Reclaiming Righteousness (Matthew 5:6, 10, 20)
Matthew 5:6, 10, 20
(One Lord: So Great a Salvation)
January 20th, 2019
I. Defining Righteousness
Here's your word of the day. Are you ready? The word is “righteousness”.
“Righteousness” is one of those biblical terms (some would say, one of those 'religious words') that does not find its way into our modern speech very often. Growing up I remember hearing the word, “righteous”, but it was usually used as slang (as it was in this quote from the 1987 film, “Adventures in Babysitting”: “How could a righteous babe like you be lonely.”) But growing up, I can't remember ever hearing the word “righteousness”. Even today, it feels very rare.
And even though vintage baby names like Ingrid, Oliver, Margot, and Jasper are making a comeback, the word “righteousness” does not seem to be on that same trajectory. Therefore, it's not surprising that many people today struggle with that word... me included.
So why does any of this matter? Because “righteousness” is an important word in God's word. And it's an important word in the section of Scripture we've been studying for months now: the 'mountain message' of Jesus; this 'Sermon on the Mount'. Having just concluded chapter 5 in our last study, listen to the very first verse of Matthew chapter 6...
"Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” [Matthew 6:1]
If you recall, this isn't the first time Jesus has used that word. In fact, he's already used it three times in the previous chapter; in Matthew 5, verses 6, 10, and 20. It's no overstatement to say that “righteousness” is central to this entire message from Jesus. But knowing that, especially for people like us, for people today, it makes the question even more pressing: “What is righteousness?”
Before I answer that question, let me stress that every instance of that word in the Bible (267 occurrences in the ESV) needs to be considered in light of its context. Doing so can reveal certain nuances that we may not address this morning. But let me give you a basic definition of righteousness, one drawn from all of Scripture, one that hopefully you can use whenever you run across this word in God's word. Ready? Here it is...
Righteousness is right-doing in life that leads to a right-standing before God.
Sometimes when the word is used it leans more to the first half, sometimes to the last half. To understand how the Jews in Jesus' day thought about righteousness, listen to these verses from the Old Testament: For the LORD is righteous; he loves righteous deeds; the upright [or we could say, “the righteous”] shall behold his face. [Psalm 11:7] (see that progression?)
Whoever is steadfast in righteousness will live, but he who pursues evil will die. [Prov. 11:19]
In the path of righteousness is life, and in its pathway there is no death. [Prov. 12:28]
So in light of this, it's clear righteousness is not some peripheral, religious idea. It is, in fact, central to the spiritual instinct of every single person on this planet. No matter your religious creed, no matter which holy man you follow, no matter your place of worship or manner of worship, all of us are looking for a “right standing with God”; to “behold his face”, to truly and ultimately know fullness of “life”, rather than “death”.
II. The Passage: "Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness" (5:6, 10, 20)
In his 'mountain message', Jesus is speaking to us about righteousness for that very same reason. To truly know life from and with a righteous God, we need righteousness; we need to be righteous.
I thought it would be important for us, before we leave Matthew chapter 5, to make sure we understand this concept of righteousness, especially what Jesus has revealed about righteousness in Matthew 5. I think not only will this serve as a good review of what we've already learned, but it will prepare us for what Jesus will go on to tell us about righteousness in Matthew chapter 6.
So... what has Jesus already told us about righteousness? As I mentioned, Jesus used this word three times in Matthew 5. Let's look at each of those instances and see what they tell us about the righteousness all of us desperately need. First of all, we discover in 5:6 that Jesus is talking about what we might call...
1. Satisfying Righteousness (v. 6)
This is what Jesus announced in verse 6 to those listening:
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”
You may remember this is just one of the many statements like this that Jesus made in 5:3-11. I referred to these statements as “kingdom consolations”, that is, encouragements given to his disciples and his listeners in light of the kingdom come; the kingdom of God; the reign of God that was breaking into our world in a new way through the ministry of Jesus.
