Updated: Jun 16, 2019
A reflection upon:
"For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees,
you will never enter into the kingdom of heaven."
In order to properly understand the statement which Jesus makes, it’s beneficial to consider the existing context by which He made this statement in order get a clear picture of what He was expressing to His disciples- after all, this statement is the climax or culmination of Jesus’ thought, as the following verse shoes us that Jesus changes the topic that He desired to address entirely. Previously, we see how Jesus introduces His disciples to the topic that they must exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees by stating:
“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to abolish/destroy but to fulfill.”(Matthew 5:17)
By starting His address to the topic in this manner, Jesus appears to be easing the uncertainty and doubts of those hearing Him concerning His work and ministry. “Do not think that I..” To whom was our Lord speaking to when saying this? The opening verses of chapter 5 shows us:
“When [Jesus] saw the crowds, He went up on the mountain, and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. Then He began to teach them, saying..”(Matthew 5:1-2)
He is not speaking to the multitudes in a public and open setting, He has withdrawn upon a mountain top where only His faithful followers decided to follow Him when He addresses/ prepares them with verse 17 of our text- “Do not think I cam to abolish [destroy] the Law or the Prophets.” What motivation would Jesus have in making such a statement? There is no doubt that this may have sounded completely out of the blue- after all, there is no prior instance where the disciples remotely questioned Jesus. Which is why, there is no doubt that Jesus makes this statement in order to address the questions arising in the disciple’s heart, not caused from the disciple’s interaction(s) with Jesus, but rather by the thoughts implanted in the minds of the disciples by those who withstood/ stood in opposition to Jesus: The Pharisees.
To better understand who the Pharisees were in order to understand the “overall picture”, some historical facts to keep in mind:
1. The Pharisees were a sect [group] of the Jewish faith whose self imposed name literally translates into “Set apart”, which is the definition of holy/sanctified.
2. By the time Jesus was manifested in the flesh, the Pharisees had already been established as a religious sect for about 200 years.
3. The Pharisees believed that Israel had fallen from God’s favor and desired to re-establish that good standing with God by adhering and devoting themselves to everything written in the Law [in Matthew 23:23, Jesus said they went to the extent of tithing the leaves of their mint trees!] and wanted to hold onto their Jewish identity/culture by strictly upholding Jewish traditions because Israel was experiencing a Hellenistic period [Israel’s culture was mixing with Greek culture and this caused the Pharisees to believe God was angry because of this].
To the average Jew living during that time period, the Pharisees were the religious “White knights” that fought for a pure, unadulterated Jewish faith and Jewish culture which would bring them into good favor in the sight of God. It is precisely this which caused the Pharisees to despise Jesus: He came from Nazareth, which was considered to be the “ghetto”, He moved to Capernaum which was a poor fishing village that was heavily influenced by Greek culture and decided to make that the HQ of His ministry, and His closest disciples [followers/students] consisted of fishermen, tax collectors, and pretty much the “scum” and outcasts of society. The Pharisees constantly stood in opposition to Jesus and attempted to hinder/stop/discredit Him by trying to find any excuse to prove Him as a false teacher working by the power of Satan. Mark chapter 2 shows us the start of this animosity, which was also shortly after He began His ministry- Jesus forgives a paralytic man of his sins [which the Pharisees claimed was blasphemy], shortly later they instruct the disciples to ask Jesus why He permits them to eat food without first washing their hands [which was a Jewish tradition upheld by the Jews, including John the Baptist's disciples], and ends with them accusing Jesus of breaking the Law because He healed someone on the Sabbath, and thus practicing lawlessness. So in order to ease their doubts and prepare them for the further opposition they would face, Jesus first addresses what was bothering them, and reminds them of His purpose:
“I did not come to destroy the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill..”
Jesus then expands upon this with the next verse:
“For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass away from the law until all things are accomplished.”(18)
With this, Jesus assures the disciples of the authority which the Law has: as the source and origin of the Law was God Himself, and because God spoke the Law to Moses to give to Israel, those to whom the Law was given to [Israel] was required to obey lest they suffer the consequences/penalty [in this case, death]. And it is precisely for this reason why Jesus finishes His thought with the statement:
“For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven.”(Matthew 5:20)
“Earth and heaven itself might pass away, but the authority and power of the Law will not fail to have authority.” It’s for this reason that Jesus says to His disciples they must exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees. Because the Pharisees were devoted to the Law, loved the Law, upheld the Law, and yet Jesus says of the Pharisees later on [in a public setting]:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you yourselves do not enter in and you do not allow those entering in. Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to make one convert [disciple], and when he becomes one, you make him twice as fit for hell as you are!"(Matthew 23:13,15)
It is precisely this which produces a bit of confusion: “If the Pharisees will not enter the kingdom of heaven, and all of their disciples are considered to be twice as fit for hell as them, why does Jesus tell His own disciples that they are to surpass the Pharisees' righteousness? It seems like a paradox.”
