Righteousness, Scribes and Pharisees

#16 in the Sermon on the Mount Series

Rule keeping as religious observance

checklistThere is something in man that gravitates toward rule keeping as the means of religious observance. We think those who live an austere life are more holy or more deserving of God’s favor.

We see this tendency displayed by the Pharisees in the Gospels. We would be foolish to think that this tendency ended there. Christendom has had 2,000 years of experience of struggling with this the drive to keep rules. Whether they be monks, priests or televangelists, we have always had Pharisees among us.

In addition to organizational Pharisees, each of us has to deal with his own inner Pharisee. I believe it is because our our own tendency to become spiritually proud that the Gospel writers spend so much time cataloging the errors of the Pharisees. The lesson to learn is that we should not be like them even though we have the innate capability of doing so.

Rule keeping isn’t enough

If you take righteous to mean external compliance with a set of rules, Jesus comment in Matthew 5:20 is hard to understand:

“For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (NASB)

If rule keeping is the means of obtaining righteousness, few would surpass the Pharisees in righteousness. As a group the Pharisees were committed to keeping the law, most of them with real intention to serve and please God. If rule keeping is the means of getting into Heaven and if we have to do it better than the Pharisees, then we have a problem because few of us would meet this standard.

It is exactly this problem that caused Martin Luther the distress that lead to the Reformation. If rule keeping is the means of satisfying God, how would any of us get in? We are doomed if we are dependent upon our own righteousness.

The real source of righteousness

In Habakkuk 2:4 (and quoted in Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11, Hebrews 10:38) we are told that the righteous will live by faith. Faith is the means by which we can surpass the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees. Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:8-9 that the source of salvation comes from outside ourselves and is obtained by faith. We cannot manufacture this salvation or provide it for ourselves.

This is good news. If we are honest, even the best of us has doubts (legitimate doubts) about his worthiness for Heaven. Without the provision of Jesus Christ and his atoning sacrifice, we would have no hope of gaining entrance to Heaven.

As the Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 7:24 – 8:1:

“Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! . . . Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (NASB)

It is in Christ and only in Christ that we can surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees. We don’t have to work ourselves to death in service, study and self denial.

Can we take a few moments to rest in our position and let go of our striving? What do you think?