What does Jesus mean when He says, “Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20)?

To be righteous, in biblical language, is to be right or pleasing to God. Pleasing God involves keeping His Law. Many Christians today insist that the righteousness which this verse refers to is the righteousness of Christ which clothes every believer by imputation. These will frequently also insist that since Christ has fulfilled or kept the Law on their behalf, there is no more need to keep the Law. I do not think so. It is true that because Christians are imputed with the righteousness of Christ, they are seen in God’s eyes as having a righteousness that far, far exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. However, it is hardly possible that this is what Christ is referring to. The context of His statement suggests that He is referring to our actual keeping of the commandments of God. He says, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Mt 5:17–18). Two different Greek words are translated “fulfil” in these two verses. The first “fulfil” translates the Greek plêroô, which means “to make full” or “to complete.” Christ fulfilled the Law in the sense that He gave it its full meaning. In so far as the ceremonial laws, He is the substance or anti-type of what they,—as shadows and types,—pointed to. In so far as the moral laws, Christ came to obey them perfectly. The second “fulfil” (fulfilled) translates the Greek ginomai which means “bring to pass” or “accomplished.” In other words, Christ was saying that, no part of the Law will be abolished until the purpose of their existence is accomplished or fulfilled. In so far as the ceremonial laws, we may say that their purpose has been fulfilled, but this is not so in the case of the moral laws. The purpose of the moral law, to reflect the character of God and to reveal God’s will for man, still stands. This is why the Lord says He did not come to destroy the Law. This is why He adds, “Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:19). The word “break” translates the Greek luô, which may also be rendered “loosen” or “relaxes.” In other words, the demands of the Law remain unchanged. Christ is especially referring to the Moral Commandments. He makes it clear by proceeding to expound the commandments (vv. 21–48).

So then, it is clear that Christ is not speaking about imputed righteousness in verse 20. Rather, He is teaching us that if we are to enter the kingdom of God, we must obey the Word of God more than the scribes and Pharisees. Two questions immediately come to mind. Firstly, is Jesus then teaching salvation by keeping the Law? Secondly, how is this possible? Weren’t the Pharisees and scribes scrupulous in keeping the Law? To the first question, we must answer with an emphatic “no.” Christ teaches clearly that salvation is by grace through faith (e.g., Jn 3:16, 36; 6:37, 44; etc.). To the second question, we must note that there are such things as weightier and minor aspects of keeping the Law. The scribes and Pharisees were scrupulous in tithing, for example, and the Lord commended them for doing so. But at the same time, He charged them for ignoring the weightier matters of the Law: judgement, mercy, faith, and love of God (Mt 23:23; Lk 11:42). In other words, in telling us that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, the Lord is enjoining us to keep the Commandments of God, not only in the letter or externally,—which the Pharisees and scribes were adept at,—but also in the spirit or internally. Paul is referring to the internal, spiritual demands of the Law when he says “We know that the law is spiritual” (Rom 7:14). An unregenerate, unjustified person may keep the letter of the law, but only a born-again and justified person has the disposition to keep not only the letter of the law but the spirit of the law. In a sense, Christ was pointing out one of the marks of genuine believer, namely, that he will keep the Law of God with an attitude of love and gratitude rather than with a hypocritical attitude of showmanship.