With that in mind, it seems as if Jesus' consolation here is pointing to that promise given through the OT prophets, when God said he would “fill Zion with... righteousness.” (Isaiah 33:5); that he will “rain down righteousness” (Isaiah 45:8); that “the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings” (Malachi 4:2)
The people had been exiled because they and their leaders were unrighteous and unrepentant. But a new day was coming. God declared, “a king will reign in righteousness” (Isaiah 32:1). When Jesus announced the coming of the kingdom, he was announcing the breaking in of God's righteousness. But what exactly does that mean?
It means that like their spiritual ancestors, God's people, in the days of Jesus, were in need of righteous leadership. Thankfully, Jesus brought that very thing. He was fulfilling the words of the prophets. It's no wonder then that in Matthew 6:33, Jesus calls his disciples to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness”. Royalty and righteousness are inextricably linked in God's economy. The king has come in righteousness, to lead us in righteousness, to lead us in right-doing that leads to a right-standing before God. That is righteousness that truly satisfies our deepest spiritual longings.
But in spite of what they might have hoped for, this new beginning would not mean the end of every problem. Why? Because the righteousness Jesus announced was also a...
2. Polarizing Righteousness (v. 10)
Look at what Jesus tells his disciples in verse 10...
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
The kind of satisfying righteousness Jesus was bringing would also have a polarizing effect. If we were to listen carefully to Jesus throughout the rest of Matthew's Gospel, we would learn that this kingdom righteousness will create friction with both Jews and Gentiles.
As the Book of Acts demonstrates, and many other books in the NT, right-doing as God defines it, right-doing as Jesus perfectly exemplified, that kind of life runs contrary to the world's priorities. Peter described that friction like this in his first letter:
For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry.  With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you... (I Peter 4:3–4)
That's being “persecuted for righteousness sake”. But as I mentioned, it was not only pagans who persecuted followers of Christ. It was also the Jews, usually the Jewish leadership. As Jesus taught in Matthew 10:36, “a person's enemies will be those of his own household.” And not many verses before that, in Matthew 10:17, he also warned his disciples, saying:
Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues...
Why would they treat fellow Jews like this? Righteousness. Because the kingdom righteousness of king Jesus clashed with the kind of righteousness the Jewish teachers espoused and prided themselves in exemplifying. And it's that idea that comes into greater focus in verse 20, where Jesus talks explicitly about...
3. Exceeding Righteousness (v. 20)
Jesus tells his disciples in verse 20, For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
So the Jewish leadership were not wrong about the fact that Jesus and his followers were promoting a different kind of righteousness. Jesus says as much here. The righteousness he was bringing would exceed that of the Jewish teachers. But what exactly does that mean?
To understand this exceeding righteousness, we first need to understand the righteousness of “the scribes and the Pharisees”. Listen to how Jesus, in the next chapter of Matthew's Gospel, describes their righteousness:
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others.” (Matthew 6:5)
Later in this same book, Jesus says this about their righteousness:
“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat,  so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice.”...  “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence...  So you... outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (23:2–3, 25, 28)
As Jesus pointed out, he had no issue with these teachers when they announced the words of Moses. The Law was the starting point for both the Jewish leaders and Jesus. But so many of these leaders, as Jesus repeatedly pointed out, were focused on an outward adherence to God's law; on doing the right actions; on what could be seen by others. That was the common thread in their righteousness.
But as we've seen over the past several weeks, as well as in November, the fullness of the Law of Moses was the very thing Jesus was restoring to them. And that fullness made it clear that kingdom righteousness is about both the outward and the inward; about both actions and attitude; about both head and heart; it wasn't simply about good works; it was about being good on the inside.
As Jesus taught us, yes, kingdom righteousness is concerned with things like murder and adultery. But remember, it exceeds... it goes beyond simply prohibiting the action. Kingdom righteousness is also concerned with heart out of which those actions flows, from feelings like anger and lust. Kingdom righteousness calls us to a change of heart.