However, this statement of Jesus is cleared up when looking back to the opening statement of His thought: “I did not come to destroy the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill..” The error of the Pharisees was the fact that they boasted in the Law and in their righteousness. The Spirit of Christ, speaking through the prophet Isaiah foretold of Israel’s failure in the sight of God and more importantly alluded to the eventual Pharisees when He said:
“I [God] spread out My hands [a symbol of generosity and mercy] all day long to a rebellious people who walk in the path that is not good, following their own thoughts. These people continually anger Me to My face… They say, ‘Keep to yourself, don’t come near me, for I am holier than you!’ These practices are like smoke to My nostrils, a fire that burns all day long.”(Isaiah 65:2,5)
This was the attitude of the Pharisees: they considered themselves superior to everyone else because they were “holy” or “sanctified” because of their efforts. Remember the meaning of the name Pharisee? Remember who started calling them Pharisees? Themselves. They were so devoted to the Law that they thought they were good and failed to realize that it was impossible to fulfill the entirety of the Law. They were boasting in something that condemned them, all the while rejecting the only One who actually fulfilled the Law in it’s entirety: Jesus. The Prophets prophesied of the Messiah/Savior who would save Israel from their enemies and establish His kingdom, and Jesus was precisely that. Yet through His teachings, He made it known that Israel’s enemy was not Rome [who had dominion over Israel], nor was it Greece and the Greek culture that had mingled with the Jewish culture, but rather their enemy was themselves. Their corruptible nature which stood in a stark contrast to God’s nature.
What was created and established first: Man, or the Law? Was it not man? Was Adam not formed out of the dust of the earth hundreds of years before God ever made mention of the Law to Moses? What then do you suppose is more valuable in God's sight? For what purpose then was the Law even established?
Initially, as a means for Israel to benefit. “You have been corrupted in My sight, yet to show My mercy I will give you a Law to adhere to, so that you might stand in My presence and stand in a covenant with Me- the benefit of which allows you to receive blessings from Me.”
However time revealed it’s true purpose: To convict all of sin, condemning all to hell. Despite receiving the Law, time itself proved that the Law which God gave was impossible to fulfill in it’s entirety. Just consider Israel’s history: The “best” from among Israel all failed in one way or another. Moses himself [who was the very instrument by which the Law was given through] failed God at the waters of Meribah which resulted in God forbidding him to enter the promise land. David [of whom it is written had a heart set after God’s own heart and desired to accomplish God’s will] used his position as king to commit adultery and sought to cover his sin by planning out the murder of an innocent man. All the “great” men of faith fell short of the standard and glory of God as it was revealed in the Law.
Yet this also sets up the perfect backdrop for what the disciples were currently witnessing: the mercy and grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ. There is a penalty demanded of by the Law: death. Because Jesus was [and is] the only One who will ever/can ever fulfill the Law in all of its entirety, He is the only One who has the right to lay hold of the benefit of the covenant which God made with man. Despite this, He does not take advantage of it for His own right and benefit but contrarily chose to be made into a propitiation for our sin [a sacrifice that appeases the rightful judgement which the Law demanded] so that He might freely justify whomever He chooses [because again, He’s the only One that will ever fulfill the Law]. He makes this statement, not to encourage the disciples to follow after the manner of the Pharisees, but rather to show them the extent of the grace they were receiving! Later on in His ministry, Jesus reaffirms the glory of the grace that the disciples were receiving because of His righteousness when speaking of John the Baptist as well, of whom He says:
“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one greater than John the Baptist has appeared, but the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”(Matthew 11:11)
What motivated Jesus to say this? Was it to belittle John the Baptist and his ministry? Certainly not! But rather to further show the extent of the working of Jesus’ righteousness in the hearts of those who are entering into the kingdom of heaven by way of Jesus. That’s why Jesus gives the sermon on the Mount [Matthew 5-7], He was pretty much saying: “Here are the conditions for God’s kingdom, here are God’s values. If you want to enter into it, your gonna have to either submit to it, or you better be a lot better than the Pharisees- that is, be perfect." That is why, when contemplating the glory of Christ Paul writes this:
“For [God, the Father] made [Jesus] who knew no sin become sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God through Him by faith.”(II Corinthians 5:21)
After being saved from the condemnation of the Law, Jesus [by means of the Holy Spirit which He freely gives to any and all who ask] also delivers us from the power of the Law by causing us to walk in a manner which is blameless in the sight of the Law. In the book of Romans, Paul alludes to this when saying:
“Do we then nullify the Law through faith? Absolutely not! On the contrary, we establish the Law!”(Romans 3:31)
Because Jesus fulfilled the Law, He [through the Holy Spirit] offers us the means in which He is able to fully display His righteousness by:
1. Delivering us from the condemnation of sin.
2. Delivering us from our sin which condemned us in the first place.
All of this deals with faith, and one’s growth/maturity in the faith. Some people’s faith is only at the level that Jesus delivered them from the condemnation of their sin, while others have been delivered from their sins. Is one to be praised while the other condemned? No, because it’s the exact same righteousness at work: the righteousness of Jesus. It’s the equivalent of comparing Jesus to Jesus and saying, "my Jesus is better" when in reality it’s the exact same person- there is no partiality!
So to answer the question, Jesus was trying to show the extent of His righteousness and how it was only His righteousness which surpassed the Pharisees’ righteousness. And it’s precisely for this reason that it’s only through/by the righteousness of Jesus that we are able to enter into the kingdom of Heaven because we are saved by the grace of Jesus Christ alone, not the “righteous works” done of ourselves [the Spirit of Christ speaking through Isaiah likens our righteous deeds to being filthy rags in Isaiah 64:6]. This righteousness also [with much patience] works in our hearts over time to deliver us from our sins, allowing us to walk in a manner which not even the Law itself can accuse/condemn us. Jesus nullified the penalty of the Law [“Not the smallest letter of the Law will fail until all is accomplished”, which Jesus alone accomplished], yet gives us a source to draw upon in order to overcome the power of the Law and lawlessness.