For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:20
The Jewish religious leaders in Jesus’ day were the custodians and interpreters of the law. The Pharisees, an elite group among them, spent their every waking moment trying to understand and keep the law. They even taught that God Himself spent His days studying the law in heaven. It was their entire life.
But it wasn’t just the Old Testament law that they were concerned about; they had added to that what they called the oral law. The Pharisees had elevated the oral law to the same importance as that of the written law, believing it to be not only as binding as the written law but, in some cases, even more so. But the oral law was nothing more than human opinion and tradition. It was this oral tradition that Jesus was constantly in conflict with the Pharisees over, not the written law of God.
On this occasion, Jesus said something to His disciples that completely shocked them: “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (5:20). Now although many of the religious leaders were self-righteous and hypocritical, some among them were good, sincere men. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were two of them. So when Jesus spoke of “the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees,” He was talking about the best scribes and Pharisees—the best that man’s efforts could produce.
So when He said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds theirs, you can’t enter the kingdom of heaven,” it would have completely stunned His listeners. To them, the scribes and Pharisees were the most holy men there were. These men listening to Jesus would have been asking, “Is there another way of salvation? because we can be saved if that’s the standard.”
Actually, that’s exactly what the law was intended to cause us to do. God’s intention was that when we were confronted with the law, we would see our inability to keep it and cry out for another way to be saved. The disciples responded exactly the way we should when faced with God’s righteous standard.
The Gospel of Grace
This is where the gospel comes in. We can’t do it, but Jesus did it. And because He lived perfectly, He was able to become the sin bearer. Through what He did, we are able to become righteous, as God transfers the righteousness of Christ to our account.
That’s the gospel. That’s where we must stand. Jesus did all the work, and we’re going to heaven on His coattails. Not one of us has any righteousness of our own, even if we spend every waking moment studying and working to keep the law. No. We’re to trust in Jesus for the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.
When we realize the impossibility of saving ourselves, of being good enough to earn our way into God’s favor, that is when the righteousness of Christ becomes so sweet. Sometimes the most appropriate response is to just thank and praise God for His grace.