Community Group Study Guide — A Better Righteousness
What kind of righteousness is Jesus calling his follower to have? This question sits behind Matthew 5:17-6:18 as Jesus addresses how to rightly think about the Law of God and spiritual practices in our personal and corporate life.
Many of us know that Jesus does not want our begrudging obedience. His desire is for our inner life (our hearts) to match what we do. Yet it seems like everywhere we go there is a temptation to measure success and value based on outward performance. Jesus told his hearers “unless your righteousness EXCEEDS that of the scribes and the Pharisees you have no place in the kingdom of heaven.” What kind of righteousness could possibly exceed those guys? They were “professionals” when it came to following the commands and being righteous. However, as you read through Matthew 6 you get a hint of their style of righteousness; they would give to the needy but sound some trumpets as they did, they’d pray loudly and heap up words for all to hear and they’d look gloomy while fasting so people knew what they were up to. Jesus tells us that the only reward they can expect to receive is the praise of people. More than that, Jesus will critique the Pharisees and teachers of the Law extensively in Matthew 23 where he calls them out for being outwardly focused but internally dead (Matthew 23:25-28). Is Jesus telling us to match this style of righteousness? Certainly not.
True righteousness in God’s sight is living in accordance with God’s will in both your heart and your actions.
However, the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was an EXTERNAL righteousness. God’s desire from the foundation of his plan of redemption was to change us into new people, to give us a new heart and to enable us to walk in his ways as we are transformed from the inside-out. How do you have a righteousness that exceeds the Scribes and Pharisees? You need a different kind of righteousness; you need an internal righteousness.
How is this new and better righteousness made available?
Matthew 5:17 starts out “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets.” It appears that many would think that he was teaching something different than what Moses taught, or at least they’d accuse him of it. Jesus did not fit the mold of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. He would claim to be the son of God, he’d talk about finding life only in him and he’d put forth a different interpretation of how to follow the Law of Moses than they were used to (see Matthew 5:21-48). The shocking thing Jesus says here is not that he did not intend on abolishing the Law and the Prophets, the shocking thing is that he claims to have fulfilled it. Jesus wants to show the importance of the commands, covenant and story of how God has redeemed his people throughout the Old Testament; not even the littlest part of it will be set aside (Matthew 5:18). More than that, if you relax the commands or try to abolish them you have no place in the kingdom of God (Matthew 5:19). Why? Because all of it points to him and is fulfilled in him.
Jesus desires for us to understand that he is the person the entire Old Testament has been pointing towards. Saying “the Law and the Prophets” is shorthand for saying “the entire Hebrew Scriptures”. They all point to Jesus and he is the fulfillment of all they promised. God’s entire plan of redemption has arrived in Jesus. This should not be a surprise to his hearers since this has been the longing and the promise of the Law and the Prophets. This fulfillment of all the Hebrew Scriptures point to leads to this new and better righteousness being made available through faith in Jesus.
One passage that helps us see how this need for a better righteousness connects to the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets in Jesus is Jeremiah 31:31-34. Take a moment and read that passage. God promises to give his people a new covenant where he will put his law on their hearts and they shall know the Lord from the least to the greatest. This will happen, as verse 34 tells us, with God forgiving and forgetting their sin. This is the kind of righteousness Jesus provides because he fulfilled the Law and the Prophets. A righteousness based on being forgiven and reconciled to God which flows from a changed heart.
God will use this next section of the Sermon on the Mount to help you see beyond just external actions and to your motives as he calls us to action and to examine our hearts.
Jesus fulfills the entire promise of the Old Testament scriptures and in doing so he offers his people a new heart which leads to a different kind of righteousness than the Scribes and the Pharisees.
For further study on how the Mosaic Law applies to Christians check out these articles:
How Christ Fulfilled and Ended the Mosaic Law (Desiring God)
Christian Responsibility and the Mosaic Law (Village Church Resources)
At your community group:
Take 15-20 minutes to share about how God has been at work in your life, prayer concerns and pray for one another.
How did God speak to you through the scripture and the sermon this week?
Read Matthew 5:17-20
How does Jesus talk about the role of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) in this passage? What does this tell us about their goal and function?
Jesus criticizes the righteousness of the Pharisees throughout the book of Matthew. Read Matthew 23:1-26. List out 4 or 5 ways that Jesus exposes their false understanding of what it means to be righteous.
Read John 5:39-40. How is it possible to read the scripture and to know it and miss Jesus? How does this help us understand one of the goals of the Bible?
Read Matthew 5:20, Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Ezekiel 36:26-27. How does God accomplish this desire to make us righteous?
In what ways are you tempted to focus on outward or external righteousness?