How to Be More Righteous Than a Pharisee

Arguably one of the most important passages in all of the New Testament is found in Matthew 5-7, "The Sermon on the Mount." In these chapters, we read Jesus' first sermon, which contains practical instructions on how we ought to live. If the Christian wonders how she should operate in this fallen world, she should look no further than this sermon. Of course, she should also read the rest of the New Testament (and Old), and in doing so, she'll learn other similar principles. But, in this sermon, we see the Christian ethos explained in a "here's what to do" format.

In chapter 5, Jesus spends some time addressing the people in their specific circumstances: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who hunger those who thirst, etc. Then He tells them how they’re blessed, and takes their preconceived notions about how to follow the law - and its meaning - and shows them the truth.

The section we will be looking at today lies in between those two teachings. It’s critical for us to remember that our text today is instructional for the portion of the chapter in which Jesus reinterprets pieces of the law. Without understanding what Jesus says in our text, we can't fully appreciate his interpretation of the law.

Here's what Jesus said,

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.
— Matthew 5:17-20, ESV

Again, before Jesus tells them what the correct interpretation of the law is, he tells them that he was there to fulfill it. So, what does he say?

First, he tells us He’s going to fulfill every part of the law entirely. We don’t have the space to examine what this means, but what’s important to know is that all of the law and all of the Scriptures point to Jesus. He is not instructing the people in the wrongness of the law. Instead, he is telling them their interpretation of the law is flawed.

Next, he tells us we are obligated to follow the law, which wouldn’t have been a surprise to a first century Jew, who knew their relationship with God depended on their observance of the law. However, to many Christians today, this doesn’t seem right. We aren’t supposed to follow the law perfectly, are we? Isn’t that why Jesus died, because we couldn’t follow the law?

In a sense, yes.

If we believe we have to follow the law to earn favor with God, then we’ve missed the gospel. No deed we do can ever make us right with God. It is only through the blood of Christ that we are made right with Him. The belief that our actions can make us righteous is antithetical to the gospel message.

Now that we’ve made that clear, what is Jesus saying? What’re we supposed to do? 

In verse 20, Jesus says, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

My natural response to this verse is that Jesus can’t be telling us to be that righteous. Jesus doesn’t want us to be ultra-focused on following the laws like the Pharisees were, right? Of course, Jesus doesn’t want our life's mission to be dead obedience. However, when we look at the implications of this text, we’ll see what Jesus was communicating to us.

I think two views are at work here, and when we combine them, we can see what Jesus was saying.

The first view of Jesus’ words is that no one can be righteous enough. Not even the Pharisees’ righteousness (which outwardly puts us to shame today) is good enough for entrance into the Kingdom of heaven. We can reword this to say, “It is impossible for you to earn your way into the kingdom of heaven. So impossible, in fact, that you’d have to be more law-abiding than the Pharisees. If a first century Jew heard Jesus say it in this way, and this way alone, then he would feel lost. No one was more righteous than the Pharisees. As we’ve already mentioned, we know now that we aren’t entirely lost, because of Jesus’ sacrifice for us. But, for the people in Jesus’ day, if they merely took the first view, they’d probably feel utterly defeated.

The second view of Jesus’ words is that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees not only in practice but also motivation. Outwardly, the Pharisees were the most righteous, and if God were only after our actions, it would be enough. However, it’s not merely our actions that concern Jesus, but ultimately, our hearts. Our motivation for doing good works – or being righteous – cannot be to earn God’s grace; this is foolish (Galatians 3:2-3). Our motivation to do good works has to be that our hearts want nothing more than to live the way in which God intended us. When we desire to live in this way, we can experience true joy. Our temptation would be to think that the more we live out God’s commands, the more grace he gives us. Again, however, this is not true. God’s grace – his favor – is given to us despite our sin not because of our goodness. 

Views 1 and 2 together tell us that we ought to try and be as righteous as possible. We ought to try and be morally upstanding Christians. We ought to be setting the example in love, service, and giving. We ought to exhibit the spirit of the law as perfectly as we can (view 1). At the same time, we have to know that it’s not our actions that make us righteous; instead, it’s Jesus’ work that makes us righteous. Our works after our salvation are works of gratitude for Jesus’ gift and also our attempts at deeper intimacy with God (joy). I think when we keep in mind both 1 and 2, we can pursue righteousness in the pure way Jesus intended. And, at the same time, we can trust in Jesus’ work knowing that ultimately, he has permitted our entrance into the kingdom.

So, what can we do, practically, with this?

I think we can look at the different sections of this sermon and then try to practice what He preached. For instance, directly after our text Jesus gives specific instructions on anger, lust, divorce, oaths, revenge, dealing with your enemies, how to serve impoverished people, how to pray, fasting, worry, judging, the golden rule, and more. Simply put, there’s no shortage of practical instruction for us to follow.

Here’s our step this week:

Pick a section of Jesus’ sermon and try to practice what Jesus preached. Read the passage each morning and write about your progress the day before.

Which are you going to focus on this week?

Let us know in the comments!