Christianity 201

February 6, 2020

“Unless Your Righteousness Exceeds That of the Scribes and Pharisees.” Should We Be Worried?

by Clarke Dixon

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

Should we be worried? Is it even possible that our righteousness can exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees? Keep in mind how meticulous they were at keeping the Old Testament laws. Jesus’ words here can stress us out. Are we good enough?

Let’s leave aside whether we are good enough for a moment. The scribes and Pharisees were certain, that Jesus was not good enough:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. . . . Matthew 5:17 (NRSV)

That is exactly what the scribes and Pharisees were thinking! Jesus often seemed to be very un-Jewish in not keeping the laws and customs as expected. Healing on the Sabbath was considered work and so Jesus was obviously a lawbreaker! Further, for his first miracle, Jesus used jars that had been set apart for religious purposes to turn water into wine at a party. Not only did Jesus seem to be un-Jewish, he even seemed to be irreligious. Therefore the scribes and Pharisees were obviously exceedingly more righteous than Jesus. Or so they thought.

Jesus set the record straight:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Matthew 5:17-18 (NRSV)

Though the actions of Jesus seemed to indicate that he didn’t care about the law, he declares that it is very important. The law and the prophets, a short-hand way of referring to all the writings of the Hebrew Bible, reveal the heart of God, and point to Jesus himself. Far from ditching the Old Testament, Jesus was the focus of the Old Testament!

In setting the record straight, it turns out the the scribes and the Pharisees were the ones who were not good enough:

Therefore, whoever breaks 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. Matthew 5:19 (NRSV)

Ironically, despite how meticulous the scribes and Pharisees were at keeping the rules, Jesus, in what he would go on to say, insinuated that they were the ones breaking the commandments and teaching others to do the same. They kept the letter of the law, but they missed the intent of the law, the purpose of the law. They might have been meticulous with regards to the rules, but they were heartless. It is possible to keep all the rules and yet be an awful person. In calling the people of Israel into existence, God was looking to establish a good people, not an awful people who kept the rules. If “love the Lord” and “love your neighbour” sum up the law, then the scribes and Pharisees were not keeping it well at all. They needed to have a better kind of righteousness if they wanted to impress God. They needed a deeper righteousness, a heart righteousness, a righteousness expressed through good character.

We can now ask, is anyone righteous enough?

In his letter to the Christians in Rome, Paul spends some time in chapters one and two establishing the fact that non-Jews have no right to a relationship with God. They are not righteous enough. Then he spends some time in chapters two and three establishing the fact that Jews also should have no right to a relationship with God. Though they have the law and the prophets, they also are not righteous enough. In conclusion,

. . . we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written: “There is no one who is righteous, not even one; Romans 3:9-10 (NRSV)

However, there is good news:

But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. Romans 3:21-26 (NRSV)

Though the Scribes & Pharisees were thinking Jesus was not righteous, actually Jesus is the only righteous one. Are any of us righteous enough? No, but God is good, and offers to make us good. God makes this offer because of His love for us, not because we make a good impression on Him.

God came to us in Jesus so that we could be forgiven of all sin. We will stand before the judgement seat of God with a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. It is Christ’s righteousness placed on us. God comes to us in the Holy Spirit to change our hearts for the better. We grow into a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. That transformation of character is Holy Spirit work. Though we might not feel good enough for God, and really, we are not good enough, God is good and wants to do good for us, and in us.

Jesus says “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Should we be worried? Should we be concerned that we will not “make the cut?” Without Jesus, if you want to impress God, then surpassing righteousness is an obligation. Good luck with that. Even the scribes and Pharisees, with all their meticulous law-keeping, failed to make a good impression. However, with Jesus, and with the gift of the Spirit, surpassing righteousness is an opportunity, through which God will make an impression on the world. Changed hearts, hearts in tune with God’s heart, lead to a changed world. “Surpassing righteousness” should not be a source of stress, but a source of great hope, not only for ourselves, but for the people around us.


Clarke Dixon blogs his messages weekly at Sunday’s Shrunk Sermon.

