An Exceeding Righteousness

by Linus Chua, as delivered at PCC Prayer Meeting on 29 Feb 2004

"For I say unto you, That 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).

This is probably one of the most neglected verses among evangelicals today. Many would either neglect it or else explain it in such a way that it loses its meaning and strength altogether. We are all more familiar, and perhaps in some ways more comfortable, with the words of Christ to Nicodemus in John 3:3 than we are with His words here in Matthew 5:20. To Nicodemus, who was a very prominent Pharisee in those days, the Lord said, "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God", but to non-Pharisees, 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."

Now when the Lord uses the word "except", He is laying down a necessary condition for something else to follow. Christ is warning us that unless our righteousness absolutely exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, we are going to be shut out of the kingdom of heaven. I wonder how many of us actually take this warning very seriously. Well, if we are serious about entering the kingdom of heaven, then we must take careful heed to it.

Let’s first consider what the verse doesn’t intend to teach.

What the Verse Does Not Teach?

Firstly, it doesn’t intend to teach us that we are saved by our righteous deeds or that the basis for our entrance into the kingdom is our righteousness. This is so basic to our Christian faith that I don’t think I need to spend time to prove it. Scriptures, in many other parts, clearly teach us that salvation is by the grace of God, received through faith, and is not of works. So we can be sure that Christ is not teaching us salvation by works.

Secondly, it doesn’t intend to teach us that the standard of righteousness we should strive for is that of the scribes and Pharisees. We must not have the wrong impression that the scribes and Pharisees were actually quite close to the kingdom and that all we need to do is just to exceed their righteousness by a little more. In fact, the term ‘exceed’ is used of a river overflowing its banks, emphasizing that it is far in excess of the normal! Now I believe that this was the misconception Nicodemus had when he first came to Christ. Nicodemus, like all the other Pharisees, believed that he was very near to the kingdom. But he felt that there was still something missing in his life and so he secretly went to Christ by night, hoping that Christ would give him, as it were, the final pieces of the jigsaw puzzle and then his life would be complete. But instead, Christ showed him that he was very far from the kingdom, and that unless he started all over again, i.e. unless he was born again, he was not going to see the kingdom of God.

Thirdly, this verse is not trying to show us that if a man has been imputed with the righteousness of Christ, he will enter into the kingdom of heaven. While that is certainly true, that is not the point that Christ is highlighting here. In fact, the context in which this verse is found is about the importance of our keeping the law. Far from abolishing the law or even minimizing its importance in the life of a Christian, the Lord Jesus teaches us that those who belong to the kingdom of heaven must keep the commandments. As Martyn Lloyd Jones commenting on the previous verse says, "Our Lord has not come to make the law easier for us or to make it in any sense less stringent in its demands upon us. His purpose in coming was to enable us to keep the law, not to abrogate it, and so he emphasizes here that we must know what the law is, and then must keep it."

It’s easy to explain away v. 20 by saying, "What is there to worry about? As Christians we are justified by faith and have received the righteousness of Christ, which surely exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisees. So if His righteousness has become our righteousness, then there is nothing to worry about!" To be sure, if we truly possess His righteousness, we will certainly enter into the kingdom of heaven. Nothing more is required than the righteousness of Christ.

However, the deeper question still remains – how do I know that I have the saving righteousness of Christ? How do I know that my faith is real and that I have been truly justified by God? According to the LORD Jesus, one of the ways to tell whether our faith is genuine is to see whether our righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.

Let’s move on by asking the question:

Who Were the Scribes & Pharisees?

The scribes were men who spent their time in teaching and expounding the scriptures. They were the great authorities on God’s word. They devoted their whole life to the study and exposition of it. They were the ones who made copies of it, exercising great care as they did so, and in time, they came to be the primary interpreters and articulators of the scriptures. And so the scribes, more than anyone else, could claim to be lovers of the Word of God. But sadly, as Christ would later point out, they missed the true meaning of the scriptures altogether.

How about the Pharisees? Well most of us would have a very negative or bad impression of them, and rightly so, because they were the chief haters and enemies of Christ during His earthly ministry and were always looking for opportunities to trap Him. But perhaps not so many of us realize that the Pharisees actually started off quite well. There were no Pharisees in the Old Testament. Instead, they started as a kind of Puritan movement in Israel during the period between the close of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament. They originated as a group of men who were concerned about the inroads of paganism into their nation. Israel was becoming increasingly secular and the people were moving further away from the LORD. They were called Pharisees because the very word itself means, "separated ones". They separated themselves from the paganism of the day and gave themselves to the zealous pursuit of righteousness. Their concern for godliness was neither casual nor superficial but sincere and wholehearted. And so the origin of Pharisaism was both noble and good. The Pharisees were, if you like, the original Puritans of the Church. But sadly, their movement soon degenerated into a form of externalism and self-righteousness so that by the time of Christ, they had become nothing more than religious hypocrites, having the form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.

