Jesus calls for a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. But what He demands, He also fulfills. Unlike the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 23:3), He practices what He preaches, and He does so perfectly. He calls us to this same righteousness, so that we may be perfect, even as our heavenly Father is perfect.
The gospel of Matthew opens with a statement that lacks a verb, so it is most likely serving as the title of the book: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Here in a nutshell is what this book is all about. It is the story of Jesus Christ. It takes us from the time of His birth in the line of Abraham and David (Matt. 1) to the time when He stands on a mountain in Galilee, with all authority in heaven and on earth given to Him (Matt. 28:16–20). From the beginning to the end, Jesus is presented as the King: first as the promised son of Abraham and David “who has been born king of the Jews” (Matt. 2:2), “a ruler who will shepherd [God’s] people Israel” (Matt. 2:6); and then as the King who has triumphed over sin and death and now commands that disciples be made of all the nations and taught to observe all that He has commanded (Matt. 28:19–20).
The first of the five large teaching collections of Jesus contained in Matthew (Matt. 5–7; 10; 13; 18; 23–25) serves both as a manifesto of His kingdom’s law and as a forceful rejection of the teaching given by the scribes and Pharisees. Because of the prevalent distortions of the law of God that the scribes and Pharisees fostered, it was necessary for Jesus to make clear just how His teaching stands in relation to the Scriptures. He emphatically declares that He has come not to abolish the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill them (Matt. 5:17). Indeed, so far is He from abolishing them that He puts special emphasis on the point with the first of His many “truly” statements (more than thirty are present in Matthew): “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” (Matt. 5:18).
Jesus’ teaching stands in the sharpest contrast to that of the scribes and the Pharisees, and it calls for a righteousness that far exceeds their own (Matt. 5:20). We see this same focus in the final block of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew (Matt. 23–25), a kind of parallel column matching the first that helps us better understand each by comparing it to the other. There, in seven “woes” of condemnation (which contrast to the Beatitudes that began the first block), Jesus again exposes the errors of the scribes and Pharisees, whom He repeatedly calls “hypocrites” and who have laid heavy burdens on the people without lifting a finger to help them (Matt. 23:4).
In Matthew 5:17–48, Jesus takes up six examples of distortions and errors of the law that were taught by the scribes and Pharisees. Each one is introduced by what the people have heard, followed by what Jesus says (Matt. 5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43). Here Jesus is not taking issue with the Scriptures, with what is written. No, the issue is what the scribes and Pharisees have said. Jesus will show that He stands by what is written (Matt. 4:4, 7, 10; Matt. 11:10; 21:13; Matt. 26:24, 31).