December 17, 2011

Why Jesus Came

At this time of year we remember the coming of Christ, but it would be thirty years before the reason — or perhaps reasons —  he came slowly evidenced itself.  Ula Gillion in South Africa writes at the blog Jesus Carries Me and her blog has been featured here before and is one of the few sites listed in the blogroll here.  This piece appeared under the title, Jesus Came for People, Not Religious Institutions. This isn’t the final answer to the question, “Why Did Jesus Come?” but is one of many topics where he did not meet expectations; where His agenda wasn’t the same as their agenda… and we could even sometimes add, our agenda.

NIV – Matt 12:1 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. 2When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” 3 He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. 5 Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? 6 I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. 7 If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. 8 For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

 9 Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, 10 and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to bring charges against Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”

 11 He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”

 13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.

One of the things the church leaders couldn’t stand about Jesus was how He ignored their church rules. These rules were man-made and not from God. Jesus knew what mattered most. It was more important to keep the rules of God than keeping the man-made rules of religious institutions.

In this portion of Scripture we see two incidents that show us what is truly important to God. Yes, the Sabbath rest was instituted by God, but all these other rules that the church leaders added were not. In the first incident we see  Jesus point out that a human need such as hunger is more important than church rules. The second incident, the healing of a man with a shrivelled hand, He shows that helping another human being is more important than keeping church rules.

The Need for Food:

Jesus and His disciples were walking through grain fields. It was a Sabbath day and the disciples were hungry. Being surrounded by food, they started to pick some heads of grain and ate. As could be expected by now, the church police were not far behind. Wherever Jesus was, there were they. They were always on the look-out for a reason to accuse Him of law-breaking giving them a reason to arrest Him.

Aha! They thought they found a reason when they saw His disciples breaking one of their Sabbath rules which apparently forbid a person to pick some grain on the Sabbath. They quickly pointed this out to Jesus. “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath!” But Jesus quickly corrected their misguided accusation by pointing them to an historical event in Scripture. It was as if He was saying that this is nothing compared to what David did! He went right into the temple and ate the communion bread reserved only for priests when he and his men were hungry. And even priests desecrate the Sabbath by eating that bread, if one goes according to the rules of these church leaders. But these people were innocent in the sight of God, for human need is more important than man-made rules.

One greater than the temple is here. They were looking at how people must obey the rules of their temple, but it is for people that Jesus came to give His life –not for a building. People are more important in God’s sight than a building, even if that building is a “house of worship.” Moreover, Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath. In other words, what He declares lawful on the Sabbath will be lawful. Jesus came for people, not religious institutions.

It is important to keep in mind what matters to God. We often get so caught up in denominations and religious institutions and what they require of us that we forget how we treat people matters to God more than keeping a bunch of rules.  The basic needs of a human being come before the “temple.” Jesus accuses them of condemning the innocent because they don’t understand what God truly desires. He says to them that they must go and learn what these words mean, I desire mercy; not sacrifice, quoting from Hosea 6:6. He desires that we treat people right not make endless sacrifices. God is not interested in how often we attend church and participate in church activities and keep the church rules. God desires that we are merciful to the needs of others. People have been created in God’s image, not buildings and institutions. The problem is that sometimes in our attempts to obey church rules we may be breaking God’s rules. Especially where church rules place the needs of a human being second to the rules of an institution.

The Need for Healing:

To drive the nail deeper into their religious coffins, Jesus moves on from there and meets the church leaders on their own turf: The church building. He goes to their synagogue. A man with a shrivelled hand is there. They see yet another opportunity to catch Jesus breaking some or the other Sabbath rule and they ask Him “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” He has already pointed out their erroneous understanding of what God desires when it came to human needs, but they obviously didn’t get the message.

Here before them is a man with another need. He needs healing and they see this man’s need as an opportunity to attack Jesus from a different angle. Once again, there are no surprises. Jesus silences them in a most amazing way. In the previous incident He pointed them to the Scriptures to expose their error, but now He points them to their own actions. He reveals their hypocrisy by saying that they would rescue one of their animals on the Sabbath day if necessary, but they have a problem if a human being is healed on the Sabbath. If one of their sheep fell into a pit on the Sabbath, they would certainly reach out and rescue it. Is a human being not more valuable than a sheep?

This infuriated them. The truth hurts to the degree that it is true for the one hearing it. Besides they didn’t like it that He damaged their egos because once again they lost a round to Jesus (they are the church leaders after all!). They didn’t like being humiliated by someone with no standing in their religious institution.

To add insult to the injury, while looking them straight in the eye, Jesus went ahead and healed the man’s hand  –right there in their church on the Sabbath Day!  They didn’t care that the man had his health restored. They felt no joy on his behalf. Instead, they left there and started plotting how they might kill Jesus. People’s welfare was really of very little importance to them. Their rule-keeping became more important and a human life had to take a backseat to their church rules. This only confirmed that they didn’t know God at all –even though they claimed to be the ones through whom God spoke and taught the people.

It is okay to respect the rules of religious institutions as long as we don’t lose sight of what is most important to God. I think a fair question would be how willing would we be to stop and help someone along the road while we are on our way to church. Would we then consider that person’s need more important, or would we be concerned that we may break one or the other church rule when we arrive late? There are obviously many other scenarios where we may be tempted to disregard a human need or even look down on people who don’t keep the church rules as well as we do.

January 19, 2011

Uh, Jesus, Can We Have a Word?

I always get something fresh from Perry Noble’s blog.  If I thought, or statistics showed, that most readers actually click the links, I would simply do this that way; but history shows us that’s not the case.   And I don’t want you to miss this.
What If The Religious Leaders Had Made A “Stop Doing” List For Jesus

Here are five things they MAY have asked Him to stop doing…

“Dear Jesus, we need you to stop doing the following things…

# 1 – You are really going to need to STOP healing on the Sabbath.  You see, we’ve worked really hard creating a religious system that works for us…and even though people ARE being healed (we cannot deny that) we just do not approve of the day you are doing it.  Sure, it’s miraculous…but the only miracles we are going to give approval of are the ones that take place in our system.  And please understand…not adhering to our request in this matter could prove to be detrimental to your ministry. (Matthew 12:1-14)

# 2 – Your methods of healing at times are quite reprehensible.  The fact that you spit on the ground…and just kept spitting SO MUCH that you were able to make mud…and then placed that mud on the eyes of a blind person is flat out unacceptable.  (John 9:1-11)  The fact that he gained his sight is beside the point…the way you did it is unacceptable.  AND the people you heal are bragging about what you did in their lives…we simply cannot have that and if you don’t shut them up then we will (see John 12:9-11).  It’s NOT about results…it’s about our system!

# 3 – Your character associations have gone way too far.  It has been reported that you have spoken to a Samaritan woman (John 4) and that you have actually called a tax collector to be among your inner circle (Matthew 9:9-13).  In fact, as we observe your most dedicated followers we are deeply concerned that you don’t seem to have any religious professional among those closest to you.  We believe this is a grave mistake; after all, what in the world would You EVER believe you could accomplish through those unschooled, ordinary men?  (Acts 4:13)

# 4 – We do not approve of your teaching methods.  Seriously…anytime someone asks you a question you always break into a story!  Is that really necessary?  Because of this type of behavior we can only conclude that you simply want to entertain people.  AND…the little trick you did with the loaves and fish simply prove to us that all you are interested in doing is drawing a crowd. Please cease from this type of activity and just try to engage people with “deep” theological that will equip you listeners to feel morally and intellectually superior to those who do not know as much as them.  When you tell your stories you do nothing more than twist the Scriptures to make them say whatever you want…you should know better!

# 5 – Your language is quite offensive..and we’re going to ask you to tone it down.  Seriously Jesus, you calling us all “sons of hell” was a little over the top (see Matthew 23:15)…AND the fact that you called us a bunch of snakes, actually comparing us to the devil (Matthew 23:33) shows us that you seem to lack compassion.  Finally, I don’t think a godly man would EVER say of us that we were liars and that we are the result of our mother having sex with the devil (John 8:40-44).  Tone it down Jesus, you are highly offensive.  AND seriously…was the thing with the whip necessary…you seem to have anger management issues (John 2:13-17).  A godly man simply would not act like this.”

by Perry Noble.


Jesus teaching and ministry style was not what his contemporaries expected.  I love the quotation from Walter Wink, “If Jesus had not lived, we never would have been able to invent him.”