Sunday School Lessons

Inferior Righteousness

Editor’s note: This was part of a lesson series, continuing in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).

After some sayings of Jesus that are often called the “Beatitudes”, and some other wisdom from Jesus (about being salt and light), He explains how His teachings fit into the instructions that God had given the Israelite people long beforehand:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 5:17‭-‬19 NIV

Jesus is clear that He is not voiding the Law and the Prophets (i.e., writings found in what those of the Jewish faith call the Holy Scriptures, and what Christians refer to as the Old Testament).  Jesus isn’t offering His disciples (and us) an “instead of”.  He is offering a “both / and” scenario.

Let’s take a look at the next verse, though:

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 NIV

For centuries, the Law given by God to Moses had been a readily-available standard of righteousness for the Jewish people (of whom Jesus was a descendant, as well as a rabbi – i.e., a religious teacher).  In fact, the Pharisees – as I understand it – were a group of Jewish teachers who sought to reclaim God’s favor by adhering to the Law of Moses in an exceptionally strict manner.

However, in verse 20, by describing a “superior” form of righteousness. Jesus implies that there is an inferior kind of righteousness.  Based on the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, this inferior approach seems to be a legalistic belief that following the rules (that is, the Law of Moses) is enough to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  For those who thought that the Law was all that there was, and that it was meant to just be followed “procedurally”, Jesus is showing that there is more to the Kingdom of Heaven than just rules.

The Law wasn’t bad: Jesus just reaffirmed its integrity in the earlier verses.  However, not seeing the Law for its correct purpose (which includes showing us the ideals of holiness, and confirming that none of us are able to live up to them) resulted in an inferior form of righteousness.  The Law was not inferior, but attempted practitioners of the Law who missed its point were not as righteous as they had hoped.

In contrast, if there is an inferior type of righteousness, then there is also a superior form of righteousness.  In fact, the teachings of Jesus in this portion of the book of Matthew – this “Sermon on the Mount” – spell out a lot of characteristics describing what differentiates a person who tries to be righteous by keeping the law, versus someone who does things Jesus’ way.

Instead of keeping rules without changing our hearts, Jesus wants His disciples to keep their hearts pure and focused on better things.

But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.
Matthew 15:18‭-‬19 NIV

To someone who lives in a legalistic manner, it might sound like Jesus is “tightening up the rules” in the Sermon on the Mount.  To the overloaded first-century Pharisee who had enumerated hundreds of rules from the Law of Moses, this rabbi (Jesus) might have seemed to be adding more to the Law.  Those who follow Him would seem to have a much greater burden than people who merely followed the “base” Law of Moses.

Yet Jesus also said something important in Matthew 11:28-30.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Matthew 11:28‭-‬30 NIV

(See also Matthew 12:33-35.)

Jesus’ “yoke” (the teachings that His followers were expected to obey) was actually easier than the legalism of the Pharisees.  When we fill up our hearts with God, and the positive things that He calls us to dwell upon, what results from our lives is gratitude and faith.  The result of this is an increased love for God and for others, which shows itself in actions that are – guess what? – pretty righteous.

What is almost ironic, though, is that the righteous acts of those whose hearts are focused on God and His will don’t actually save them.

For those who tried to keep the Law of Moses and failed (since we’re all human), there was still no way to earn their way back to God’s perfection and holiness.  When Jesus paid the ultimate price for humankind’s sins, though, salvation became attainable through His gift to us.  The resulting righteous acts of those who accept that gift and follow Him are not the cause of their salvation, they are merely a result: the outcome of a life changed for the better by Jesus Christ.

In this world, Jesus calls us to a new life that is based on God’s direction to His people in the Hebrew nation, as well as His clarifying interpretation.  The “Old Testament” is not gone, but Jesus fulfilled the most critical part of it for us, so that we can live in freedom and salvation.  Don’t settle for an inferior righteousness.

Based on Sunday School lesson prepared for (and delivered on) January 10, 2021


  • Christian Standard, Volume CLVI, Number 1, pages 79-80. © 2020 Christian Standard Media.
  • Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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