Jesus Christ goes on to expound the changes of attitudes and approaches to God's law that we must acquire to do just that, to exceed the righteousness of those very law-abiding people.
When He finished His sermon, the people were astonished, as He had taught them, not as the "letter of the law" scribes and Pharisees did, but "as one having authority" (Matthew 7:28-29). Jesus could preach with conviction and boldness because He saw past the rigid letter of God's commandments to their very spiritual heart and purpose. He could confidently give the law its true meaning and relevance to life.
In essence, Matthew 5 - 7 contain instructions from Jesus for them, and for us today, to go further than the strictly physical application of the law - to God's true intent in it, or as we say, from the letter to the spirit of the law. In His teaching, Jesus states a physical law, often quoting directly from the Old Testament. This base standard is to be met by all those who have made a covenant with God.
Then, He proceeds to amplify the particular law's meaning, usually beginning His amplification with words similar to, "I say to you. . . ." Such words should be a flag to us that Jesus is expanding the scope of the law to include, not just physical actions, but the condition, attitudes, and inclinations of a person's heart. In essence, He is teaching the standards required of His people to attain the Kingdom of God.
John O. Reid (1930-2016)
Go the Extra Mile
Pharisee indicates "separatist," one who is separate from others in the world. About 200 years before Christ, the Pharisees seem to have arisen as a brotherhood with a sincere desire to resist the secularism into which Judaism had drifted. As the years went by, however, they added a great deal to God's written law and rejected counterbalancing commands also given in the Old Covenant—even such commands as those which appear in Leviticus 19, such as "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
They then compounded this rejection with a vain sense of self-righteous superiority that in many cases excluded any contact with people of another ethnicity, and they even brought violence against other Jewish people who disagreed—as the apostle Paul's pre-conversion conduct shows. Paul was "a Pharisee of the Pharisees," and he went around throwing people into prison and, indeed, he may have even consented to the martyrdom of Stephen.
All this made these "separatists" very unattractive witnesses; they were in reality an embodiment of a rejection of God's intention of what a witness should be. Our witness does not have to bring about the conversion of others to be effective, because conversion is in God's hands anyway. However, it still has to be right, and being right in this requires personal sacrifices.
Being right—in addition to keeping God's commands—means being humble, modest, kindhearted, concerned, sympathetic, empathetic, helpful, warmhearted, friendly, gracious, serving, giving, charitable, open, hospitable, cordial, thoughtful, considerate, sensitive, cooperative, and on and on. One must do all of these things, while knowing full well that there is a line of separation across which we cannot allow ourselves to wander in our relationships with those as yet uncalled.
This is quite a plateful, but these are qualities that make God's way engaging and an attractive witness. God's involvement in our lives should give us freedom, as well as security against our fears of living and being this way. When combined with the keeping of God's commandments, it will produce quite a witness and go a long way toward keeping us clean—because we will be using God's Word as He intends.
John W. Ritenbaugh
New Covenant Priesthood (Part 2)
Jesus magnified God's law while on earth. In His Sermon on the Mount, He paraphrased six Old Testament laws or principles, giving their intended meanings. Tithing, however, was not generally questioned at the time; it was not a theological issue like circumcision and the eating of meats sacrificed in an idol's temple. The New Testament expounds Old Testament principles and laws, and Jesus specifically says He did not come to invalidate them. No New Testament passage rescinds the tithing law. Quite the opposite, Jesus upholds the principle in His denunciation of the self-righteous Pharisees in Matthew 23:23.
Martin G. Collins
Tithing: First Tithe
Some Bibles title this paragraph, “Jesus Fulfills the Law.” The sense in which many professing Christians use the term “fulfills” is not inspired Scripture. In this case, it does not mean “accomplishes by keeping” or “does away with,” as judged against what He taught in what immediately follows. Fulfills, in this case, means “fills to the full,” “fully exemplifies the conduct it covers,” or “expands to its fullest intent.” Consider His subsequent illustrations carefully:
You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.” But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, “Raca!” shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, “You fool!” shall be in danger of hell fire. Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny. (Matthew 5:21-26)
His teaching shows Him raising the acceptable level of obedience far higher than what people ordinarily considered as satisfactory behavior. Jesus expands the scope of sin in the sixth commandment from outright murder to also include a high level of anger in certain situations! Matthew 5:27-30 shows the same pattern in this teaching on the seventh commandment:
You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.
