“For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20)
I heard this verse while listening to a teaching by R.C. Sproul titled, “The Priorities of Righteousness” from his series Developing Christian Character. This verse was very profound for me. I wondered if I’ve ever heard it before, and just ignored it’s meaning. To be perfectly honest, when I think of the word Pharisee, I immediately think of Jesus calling them hypocrites. Because of that, I often pass by those verses assuming they are not meant for me to understand. Yet, God was definitely speaking to me when I heard this verse.
Pharisee means “separated ones”
The Pharisees were one of the main Jewish religious and political sects at the time of Jesus. The chief sects were the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Essenes. And the Pharisees held a majority of the positions on the Sanhedrin, the Jewish court. Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary says, “The Pharisees were known for insisting that the law of God be observed as the scribes interpreted it and for their special commitment to keeping the laws of tithing and ritual purity”. The Pharisees were experts in the law, but they added their own rules and instructions to this law, burdening the people with pointless rituals and overwhelming regulations. This included food regulations, hand washing rituals, fasting, tithing, bathing, etc.
One thing of importance to remember is that the Pharisees were dedicated and passionate to their religion. “They lived pious and disciplined lives, and many people thought it natural to follow their leading” (Nelson’s). So, if Jesus considered these people “righteous”, what does righteousness mean?
Righteousness means “holy and upright living”
This “holy and upright living” is in accordance to God’s standards. “The word “righteousness” comes from a root word that means “straightness.” It refers to a state that conforms to an authoritative standard. Righteousness is a moral concept. God’s character is the definition and source of all righteousness” (Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary).
Though we are to pursue moral and upright living, we are not to be pious and “self-righteous”. To think that our lifestyle makes us right with God is denying the sacrifice and work of Jesus Christ on the cross. “We do not become righteous because of our inherent goodness; God sees us as righteous because of our identification by faith with His Son.” (Nelson’s)
Does your righteousness exceed the Pharisees?
“Whoever refuses to obey any command and teaches other people not to obey that command will be the least important in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys the commands and teaches other people to obey them will be great in the kingdom of heaven. I tell you that if you are no more obedient than the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-20 NASB)
When Jesus made this statement, he was talking about obeying the commands of God. The law. As Christians, we know that we live under grace, so we do not need to rely on the law in order to save us from our sins. But Jesus isn’t talking about a justifying righteousness. He’s not talking about the Righteousness of God- the Pharisees could never fulfill that kind of righteousness. That kind of righteousness, as I stated above, only comes to us from God, through the resurrection of Jesus. No, Jesus was saying that we have to AT LEAST pursue the standards of living that the Pharisees pursued.
Matthew 23:23-24– “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!”
The Pharisees tithed even the smallest portions of mint and dill and cumin, but they didn’t have justice and mercy and faith. Their rules and laws controlled the minutest detail of everyone’s life and they condemned anyone who didn’t obey down to the smallest detail. “Then the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees make the outside of the cup and dish clean, but your inward part is full of greed and wickedness. Foolish ones! Did not He who made the outside make the inside also? But rather give alms of such things as you have; then indeed all things are clean to you.” (Luke 11:39-41)
Matthew 23:25-28– “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and rapacity. You blind Pharisee! first cleanse the inside of the cup and of the plate, that the outside also may be clean. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.”
The Pharisees were “clean” on the outside- or appeared to be righteous, but their hearts were not clean. Jesus was saying to get your heart right FIRST. The Pharisees had laws about washing cups and plates that burdened people with the possible judgment for not cleaning their dishes properly. Jesus said, “These people show honor to me with words, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is worthless. The things they teach are nothing but human rules.’ ” (Matthew 5:19)
Matthew 23:29-36– “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you witness against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all this will come upon this generation.”
The Pharisees admitted that their ancestors killed the prophets, but claimed they would not have taken part in it. Jesus was saying, “You will kill the Prophets! And you will kill me!” The Pharisees were blind to the Truth that Jesus was the Messiah, and they would not only crucify him, but Jesus was telling them they will also kill and crucify those that Jesus sent! This will later be proven true as the disciples of Jesus were persecuted and killed for teaching the Gospel of Christ.
“Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments. They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi.’ But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ. But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:2-12)
Jesus does not tell the people to ignore what the Pharisees are doing. Just the opposite! He says, “Therefore whatever they tell you to observe that observe and do, but do not do according to their works”. We are to obey the commands of God, but we are to do it because we love God, not because we are trying to gain influence or honor from others. Jesus taught that in order to be greatest in the Kingdom of heaven, one had to humble himself on earth, and be a servant to all.
What are we then to do?
We must always remember, we can never truly be righteous, at least not by how we live or act. God sent Jesus so that we might be given the righteousness of God, through Christ. We are, however, to continue to pursue righteous living, the standards and commands that God has given us through his Word. Not in order to receive salvation, but in order to live out our faith. We must first believe that Jesus is the Christ, and we must repent of our sinful past.
We are to live in such a way that it glorifies God. We do that first and foremost by loving God with our whole heart, mind, and strength and loving our neighbors as ourselves (Deut. 6:5; Lev. 19:18; Matt. 19:19; Matt 22:37; Rom. 13:9). And we can do this by doing the things that God calls us to do in His Word (i.e. praying, fasting, tithing, participating in worship, fellowship with other believers, reading and studying God’s Word, caring for others, being generous, merciful, just, etc.)
Jesus said, ““If you love me, you will obey my commands.” (John 14:15) As Christians, we take on the name and character of Jesus, and our lives are to reflect that. “We can be sure that we know God if we obey his commands. Anyone who says, “I know God,” but does not obey God’s commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if someone obeys God’s teaching, then in that person God’s love has truly reached its goal. This is how we can be sure we are living in God: Whoever says that he lives in God must live as Jesus lived.” (1 John 2:3-6)