Righteousness which Exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees

by Mike Ratliff

6 For all of us have become like one who is unclean,
And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment;
And all of us wither like a leaf,
And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. Isaiah 64:6 (NASB) 

What is our Lord’s number one desire for His sheep? Some would say that Jesus Christ wants Christians to just get along. Others might say that He wants Christians to live sacrificially while being busy doing good works. Some may say that proper religiosity is most important. The number one desire our Lord has for His people is that their Righteousness surpasses that of the Scribes and Pharisee so that their lives will bring Him glory.

17 “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
20 “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:17-20 (NASB) 

Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount was His manifesto which paralleled Moses giving the Law on Mount Sinai. In it we are given God’s requirements for us in living this Christian life. We are called to be Holy as God is Holy. We are called to be Right in our actions as God is, which is Righteousness. Only those who are in Christ, with Christ in them, are able to do this although in a much diminished form from that of God Himself. The Righteousness Jesus is speaking of in v20 of Matthew 5 is not referring to the declaration of Righteousness that takes place when we are Justified by Faith. No, our Lord here is referring to our actions. Look at Matthew 5:6 and Matthew 5:10.

6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Matthew 5:6 (NASB) 

10 “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:10 (NASB) 

The Greek word for “righteousness” in vv6,10,20 is the same word, δικαιοσύνη (dikaliosune), it means either justice or righteousness. It describes one who is just or righteous. This is a person who is conformed to the claims of a higher authority. It can mean a state of being or the description of the actions of one who is righteous. In our justification at salvation, God declares us righteous in His eyes based on the work of Christ, not our works. However, in the three references in Matthew 5, Jesus describes what those who are righteous actually do. In v6 we have our Lord telling us that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness shall be satisfied or filled. In v10 we have our Lord telling us that when our righteous behaviour causes us to be persecuted then the kingdom of heaven is ours.

Now what about v20? Look at the context of vv17-20. Our Lord says that he has not come to abolish the Law or Prophets, but to fulfill them. We are instructed to use the Law in our teaching. Our conformity to the Law of God here is our level of righteous behaviour and unless that behaviour exceeds the righteous behaviour of the Scribes and Pharisees then we will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

I remember when I first read that many decades ago that it terrified me. I mean look at the Scribes and Pharisee’s behaviour! They tithed a great deal more than most Christians do. They looked great in their righteous behaviour. I can’t exceed that! What is Jesus really telling us here? Jesus is calling us to a deeper, more radical holiness than that of Scribes and Pharisees. The deal is that the religiosity of these folks had a tendency to soften the Law’s demands by focusing on external obedience while ignoring the heart. We are called, then, to not focus on the externals, but, rather, on internal conformity to the spirit of the Law. We find this unpacked for us in the rest of our Lord’s Sermon. The Sermon runs from Matthew 5:1-7:27 and we don’t have the time or space to exposit all of that here. However, our Lord did give us God’s standard of righteousness (right behaviour, acts, thoughts, deeds, etc.) for His people.

The Bible clearly teaches that the measure of Christian’s righteousness is fruit; what comes out of the mouth, what deeds are done or not done. If we attain God’s righteousness because we are in Christ and He in us then we are His and He will work in us to conform us unto the image of our Lord. I know people whose measure is limited to only how religious one is. Well, we need to worship corporately and come together as commanded in the Word, but what about the rest of the time? Our righteousness or lack thereof will be manifest in what we do or don’t do when no one is watching. It is also what goes on in our thoughts and the intents of our hearts. Remember Matthew 5:6.

6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Matthew 5:6 (NASB) 

If we hunger and thirst for more entertainment or hate church unless it conforms  to our “wants and desires” then what is our heart’s desire? Isn’t it to have our way alone? The one who is satisfied or filled is the one who hungers and thirsts for righteousness and this means to be lined up with God’s ways and God’s standards of behaviour. These will be filled with joy and peace, but those who seek to be entertained will not.

The one who is filled will manifest God’s Right behaviour in his or her own life and this will more than likely bring persecution. (v10) In fact, our Lord says that this is a marker for those who are part of the Kingdom of Heaven. These same people will have a righteousness that exceeds all of that of those who appear to be righteous, but are only self-righteous, such as the Scribes and Pharisees.

3 For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. 4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. Romans 10:3-4 (NASB) 

We must remember that the right behaviour we manifest is of eternal significance only if it is the product of a regenerate heart. This means that only a genuine Christian can do this. He or she has been declared righteous on Christ’s behalf, not on account of any works. We err as soon as we try to establish our own righteousness. Instead we must submit to God’s righteousness in Christ. He will change us so that we will hunger and thirst for His right behaviour in our lives. Then over time He will grow and strengthen our faith through our sanctification as we obey Him by faith. Then our Righteousness will exceed by light years the right behaviour of the Scribes and Pharisees.

Soli Deo Gloria

2 thoughts on “Righteousness which Exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees

  1. Reblogged this on Rainbow Trout and commented:
    Your points about our action and heart are useful. True it all coms from our Lord calling and empowering us. Much to unpack there and the whole sermon on the mount needs careful study. Including this challenging verse:

    Matthew 5:48  Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

    Paul writes often about our perfection, and not the least of his exhortations is our being rooted in the whole word of God, the Bible.

    2Ti 3:16  All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
    2Ti 3:17  That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.

    Our righteousness begins here,…

    Rom 1:16  For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.
    Rom 1:17  For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.

    …. but goes on to radiate his righteousness in our lives to his glory, which is the chief end of man.


  2. I read this and I immediately think of Matthew 21:28-32. Which of the two sons did the will of his Father? and Matthew 7:21-23, only those who do the will of My Father. The Sermon on the Mount dovetails perfectly with these (and so many other) passages. And yet people continue to embrace an antinomian lifestyle all while insisting they are saved. Sometimes it just makes me want to scream.


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