Christianity 201

June 12, 2020

How Can Your Righteousness Surpass the Pharisees?

NIV.Matt.5v17 “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. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses* that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

by Ruth Wilkinson

In order to know how to “exceed,” we need to first know what the benchmark is that we are exceeding. What is the righteousness of the Pharisees?

Pharisaic righteousness was (and is today for observant Jews) rooted in the Law of Moses which lays out the standards of behaviour that God expects from those with whom He has made a covenant. Over several centuries, the Pharisees preserved and promulgated this intricately detailed Law, desiring to bring God’s people through to the day of its fulfillment when the righteous would be raised up in vindication, ending Israel’s exile and oppression.

Devout Pharisees were community leaders, steeped in learning and in the nuance of God’s will. Faithful Jews would have followed their example, and turned to them for teaching.

How should we understand what it means to exceed the righteousness of such people?

One possible interpretation flows from the common translation of ερισσεύω into the English equivalent “to exceed.” For many English speakers, this word appears most often in contexts like “to exceed the speed limit.” In other words, to go beyond: to find new ways in which to be righteous, to out-righteous the Pharisees, to be holier than they.

This may have been what the rich young man in Luke 18:18-24 had in mind. He approached Jesus asking what he needed to do in order to inherit eternal life and, in Jesus’ words, “enter the Kingdom of God.” He asked this in spite of his own belief that he had kept the Law, an assertion that Jesus did not refute.

Neither did Jesus challenge the young man’s adherence to such minutiae as tithing on “mint and dill,”1 or his keeping of the “least commandment,” as opposed to the greater statutes the young man cites.

Instead, Jesus takes the conversation in a completely different direction—one not of greater adherence, or of more detail, but of the unknown and starting over.

Jesus isn’t impressed by his crossing of t’s and dotting of i’s and certainly shows no desire to engage that debate or to add new rules to the existing ones.

A second interpretation could arise from the Pharisees’ temporal understanding of what they were doing. The righteousness of Jesus’ followers could be seen as more enduring in time than that of the Pharisees.
Their persistence in keeping the Law had in mind the goal of bringing Israel to the time of fulfillment: the Day of the Lord, when the righteous would no longer have to strive, but “sit encrowned and enjoy the splendor of the Shekinah.” At that point, the Law would no longer be required.

The righteousness that Jesus endorses seems to have more lasting implications. He points us not only toward a “perfection” like His own, but further forward to our being made “a kingdom and priests” who will actively “reign on the Earth” alongside Christ himself (Revelation 5:10).

In addition, we are no longer waiting for that fulfillment, but we’re taking part in it now. At His baptism, Jesus declares that He is “fulfilling all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). By this, He doesn’t just mean that he’s meeting personal requirements, but that He’s standing in the place of Israel, taking on the burden of her broken covenant.

A third point of comparison is that Jesus calls out the Pharisees for being ὑποκριτής (those who pretend) and σκανδαλίζω (causing to stumble) both indirectly (Matthew 5:19) and in no uncertain terms (Matthew 23:13 ff). He accuses them of attending to external details, making good impressions, and hiding their internal falsity: of doing rather than being.

Jesus extends His standards deeper by pointing to the heart as the seat of murder, adultery, truth-telling, and acts of grace or revenge. This echoes back to Amos 5 and Micah 6 where God rejects the religious observances of people who have lying tongues and deceitful hearts.

Jesus’ righteousness isn’t simply behaviour, but it flows outward from a heart that has been made clean and surrendered to God.

The final option for identifying Jesus’ “exceeding righteousness” is that it is Himself.

The Pharisees pursued righteousness through studying and keeping the Law. But in Christ, the Law is fulfilled and made complete. “But now, apart from the law, God’s righteousness has been revealed—attested by the Law and the Prophets —that is, God’s righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ, to all who believe, since there is no distinction” (Romans 3:21, 22, HCSB). The Law cannot provide for righteousness, but faith in Christ can and does. He himself is our righteousness when we live following Him. No matter how we try or for how long, we cannot achieve righteousness. In fact, if we could, then Christ died for nothing (Galatians 2:19-21, HCSB).

The Pharisees took on themselves the responsibility of living lives of righteousness, setting themselves up as arbiters of what was right. Instead, Jesus sets aside nuance and detail and tells us to enter the Kingdom as a child (Mark 10:13-16): as with the rich young man, dependent and trusting.

Although this last interpretation is the one that carries the most weight in light of the whole New Testament, I think it most applicable in context of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount to focus on the third option: Jesus expects us to allow our righteousness to flow out from hearts that are pure. The Sermon, while it contains some inspirational, encouraging passages and some that promise hard times, provides a very practical foundation for a life lived in imitation of Christ: one of an internal, heart-focused view of oneself and how we are to live with and toward each other.


*exceeds (many translations); is more than (AMP); is greater than (CSB, CEB); do it more faithful (Good News); goes beyond (NET); are more right with God (NLV); more pure and full of integrity (TPT); goes deeper (Voice); do it far better (Message).