Impossible Standard?

Jesus has told His disciples that their righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees if they want to enter the kingdom of heaven (5:20). In the Sermon on the Mount, He lays out the basic principles of this sort of righteousness, as we have seen. Does He mean for His followers actually to attain to the necessary degree of righteous conduct that He has taught them? Scholars debate this question, and for good reason. On the one hand, Matthew’s Gospel contains many indications that there are some who can, even in this life, properly be called “righteous.” Joseph was a righteous man (1:19), as was Abel (23:35). God sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (5:45). Those who receive a righteous man will receive and appropriate reward (10:41). Though they may not be aware of what they are doing, followers of Christ who serve other believers will be called “righteous,” and will later enter eternal life (25:46), where they will “shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (13:43). Likewise, Jesus refers often to “good” people who bring forth “good fruit” by doing “good works” (5:16, 45; 7:17-18; 12:35). On the other hand, Jesus told the rich young ruler that “only one is good,” namely, God (19:17). He Himself came to “fulfill all righteousness” by being identified with sinners in His baptism (3:15). He taught His disciples to pray daily, “Forgive us our debts” – by which he meant our sins (6:12). He came to “save His people from their sins” (1:21), not just by teaching, but by His death on the cross as a “ransom for many” (20:28). His suffering and death, which Matthew uses two full chapters to narrate, inaugurated a new covenant by His blood, which was shed for “the remission of sins” (26:28). Here, then, we see the “already” and the “not yet” of Jesus’ kingdom. Disciples of Christ are already children of God who, by God’s power, can do good works and, to a significant degree “observe all that” Jesus has commanded us (28:20). On the other hand, we are still sinners in need of daily forgiveness. We are not yet fully obedient or righteous. We must wait until He returns before we “shine forth” like the sun. That is why we must constantly seek coming of the kingdom and the righteousness of God, trusting in Jesus to save us fully from our sins.