The Righteousness that Exceeds the Righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees

by Mike Ratliff

1 Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation. 2 For I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. 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 10:1-4 (NASB) 

I am sure when our Lord told His disciples on the Mount of Olives–

14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; 15 nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. 16 Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 5:14-16 (NASB) 

–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 another:

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) 

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 say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Here is v20 from the NA28:

20 Λέγω γὰρ ὑμῖν ὅτι ἐὰν μὴ περισσεύσῃ ὑμῶν ἡ δικαιοσύνη πλεῖον τῶν γραμματέων καὶ Φαρισαίων, οὐ μὴ εἰσέλθητε εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τῶν οὐρανῶν. Matthew 5:20 (NA28)

Here is my personal translation:

20 “I say for you, unless your righteousness might exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never come into the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:20 (translated from the NA28 Greek text)

The Law was completely fulfilled in Christ. His perfect obedience was the perfect Righteousness that God sees when He imputes it to all whom God justifies. The word “righteousness” in this passage translates the word δικαιοσύνη (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.”

5 But if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say? The God who inflicts wrath is not unrighteous, is He? (I am speaking in human terms.) Romans 3:5 (NASB) 

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 his 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!