Being Better than the Pharisees

In Matt. 5:20, Jesus said, “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Ponder with me for a second. How do you think the Jews felt about that statement? Maybe some would expect their response to be something along the lines of, “We completely understand where you are coming from Jesus and we’ll do it.” But that would probably be extremely hopeful at best. 

The truth is, they were probably stunned by those words. To the Jews, the Scribes and the Pharisees were the best in terms of keeping the law and doing what is says. They had the law, the scrolls and they were the teachers of the law. How could they (and we) possibly be more righteous than they? And so their response would have likely been something along the lines of, “There is just no way! This is such a high standard. Very difficult, impossible even!” But the problem the Jews had was their misconception of their religious leaders. They were in fact not really spiritual pillars and leaders at all. 

The Pharisees, especially so, had a righteousness that consisted in outward observances of the ceremonial and traditional law. They offered sacrifices, fasted often, prayed much, were very punctual and rigorous about tithes and the ceremonies of religion, but they neglected justice, truth, purity, and holiness of heart (cf. Matt. 23:1-33). Their righteousness, to put it bluntly, was fake. It was truly counterfeit. Jesus spoke concerning their habit of always saying but never doing what they said (Matt. 23:1-4). Every opportunity that they got, they sought to glorify themselves among men (Matt. 6:1-5; 23:5-15, 27-30). And these two things combined demonstrated their uncanny ability to be relentlessly blind in heart (Matt. 15:1-9; Jn. 9:40-41). 

So, at the end of the gospel story when the Jews could take all these things into consideration (and us as well), the realization would be that Jesus’ statement about being better than the Pharisees in Matt. 5:20 wasn’t such an uphill task as one thought it to be before. When Jesus got done with His criticism of these so-called religious leaders, they were nothing more than sons of the devil and blind guides leading the masses astray. It was most certainly not impossible for the Jews to be better than that and it is most certainly possible for us to be better than them as well. So, how can we be better than the Pharisees?

We can start by actually “practicing what we preach.” This is simply another way of saying we need to take God’s word seriously and be doers of it and not merely hearers lest we delude ourselves (Jam. 1:22-25). We also need to bring the glory to God and not to ourselves (Matt. 5:16). It is of utmost importance that we live in such a way that people who do not know God will come to know Him because we are being doers and looking to glorify Him every opportunity we get. Our lights shouldn’t be shining so people can see us, but rather so that they can see the One who lives in us. Finally, we need to be willing to open the eyes of our heart and obey Jesus (Jn. 9:39; 15:14-15). Unless we are willing to swallow our pride and come to Jesus in humble submission, we will all likewise perish being outside of the kingdom.

When Jesus declared that we all needed to be better than the Pharisees, He meant that unless we have a genuine character of holiness that is pure, loving, forgiving rooted in the fear of God then we are in the same boat as they. May we all strive to look to Jesus, the greatest example of what it means to be better, and may we strive to be better than the Pharisees.