Matthew 5:17-20 (ESV) Jesus said, “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 say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."
In the appointed Gospel reading for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity, Jesus asserts, “Unless your [literally, “y’all’s”] righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Since being part of the kingdom of heaven means to inherit everlasting, resurrected life (Matthew 25:34), and since we must be "righteous" to receive this inheritance (Matthew 25:46), we really need to know which “righteousness” Jesus is referring to!
The righteousness “of the scribes and Pharisees” won’t get the job done, and that is a righteousness based on obedience to the Law, so we can immediately dispense with the notion that we cannot be righteous before God based on our success at keeping God’s Law (much less man-made laws).
St. Paul knew of this “righteousness of the Law” intimately and tried to live by it: “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:4b-6).
What, then? Did St. Paul continue, “Try to be like me! Try to attain righteousness before God by obeying the Ten Commandments!”
Quite the contrary: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, 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—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:7-11).
St. Paul first listed six qualifications, kind of a “resume of righteousness,” designed to silence anyone fixated on legalism. He had dotted every “i” and crossed every “t” in his observance of the Law. If anyone was qualified to be a member in God’s household on the basis of the Law, it was he.
But then, on the road to Damascus, the crucified and risen Lord Jesus appeared to him and changed everything. The persecutor of Christianity became a chief preacher of the Gospel. After Jesus converted Paul to discipleship, Paul became fully focused on Christ. He says, “Whatever things were profits to me, these things I have considered loss (singular—a total loss) on account of Christ.”
You probably noticed that Paul also called all of the former aspects of his religious life “rubbish” (ESV). This could be translated as manure, dung, excrement. In fact, those terms are overly sanitized. The Greek word is a colorful one, a crude one, which Paul uses to show how little he regards all of his former works righteousness in comparison with “the surpassing greatness of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord.” All the works righteousness that Paul had struggled for in his life were flushed away in exchange for Jesus Christ and His righteousness.
Jesus said, “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” (Matthew 5:17). Jesus was born under God’s Law and cheerfully obeyed it perfectly, and His obedience has completely satisfied God’s demand of total faithfulness. That is what Paul is saying when he speaks of “not having a righteousness of my own that is of law but [a righteousness] that is on account of the faith of Christ.” The obedience and faith of Christ in God was complete and whole, so as He faced the Father’s command to suffer and die on the cross, He resisted all temptations to turn away from that mission. He prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39).
And that cup which God the Father had His Son drink was not a fraction of God’s wrath against our sin, but the whole punishment for the world’s guilt. We cannot fathom how complete and total the outpouring of wrath upon Jesus was. “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Jesus cried out (Matthew 27:46). You cannot be more or less forsaken by someone; it was a total abandonment by God, against Jesus, for us.
And through all of this, Jesus did not waver, He did not stumble in His faith. He still prayed, “My God, My God.” He knew where His help came from. “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 124:8). And then, “Τετέλεσται” He cried out. “It is finished. It has been completed! The whole job is done!” (John 19:30). And finally, Jesus called out with a loud voice, “‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’ And having said this he breathed his last” (Luke 23:46).
On the third day, the Father raised Him from the grave. By His death and resurrection, the Lord’s Servant has reckoned the masses to be accounted righteous, for He has borne their iniquities, our iniquities (Isaiah 53). Christ’s resurrection is the complete, total declaration of righteousness upon fallen mankind. Christ “died for all” (2 Corinthians 5:15), St. Paul wrote. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and [all] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24).
And in your Baptism, you died with Christ, were buried with Him, and have been raised up by God’s almighty power. In Baptism, we can be confident that God has declared us righteous, holy, and saved, not according to the Law, but by the Gospel.
Nevertheless, the fulfillment of our Baptism will be experienced only in the resurrection of the dead. God’s promise says that it will be incomparably glorious, and that makes the sufferings and failures of this life bearable in the meantime. Actually, our sins and trials lead us, like Paul, to desire “to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the communion of His sufferings, being conformed to His death.” Baptized into His death and resurrection, we can be confident that we possess the righteousness of Christ now and will live perfectly and completely with Him forever.
Prayer (LSB 568):
1. If Your belovèd Son, O God,
Had not to earth descended
And in our mortal flesh and blood
Had not sin’s power ended,
Then this poor, wretched soul of mine
In hell eternally would pine
Because of my transgression.
2. But now I find sweet peace and rest;
Despair no more reigns o’er me.
No more am I by sin oppressed,
For Christ has borne sin for me.
Upon the cross for me He died
That, reconciled, I might abide
With You, my God, forever.
3. I trust in Him with all my heart;
Now all my sorrow ceases.
His words abiding peace impart;
His blood from guilt releases.
Free grace through Him I now obtain;
He washes me from ev’ry stain,
And pure I stand before Him.
4. All righteousness by works is vain;
The Law brings condemnation.
True righteousness by faith I gain;
Christ’s work is my salvation.
His death, that perfect sacrifice,
Has paid the all-sufficient price;
In Him my hope is anchored.
5. My guilt, O Father, You have laid
On Christ, Your Son, my Savior.
Lord Jesus, You my debt have paid
And gained for me God’s favor.
O Holy Spirit, Fount of grace,
The good in me to You I trace;
In faith and hope preserve me. Amen.