In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5—7), Jesus explains that the people needed to change their minds about how they could enter the kingdom of the heavens (also called the kingdom of God). The disciples’ righteousness needed to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20).
The prophets had explained that God’s eternal heavenly kingdom would one day come to earth and from then on God would dwell on earth with humanity. The kingdom’s change of address is first promised to David in 2 Samuel 7. That promise will begin to be fulfilled in Revelation 19—20 when Jesus returns to earth in glory and installs His kingdom in Jerusalem. While Jesus’ audience were expecting the Messiah’s kingdom to come, they thought that they could be part of that kingdom simply by being related to Abraham or by following Moses’ Law. Jesus explains in several ways throughout His Sermon on the Mount that the disciples’ righteousness needed to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.
Matthew 5:1 says that crowds of people had assembled to hear Jesus. When many had come, He went to an elevated place (a hill or a mount) and began to teach His disciples in a way that all could hear. Jesus first discussed some of the blessings of the kingdom (Matthew 5:2–12). After that, He explained some of the responsibilities of that kingdom. He explained that He did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets (a reference to the Hebrew Scriptures) but that He came to fulfill them (Matthew 5:17–18). Not even a small stroke from God’s Word would pass away until He had fulfilled everything that He came to accomplish.
Jesus was not introducing a new way to get into the kingdom; rather, He was helping people understand what the Hebrew Scriptures were talking about. In part because of the false teaching of the scribes and the Pharisees, the people thought they could earn their way into the kingdom by their efforts or by their heritage. This was the kind of righteousness that the scribes and Pharisees were prescribing. Jesus made it clear that kind of righteousness was not righteous enough. He told the disciples and all who were listening that their righteousness needed to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. No one can earn the righteousness needed to enter the kingdom. All must look to the Messiah to provide it for them. Instead of seeking an external righteousness or the approval of men, they needed to seek the authentic, internal righteousness that was acknowledged by God.
At the conclusion of His message, Jesus provided an illustration to contrast the false righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees and the true righteousness that comes from God. Those who heard and heeded the words of Jesus are like a wise man who built his house on the rock. When the storms came, the house stood fast (Matthew 7:24–25). On the other hand, those who rejected the words of Jesus are like one who built his house on the sand. It crumbled when the storm came (Matthew 7:26–27).
Jesus helped the people understand that they did not get to determine how one becomes righteous in God’s sight. The scribes and Pharisees were leading the people astray, suggesting that one could achieve righteousness on his own. The Hebrew Scriptures had revealed from the start that righteousness comes by faith in the Lord (Genesis 15:6; Habakkuk 2:4). Jesus was not abolishing the Scriptures; He was fulfilling them. He was reminding the people of how they could be righteous.
Soon, Jesus would pay the price for the sin of all people. All who believe in Him have His righteousness and become citizens of His kingdom that will one day be revealed (see Colossians 1:13 and 3:1–4). While we wait for His kingdom to come to earth, He has given us much to do. We can be thankful that we have the righteousness needed by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ.