Your Righteousness must Exceed that of the Pharisees for it was Hypocritical and Ugly

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Matthew 5:20. Your Righteousness must Exceed that of the Pharisees, for it was Hypocritical and Ugly.

Everton Community Church. January 20th 2008.

There are many differences between Americans and Canadians. One prominent public one is the moral expectations that Americans require of the political leadersRepublican candidate Mitt Romney, has been striving expensively and perhaps successfully for the Republican Party nomination for President of the United States. With South Carolina's Republicans voting yesterday and Super Tuesday just ahead, great debate has been going on if Americans are ready for a Mormon president. What’s the standard of morality expected?

Quote:  Marlisa Fullmer, a Morman reflecting on the situation said: If following the Nicene Creed is the only determining factor for being Christian, then I guess we're not Christians,". She stated that: the Prophet Joseph Smith, the first head of the Morman Church, was himself a declared candidate for the U.S. presidency in 1844, when he was shot to death by an anti-Mormon mob while being held in an Illinois jail. (National Post: January 18, 2008.

With the amount of scrutiny of political candidates, you wonder how anyone can run. But let’s take it one step further. What if the requirements for the job said that you had to be more gracious than Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, and Guandi. Who could run? Who would be qualified to hold the office?

Jesus said:

Matthew 5:20   [20]For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (ESV)

Please turn to Luke 18

It is the false teaching of salvation by self-effort that Jesus confronts head-on in this verse and which all of Scripture, from beginning to end, contradicts. As Paul makes clear in the Book of Romans, even Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, was saved by his faith, not by his works (Rom. 4:3; cf. Gen. 15:6). In Galatians the apostle explains that “the Scripture has shut up all men under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal. 3:22). Outside of sin itself, the Bible opposes nothing more vehemently than the religion of human achievement.


Luke 18:9-14   [9]He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: [10]"Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. [11]The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. [12]I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.' [13]But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' [14]I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted." (ESV)

The least-esteemed and most-hated man in Jewish society was the tax-gatherer, a fellow Jew who had sold out to Rome for the purpose of collecting taxes from his brethren. He extorted all he could get from the people, keeping for himself everything he purloined above what Rome required. He had forsaken both national, social, family, and religious loyalty for the sake of money. The Pharisee, on the other hand, was the model Jew, highly religious, moral, and respectable. Yet Jesus said that, despite the tax-gatherer’s treachery and sin, he would be justified by God because of his penitent faith, whereas the Pharisee, despite his high morals and religiousness, would be condemned, because he trusted in his own righteousness and good works.

In Matthew 5:20 Jesus teaches that the sort of righteousness exemplified by the Pharisees was not sufficient to gain entrance into His kingdom. To Jesus’ legalistic, works-oriented hearers, this was doubtlessly the most radical thing He had yet taught. If the meticulously religious and moral Pharisees could not get into heaven, who could?

After showing the preeminence (v. 17), permanence (v. 18), and pertinence (v. 19) of Scripture, Jesus now shows its purpose. From the context of those preceding three verses it is clear that He is still speaking of “the Law and the Prophets,” the Old Testament Scriptures. In saying that true righteousness exceeds the kind displayed by the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus said that, whatever they did with man-made tradition, they did not live up to the standards of Scripture.

The implied truth of Matthew 5:20 is this: The purpose of God’s law was to show that, to please God and to be worthy of citizenship in His kingdom, more righteousness is required than anyone can possibly have or accomplish in himself. The purpose of the law was not to show what to do in order to make oneself acceptable, much less to show how good one already is, but to show how utterly sinful and helpless all men are in themselves. (That is one of Paul’s themes in Romans and Galatians.) As the Lord pointed out to the Jews in the first beatitude, the initial step toward kingdom citizenship is poverty of spirit, recognizing one’s total wretchedness and inadequacy before God.

Therefore Jesus shows1) The Righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees 2) The Righteousness God Requires, 3) The Righteousness God Gives


1) The Righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees


Like Ezra (Ezra 7:12), the earliest gramraateōn (scribes) were found only among the priests and Levites. Theirs was a profession, a job. They recorded, studied, interpreted, and often taught Jewish law. Although there were some scribes among the Sadducees, most were associated with the Pharisees.