Nevertheless, we mustn’t forget that during the time of Christ, the scribes and Pharisees were held in very high regard by all the people. They were, in many ways, the most outstanding people of the nation. People looked up to them as the standard of spirituality and morality. In fact, the Jews had a saying which went, "If only two people go to heaven, one will be a scribe and the other a Pharisee." The average man would never dream of ever coming close to them in terms of righteousness. And so it must have come as a tremendous shock to the people when Christ said that in order to enter into the kingdom of heaven, their righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.

Now the question is – how do we exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees? We need to do two things. Firstly, we need to avoid their mistakes. Secondly, we need to do better than them in the things which they did well. Matthew Henry commenting on this verse says, "Our Lord here tells his disciples that the religion he came to establish did not only exclude the badness, but excel the goodness of the scribes and the Pharisees. We must do more than they, and better than they, or we shall come short of heaven."

Let’s now consider some of the defects of these religious leaders so that we may avoid them:

What We Must Avoid…

Firstly, we must avoid external righteousness. The scribes and Pharisees were concerned only with the external observance of the law. They cared much more about the action rather than the attitude, the deed rather than the motive, the outward rather than the inward. For them, no matter how much they hated a person, as long as they did not kill him, they were not guilty of breaking the commandment. And no matter how much they may have lusted after a woman in their heart, they did not consider themselves guilty of adultery as long as they did not commit the physical act. Theirs’ was an external religion instead of a religion of the heart. The same is true of all their acts of religious worship – giving, prayer, singing the psalms, reading and hearing the word, fasting, Sabbath keeping etc. If all these things are not done with a right spirit, they count for nothing in God’s sight. Rituals cannot substitute for true righteousness.

Secondly, we must avoid incomplete or partial righteousness. The scribes and the Pharisees neglected the weightier matters of the law but were content with the lesser ones. They would pay tithe of mint and cumin but neglect justice, mercy and faith. They would pick and choose their duty according to their interest or inclination. They found it in their heart to be very careful about paying their tithes but they didn’t find it in their heart to show mercy to those in need or to help those who were oppressed. To some extent, this second error was caused by the first. They disregarded things like justice, mercy and love because these things came from within the heart of a man and no amount of externalism could produce that.

Thirdly, we must avoid redefining the law and the standard of righteousness. The scribes and Pharisees had many man-made rules and regulations, which they upheld and maintained even when the law of God was being violated as a result. Many of their so-called traditions and rules were nothing but clever and subtle ways of evading the demands of the law.

One classic example of this is found in Mark 7:9-13, where if a person has set apart something (money or possessions) to the Lord by pronouncing that thing ‘Corban’, then his needy parents can no longer benefit from it. Now this Corban possession was not necessarily handed over to the temple or synagogue immediately and could still remain in the person’s hands. Should he one day decide to use it for his own purposes again, tradition actually permitted him to do so simply by saying Corban over it again. So in order to avoid giving up his possessions to support his parents, this person could simply declare those possessions sacred and unusable; but as soon as he wants to use them for himself, he could just as easily reverse the vow. Such a tradition served the selfish interests of the person making this hypocritical vow.

Fourthly, we must avoid a righteousness that is self-centered. The scribes and Pharisees were really only concerned about themselves and about their own glory. When they went about their religious duties, they were more concerned about their performance of the duty than about the glory of God. They loved to pray long prayers in front of others and to sit on the chief seats in the synagogues and to be called ‘Rabbi, Rabbi’ by men. They were concerned about looking good in the eyes of others, and their satisfaction came when they received approval and commendation from men.

And so we must avoid all these things – external righteousness, partial obedience to the law, redefining the standard of righteousness, and lastly self-centered righteousness. But now let’s go on to consider what are the areas in which we must do better than the scribes and Pharisees.

