An Exceeding Righteousness

By Linus Chua, adapted from message delivered on 2nd March 2008 in PCC Morning Worship Service

“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).

Having heard the words of Christ concerning his relationship and that of His disciples to the law, some of those who were present might have thought in their hearts, “What about the scribes and the Pharisees, whom most regarded as being both doers and teachers of the law? Surely they will be called the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” And so Christ’s statement in verse 20 might have come as a shock to many in the original audience.

What! Are you saying that the scribes and Pharisees are not even in the kingdom and that our righteousness has to surpass theirs in order to enter the kingdom, let alone be great in it! These words must have provoked a strong reaction in the people at that time. What could Jesus mean? And they would have given all the more attention to the rest of His sermon.

Unfortunately, not many Christians today pay a lot of attention to this verse. I think I will not be too far off if I said that this is one of the most neglected verses among modern evangelicals. Many would either ignore it or pass it by quickly or else explain it in such a way that it loses much of its meaning and strength.

Most of us would be more familiar, and perhaps more comfortable, with the words of Christ to Nicodemus in John chapter 3 than we are with His words here in Matthew chapter 5. 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 the non-Pharisees, like us, He says, “Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

Now when the Lord uses the word “except”, He is really laying down a necessary condition for something else to happen or follow. Christ is telling us that unless our righteousness is greater than the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees, we are going to be shut out of the kingdom of heaven. In other words, there is a kind of righteousness that is fully consistent with His kingdom, but there is also a kind of righteousness that will have no place in the kingdom.

The word “exceed” is interesting. It is used of a river that is overflowing its banks and speaks of that which is far in excess of the normal. Christ is not talking about a righteousness that is equal to or that is slightly more than the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees. Instead, He is speaking of a righteousness that is far in excess of and that far surpasses theirs, both in terms of quality and quantity, and that unless a person possesses this kind of righteousness, he is not going to be in the kingdom of heaven. 

Now 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 heed to this warning of the Lord.

1. What This Verse Does Not Teach?

Now before we look at what this verse positively teaches, let us consider for a minute what it does not teach us. There are at least three things that it does not teach. Firstly, it does not teach that we are saved by our righteous deeds or that the basis for our entrance into the kingdom is our own righteousness. We must remember that this verse is not everything the Bible has to say concerning salvation and entrance into His kingdom. Scripture, in many other parts, clearly teaches that salvation is a gift of God and received by faith in Jesus Christ, and is not obtained by one’s good works or observance of the law. So we can be sure that Christ is not teaching a works based salvation. In fact, notice that Christ does not say anything about how this righteousness is to be obtained and developed. Instead, He simply lays out the demand and requirement. 

Secondly, this verse does not indicate that the standard of righteousness we should strive for is that of the scribes and Pharisees. We must not have the wrong idea that the scribes and Pharisees were very close to the kingdom and that all a person needs to do to enter into it is just to exceed their righteousness by a little more. Remember that the word “exceed” speaks of surpassing by a very great amount.


Nicodemus probably had this mistaken idea when he first came to Christ. Like the other Pharisees, he believed that he was already very near the kingdom. But unlike many of the other Pharisees, 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, in fact, very far from the kingdom, and that unless he started from scratch all over again, i.e. unless he was born again, he was not even going to see the kingdom ofGod, let alone enter it. The Pharisees, for all their religious fanaticism, were no nearer the kingdom of God than a prostitute or tax collector.

But thirdly, this verse is not teaching us that if a man has been imputed with the righteousness of Christ and is justified by God, he will enter into the kingdom of heaven. While that is certainly true, that is not the point that Christ is making here. I remind us again that the context in which this verse is found has to do with the importance of our own personal keeping of the law.

Far from destroying the law or even minimizing its importance in the life of a Christian, Christ teaches us that those who belong to the kingdom of heaven must practice the commandments. Martyn Lloyd Jones, commenting on this passage, 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.”[1]

It is easy to explain this verse away by simply saying that as Christians, we have received the righteousness of Christ, which surely exceeds that of the Pharisees, and since His righteousness has become ours by faith, there is nothing to worry about! Now it is true that if we possess His righteousness, we will certainly enter into the kingdom of heaven. Nothing more is required, and indeed there is nothing to be anxious about. 

However, the deeper question still remains – how do I know that I have the righteousness of Christ? How can I be sure that His righteousness has truly been given to me? How do I know that my faith is real and that I am indeed justified before God? According to the LORD, one of the ways to tell whether our faith is genuine or not, is to see if our righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. To me, that is the frightening part about the Lord’s warning, and that is why we cannot simply and casually brush it aside. We need to take serious heed to His warning.

But before we go any further, let us look at who the scribes and Pharisees were?

 2. Who Were the Scribes & Pharisees?

The scribes were professional teachers and scholars who concerned themselves with the scriptures and particularly with the Jewish law, both in its written form and in its oral tradition. Some of them were priests, but most of them were laymen and anyone could join their ranks as long as he was competent. The scribes were the great authorities on the Law and the Prophets. They were the textual experts of the Old Testament and devoted their whole life to the study of it.

