“Anyone who breaks 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 practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” — Matthew 5:19–20 (NIV84)
Three times, in these two verses, Jesus uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven.” We must come to realize that Jesus is always talking from the perspective of the kingdom of heaven, and not the kingdom of this world. If we confuse the two our theology will get all messed up. What this means for you and me is that when we interpret Jesus’ words and actions we must view them from His kingdom, and not the physical one our senses live in. We need to interpret them with our faith eyes, not our physical ones.
So, when Jesus says that obedient teaching and practicing of the commandments is critical to our place in the kingdom of heaven, we must understand what commandments He is speaking about. The Pharisees and teachers of the law in His day would have considered themselves a shoe-in to the kingdom of heaven because of their externally righteous lives. But Jesus says in verse 20 that unless our righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, we will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. A closer look into the Sermon on the Mount reveals to us that Jesus is restoring the true understanding and intent of the commandments of God. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day felt they had fulfilled the law because they had reinterpreted the commandments from an earthly perspective. In His sermon, Jesus restores the true spirit and intent of the commandments and reveals to the religious leaders (and us) that we fall grossly short of pure righteousness.
What do we do? How can we be certain of our citizenship in God’s heavenly kingdom when we fall so short of its true requirements? The key is Jesus! Although Jesus comes to us with a message that makes the commandments sharper and tougher, He also brings His life, death and resurrection to us as a gift of the righteousness we lack. It was never Jesus’ intent that we would obtain this righteousness on our own, but instead that we would realize we are completely dependent upon His mercy and grace for the righteousness He has obtained for us. We are righteous in God’s sight not because of what we do but because of what Christ has done.