Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For I assure you: Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all things are accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches people to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever practices and teaches these commandments will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:17-20 HCSB
Jesus’ primary opponents during His ministry were these scribes and Pharisees, the religious elite among the Jews. We can get a fairly comprehensive picture of them based on Jesus’ interactions with them and teachings against them, including here in the Sermon on the Mount.
The Pharisees were a sect that arose after the return from the exile. God’s judgment of sending them into exile proved to cure the Jews of external idolatry; unfortunately, the rise of the Pharisees produced a new wave of internal idolatry. Instead of worshiping the idol of other, they began the inexorable descent to worshiping self.
The original intent for the Pharisees was noble, and probably even godly: lifelong devotion to studying the Law and applying it to every aspect of life. Unfortunately, the specific applications started to be more important than the actual Word of God they were trying to apply. Then it became more important to be seen “obeying” than actually obeying. Think about the Pharisee and the tax collector: “I do this, I give this, I’m not like any of these nasty ‘sinners.'”
In this light, then, Jesus explains His teaching ministry. What the disciples and the people on the hillside were hearing was not Jesus overturning the Law or throwing it away. He, the Lawgiver Himself, had come to fulfill every part of the Law. No one could–not even the zealous Pharisees with thousands of rules and standards of “how to obey.” No one could obey the Law, and that was the point. Jesus had come to do what the Pharisees thought they were doing; He had come to make obedience possible.
Notice the interesting contrast Jesus’ short statement contains. Not an iota (the smallest Greek letter, which was a single pen stroke) or a stroke of a letter (like a crossbar of a capital E or the dot of an i) would be revoked from the Law, but every bit would be accomplished. In fact, breaking the Law or teaching someone else to break the Law would make them least in the Kingdom. But keeping and teaching the Law would make someone great in the Kingdom.
At this point, the Pharisees would have thought they were sitting pretty. That’s exactly what they thought they were doing: practicing the Law and teaching others to do the same. Then Jesus drops the hammer on their idolatrous pride: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
How can you be more righteous than righteous? How can you be more legal than legal? How can you be more rule-keeping than the referees themselves?
Keeping rules for the sake of keeping rules is not God-pleasing obedience. The obedience of faith says, “My God and King has told me what to do. Whether it makes sense to me, whether I like it or not, I will obey Him because He is King, and I am not.” The obedience of faith also looks to the One who has fulfilled all righteousness (Matthew 3:15) and accomplish all the Law (Matthew 5:18).
The scribes’ and Pharisees’ righteousness is an external, heartless religion; it is the idolatry of selfish pride. Jesus’ righteousness is the perfect obedience of all the Law from a heart of loving, faithful devotion and loyalty to God. He obeyed for us, so that obedience and righteousness could be given to us and grown within us.