Yeshua called His disciples to observe a standard of personal righteousness even higher than the religiously scrupulous of His day. He said that, unless our righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, we will not enter the kingdom:
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)
The rest of the Sermon on the Mount goes on to explain what he meant by exceeding the standards of the Pharisees. Yeshua sets the standards so high that some theologians and wishful thinkers have concluded that his teachings in the Sermon on the Mount were only meant to reveal human sin and inadequacy, demonstrating our inability to earn salvation on the basis of our righteousness. According to this idea, Yeshua taught the Sermon on the Mount only to convict His disciples of their depravity and to convince them of their need for God’s grace and forgiveness; therefore the Sermon on the Mount was meant to contradict the ideas of the Pharisees who taught that a man must earn his salvation through his works.
Is that what the Sermon on the Mount really means? Did Yeshua simply want to show his disciples that their good works could never merit eternal life?
This interpretation is problematic because it reverses the teaching of Yeshua, reducing it to a moral beating designed only to persuade us that we cannot possibly live up to God’s standards. It allows a person to actually disregard Yeshua’s high standards while saying, “Thank God I’m saved by grace and not by works.”
Moreover, the Pharisees also taught that men are sinful and that human beings need of God’s grace and forgiveness. Judaism does not teach that man must earn his salvation through the perfect performance of good works. Instead, Judaism teaches that man is sinful and must rely on God’s forgiveness and mercy for salvation. According to Jewish teaching, a man should repent and confess his sins and trust in the mercy of his heavenly Father.
Yeshua was not morally brow-beating His disciples to impress upon them their human depravity. He said that the disciple who hears His words but does not do them is like a foolish man who builds his house on the sand.
A single text from the Torah summarizes the Master’s approach to kingdom-living: “You shall do what is right and good in the sight of the LORD, that it may be well with you and that you may go in and possess the good land which the LORD swore to give your fathers” (Deuteronomy 6:18). In apostolic teaching, to words “go in and possess the good land” are the symbolic equivalent to entering the Kingdom of Heaven.