“For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20)
This is one of those sayings of Jesus that must have astounded His hearers. The scribes and the Pharisees were generally considered to be the most religious people in their society — and yet Jesus shockingly indicated here that these men were NOT great in the Kingdom of Heaven like everyone assumed, but that in fact they would not even enter it! He said that the righteousness of His hearers had to surpass that of these men, or they would not enter heaven. This must have occasioned some soul-searching among Jesus’ hearers. It should among us as well.
What was it about the righteousness of these men, who were very practiced in their religion, that it would not save them?
— First, it was a SELF-righteousness: In Luke 18 Jesus said that one of the Pharisees went up to the temple and prayed and thanked God: “that I am not like other people…”. He considered himself to be very good. His righteousness was based on his own efforts.
— The righteousness of the Pharisees was also a LEGALISTIC righteousness: based on their keeping of the Law. That Pharisee in Luke 18 went on to say “I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all I get.”
— Because of these things, Jesus pronounced their righteousness as INADEQUATE. He said it would not save them; that those with that kind of righteousness “will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Surely this pronouncement made many of Jesus’ 1st-century hearers think. It should make US think today as well! What kind of righteousness do YOU possess? If it is based on your own self-efforts and legalism (how moral you can be; how faithful in church attendance, how generous in giving, etc.) then your own righteousness is also inadequate, and like the scribes and Pharisees, you too will never see heaven. But if it is based entirely on “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe” (Romans 3:22) then you do possess a righteousness greater than that of the scribes and the Pharisees, and you can have every confidence that you will indeed see the Kingdom of Heaven!