveal how unshining and unsparkling we truly are.

Ah, you see, Christ did not just come to be a moral teacher of the Law, but to be a sin-bearing substitute. Christ was the only person who ever was able to have both His mind and His heart perfectly aligned with obeying God, perfectly loving God, perfectly desiring Him. But He died a sinner’s death and bore the wrath of God as if He was a sinner, in order that our sins, our unrighteousness, may be transferred to Him and paid for, and His perfect righteousness be pinned to us like a medal of honor. This is why Paul says that God’s righteousness is revealed in the gospel from and for “faith” – it isn’t anything that we did that earned our righteousness, but everything He did, and we simply receive it with the empty trusting hands of faith. This is how our righteousness now differs from the Pharisees in quality.

And now, when we see what Christ has done for us to make us right with God, it melts our hearts and we find our hearts truly desiring Him and thus our minds being centered on Him. Imperfectly, often failing, often stumbling, but always returning to Him, always striving to obey Him from a heart that loves Him truly. So now we can have a level of holiness and obedience that we never had before. This is how our righteousness differs in quantity over the Scribes and Pharisees.

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