Jesus often found Himself locking horns with the religious establishment. Many religious leaders represented a version of the law that, instead of drawing people closer to God, pushed them away. This angered Jesus and led to many conflicts.
During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus made a statement that would have startled His listeners:
"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" (Matthew 5:20).
In a culture where the Pharisees were considered the epitome of righteousness, this would have blown everyone's minds. If the Pharisees weren't righteous enough for the kingdom of heaven, what hope could everyone else have?
God's ways are higher than ours
Thankfully, Jesus didn't make this comment and leave it to everyone to interpret as they wished. In the next couple sections of His sermon, he elaborates on His point by looking at some specific examples.
You shall not murder
First Jesus brings up the example of murder. He reminds people that Exodus warned us against taking the life of another: "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment'" (Matthew 5:21).
But Jesus wants people to understand that God's expectations for how we treat others don't stop there. He goes on to say that from God's perspective, treating others with contempt or calling them a fool puts us in danger of judgment (Matthew 5:22).
He tells us that if we're making an offering and realize that someone has something against us, we need to be reconciled to them before we leave our gift (Matthew 5:23–24).
The Pharisees were experts at sticking to the letter of the law, but Jesus was concerned about the spirit of the law. And where the religious leaders might have been comfortable drawing the line at not murdering others, Jesus wanted people to understand that God expected more than that.
You shall not commit adultery
From murder, Jesus moves on to infidelity: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5:27–28).
Again, Jesus pointed out that if you merely stick rigidly to the letter of the law, you're not necessarily safe. You couldn't ogle women and consider yourself a faithful spouse. The message was that God was concerned about our hearts.
To add an exclamation point here, Jesus made an extremely exaggerated statement, "If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell" (Matthew 5:29).
Obviously, Jesus wasn't really suggesting that we harm ourselves. But he wanted people to understand how serious this was. There's no getting off on a technicality here. Just because you never actually consummated the act of adultery doesn't justify fantasizing about it.
Divorce, oaths, and retribution
Jesus follows this line of reasoning into the following areas:
"It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery" (Matthew 5:31–32).
In Matthew 23:16–22, Jesus addressed a problem with how the Pharisees and teachers of the law defined which laws were binding or not. The Pharisees' analysis made it difficult to discern whether anyone's promises were binding.
The "eye-for-an-eye" law of retaliation was easy to misuse. Jesus challenged His listeners to a higher standard, returning kindness for evil. (Matthew 5:38–42).
Loving our enemies
Lastly, Jesus focused on the topic of love:
"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:43–45a).
He pointed out that there’s nothing special about simply loving those that love us. We should have God as our example who blesses both the good and the evil with sun and rain.
And then Jesus finished this section of the sermon with a powerful statement, "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48).
The bar is set so high
Even though Jesus singled out the Pharisees by saying that our righteousness needed to surpass theirs, He was really making a point about the law. The Pharisees were the prime example of people who did what they could to fulfill the requirements of the law—often coming up with the silliest examples of what fell in bounds and what was out.
Throughout this portion of His sermon, He takes examples from the law and raises the bar. It's not enough not to murder others—you shouldn't curse them. You still might be guilty of adultery—even if you never commit the act.
The biggest takeaway was that we could not rely on our ability to fulfill the law. Most of the people present didn't have the luxury of the Pharisees: to devote their life to study of the law. If the Pharisees weren't fit for the kingdom of God, they would have felt like they had no hope. And that was kind of the point.
We cannot trust in our righteousness. This is ultimately why the death and resurrection of Jesus is so important. Paul makes this point in his second letter to the Corinthian church:
"God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21).
In Jesus, our righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees because Christ's righteousness is attributed to us. And the goodness that I get from Christ far and away exceeds that of even the holiest of Pharisees.
Does this mean we don't have to be good?
This doesn't mean that we don't have to worry about our own righteousness. We should still strive to live up to the examples that Jesus lays out in the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, as we submit ourselves to Christ, the Spirit is at work in us to conform us to His image.
It's nice to know that when we struggle to meet God's expectations, He's already made provision for us in Jesus. Our righteousness can surpass the Pharisees' because it's been gifted to us by Jesus.
Take a look at "5 Tips for Discerning Good Teaching from Bad."