“For I tell you that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
Jesus said that a person couldn’t enter the kingdom unless their righteousness exceeded that of the scribes and Pharisees. One might be inclined to ask: What, exactly, was the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees? And how can we exceed it?
To answer the first question in a word: self-righteousness.
The difference between what righteousness is, and what the scribes and Pharisees considered righteousness to be, could not have been more different. Jesus was drawing a contrast between self-righteousness and true righteousness.
Righteousness in scripture is a legal term usually describing the condition of being tried and convicted, but still being pronounced innocent by a judge. Such a condition cannot be earned by merit or purchased with bribes. It can only be imparted by grace (Eph. 2:8-9) and received as a gift (Rom. 5:17).
Self-righteousness (what Jesus meant when he referred to the “righteousness” of the scribes and Pharisees) is an attitude of entitlement. It considers gifts received as payment due. It is necessarily filled with pride and is joined to the hip of hypocrisy.
To the contrary, true righteousness can only be imparted by God. Though its offer comes freely, it is not received unconditionally. True enough, God provided an adequate substitution to stand in for and accept the punishment of the guilty party (see Genesis 22:8; John 1:29; Rev. 13:8), but the guilty party must be receptive to any conditions set forth to the reception of those benefits.
Jesus taught that one must demonstrate his or her love and gratitude for God’s grace by believing in His Son, Jesus (John 8:24), by confessing faith in Jesus (Rom. 10:9-10), by repentance from sin (Luke 13:3,5), and contacting Jesus’ atoning blood through immersion in water (Acts 2:38; Romans 6:1-4).
Upon meeting these conditions, one can be called any one or all of these parallel terms, and others like them: saved, redeemed, pardoned, purchased, etc. Or, it can be said that they have entered the kingdom, or that they have been pronounced righteous, or justified, in the sight of God.
This is righteousness.
How do we exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees?
“Scribes and Pharisees” represents the religious guardians of Jesus’ day. They denied the necessity of any of the above. They considered themselves already righteous, either by their rigid adherence to God’s word, or as a right of inheritance through Abraham, or both.
As far as exceeding their righteousness, it is not doing more good deeds, or being on your best behavior, though there is certainly nothing wrong with good deeds or behavior. But it is not a contest of points. It is a contrast of heart.
This is about going from outside the kingdom to inside the kingdom. Jesus was trying to help everyone see – scribes and Pharisees included – that self-righteousness, or assumed righteousness, leaves oned alienated — lost. Only through the gracious offer of their Messiah, Jesus, could they be helped.
As a point of application, it reminds us today that one must never assume, but seek. One must take nothing for granted. One must assume he could be wrong, or that his teacher could be wrong. One must imagine he or she might have misunderstood. Anything less will not do.
Self-righteousness keeps people from the kingdom. It keeps people in the kingdom from growing. It leads people who once entered the kingdom right back out.
If our only righteousness is self-righteousness, it is no righteousness at all.