By Keith Sharp
Righteousness “. . is the character or quality of being right or just. . . “1 It “. . . consists in perfect conformity with God’s holy law, that is, with his will.”2 Thus, one is righteous who is “right according to the law,” either because he has never violated the law or because his transgressions have been pardoned. Thus, one cannot understand “righteousness” without understanding the terms, nature and purpose of God’s law.
No one has ever been or ever shall be righteous in terms of perfect obedience to divine law (Rom. 3:920;23; 1 Jn. 1:8-10), save Jesus Christ (Jn. 8:46; Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:21-22). Yet God requires that we “hunger and thirst after righteousness” and promises we “shall be filled” if we so do (Matt. 5:6). In fact, the Lord demands that we be righteous to be saved (Matt. 5:20; 25:46; Acts 10:35). How, then, can we be righteous before God?
Under the law of Moses, except Christ had come, none could be righteous. This was because none kept the law perfectly, and the law demanded perfection of obedience to be righteous (Rom. 10:5; Gal. 4:10-11, 2122). This was the weakness of the Old Law; it made no provisions, ultimately, for the weakness of men (Heb. 8:7-10).
But Christ came as “the end (goal, purpose – K.S.) of the law for righteousness to, every one that believeth” (Rom. 10:4; cf. 8:3-4; 10:6-10). In the Gospel is revealed “the righteousness of God” (Rom. 1:16-17), i.e., God’s plan for us to be righteous (cf. Rom. 10:1-4). This is a righteousness of merciful pardon, forgiveness of sins by grace, rather than of perfect obedience (Rom. 3:21-28; Heb. 8:6-13).
The Sermon on the Mount is the formal proclamation by King Jesus of the nature of the righteousness of the kingdom of Heaven. The Lord’s teaching on this earth was an announcement of the imminent coming of the divine kingdom and the nature of its rule (Mk. 1:14-15). The message of Christ in Galilee, of which the Sermon on the Mount is the core, consisted of “preaching the gospel of the kingdom” (Matt. 4:23). This magnificent address, recorded in Matthew chapters 5-7, consists of a perfectly arranged series of “Pentecost pointers,” principles governing the approaching kingdom of God and the righteousness thereof.
The importance of this marvelous discourse is graphically portrayed by Matthew’s introduction (5:1-2) and conclusion (7:28-29). Jesus left the multitudes to address His disciples, and “when he was set” (“when he had sat down”-ASV), He began to teach. A Jewish teacher might informally instruct his disciples while walking or standing, but, when he wished to deliver a formal lecture containing the essence of his teaching, he sat. Matthew records, “he opened his mouth, and taught them. . . .” This is not just a lengthy way of saying, “He spoke.” This is the method in the Greek tongue of introducing a grave, highly important speech in which one reveals those things that are closest to his heart. In his concluding remarks, Matthew reports that the authority with which Jesus taught amazed the people. Thus, in this sermon the Master formally announced to His disciples the very essence of His teaching; the Kings of Kings regally proclaimed the nature of the Heavenly kingdom.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus discussed the righteous character of citizens of God’s kingdom (5:312), the relationship of these righteous subjects to the unrighteous people of the world (5:13-16), the righteousness of the kingdom as contrasted with that of the law of Moses and of the scribes and Pharisees, an overview (5:17-20, the righteousness of the kingdom as contrasted with that of the law of Moses (5:21-48), the righteousness of the kingdom as contrasted with human plans of righteousness, i.e., that of the scribes and Pharisees and of the Gentiles (6:1-7:6), and how to obtain the righteousness of the kingdom of Heaven (7:727).
The theme of the Great Discourse is announced in Matthew 5:20: “. . . except your righteousness shall exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” To understand this statement is to comprehend the relationship of Christ to law and to understand our means of being righteous in the sight of God. It is, in truth, the key to comprehending the righteousness of the kingdom of Christ.
1. W. E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, III (Old Tapan, New Jersey, 1940), 298.
2. William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary, Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1973), p. 273.
Truth Magazine, XX:17, p. 7-8