Israel had two kinds of scribes, civil and ecclesiastical. The civil scribes functioned somewhat like notaries, and were involved in various governmental duties. Shimshai (Ezra 4:8) was such a scribe. The ecclesiastical scribes devoted their time to study of the Scriptures, and came to be its primary interpreters and articulators.

Yet, as Jesus repeatedly made plain, they failed to understand what they studied and taught. With all their exposure to God’s Word, being superficially immersed in it continually, they missed its profound spiritual intent.

The influential, rigid Pharisees were particularly confident in their system of righteousness. Theirs was a sect. The Jews had a saying, If only two people go to heaven, one will be a scribe and the other a Pharisee. Those men were completely convinced that God was obligated to honour their devoted and demanding works. In comparing themselves with the standards they had established-and especially in comparing themselves with the average Jew, not to mention Gentile-they could not imagine God was not favourably impressed with their goodness.

Yet, like many serious and capable scholars throughout the history of the church, the Pharisees of Judaism were also blind to the meaning of the words they diligently studied and discussed.

  • Before we get too comfortable with ourselves and right off the bat distinguish ourselves from these two groups consider possible parallels:
    • Do you ever tell yourself: I’ve been a Christian for many years. I’ve done so much work for the kingdom. I’ve been to the mission field, taught children, taught classes, I know God so well. I’m not like my neighbour, colleague at work who doesn’t care about God. He sure will face judgement.
    • Although intellectually we can reject self-righteousness, it is easy unless we continually check ourselves, to slip into subtle pride.


Quote: One commentator said that Religion is what someone does with their own solitude. If you want to know what you really are: look at your thoughts and desires in private. Are you the same person in public that you are in private? If not, then your righteousness may be that of the Scribes and Pharisees.

The standard of righteousness that the scribes and Pharisees taught and practiced, and the one we have to guard ourselves against, differed from God’s righteousness in several important ways. It was A) external, B) partial, C) redefined, and D) self-centered. In these four warnings I will spend just about all my time.

A) external

First of all the scribes and Pharisees concerned themselves entirely with external observance of the law and tradition. They took little consideration of motives or attitudes. They thought, no matter how much they may have hated a person, if they did not kill him they were not guilty of breaking the commandment. No matter how much they may have lusted, they did not consider themselves guilty of adultery or fornication as long as they did not commit the physical act.


  • Are we concerned most about programs and numbers or objectives and intents?
  • Do we rationalize that we keep busy with religious activities so that should excuse the occasional harsh thought or distraction. Come on, it’s not like we do all the things we read about in the papers and see on TV. We’re good people.
    • That’s not how God sees it.


Jesus’ next teachings in the Sermon on the Mount show that God’s first concern is with the heart: Further on in Matthew 5:

Matthew 5:22   [22]But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, 'You fool!' will be liable to the hell of fire.    [27]"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' [28]But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (ESV)

  • Hypocrisy cannot substitute for holiness.

Quote:  C. S. Lewis explains the conflict in The Four Loves.

Anyone who has ever taught or attempted to lead others knows the tendency in all of us toward exaggerating our depth of character while treating leniently our flaws. The Bible calls this tendency hypocrisy. We consciously or subconsciously put forward a better image of ourselves than really exists. The outward appearance of our character and the inner reality (that only God, we, and perhaps our family members know) do not match.

(Galaxie Software. (2002; 2002). 10,000 Sermon Illustrations. Biblical Studies Press.)


Further concern that God is just impressed with the external, His concern about religious ceremony is the same. Jesus is soon to teach in Matthew 6:5-18, that if, for example, our giving, our prayer, and our fasting are not done out of a humble, loving spirit, they count for nothing with Him.

  • Ritual cannot substitute for righteousness.

On another occasion He told the Pharisees:

Luke 16:15   [15]And he said to them, "You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God. (ESV)

  • Regardless of how often we pray, how much we give or do, if we do not confess our sins and rely completely on Christ’s righteousness through internal faith, we mock God.

God does not want a righteous that is just A) external nor:

B) partial

The righteousness practiced by the scribes and Pharisees also fell short of God’s righteousness because it was partial, woefully incomplete.