They were the ones who made copies of the scriptures, exercising great care as they did so, and in time, they came to be the primary interpreters and expositors of it. And so more than anyone else, the scribes could claim to be lovers of God’s Holy Law. But sadly, as Christ would later point out, they failed to understand what they studied and taught. For all their learning and scholarship, they missed the true meaning of the scriptures altogether.  

But what about the Pharisees? Most of us have a very 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 trick and trap Him. But perhaps not so many of us realize that the Pharisaical movement actually started off quite well. There were no Pharisees in the Old Testament. Instead, they began as a kind of Puritan movement in Israel during the period between the close of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New.

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 and further away from the LORD, and they wanted to keep the faith pure from contamination. 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, over time, their movement 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 must not forget that during the time of Christ, the scribes and Pharisees were held in very high esteem by the common people. They were, in many ways, the most outstanding members of society. People looked up to them as the benchmark and 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 in the street would never dream of ever coming near to them in terms of righteousness and holiness. And so, it must have come as a great shock to the people when Christ said that in order to enter the kingdom, our righteousness must absolutely exceed their righteousness.

And in order to do that, we need to do two things. Firstly, we need to avoid what they did wrong. Secondly, we need to do better in those 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.”[2]

Let us first consider some of the defects and mistakes of these religious leaders so that we may avoid them:

3. 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 literally kill him, they were not guilty of breaking the Sixth Commandment. And no matter how much they may have lusted in their heart after a woman, they did not consider themselves guilty of adultery as long as they did not commit the physical act.

Theirs’ was an external and formal religion rather than a religion of the heart. Christ gave a graphic picture of their externalism in Matthew23:25 when he said, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.”

The same is true of all their acts of religious worship – giving of tithes, prayer, singing of 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. It is easy to fall into the trap of external righteousness, is it not? After all, no one can see our hearts. Even we ourselves may not be aware of how deceitful our hearts are unless we make a prayerful and conscious effort to examine ourselves.

And so we must strive to avoid external righteousness, but seek a righteousness that is genuine, internal, and deeply rooted. Christ had earlier said in His sermon, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God (Matt 5:8)” and again in Luke 16:15, He rebuked the Pharisees, saying, “Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts.”     

Secondly, we must avoid incomplete or partial righteousness. The scribes and Pharisees neglected the weightier matters of the law but were content with the lesser ones. They would pay tithe of mint and cummin but neglect justice, mercy and faith. They ought to have done the latter without neglecting the former. As Malachi puts it, “they have been partial in the law (Mal 2:9).” They would pick and choose their duties according to their interest or inclination. They found it in their interest to be very careful about paying their tithes but they did not find it in their heart to show mercy to those in need or to help those who were oppressed.

To some extent, this second sin was caused by the first. They disregarded things like justice, mercy and love because these things come from within a transformed heart and no amount of externalism can produce them.          


Thirdly, we must avoid modifying or redefining the law and the standard of righteousness. We talked about this in our last chapter but it is useful to be reminded of it again. Modifying and twisting the law is one of the ways in which a person may annul or break the law. The scribes and Pharisees had many man-made rules and regulations which they upheld and maintained even when the very 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 true demands of the law.

One classic example of this is found in Matthew 15:4-5, where if a person had set apart something (money or possessions) to the Lord by pronouncing that thing ‘Corban’, which means consecrated to God, then his needy parents could 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 the word ‘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 wanted 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 vow and it became nothing but hypocrisy. And so the Lord Jesus said, “Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition (Matt 15:6).” 

Fourthly, we must avoid a righteousness that is self-centered. In the end, 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 and honour 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 joy and satisfaction came when they received the approval and commendation of men.

What a contrast to the kind of righteousness that Christ requires His people to have when He said, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” (Matt 5:16) And again, “Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogue and in the streets, that they may have glory of men.” (Matt 6:1-2).”     

And so we must avoid all these four things – external righteousness, partial obedience to the law, redefining the standard of righteousness, and self-centered righteousness. Let us now consider what are some of the areas that we must do better than the scribes and Pharisees. Let me mention four things. 

4. What We Must Do Better?

Firstly, we must be concerned about evangelism. You may ask, “what has this got to do with the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees?” Christ said to them 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 for the sake of making just one convert.

Now it is true that the LORD marked the scribes and Pharisees as evangelists of hell, but there’s no denying that they were very zealous about the work of evangelism. They put us to shame in their zeal and enthusiasm even as many modern day cults put true Christians to shame. Oh may the Lord enable us to exceed the Pharisees and the cults in our evangelistic zeal! Unlike them, we have the true gospel of Jesus Christ. Let us do more for its spread. Let us be much more in prayer for the souls of unconverted men, women and children, and for the raising up of more gospel ministers. And let us spend more time and effort to think about how we can bring the gospel to others and especially to bring them to hear the preaching of the Word. There’s always more that we can do in this area.

