An alarming statement by Jesus: “Unless your righteousness/justice greatly surpasses the righteousness/justice of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will never ever enter into the Kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20). Does Jesus really think his followers are to be “better” than the Scribes and Pharisees? I think so. This surely would have shocked his followers.
This verse settles on one issue: what is the meaning of “righteousness.” Does it mean Torah obedience or does it mean conformity to God’s will? Was it even remotely possible for Jesus’ followers to be more obedient to the Torah than the Scribes and Pharisees? Or, as the post-Reformers have sometimes suggested, is Jesus talking about a “gifted” righteousness vs. an “earned” righteousness? I doubt it.
The resolution seems along this line: Jesus has now changed the “standard” (God’s will) from the Torah to the Torah-as-I-embody-it and the Torah-as-I-teach-it. So, to be righteous for Jesus was to follow Jesus –personally and by living out his teachings. This standard, in and of itself, constitutes a new standard that provides for his followers to be “better” (more righteous) than the Scribes and Pharisees.
I appeal to my previous post on the Sermon on the Mount: Jesus’ righteousness greatly surpasses because he and his teachings fulfill the Torah. Again, as the typewriter is fulfilled in the PowerBook G4, so the Torah is fulfilled in Jesus and his teachings. Following Jesus then ushers the follower of Jesus into the Kingdom ethic of Jesus — and that, according to Matt 5:20, “greatly surpasses” the teachings of the Scribes and Pharisees.
A follower of Jesus is summoned here to a new moral existence that Jesus thinks outstrips what one finds with the Scribes and Pharisees. Again, this is not about “internal” vs. “external” but about followers of Jesus living out the life of Jesus. Friends, the apologetic for Jesus is a follower who lives like Jesus. What Bob Robinson calls an Emmanuel Apologetic.
This is not about works righteousness; it is about following Jesus and letting him live his life in us.