Jesus showed us in Matthew 5 that this righteousness, this righteous lifestyle, that this right-doing that leads to a right-standing with God begins with a heart of patience, of under-standing, of purity, of forgiveness; a heart of grace; a heart of love. Simply put, it means having God's heart. This is exactly why Jesus told them in 5:48... “you therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”; that is, righteous, inside and out.
III. Righteousness as a Gift
Now, there is no doubt that the righteousness Jesus is describing for us here is the very life for which God made you. Jesus is describing the human ideal. He is describing spiritual healthiness. In contrast to the many other claims that have been made, and are being made, about 'the good life', to be righteous inside and out, is what it means to truly live.
But for anyone who's ever tried to walk that path, to conform both their attitudes and actions to the words of Jesus, you know there are two major problems. First, the human heart is incredibly hard to wrangle. We sometimes do the right thing for the wrong reason. Other times, we know the right thing to do, but still want to do the wrong thing. Second, our attempts to be righteous are horribly inconsistent. Even when we seem to do the right thing for the right reason, sadly, it doesn't last. All of this simply confirms we are sinners.
But remember Psalm 11:7... For the LORD is righteous; he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold his face. To have a right-standing with God, there must be this kind of right-doing in my life... at all times... in every way. Without this, I cannot, you cannot “behold his face”.
But wonderfully, God meets the bad news of our condition with his Good News of grace. The gospel is good news when it comes to righteousness. How? In four amazing ways:
First, there is a righteousness that depends only on faith. Paul writes
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Ro. 1:16–17)
For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”  Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.  And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness... (Romans 4:1–5)
Paul longed to... be found in him [in Christ], not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith... -Philippians 3:8, 9
“To be found in him” reminds us that, second, this is a righteousness fulfilled by Jesus.
Right-doing. What is the right God calls you to do? To trust Christ. Why? Because he became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption. [I Co.1:30]
According to Peter, we have obtained... faith by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ... [II Peter 1:1]
It was the man Jesus who was perfect when it came to right-doing in life, and thus, a right-standing before God. Therefore, on the cross, Jesus took our unrighteousness and its penalty, and amazingly, graciously, gave us his righteousness and its reward.
That word graciously reminds us that, third, this is a righteousness given freely.
Romans 5:17... For if, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
But there's a final point that I believe ties this whole study together, pointing us right back to Matthew 5:6. Fourth, this is a righteousness that is making me righteous.
The kingdom righteousness of Jesus is now possible for those who have received Jesus' own righteousness. Paul writes in II Corinthians 4:16... Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.
But renewed how? Paul answers that in Colossians 3:9–10...
Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices  and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.
Jesus told us that we must be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect. Well, guess what? By the Father's grace, the Son's work is doing that very thing. I love the way the author of Hebrews expresses this in Hebrews 10:14
For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.
We are “perfected” because we have been given Jesus' perfect righteousness. But that right-standing with God has now made it possible for us to be changed, from the inside out, through the power of the Holy Spirit, who is at work inside every child of God.
Albeit imperfectly, we can walk the path that Jesus has laid out for us in his 'mountain message'. We can have that heart of patience, of understanding, of purity, of forgiveness; that heart of grace; that heart of love. How? Through that “new self, which is bring renewed” by the power of God's own Spirit. And that “new self” represents the very life for which God made you.
What is righteousness? It's right-doing in life that leads to a right-standing before God. What is kingdom righteousness, gospel righteousness? It's right-doing in the life of Jesus that leads to my right-standing with God... AND, that leads to my right-doing in life because of my right-standing with God.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”Amen?
Let's pray and praise God in light of his wonderful gift!
More in Be Perfect
January 27, 2019What, Where, and When is the Kingdom? (Matthew 5:3, 10, 19, 20)
January 13, 2019And Who is My Enemy? (Matthew 5:43-48)
January 6, 2019Being a Doormat for Jesus (Matthew 5:38-42)