The same conclusion is true of this commandment and also for each of the others He expands during His Sermon on the Mount. Far from doing away with God's commandments, He raises the standards of acceptable behavior far higher.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Why Hebrews Was Written (Part One)
The letter of the law that the Pharisees tried to keep was not enough—especially for us. We have to exceed the letter of the law. Here, Jesus was so specific about the continuance of the law from the Old Covenant to the New that He referred to the smallest punctuation and pronunciation marks contained in the written law, the "jot and tittle."
Most modern theology discards the letter in favor of the spirit, but one extreme is as bad as the other. The true Christian needs both the written letter of the law as well as its spirit to keep it properly.
To keep God's law properly, we have to learn to recognize the spirit of the law. The spirit of the law means God's original intent or purpose behind each law.
When God designed the Sabbath, for example, He intended it to be a blessing to human beings. He designed it to be a refreshing rest and an opportunity both to recuperate physically after six days of work and to draw close to Him in love and to worship Him, as well as to deepen love for the brethren through fellowship and outgoing concern.
Jesus knew the spirit of the Sabbath commandment. Therefore, He knew that the split second of divine effort involved in healing was a valid use of time on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:10-12). Because of Jesus' insight into the divine purpose behind the Sabbath, He freed the crippled worshipper of his burden. He experienced a wonderful and exciting blessing because Jesus understood the spirit of the law. God's law is always a blessing to those who recognize the spirit of the law.
Martin G. Collins
The Law's Purpose and Intent
Jesus is saying, in plain language, that His teaching does not contradict the Old Covenant law, but it is the ultimate fulfillment of its spiritual intent. Even in the smallest matter, the smallest statement—the jot and the tittle—the law must be fulfilled.
Notice where His statement appears. Matthew places it immediately after Jesus' exhortation, "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works" (Matthew 5:16). What if our works are good? Are we supposed to hide them? Then comes His statement regarding law. Is there a connection between good works and keeping the law? One would have to be quite obstinate to believe there is no connection between them. It is obvious that He is connecting good works with lawkeeping.
To strengthen the argument, He mentions righteousness in verse 20. What is the Bible's definition of righteousness? Psalm 119:172: "All Your commandments are righteousness." Thus, sandwiched between righteousness and letting one's light shine comes an explanation that He did not come to do away with the law but to fill it to the full, to help us understand its ultimate application—its spiritual intent.
Is it possible to keep the law in its spirit without also keeping it in the letter? It cannot be done. One must first keep it in the letter before learning how to keep its spirit.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Covenants, Grace, and Law (Part 14)
Where did the Pharisees' righteousness come from? It came from keeping Halakha, the Jewish oral law. Our righteousness, however, has to be a combination of that which is imputed - the righteousness of Jesus Christ - as well as that which is maintained by us through keeping the law of God after conversion. Jesus says that from God's law nothing would pass.
In terms of a principle, which subsequently landed them in such trouble, the Jews acted upon an uninspired interpretation or extension of the principle of holiness or sanctification. There is no doubt that they were a sanctified people. The Bible makes that clear:
For you are a holy people unto the LORD your God [Holy means "sanctified" or "set apart"]. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a special people unto Himself above all people that are on the face of the earth. The LORD did not set His love upon you nor choose you because you were more in number than any people, for you were the fewest of all people. (Deuteronomy 7:6-7)
The Pharisees extrapolated on this principle and in their zeal got themselves into trouble. Their basic fault was in considering themselves to be superior to others. Yet, God's Word plainly shows that there is only one law for both the Israelite and for the stranger (Exodus 12:49). All are judged against the same standard, by the same law. All are judged against the righteousness of God. Thus, we can understand that, in one sense, there is only one class of people on earth - sinners in need of deliverance from bondage to Satan and to sin.
I Corinthians 1:26-30 is the New Testament equivalent of what God says in Deuteronomy 7. In the church there is just one class of people - rescued sinners who are justified and are by grace through faith under the blood of Jesus Christ.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Covenants, Grace, and Law (Part 25)
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Matthew 5:20:
1 Corinthians 2:2