A number of years ago, I read an article on the desperate need for missionaries to re-evangelize Europe. Islam is fast sweeping across the continent while at the same time the number of evangelicals is dropping fast. According to that article, Germany would be a Muslim country in 70 years through multiplication of the large families of immigrant Muslims. Yes, we must avoid all unbiblical forms and methods of evangelism. But at the same time, let us not lose the 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 in evangelism?       


Secondly, we must tithe. The Pharisees were tithers par excellence. Our Lord, in Matthew 23:23, acknowledged that they were very scrupulous and thorough in their giving, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, 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.” In those days, the tithe was usually paid in terms of produce or livestock. The first fruits of the crop and herds were returned to the LORD. Now the Pharisees were so careful about tithing that they even tithed from their mint and cummin. That would be equivalent in our day to a person who, if you gave him 10 cents, would be very careful to return 1 cent to the Lord.

In their desire and zeal to be religious and to do what is right, the Pharisees overemphasized the small acts of righteousness. We may laugh at the Pharisees for majoring in the minors and even judge them harshly for neglecting the weightier matters of the law. But let us be mindful not to go to the other extreme of neglecting altogether the little things in life and so end up robbing God. How tempting it is for us to downplay these small acts such that we end up neglecting both the small and the great matters. Again, I remind us of the words of Christ in Luke 16:10, “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much, and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much.”

We must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees by giving carefully, and yet at the same time 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. Someone once said, “When you are deciding on the amount to give, don’t ask, how much should I give to the Lord. Instead ask, how much of the Lord’s substance should I keep back for my own use.” No one could accuse the Pharisees of robbing God of 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, and were designed to draw attention to themselves and not to the Lord.

They knew nothing of the kind of wrestling with God that David, for example, knew in his prayer life. While David’s pillow was wet with tears, the scribes and Pharisees’ pillows were as dry as the desert ground. But as least the Pharisees prayed. At least they went through the motion of it. Some of us are so barren in our prayer life that we don’t even go through the motion. Now the Pharisees probably weren’t very zealous about praying in private since the crowds could not fit into their prayer closets, but at least they were men of public prayer. Shouldn’t we be a people who are zealous of both private and public 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, “Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life:” This verse may be translated, “You search the scriptures for in them you think you have eternal life.” In other words, Christ acknowledged that they did well in searching the scriptures. Now there was no question that the Pharisees were very learned in the scriptures. They could recite large portions of it from memory.

The problem was that they thought 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 it from memory. Sadly, they missed its heart and soul. For all their study, they missed the One who is the key and the central theme of all scriptures, namely Christ Jesus. In Luke 24:44-45, Christ said to the disciples, “These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me. Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures.” 


The scribes and Pharisees did not understand the scriptures because they did not see Christ in it. But at least they were diligent in searching it. Many of us pale in comparison to them in the time and effort we spend studying God’s Word. Let us not forget that the righteousness that pleases God is a righteousness that proceeds from studying, hearing and keeping His word.

Evangelism, tithing, prayer and bible study. These are but a few of the rigorous activities that the scribes and Pharisees were engaged in. In all these things they excelled. But they were hypocrites. They went through the outward motions of piety but their hearts were far from God. They kept the letter of the law but killed the spirit of the law.

The Bible tells us that man looks at outward appearances but God looks on the heart. This is not to say that God cares only for the spirit of the law and not the letter of it. We cannot excuse external disobedience by appealing to an obedient heart within. The Christian life that pleases God is one that is both internal and external. Authentic righteousness keeps both the spirit and the letter. Inward faith and outward works go hand in hand.     


As we end, let us ask ourselves this question: Does our righteousness indeed exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees? Christ teaches that unless it absolutely exceeds theirs’, we will in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. But remember that by ourselves, there is no way we can do it. In many ways, the scribes and Pharisees represent the highest level of righteousness achievable by fallen men apart from the grace of God. If we strive with all of our own might, we will at best be on par with the Pharisees. But if we want to far surpass and exceed them, we absolutely need the grace and strength of God. God alone can enable us to have the righteousness that is pleasing and acceptable in His sight. 

And even after we have received the grace of God in regeneration and conversion, we still struggle to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees because of the corruption of nature that still cleaves to us. Satan ever places before us the temptation to go to either extreme. On the one hand, we must fight against the temptation to disregard God’s law and to become lax or careless or indifferent about the way we conduct our lives. Let us constantly bring to remembrance the words of Matthew 5:19, “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.”

But on the other hand, there’s the temptation and danger of becoming just like the Pharisees, concerned with the letter but not the spirit of the law, concerned merely with fulfilling the law in an outward sense and maintaining the appearance of being righteous in the eyes of others, especially fellow believers. The Pharisaical movement started off very well but later degenerated into something ugly and repulsive. These people went from being Puritans to Pharisees. Those of us who stand in the Reformed and Puritan tradition must be especially mindful of this second danger. If we are not careful, we will become Pharisees. Let us also constantly bring to remembrance the words of Matthew 5:20, “that except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

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