Exceeding the Righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees
by Berry Kercheville
“Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:19–20 ESV).
Do you believe your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees? Consider that Jesus’ statement would have been shocking to the multitudes. The scribes and Pharisees had given their lives to keeping the law. Exceeding that standard in the minds of the people would have been impossible. So how is it that we could exceed their righteousness?
Please look carefully at this text and tie two phrases together. First, at the beginning of verse 19, the phrase, “whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments,” then the phrase at the beginning of verse 20, “For I tell you…” Here is the central point of the text: the Pharisees had relaxed the commandments of the Law and therefore their righteousness was left wanting. But before you think the way to exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees is to simply no longer relax the standard of the Law, look more carefully at Jesus’ description of how they failed.
The text following Jesus’ pronouncement, verses 21-48, are descriptive of the righteousness of the Pharisees. Look quickly through the text and notice the beginning line of each section – “You have heard that it was said…” (21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43). “What was said,” was the Pharisaical approach to the Law. They had taken the Law and lowered the bar. They changed the standard so they could claim to have kept it. Have you murdered? No! Have you committed adultery? No! Did you give a certificate of divorce to your wife when you sent her away? Yes! Have you sworn falsely? No! This is the kind of righteousness Paul described he had prior to coming to Christ. Paul said, “As to righteousness according to the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:6). However, Paul agreed with Jesus, that kind of righteousness is insufficient. That righteousness will not stand the test when we face the Lord.
Okay Christian, let’s see how we are doing? Murder? No! Adultery? No! Divorce? No! Legally divorced? Yes! Sworn falsely? No. Now, are you feeling good about yourself? Let’s try that again. Murdered? No – angry with your brother, insulted him, hated him, called him a fool under your breath? How about adultery? No! Desired it in your heart? Looked at a woman with impure thoughts? Divorced legally? Yes! Did so frivolously and put your mate in a position of spiritual weakness where you could be the cause of his or her adultery? Sworn falsely? No. Lied or found a way to get around a promise? Loved your enemy, greeted him, prayed for him, and done good for him? Perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect? Okay, now how are you feeling about your righteousness?
What did Jesus just do with these words? He brought the standard of the Law back to its original intention. It wasn’t given so a person could look at it and believe they were justified by it. The law exposes our sin. The law calls us to poverty of spirit and mourning. Paul stated it this way: “By the works of the Law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20).
Let’s put this in present day language. How do you define your faithfulness and righteousness before God? Is this what we do – “I’ve been baptized, I go to church, and I’m a good neighbor?” If so, you have lowered the standard just like the Pharisees. Have you ever heard these words at a funeral: “When I think of all the good things they did, I feel confident about where they are?” That is backwards. That’s the righteousness of the Pharisees. That is not where our confidence can be. When Paul defined a true child of God, he said, “We are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (Phil. 3:3). And again in the same context Paul stated, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the Law but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil. 3:8-9, emphasis mine, BK).
Why don’t most people become Christians? They are good, moral people who are not that bad. Why are there Christians who give little effort or passion in their service to God? It is because they think like Simon the Pharisee; they have lowered the standard and therefore believe they are good, moral people. And because they are not struck every day with their need for the mercy of God, because they are not poor in spirit and mourn for their sins every day, they do not, as the sinful woman, “love much because they are forgiven much” (Luke 7:47). When the grace of God is not appreciated every day, we will not press ourselves to keep our hearts from hating a brother, lusting, and becoming a judgmental speck finder. Instead we will love our enemies and press toward the goal of being perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect.
Christian, we easily can fall into the category of the scribes and the Pharisees by lowering the bar so we feel good about how well we have kept the law. With the recognition that on our own we are not righteous, but God in Christ has made us righteous, our hearts are changed and drawn to the image of him who created us.