Summing up this failure in the scribes and Pharisees, quoting God’s scathing words to their forefathers, Jesus told them:

Mark 7:7-8 [7]in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'[8]You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men." (ESV)

  • Yet they considered themselves to be Israel’s religious elite and the objects of God’s special affection.

God does not want a righteous that is just A) external, B) PARTIAL nor:


c) redefined

In many ways the scribes and Pharisees were like neoorthodox and liberal theologians of our own day. They took biblical terms and redefined them to suit their own human perspectives and philosophy. They reworked biblical teachings, commands, and standards to produce variations in keeping with their own desires and capabilities.

Even such commands as “Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy; for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44) they interpreted not as a call to pure attitude of heart but as a requirement to perform certain rituals. They knew they could not be holy in the same way God is holy-and had no desire to be-so they simply changed the meaning of holiness.

  • Be very careful in assuming something is just a figure of speech, of a different dispensation or just to a particular audience.
  • Better to err on the side of caution to teat a principle strictly like a command, than discard God’s requirements and treat a command as an unapplicable principle. Commit the first and you were over zealous with good intentions. Commit the second and you showed utter disregard for God and His expectations in concern for your wishes.

One of the most common appeals to a lifestyle of whatever is quoting that “we are under Grace and not under law”. One commentator coined the mantra of this antinomianism:

Quote: “Free from the law O blessed condition, I can sin all I want and still have remission” (Jonathan Gerster: Handout Theology. Ligonier Ministries audio recording)

God does not want a righteous that is just A) external, B) PARTIAL, c) redefined




Not only was the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees external, partial, and redefined, but it was also completely self-centered. It was produced by self for the purposes of self-glory. Above all else, those leaders sought to be self-satisfied, and their system of religion was designed to enhance that self-satisfaction by providing ways to accomplish external, showy things about which they could boast and be proud. Their satisfaction came when they received approval and commendation from men. We saw this in the various passages including Matthew 23 in the nature of how their prayers were crafted in trying to sound good to others.

  • The caution is also warranted in what we desire to do. Check you heart if your desire to serve is to be liked by others or only public actions to gain the esteem of others.

In stark contrast, like what we saw with the publicans prayer of Luke 18, the godly person is broken about his sin and mourns over the wicked condition of his inner life, the unrighteousness he sees in his heart and mind. He has absolutely no confidence in what he is or in what he can do, but longs for the righteousness only God can give out of His mercy and grace.

But the person who is righteous in his own eyes sees no need for any other righteousness, no need for salvation, mercy, forgiveness, or grace. Just as their self-righteous forefathers had not wanted the grace God offered in the Old Testament, the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day did not want the grace the Messiah now offered. They wanted to rule their own lives and determine their own destinies and were not ready to submit to a King who wanted to rule their inner as well as their outward lives.

Romans 10:3   [3]For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness. (ESV)

  • Don’t ever buy into the lie about disobedience just reflecting someone who is just a “carnal Christian”. If someone rejects Jesus as their Lord how is it they submit to Him as saviour?

Not everyone gets this message about the nature of righteousness:

Illustration: Selfish

A mother was preparing pancakes for her sons, Kevin, 5, and Ryan, 3. The boys began to argue over who would get the first pancake. Their mother saw the opportunity for a moral lesson. If Jesus were sitting here, He would say, ‘Let my brother have the first pancake; I can wait.” Kevin turned to his younger brother and said, Ryan, you be Jesus!

(Galaxie Software. (2002; 2002). 10,000 Sermon Illustrations. Biblical Studies Press.)

Jesus shows: 1) The Righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees. God does not want a righteousness that is just A) external, B) PARTIAL, c) redefined nor D)self-centered.


In this beginning to the new series in The Christian’s High Calling we are showing our need and warning about the opposite dangers. Thus the second and third points are only introductory to be developed in the following weeks.


2) The Righteousness God Requires

The righteousness God requires of His kingdom citizens far exceeds /surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees. The term exceeds /surpasses is used of a river overflowing its banks, emphasizing that which is far in excess of the normal. The Lord requires genuine righteousness, real holiness that far exceeds anything human and that exists only in the redeemed heart.

