Jesus had just given the beatitudes and said that they would be the things, the attitudes, that set them apart. In verses 17-20 he gives a broad view of righteousness that he will break down through chapter 7. (Chapters 5, 6, and 7 are the complete Sermon on the Mount.) Jesus is about to blow the folks minds. He makes the statement that he is not abolishing the law but fulfilling it. The Law was the Ten Commandments…or actually the entire collection of the sacred books of the Old Testament.
In Greek, law, nomos, in the New Testament is “of divine laws; of a force or influence impelling to action; of the Mosaic Law; of the books which contain the law, the Pentateuch, the Old Testament scripture in general. The law with emphasis on the first five books of the Old Testament.” (nomos Bible Hub)
Warren Wiersbe gives this illustration: If we have an acorn, we can destroy it in one of two ways. We can put it on a rock and smash it to bits with a hammer. Or, we can plant it in the ground and let it fulfill itself by becoming an oak tree. Is this not a beautiful picture? I can’t help but think of that tiny acorn erupting out of the ground and becoming a mighty oak. Jesus shows the true significance of the Mosaic law. That significance shows that you have to obey every piece of it. God wants us to understand the intent behind each and every one. The Pharisees had a tendency to soften the laws’ demands by only focusing on the external “obedience”. Like checking things off a list. Jesus saw that. And that’s why he says in verse 20, “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Can we just take a minute to realize that Jesus is saying to the people that their righteousness has to be more than the Pharisees and the teachers of the law? This had to rock their world. They had to be feeling defeated already and thinking there was no way for them to surpass their teachers. I mean they were the highest level of religion. But the religion they were best at consisted of a lot of outward things. They were diligent about fasting and praying and offerings. They liked being seen as the most righteous. And that was the problem. They had forgotten to let their obedient acts sink into their hearts. They taught it, but did not live it.
“For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” Romans 10:2-4
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