Matthew 5:20

“For I say unto you,
That except your righteousness
shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees,
ye shall in no case enter the kingdom of heaven.”

In the context of Matthew 5, Jesus had something startling to say about the righteousness of the Scribes and the Pharisees, who were important leaders in the Jewish community in the time of Christ. In order to appreciate the words of the Lord, a brief review is needed about these religious leaders in Israel.

The Scribes were copiers of the Law. They devoted themselves to the study and the interpretation of the Law of Moses, which was civil, ceremonial, and social. Because they studied the Scriptures so closely, the Scribes were often asked questions about the 613 provisions of the Law. From their studies, the Scribes would teach select disciples in order to continue their trade, and preserve sacred Scripture.

When Jesus appeared, the Scribes became insanely jealous of Him because Jesus attracted a large following, and because He knew the Bible better than they. So, the Scribes found fault with much that Jesus and His disciples said and did. Petty accusations began to be spread in order to discredit Jesus. It was said Jesus violated the Sabbath because He healed a crippled woman on that day (Luke 13:14). It was said the disciples of Jesus did not honor the traditions of their Elders because they neglected some forms of ceremonial washing before eating a meal (Matt. 15:1-20). Though they were false, the accusations of the Scribes against Christ were wearisome.

The Pharisees, like the Scribes, were religious.

The Pharisees viewed themselves as the elite among the elect of Israel.

In some areas, the Pharisees were worthy of praise. Many of their beliefs were sound in Scripture.

The Pharisees held to the doctrine of predestination.

They believed in a sovereign God who could do what He wanted with His creation.

They believed in the immortality of the soul, in the resurrection of the body, and in the existence of angels.

The Pharisees taught that men are rewarded, or punished, in the future life, in as far as they lived virtuously, or viciously, in this life.

The Pharisees believed the souls of the wicked shall be forever in prison under the earth, while worthy spirits shall rise and live again.

The doctrine of predestination, the sovereignty of God, the immorality of the soul, the bodily resurrection of the dead, and eternal reward and punishment are doctrines which conservative Christians believe today.

There was another area the Pharisees were worthy of praise. As a group, the Pharisees sincerely wanted to keep the Law of Moses, completely.  That is a commendable motive. When the Scribes and Pharisees kept the Law of Moses, they were declared righteous in the sight of God. Honor was given where honor was deserved. Jesus acknowledged the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, and then used it to make an astonishing pronouncement. It is a pronouncement that R. C. Sproul said, for him, contained the most terrifying words in the Bible.

Jesus said,

“except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20).

The question a thoughtful person will ask is this.

“Does my righteousness exceed that of the Scribes and the Pharisees?”

“Am I more zealous than they in knowing the Bible?”

“Am I more concerned about personal purity?”

“Am I more evangelistic than the Scribes and Pharisees, who would circle the globe to make one convert?”

“Am I more faithful to give to God’s work from my financial resources to advance His cause and kingdom?”

The Pharisees were extremely generous with their tithes, and gave far more than the Law required.

“Do I pray more than the Scribes and Pharisees?”

“Do I offer thanksgiving to God more than they?”

“Is my theology more sound, more insightful, than the Scribes and the Pharisees?”

“Does my righteousness exceed that of the Scribes and the Pharisees?”

Jesus recognized the righteousness the Pharisees manifested, and told His disciples that their righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees, or they would never enter the kingdom of heaven. Consider, then, how to have an exceeding righteousness.

First, a righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees is a righteousness with purer motives. Later, Jesus would reveal that the Scribes and the Pharisees acted only to be seen of men (Matt. 23:5). The religious leaders of Israel wanted others to think highly of them. They wanted to have a place of honor in the social circles in which they moved. They were God-conscience, and spoke often about the Law of Moses, but their motive in living in a religious manner was wrong.

A lesson is learned.

When God looks on the heart, He notices not only what we do, but why we do what we do. If something good is done with the wrong motive, God will know it. Ananias and Saphira did something good in the early Church. They sold a piece of property and gave money to the work of ministry. But their motive was wrong, and led them to lie to the Holy Ghost. As a result, they died a sin unto death (Acts 5:1-11). Let us strive to serve the Lord with pure motives. The motive is pure, when one desires to honor God.

After he composed a piece of church music, Johann Sebastian Bach (March 21, 1685 – July 28, 1750) wrote the initials “S.D.G.” – Soli deo Gloria, meaning, “To God alone be the glory!” Bach wanted to honor God. The motive is pure, when there is a willingness to help someone without any self-interest, without a quid pro que (Latin, “something for something”). The motive is pure, when the heart’s desire is to live righteously because it is the right thing to do, not because there is a desire to feel better about one’s self, or, there is fear of social censorship. Virtue is its own reward.

Second, a righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, is one whereby the Laws of the Lord are kept from the heart. Life must be lived in sincerity and in truth. The Scribes and the Pharisees did not sincerely live a good religious life, which is why Jesus called them hypocrites (Gk. “one who hides behind a mask”).  There are people who have a dark side to their soul. In private, in the home, they are much different than their public persona. Sometimes, pure evil is present under the cover of darkness.

Between 1974 and 1991,        in Wichita, and Park City, Kansas, in Christ Lutheran Church, a religious leader by the name of Dennis Radar secretly operated as the BTK murderer. BTK stood for “Bind,” “Torture,” “Kill. “Without mercy Dennis Radar hurt other people.

While his case may be an extreme example, the pseudo-righteousness he put on display was real, and serves as a warning. If we want to have a righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, we must not commit soul murder, and make someone a two-fold child of Hell.

 Our faith must be authentic.

Our life must be sincere.

Only then can the heart rejoice and sing the little chorus, “Rolled Away.” 

Rolled away, rolled away, rolled away
Every burden on my heart rolled away.
Rolled away, rolled away, rolled away

Every burden on my heart rolled away.
All my sin had to go,
‘Neath the crimson flow.

Rolled away, rolled away, rolled away
Every burden on my heart rolled away.”

Third, a righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, is a righteousness that does not go beyond Scripture. To the written Law of Moses, the Scribes and Pharisees added Oral Traditions, which became viewed as binding on individuals. Some of the added burdens on people placed by the religious leaders were silly. The silliness of the Scribes and Pharisees find some descendants in modern Judaism.

In the summer of 2020, some Orthodox rules were passed in Israel. 

Hunchbacks must not bend near a synagogue, even if it hurts.

Lice must not be killed on Shabbat.

Hebrew newspapers must not be read in the bathroom – but English is allowed.

Jews must not donate organs to a Gentile – but receiving a Gentile organ is allowed.

Entering public places, including hospitals and hotels, where body temperature is measured at the entrance with infrared thermometers or other technical devices, violates the sanctity of Shabbat (Arthur Schwartzman on July 11, 2020, “Silly Rabbinical Rules and the True Meaning of Torah”;

If we want a righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, then we must not be a legalist. In the quest to have holy standards, let us not go beyond Scripture.

Fourth, a righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, is a righteousness that will render a just judgment. There are situations in life that demand evaluation, and an objective judgment, based on the truth. Because the Lord has made us, Christians, kings unto our God, according to Revelation 1:5, we are to pass judgment on many things, but in the right way.

It is the Church that sits in judgment on the world, and declares what is right and what is wrong in society, according to the objective standard of the Word of God. Is abortion right, or wrong? Is homosexuality right, or wrong? Are state, and federal taxes fair, or is greed, exploration, and mismanagement present? Is false doctrine being preached, or is the gospel being proclaimed? Christians must decide. The early Church understood its responsibility, and often sat in ecclesiastical judgment.

When writing to the Church in Corinth, Paul judged a situation that arose concerning a man who was having an inappropriate relationship. Paul said,

“For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed,

Then, Paul told the local Church what they were to do.

“In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, 5 To deliver such a one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” (1 Cor. 5:3, 4-5).

Jesus said,

“Where two or three are gathered together, [to render Church discipline] there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20).

When the Church does sit in judgment, Jesus said,

“Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24).

If the words of Jesus are not honored, the tendency is to pass an unjust judgment on others based on imaginary motives, or a subjective whim guided by raw emotions. That is what the Scribes and Pharisees often did. Some of the Pharisees accepted bribes, like the family of the high priest, Annas. If we want a righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes and the Pharisees, let the Church begin to righteously judge situations in self, in society, and in the Church.

Fifth, if we as Christians would have a righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees, then let there be a righteous anger, if anger is expressed at all. Anger is a very destructive emotion. Some people seem to be angry all the time. New phrases have been created to accommodate acts of anger. Today, we talk about “Road Rage. “There are “anger management” counselors.

The term “serial killer” was not coined until 1974. Listening to a lecture at the British police academy at Bramshill, England, FBI agent and profiler, Robert Ressler, observed how some crimes were being described as occurring in series, including rapes, arsons, burglaries, robberies, and murders.

Ressler would later say the descriptions reminded him of the movie industry term “serial adventure,” which referred to short episodes like The Perils of Pauline and The Lone Ranger, where there was never a conclusion. People were deliberately left wondering what would happen next. From 1974 on, distinctions began to be made between mass murderers and serial killers.

There are some technical differences.

A mass murderer is illustrated by James Holmes who, in Auroa, Colorado on July 20, 2012, opened fire in a movie theater filled with Batman fans as they sat with their popcorn in the dark. Twelve people died, and 70 more were wounded.

A more recent example took place on Wednesday, May 3, 2013.

A teenager opened fire at his school in Belgrade, Serbia’s capital. Eight children were killed, and a school guard were killed.

Six more children and a teacher were hospitalized.

Mass murders slaughter as many people as possible, and then they are done.

Ted Bundy is an illustration of a serial killer, who is a person who repeats their killings in an unending “serial” cycle for power, or pleasure, often trying to satisfy an inner rage.

The Christian is to hate no one, and is commanded to put away anger.

This is not easy to do, but it is the will of the Lord, for there is no place for anger, without a just cause.

Jonah was a man who was angry without a cause.

“And God said to Jonah, ‘Do you well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:9).

The Scribes and Pharisees were often angry because they were so critical of everyone and everything. Criticism produces anger, which produces hate, and hate leads to murder, physically, or, in the heart. There is bodily murder, and there is soul murder.

If we want a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, then anger issues must be brought under the control of the Holy Spirit, for the fruit of the Spirit is “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith” (Gal. 5:22).

Finally, if we would have a righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, we must have a righteousness that is rooted, not in self, but in Jesus. The Bible says that Christ Jesus is made unto us “wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30).

If we want a righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees, then let us embrace an alien righteousness which is rooted in Christ, and say to Jesus,

“Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling.”

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