The Righteousness that Exceeds the Righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees

by Mike Ratliff

Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. (Romans 10:1-4 ESV)

I am sure when our Lord told His disciples on the Mount of Olives (Matthew 5:14-16), “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven…” that there were some who were getting the idea that the way of our Lord was some form of works righteousness that was at a higher, but better level than that of the Scribes and Pharisees who were all about legalism. Some today still have that idea. However, He followed that statement with this one in vv 17-20, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 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.” So, what was our Lord teaching here? He wasn’t teaching us to follow legalism, that is, that our righteousness is somehow obtained by a strict adherence to the Law of Moses was He? Paul was very clear in the book of Galatians that no one ever obtained the righteousness of God that way. 

The key to understanding this passage is found in v20, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Here is v20 from the NA27, “Λέγω γὰρ ὑμῖν ὅτι ἐὰν μὴ περισσεύσῃ ὑμῶν ἡ δικαιοσύνη πλεῖον τῶν γραμματέων καὶ Φαρισαίων, οὐ μὴ εἰσέλθητε εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τῶν οὐρανῶν.”

Here is my personal translation, “I say for you, unless your righteousness might exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never come into the kingdom of heaven.

The Law was completely fulfilled in Christ. His perfect obedience was the perfect Righteousness that God sees when He imputes it to all whom He justifies. The word “righteousness” in this passage translates the word δικαιοσύνη or dikaiosunē, which can mean “righteousness, innocence, justice, justification.” It is not inappropriate to say that the Apostle Paul, in his letters, attempts to answer the question Job asks in Job 9:2: “But how can a mortal be righteous with God?” The main passage in Paul that discusses this question and this word is Romans 3.

While it is not stated as frequently as in the Old Testament, the New Testament affirms the righteous and sinless character of God. In Romans 3:5, Paul affirms “God’s righteousness.”

But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) (Romans 3:5 ESV)

Human beings were created in the image of God, which means in part the ability to live righteous, sinless lives (Ephesians 4:24). But Adam sinned in the Garden, and through the sin of that one man, all their descendants “were made sinners” (Romans 5:19). As a result, we are unrighteous and deserve condemnation and death (5:16-18; 6:23).

How can we then get right with God? How can our Righteousness exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees? God has revealed a way: This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3:22). In other words, Jesus, the Righteous One, lived a sinless life and died an atoning death. He now offers His “righteousness” to us by faith, so that we can be “declared righteous” before His throne. This process of justification by faith goes all the way to Abraham, who “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3, 5, 9; Galatians 3:6). All those, then who believe in Jesus are credited with righteousness and have Abraham as their father (4:11-12). Keeping the Law plays no role in being counted as righteous in His sight (Romans 10:1-10; Galatians 3:21; Philippians 3:9); rather, God’s grace is at work.

On the other hand, it does not mean that obedience to God’s Law has no role to play in the life of the believer. Those who have been justified by faith have been set free from sin and thus must offer themselves to God “as instruments of righteousness” (Romans 6:11-14). We find God’s will for us described in the inspired Scriptures through which we receive “training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). It is impossible for those who have been born of God not to do what is right (1 John 3:7-10). Our Lord said that those who belong to Him “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6).

There is also a future aspect to righteousness when God does judge the world by His standard of righteousness (Acts 17:31). On that day of days, we “will reap a harvest of righteousness and peace” (Hebrews 12:11) and thus become fully righteous; this is our Christian hope (Galatians 5:5).

Righteousness, like salvation, is a gift that we receive from God when we believe. It is a present reality in our lives, and is a future hope toward which we aspire. Does your righteousness exceed that of the Scribes and the Pharisees?

Soli Deo Gloria!

10 thoughts on “The Righteousness that Exceeds the Righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees

  1. Loved this!
    Trying to convey the utter Holiness of God is hard to grasp.
    God is perfectly Just and perfectly Holy and as such can not even be in the presence of our diseased filthy and wart covered bodies and depraved minds. Therefore He devised the perfect plan to satisfy His Justice and not compromise His Holiness in Christ! When we come to repentance and faith in Christ, we are hidden in Christ and clothed with His spotless White robe so that when God looks at us He only sees the spotless perfection of His Son. Justified once and forever. Now if we indeed have faith in Christ we receive the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and our love for what our Savior did for us will grow and deepen and cause us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling through the sanctification process.
    May God keep me from ever thinking there is anything righteous in me apart from Christ my perfect righteousness.
    Blessings in the Lord for your wonderful ministry to encourage the sheep! Grace and Peace, charisse


  2. Mike,

    I understand the post and it’s premise and points. However, I’m a bit confused regarding an aspect or two of. 5:19. Is the “those who do…” addressed to his audience, since all the law had not been fulfilled, and not to a future audience? Is the “least in the kingdom…” a type of greater or lesser reward one would receive in heaven?



  3. Michael, Jesus was simply emphasizing that genuine believers must shun antinominionism and its teachers. I would hate to be one of those non-Lordship Salvation dudes when they stand before the Lord to give an account…


  4. Hi Mike,

    It is such a blessed gift to know that Christ is our righteousness! And, because we love Him, we will obey Him.


  5. hi, Mike.Thanks for enlightening thoughts.
    Do you take it literally to obey in turning your left cheek when your enemy strikes you on your right cheek? How do you balance between defending for yourself and being meek?


  6. If the attack is personal then I must seek to emulate Christ in retuning love for hate. However, if I am attacked in such a way that if I do that and it will endanger other people or cause compromise or whatever then I must defend what I have responsibility for. For instance, I am a DBA. There are managers who attempt to make decisions that are direct attacks on my character in order to get me to compromise in order to cause me to make bad decisions in regards to the data. I can’t do that. Therefore, I do what I can to make sure the DATA is protected and that the motives of the people doing these things are exposed, et cetera. I do not resort to the personal attacks they use. I use the truth and offer to work with these people to make it right. Do you see how we can “balance” it?


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