The Righteousness of the Pharisees

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said,

…except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, you shall in no way enter the Kingdom of God.” (Matthew 5:20)

At first glance, one may think this would be impossible to do, but on the other hand, weren’t the Pharisees the men going around Jerusalem condemning Christ and persecuting His followers?

Saul, the man who later became the apostle Paul, was a Pharisee before his conversion and was responsible for persecuting many Christians. How could these people ever be considered righteous? Unquestionably, it should be fairly easy to be more righteous than the Scribes and Pharisees when considering the hypocrisy, graft, and corruption they participated in—right?

To better understand this issue, let’s look at the history of the Pharisees. The Pharisees were relative newcomers to the Hebraic religious traditions that had its formal beginnings with Moses, some 1400 years before. Comparatively, they had only been around for about 200 hundred years before Christ’s incarnation and existed for approximately another sixty years after His crucifixion.

The term Pharisee means the separate ones, or separatists. As a religious group they were distinguished most of all for their zeal for preserving the “duty” to the Law. They had won the favour of the rest of the population by virtue of the stress they laid upon religious interests and their extreme piety to those obligations. Though they did allow some Greek Hellenistic teachings or ideas to encroach their Jewish thinking, they remained firmly zealous towards the Law. Admittedly, they were so loyal to the Law they could have easily been considered “legislators of righteousness.” This reputation grew over the years because they did not hesitate to enrich the traditions established by Ezra and the Scribes by adding laws of piety.

The Pharisees were fixated on the Law of Moses. They were convinced the Law could be applied to all circumstances in everyday life. Their opponents, the Sadducees, comprised mainly the aristocratic and priestly classes, who rejected the pharisaic belief in the resurrection, an afterlife, angels, and Messianic redemption. Nevertheless, the Pharisees had a measure of respect from the general population because they came from the ordinary people. Their mission was to bring the study of the Law of Moses to everyone, not just the upper class of society, as the Sadducees did. They were also respected because they stood up to Roman authority. The Pharisees kept the Jewish tradition front and centre in the midst of an oppressive Roman autocratic state. If it were possible to ask a Pharisee if he were righteous, the answer would be a resounding yes, because they claimed to keep all the teachings of the Law, which they understood as the qualifier.

However, in modern times, the word Pharisee has taken on a new meaning. In Webster’s Dictionary, the word Pharisee, a noun, is defined as “a hypocrite; a self righteous person.” It goes without saying that the word has a very negative connotation and it gets worse. Hypocrite means: “a pretence of virtue or religious devotion.” These are traits a Christian must avoid at all costs.

We see evidence of this hypocrisy during Jesus’ mission on Earth. In Luke 6:6, Jesus heals the man with a paralyzed hand on the Sabbath day, yet the Pharisees accused Him of breaking the Law, misconstruing the healing as work on the seventh day Sabbath. They didn’t realize Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath.

In Luke 18:9, two men are praying at the temple. The Pharisee tells God how righteous he is by keeping the Law and claiming that he’s not a sinner. Beside him is a tax collector, confessing all his sins and asking God to have mercy on him. Jesus tells his disciples which one of them God hears—the tax collector.

Every Christian must desire to enter the Kingdom of God, first above all things (Matthew 5:33). But to do so, we’ve been told, we must exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees. So it would do us well to consider the reality that we must move beyond human righteousness, which is what the Pharisees had too much of and grossly misunderstood.

Webster’s Dictionary defines righteousness as: “conforming to the moral law; for anyone to be righteous, they must conform or obey the law.”

But it’s more than just that when it comes to God’s definition. We can keep all the Laws and Commandments we want, yet we won’t be any better off than the Pharisees, if we don’t have the Holy Spirit dwelling within us and guiding us towards “godly righteousness.”

The fact is, we can only be made righteous by justification through the shed blood of Jesus Christ, which provides grace or unmerited pardon; and through faith in Christ’s sacrifice we are made righteous (Ephesians 2:4-10). This is an important distinction to make if we intend to exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees!

Remember, what the scriptures say about human righteousness. They are as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). This makes our task of becoming more righteous than the Pharisees impossible, unless, of course, we accept the righteousness of God, which is Jesus Christ.

Consider what Paul says regarding the answer to achieving godly righteousness:

I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law rather I become righteous through faith in Christ. (Philippians 3:9)

Notice again what Paul says,

For I bear them [the Jews] record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.” (Romans 10:2-3)

And what is the righteousness of God? Jesus Christ (Romans 10:4).

If you need a reminder from time to time of how to live a godly life, read Isaiah 58. With the help of the Holy Spirit, you cannot go wrong. In time, our righteousness will exceed that of the Pharisees because this spiritual journey that we are on will eventually take us into the eternal Kingdom of righteousness—but only by the blood of the righteousness of God, Jesus the Christ!


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