Jesus just started His ministry. He chose His disciples and began to heal the afflicted. He brought His disciples to the top of the mountain and told them that they needed to be more righteous than the Pharisees. I’m sure these fishermen were pretty overwhelmed. They just began their ministry with Jesus, and already He expected too much from these average men. How could they be more righteous than the religious leaders?
The disciples probably became more bewildered when later on in the Book of Matthew, Jesus told them to be on their guard against the Pharisees’ influence (16.6) and when He called the religious leaders white-washed tombs (23.27). Jesus overlooked all kinds of sin with His grace, but the religious leaders were the main source of His righteous anger because of their hypocrisy (Matthew 23.1-8). Jesus went so far as to give the religious leaders Seven Woes (Matthew 23.13-37).
The highest level of righteousness was based on the Laws of Moses made on Mount Sinai. The laws were a standard for a Hebrew nation thousands of years ago in love with their God — the laws were supposed to be an outward show of an inward heart. However, as time passed the rigorous laws became an outward show of self-righteousness, instead of God-righteousness. Soon the heart of God was replaced by hypocrisy and pretense, which left the masses confused and spiritually lost.
The understanding of righteousness becomes the primary internal conflict of the New Testament. The standard of righteousness was set by religious leaders, but Jesus made it clear that this standard was not His divine standard. The word righteousness that is found in Matthew 6.33 and Matthew 5.6 is the Greek word, dikaiosynē, which means “condition acceptable to God” or “a state approved of God.” The religious leaders were deceived. Their righteousness was based on acceptance and approval of people, not God.
So how can we gain acceptance and approval from God?
“And be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith” (Philippians 3.9 NIV).
No matter how good we think we are, we will never gain right-standing with God on our own. We are covered with Jesus’ righteousness when we accept His sacrifice by faith. Jesus is God in the flesh who freely took our sins on the cross over two thousand years ago, so we might have right-standing with God and live with Him for eternity. But our righteousness doesn’t end there.
If all we had to do was gain Jesus’ righteousness by faith, there will be no reason to stay on this earth. God not only wants to cover us with His righteousness; He wants to fill us with His righteousness. Once we are saved, God places His Spirit inside of us, in order to transform us into His likeness: “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3.18 NIV).
God allows us to stay in this broken world, so that we may become like Him. I believe that many Christians — either out of fear or ignorance — stay clear of spiritual transformation. They sit content in their wedding clothes but never bother to get to know their King (Parable of the Wedding Banquet: Matthew 22.1-14). I was once such a Christian. I allowed myself to be too busy, too distracted and too self-focused to get to know my Creator. He had to break me, so He could get my attention. And I’m glad He did.
Our righteousness starts out as a spiritual seed, but that seed should manifest itself into physical fruits. People should see a difference in us. They should notice that we have more “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5.22-23 NLT). People should see us walking on Paths of Righteousness (Psalm 23). We should be gaining the Mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2.16) and be filled with the Power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1.8). However, this transformation will not happen overnight nor without sacrifice (Philippians 3.8).
But how do we start this transformation journey?
We seek it: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6.33 NIV).
We hunger for it: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5.6 NIV).