God has always been concerned first of all with inner righteousness. When Samuel was ready to anoint Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab, to be Saul’s successor:

1 Sam. 16:7 But the LORD said to Samuel, "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart." (ESV)

So what then is the Lord looking for in the heart? God not only requires inner righteousness but perfect righteousness:

Matt. 5:48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (ESV) (cf. Mt. 22:34-40).

  • That’s why in verse 8 he said:

Matthew 5:8   [8]"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (ESV)

In his Book, fan the Flame, Joseph Stowell said:

Quote: Heart in Scripture

Heart is used in Scripture as the most comprehensive term for the authentic person. It is the part of our being where we desire, deliberate, and decide. It has been described as “the place of conscious and decisive spiritual activity,” “the comprehensive term for a person as a whole; his feelings, desires, passions, thought, understanding and will,” and “the center of a person. The place to which God turns.

Fan The Flame, J. Stowell, Moody, 1986, p. 13

  • That’s why it is so important in child rearing to shepherd a Child’s heart. When we aim to mould a child’s heart, we shape a character that results in right actions.
    • When we externally try to manage behaviour, when any external threat or accountability is removed, then the heart asserts itself.
    • That’s why you see kids go wild when they go to college or university. They show certain outward obedience while at home, but with the accountability removed, their heart kicks into motion with rebellion.

To be qualified for God’s kingdom we must be as holy as the King Himself. That standard is so infinitely high that even the most self-righteous person would not dare claim to possess it or be able to attain it.


That’s the whole point. We are to see ourselves as falling short of God’s requirements:

Romans 3:23  for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, (ESV)

In considering the perfect righteousness that God requires and the reality of sin making that perfect righteousness humanly impossible, there is the story of:

Illustration: John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams held more important offices than anyone else in the history of the U.S. He served with distinction as president, senator, congressman, minister to major European powers, and participated in various capacities in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and events leading to the Civil War. Yet, at age 70, with much of that behind him, he wrote, My whole life has been a succession of disappointments. I can scarcely recollect a single instance of success in anything that I ever undertook.

Unfinished Business, Charles Sell, Multnomah, 1989, p. 233

Jesus shows: 1) The Righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees 2) The Righteousness God Requires and briefly in conclusion:

3) The Righteousness God Gives

Recognizing that we cannot meet the standard of God’s perfection, that impossibility leads the sincere person to wonder how such a holy heart is obtained:

Matt. 19:25 [25]When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, "Who then can be saved?" [26]But Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." (ESV)

The One who demands perfect righteousness gives perfect righteousness. The One who tells us of the way into the kingdom is Himself that way:

John 14:6   [6]Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (ESV)

Jesus said. The King not only sets the standard of perfect righteousness, but will Himself bring anyone up to that standard who is willing to enter the kingdom on the King’s terms.

Rom. 3:21-22 [21]But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it-- [22]the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: (ESV)

Faith had always been God’s way to righteousness, a truth that the scribes and Pharisees, the experts on the Old Testament, should have known above all other people.

As Paul reminded his Jewish readers in Rome:

Rom. 4:3 [3]For what does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness." (ESV)

He quoted from the Book of Genesis (15:6), the earliest book of the Old Testament. The first patriarch, the first Jew, was saved by faith, not by works (Rom. 4:2) or the act of circumcision (v. 10).

Even before Abraham, Adam, once he sinned, had the dilemma of redemption:

Rom. 5:17 [17]For if, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. (ESV)

As one commentator said:

Quote: “If even God’s own law alone cannot make a person righteous, how much less can man-made traditions do so? Those who insist on coming to God in their own way and in their own power will never reach Him; they shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. No church, no ritual, no works, no philosophy, no system can bring a person to God.  It is tragic that many people today, like the scribes and Pharisees, will try any way to God but His way. They will pay any price, but will not accept the price He paid. They will do any work for Him, but they will not accept the finished work of His Son for them. They will accept any gift from God except the gift of His free salvation. Such people are religious but not regenerated, and they shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. (MacArthur, J. F. (1985). The MacArthur New Testament Commentary. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Mt 5:20). Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books.).


cf. confer (Lat.), compare

v. verse

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