Mat 5:20 For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Just what did Jesus mean when He said that our righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, or we will by no means enter into the kingdom of heaven?
On the “Islam and Christianity Debate Group” this question arises from the question posed by a very astute Muslim participant.
What does it really mean to enter the kingdom of heaven other than being saved? Jesus is clearly talking about salvation here, because one cannot go to heaven unless saved. Jesus says, “except your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribe of the Pharisees, ye shall by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” Put simply, there is no heaven for anyone unless they are better than the Jews. The question then arises: How could anyone be better than the Jews by not keeping the laws and the commandments?
Farid EL Moustain I must commend you for asking very good questions!
The kingdom of heaven is not heaven. The expression is confined to Matthew’s Gospel. It occurs 32 times, though one additional instance by ellipsis is found at Matthew 25:14. The first occurrence is Matthew 3:2.
In Matthew there is a progression of thought or usage. We first read that the kingdom of God is “at hand.” This is not a reference to personal salvation itself.
Matthew 8:11, “And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven.”
Matthew 8:11 shows that the kingdom of heaven takes place upon this earth, in accordance to what Jesus said in Matthew 5:5, “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.” This is a quotation by Jesus of Psalm 37:11.
Jesus tells us in Matthew 18:3 “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is not itself salvation, but requires that one be converted and become “in Christ” to be saved in order to enter into it.
Jesus charged the scribes and Pharisees saying, “for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.” So it is possible for some very religious people who carefully follow the law of Moses, even the law of God, to actually be on the wrong track spiritually, and to be guilty of hindering others, preventing them from entering the kingdom of heaven (see Matthew 23:13).
Matthew also uses the expression “kingdom of God” a few times, about 5 times in all. Most of the time Matthew avoids using the word or name “God” out of respect for the Jewish audience to whom he is writing. The expression “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God” are equivalent expressions, for many sayings of Jesus Matthew records using “kingdom of heaven” are given in other Gospel accounts using the words “kingdom of God.” So there is no intended difference. Those who argue otherwise are confusing the kingdom of God with the sovereignty of God.
A very striking instance of Matthew’s use of “kingdom of God” is seen at Matthew 21:43, where Jesus warns “Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof.” The Jewish leaders, because they rejected the Messiah, Jesus Christ, have been set aside in the plan of God temporarily, and did not experience the fulfillment of the Messianic and kingdom prophecies in their day. Had they received the Messiah Jesus Christ, they would have experienced the promised kingdom of God in their midst then and there. Jesus had to strike a careful balance, humanly speaking, in His teaching and in His exercise of Divine power or omnipotence and omniscience so as not to unduly predispose the reaction of people and leadership in a manner to force or coerce their belief and reaction either way. Like Jesus said to the Jewish leaders, “If ye had believed Moses, ye would have believed me, for he wrote of me” (John 5:46). The fact that the nation of Israel would reject the Messiah and the nation would subsequently be set aside for an indeterminate length of time was predicted in Micah 5:3, “Therefore will he give them up, until the time that she which travaileth hath brought forth: then the remnant of his brethren shall return unto the children of Israel.”
From all this it should be evident that the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven is still future. It is entered only by true faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Other references to the kingdom of God declare that the practice of grievous sin and/or the living of a sinful lifestyle will exclude a person from the kingdom of God, as specified in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, “1 Co 6:9 Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind,
1 Co 6:10 Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.”
The kingdom of God and/or the kingdom of heaven include the millennial reign of Christ upon this earth, but the kingdom of God upon this earth is by no means limited to the 1000 year period we call the millennial period. The Lord Jesus Christ will return at His Second Advent to rule on this earth forever, as specified in Luke 1:32, 33, “Luke 1:32 He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David:
Luke 1:33 And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.”
Other passages in Scripture speak of the eternal rule of Jesus Christ upon the earth, among which is Zechariah 14:9, “Zec 14:9 And the LORD shall be king over all the earth: in that day shall there be one LORD, and his name one.”
Dan 7:13 I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him.
Dan 7:14 And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.
Perhaps now you will have greater insight and understanding of the Biblical meaning of “the kingdom of heaven” and “the kingdom of God.”
Our righteousness indeed must be better or greater than the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. But this does not involve us in somehow keeping the commandments of God better than they did. For those who have truly believed on Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, He by the power of His Holy Spirit regenerates us, renews us, creates in us a “new man,” such that “old things are passed away, behold, all things are become new.” Jesus Christ creates a new life in us that is led and empowered by the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit creates in us the fruit of the Spirit, not by our own efforts, but by what the Holy Spirit supernaturally performs in us. The fruit of the Spirit is spoken of by the Apostle Paul in Galatians 5:22, 23, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith,
Gal 5:23 Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.”
Those who are truly “in Christ” are no longer under the law, but under grace. Romans 6:14 For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace.