Sermon on the Mount: Righteousness That Exceeds the Pharisees

By Keith Sharp

The sermon on the Mount is the formal announcement by the Master of the nature of the righteousness of the kingdom of Heaven. The theme of this magnificent discourse is stated in 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 into the kingdom of heaven.”

To understand this statement is to comprehend the relationship of Christ to law and to understand our means of being righteous in the sight of God. How is our righteousness to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees? How important is it that we have this righteousness?

The Lord’s demand must have thoroughly shocked His audience. To the humble Jews of that period, the scribes and Pharisees were the very epitome of righteousness. But, in reality, Christ repeatedly condemned the scribes and Pharisees in scathing terms for their utter lack of true righteousness (Matt. 6:1-2, 5, 16; 23:13, 15, 16, 23, 25, 27, 29). Primarily, Jesus requires our righteousness to surpass Pharasaic righteousness in “kind.” We must have a different kind of righteousness than the scribes and Pharisees, if we are to enter the kingdom of Heaven.

How can we obtain this higher kind of righteousness? The Pharisees “trusted in themselves that they were righteous” (Lk. 18:9-14). They supposed their purity had earned them salvation. This led the Pharisees to devise human plans and traditions to get around the parts of God’s law which they did not desire to keep (cf. Mt. 15:1-9; Mk. 7:1-14; Rom. 10:1-3) and to compare themselves to sinners worse than themselves rather than to the perfect standard of the law of God (Lk. 18:11; cf. 2 Cor. 10:12). In contrast, our righteousness must be the result of merciful pardon from a gracious Father (Rom. 3:21-28), as we humbly recognize our own guilt of sin (Lk. 18:13) and submit to God’s will (Mt. 7:21). Without this righteousness by pardon as the result of humble, trusting obedience, we cannot be saved, for this is the requirement for entrance into the kingdom of Heaven (Mt. 5:20). But our righteousness must also excel that of the scribes and Pharisees in “degree.” How is this? By strict adherence to the law of God in both teaching and practice (cf. Gal. 1:6-9; Col. 3:17; 1 Tim. 6:3-5; 2 Tim. 1:13; Heb. 8:1-5; 1 Pet. 4:11; 2 Jn. 9; Rev. 22:18-19).

Adherents of the “Free Men in Christ” unity cult brand those who demand strict adherence to the law of Christ as “legalists” and “Pharisees.” Are they correct? In part of a lengthy definition of “legalism,” one of these libertines stated:

Legalism . . . is obviously an attempt to be related to God upon the basis of law (Harold Key, “The Threat of Legalism,” Mission Messenger, Feb., 1963, p. 18).

If this be “legalism,” I plead guilty as charged. After all, it was the Lord Who warned, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21). Rather sounds to me as though my relationship to God depends upon my keeping His law.

However, I emphatically deny the “Pharisee” charge. The Lord Jesus Christ never condemned a Pharisee, nor any one else, for teaching and practicing rigid observance of divine law. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, in that they said and did not (Matt. 23:1-4). In contrast, I believe we must be “doers of the word, and not hearers only” (Jas. 1:22-25). The Lord condemned the Pharisees for doing their works to be seen of men (Mt. 23:5-7), whereas we should seek God’s approval, not man’s (Mt. 6:2-6, 16-18). The Pharisees loosed the law of God to keep their own traditions (Mt. 15:1-9; 23:16-22; Mk. 7:1-14), but Christians must disregard human traditions to observe the law of Christ (Col. 2:8-10). Pharisees kept the small details of the law while disregarding the weightier matters (Mt. 23:23-24), whereas we must obey all the law (Mt. 23:23-24; Jas. 2:10-11). The righteousness of the Pharisees consisted of outward, ceremonial observations empty of any true love for God, as proven by their obstinate disobedience (Matt. 23:25-33). We must obey from the heart to be saved (Rom. 6:17-18).

Dear friend, except your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you cannot be saved. Your righteousness must surpass theirs in kind, as the result of the forgiveness of sins based upon humble, trusting obedience. Your righteousness must exceed theirs in degree, as you strictly strive to serve God from your heart and pray for forgiveness when you stumble. Does your righteousness exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees?

Truth Magazine XXI: 48, p. 754
December 8, 1977