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The Righteousness of the Pharisees

In Matthew 5:20, the Lord said, “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.”  At the time that Jesus spoke these words, the scribes and Pharisees were generally considered to be the highest standard of righteousness in Jewish society.  Yet Jesus corrected that false impression by exposing the truth about them.

Many people today associate the Pharisees with the practice of legalism, which is the attempt to acquire righteousness through a strict keeping of religious laws.  Not only did the Pharisees teach strict adherence to the Law of Moses, but they also required the Jews to observe the traditions of the elders.  Violations of either the Law or the traditions were grounds for condemnation in the eyes of the Pharisees.

Yet Jesus did not condemn the Pharisees for strictly binding the Law of Moses.  His condemnation against them regarding legalism pertained to their teachings on the traditions of the elders (Matt. 15:1-9) and their neglect of the spirit of the Law (Matt. 23:23-24).  The Lord actually commended the Jews to observe the Law of Moses as taught by the Pharisees (Matt. 23:2-3). 

The Lord did condemn the scribes and Pharisees because of their hypocrisy.  The word “hypocrisy” means “play-acting,” and this is how the Lord described the Pharisees’ portrayal of righteousness.  He said that “they say things, and do not do them” (Matt. 23:3).  They placed burdens upon others that they were unwilling to bear themselves (Matt. 23:4).  Their religion was merely a pretended, outward show that had no real substance (Matt. 23:25-28).  Notice again that the Lord did not condemn them for teaching the Law of Moses, but rather for failing to observe it.  Their hypocrisy condemned them, but it did not invalidate the Law that they taught.

Jesus also condemned the Pharisees for doing their deeds to be seen by men (Matt. 23:5-12).  Their religion was on parade to get attention and exaltation for themselves.  The Lord warned against such self-glorifying religion, saying that those who practice it “have their reward in full” (Matt. 6:1-5).  The praise of men that they received was the only reward they would have, for they would receive no praise from God.

Jesus condemned the Pharisees for other deeds as well, such as misleading their followers (Matt. 23:13, 15), practicing their religion for personal gain (Matt. 23:14), violating their oaths (Matt. 23:16-22), and neglecting to show mercy (Matt. 23:23).  All of these failures by the Pharisees stemmed from their lack of true spirituality and their abundance of self-righteousness (Matt. 23:25-32).  Because of these things, they foolishly rejected the ways of God and condemned themselves to the sentence of hell (Matt. 23:33-36).

Let us be certain to make the right applications of these lessons regarding the righteousness of the Pharisees.  It is not wrong to seek strict adherence to the gospel of Christ, “for in it the righteousness of God is revealed” (Rom. 1:16-17).  However, it is wrong to add traditions of men to the gospel.  It is also wrong to observe the commandments of the gospel in a ritualistic manner while neglecting its spiritual nature.  Further, it is wrong to observe the gospel hypocritically, teaching one thing while doing another, and it is wrong to make a pretense of the gospel just to be seen by men.  If we attempt to follow the gospel of Christ in any of the false ways in which the Pharisees followed the Law of Moses, we will be wrong as they were, and we will be likewise condemned.

The Pharisees were a very religious people, but their practice of religion was wrong.  They were guilty of many false practices and false beliefs about themselves, and therefore the perception of their righteousness was false as well.  Their religion ultimately was of no value to them because it did not gain them an entrance into the kingdom of heaven.  Let us learn the lessons of our Lord about the Pharisees so that our righteousness may exceed theirs and we may enter into His kingdom.

Stacey E. Durham




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