Unless Your Righteousness

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

The righteousness of the Christian is imputed by God, in Christ.  His righteousness gives us the ability to be faithful, to be good, and to be abundantly more righteous than any religious people who haven't been regenerated or born from above.  And Jesus is not saying that we will be more legalistic or observant of the laws than they are, but have his righteousness and life; obeying his commands, enabled by him.

Jesus does not make righteousness easier or make living a holy life obsolete, but makes it harder and says that his followers will be more righteous than the most religious, law-keeping people.  This word was shocking because the scribes and the Pharisees were seen as 'paragons' of righteousness.

Who were the scribes and Pharisees?  The scribes were professional students and teachers of the law.  The Pharisees were members of a largely lay movement devoted to scrupulous observance of both the Old Testament Law and the still developing legal traditions (France, p. 116).

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said this about the danger of external righteousness:
There is a real and terrible possibility of our deluding and fooling ourselves.  The Pharisees and the scribes were denounced by the Lord as being hypocrites.  Yes; but they were unconscious hypocrites.  They did not realize it, they thought all was well.  You cannot read your Bible without being reminded of that terrible danger.  There is the possibility of our relying upon the wrong thing, of resting upon things that appertain to true worship rather than being in the position of true worship. And, let me remind you, tenderly, in passing, that it is something of which those of us who not only claim to be evangelical, but are proud to call ourselves such, may be very easily guilty. (Jones, p. 203)
What is the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees that we want to avoid, that ours must vastly excel over?  Their righteousness was external rather than internal.  
And He told them: “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the sight of others, but God knows your hearts. For what is highly admired by people is revolting in God’s sight.               -Luke 16:15
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence! Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so the outside of it may also become clean.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every impurity. In the same way, on the outside you seem righteous to people, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
-Matthew 23:23-7
Jesus' warning about the Pharisees is that their righteousness was external, ceremonial, and deeds based.  They looked good, they did the ceremonies, and they tithed.  But inside, they were unregenerate.

The way Jesus works and the way God always has worked is to work inside out, changing hearts, which leads to changed lives.  What we say in our hearts is what God is looking at and wants to transform.  How is your self-talk?

Ceremonial righteousness is when you show up, but there has been no intimacy with God and no inner change.  The righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees, that we are to surpass, was self-righteous.  Self-righteous folks are smug and glib (Lloyd-Jones, p. 206):
Smug: having or showing an excessive pride in oneself or one's achievements.
"he was feeling smug after his win"
synonyms: self-satisfied, self-congratulatory, complacent, superior, pleased with oneself, conceited.
Glib: fluent and voluble, but insincere and shallow.
"she was careful not to let the answer sound too glib"
synonyms: slick, pat, fast-talking, smooth-talking; disingenuous, insincere, facileshallow, superficial, flippant; smooth, silver-tongued, urbane.

In marked contrast to the self-congratulatory, self-righteous, self-centered religionist; the kingdom person lives their life in the beatitudes.  Beatitude means "blessed", "exalted happiness", or "bliss".  Jesus says that his disciples are blessed people:
  • Who are poor in spirit.
  • Who grieve or mourn.
  • Who are gentle, meek, or humbled.
  • Who hunger and thirst for justice or righteousness.
  • Who show mercy.
  • Who are pure in heart.
  • Who are peacemakers.
  • Who are persecuted for righteousness' sake.
-Matthew 5:5-10
These are descriptions of Jesus' righteousness in his disciples.  These are blessings to walk in that are the entry points for walking in the kingdom.  If these are not operating, you are not walking in his righteousness.

Martyn Llyod-Jones wrote this about the self-righteousness of the Pharisees (Lloyd-Jones, p. 207):
The trouble with the Pharisees is that they were interested in details rather than principles, they were interested in actions rather than motives, and that they were interested in doing rather than in being.  The remainder of The Sermon on the Mount is just an exposition of that.  Our Lord said to them in effect, 'You are pleased with yourselves because you do not commit adultery; but if you even look with lust in your eyes, that is adultery.'  It is the principle, not the action only, that matters; it is what you think and desire, the state of your heart that is important.  You do not become a Christian by just refraining from some actions and doing others; the Christian is a man who is in a particular relationship to God and whose supreme desire is to know Him better and to love Him more truly.  This is not a part-time job, if I may so put it, it is not achieved by the religious observance of a part of Sunday; it demands all the time and attention we have.  Read the lives of the great men of God and you will find that this is the principle that always emerges.
Jesus' statement that our righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the professionally religious ones, does not mean he is calling us to a salvation by works.  But, Jesus is not against obeying God's laws.  He is against legalism.  The lifestyle of the citizen of God's kingdom is "a deeper commitment to do the will of God" (France, p. 117).  To answer the charge that he came to destroy the law, he said, "no, I came to fulfill."
“Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.
-Matthew 5:17
Fulfill means here, according to France: "to complete and bring to its destined end, by giving the final revelation of God's will to which the Old Testament pointed forward, and which now transcends it... Jesus is bringing that to which the Old Testament looked forward; his teaching will transcend the Old Testament revelation, but, far from abolishing it, is itself its intended culmination" (France, p. 113-4).
The fruit of the life infused with the grace of God, having been born anew, is a righteous life, inside out.  The grace of God comes upon the heart and flows out through a righteous life.

The new birth, brought about by the Father, in me; puts Christ in me and the Spirit of God in me, giving me the righteousness that surpasses any religiousness, good-deeds-doing, or Bible knowledge; exemplified in the scribes and Pharisees.  Selfishness, self-righteousness, and self-satisfaction are taken over by a love for God and others, lived out in intimacy as I walk and talk with Jesus.


Bibliography- Studies In The Sermon On The Mount, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, 1959; Matthew, R.T. France, 1985; Matthew, Donald A. Hagner, 1993.