What We Must Do Better…

Firstly, we must be concerned about evangelism. Christ said in Matthew 23:15, "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves." This is really quite an amazing statement. Imagine the evangelistic zeal of a person who would cross land and sea just for the sake of making one convert. Now it’s true that the LORD marked them as evangelists of hell, but there’s no denying that they were very zealous about the work of evangelism. They shame us in their zeal and enthusiasm. Unlike them, we have the true gospel. Let’s do more for the spread of it. Let’s be much more in prayer for unconverted souls. Let’s spend time and effort to think of how we can bring the gospel to more people, or better still to bring people to hear the preaching of the gospel. There’s always more that we can do in the work of evangelism. Yes, we must avoid all unbiblical forms and methods of evangelism. But at the same time, let us not lose our zeal for the work of the gospel in these perilous days. The Pharisees were willing to compass sea and land to make one proselyte. Are we as zealous as them in evangelism?

Secondly, we must tithe. The Pharisees were tithers par excellence. Our Lord in Matthew 23:23 acknowledged that the Pharisees were very scrupulous in their giving, "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone." During those days, the tithe was usually paid in terms of produce or livestock. Now the Pharisees were so careful about tithing that they even tithed from their mint and cumin. That would be equivalent to a modern person who if you gave him 10 cents, would be careful to return 1 cent to the Lord on the next Sabbath. In their desire and zeal to be religious, they overemphasized the small acts of righteousness. We may laugh at the Pharisees for majoring in the minors, and even judge them for neglecting the bigger things while focusing on the smaller things. But let us be careful not to go to the other extreme by neglecting altogether the little things in life and so end up robbing God. We must exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees by giving carefully and yet cheerfully and heartily, and with the conscious recognition that all things come from God and that we are merely returning a small portion to Him. No one could accuse the Pharisees of robbing God with regards to their tithes. Can the same be said of us?

Thirdly, we must pray. The Pharisees were men of prayer. Our Lord Jesus said in Matthew 23:14, "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation." The Pharisees enjoyed making a public display of their piety. Their public prayers were long and eloquent. Of course, they knew nothing of the kind of wrestling with God that David knew in his prayer life. While David’s pillow was wet with tears, the pillow of the Pharisees was as dry as the desert. But at least the Pharisees prayed. At least they went through the motions of it. Some of us are so barren in our prayer life that we don’t even go through the motions of prayer. The Pharisees displeased God with their hypocritical prayers, but are we guilty of displeasing God by our failure to pray?

Fourthly, we must read and study God’s word. Christ said to the Pharisees in John 5:39, "You search the scriptures for in them you think you have eternal life." They did well to search the scriptures. Now there was no question that the Pharisees were very learned in the scriptures. They could recite chapters of the OT. The problem was that they imagined eternal life could be obtained by the mere act of studying the scriptures and they thought they were sure of heaven if they could recite the scriptures from memory. Yet for all their study, they missed the One who is central to all of scriptures, namely Christ Jesus. But at least the scribes and Pharisees were diligent in searching the scriptures. Many of us pale in comparison to them in terms of the time and effort we spend in God’s Word. Let’s not forget that the righteousness that pleases God is a righteousness that proceeds from studying, hearing and keeping God’s word.

Evangelism, tithing, prayer and bible study. These are but some of the acts of righteousness that the Pharisees and scribes were engaged in. In all these things they excelled. But they were hypocrites. Their hearts were far from God. They kept the letter of the law but violated the spirit of it. As we end, let’s ask ourselves this question:


Does our righteousness indeed exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees? Remember that unless our righteousness exceeds theirs’, we will in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. And remember this too – that by ourselves, there is no way we can do it. Why? Because the scribes and Pharisees represented the highest level of righteousness achievable by fallen men. If we strive with all our might by ourselves, we will at best be on par with the Pharisees. If we want to exceed them, we absolutely need the grace of God. God alone can enable us to have the righteousness that is pleasing and acceptable in His sight.

And even after we’ve received the grace of God in conversion, we still struggle because of remaining corruption. We are ever in danger of going to either extreme. On the one hand, we fight against the tendency to become lax or careless about the way we conduct our lives, or in other words, the danger of antinomianism and a disregard of the law. On the other hand, there’s the danger of becoming just like the Pharisees, concerned with the letter but not the spirit of the law, concerned merely with doing what is "right", and maintaining the appearance of being very righteous in the eyes of fellow men and especially among fellow Christians. If we’re not careful, we too will become Pharisees – proud, arrogant, ever thinking highly of our own achievements and despising others.

Oh how we need abundant supplies of God’s grace to keep us from going to either extreme. And how we need to follow more closely in the path of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is our best and perfect example of what it means to maintain the right balance. And how we long for His return to deliver us finally and fully from all sin and to confirm us in His everlasting righteousness.

Titus 2:11-13 contain some of my favourite thoughts and I’ll close with them, "For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ" Amen. W