I have written on this verse before but have some thoughts to add. In verse 20 of Matthew 5, Jesus makes a curious statement about being righteous:
“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, ESV)
Let’s set the Way Back Machine to approximately 30 AD when Jesus made this statement in an attempt to understand how his listeners would have reacted to it.
The Pharisees were the group that sought to reclaim the religion of Israel and drive it back to it’s Biblical roots. They were the fundamentalists of their day. They sought to follow the law of God in every particular. They were obsessive about being righteous according to the law of what we call the Old Testament.
A few hundred years earlier, the Pharisees began as a group in reaction to the general disregard of the law of God. They sought revival of correct belief and practice. Therefore the Pharisees were the ones who were pushing the nation of Israel toward following the Old Testament law. They also lead by example and practiced what they preached. The Pharisees were the poster boys for righteousness according to the law.
When Jesus made this statement in the sermon, his hearers would have understood how radical it is. How can one be more righteous than a Pharisee? They display ultimate obedience to the law. This would be like telling me to be a better basketball player than LeBron James. No amount of effort could make me better than LeBron.
We, like Jesus’ first listeners, have a tendency to hear this statement in terms of what we do (or perhaps this is only me). Too often we take it as an encouragement to try harder, to work at being righteous. But if it is impossible to be more strict in our observance than the Pharisees, then what could Jesus mean by this statement?
Habakkuk 2:4 tells us that the righteous must live by faith. Abraham was declared righteous because of this faith, not because of his perfect obedience as the Apostle Paul demonstrates in Romans 4. It is belief and not practice that allows us to be declared righteous. By the exercise of faith, we can be more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees.
But faith is only effective if the object of the faith is effective. As Christians our hope is in Christ alone. Paul follows up his discussion of the faith of Abraham with these words:
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” (Romans 5:1–2, ESV)
We are justified (declared righteous) by having faith in Jesus Christ. What many of the Pharisees (ancient and modern) miss is that the path to true righteousness is through faith in the one who trades our mess for his righteousness (1 Cor. 5:21).
It is this trade that allows our righteousness to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.
This post is #18 in the Sermon on the Mount Series