“Jesus said: “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:2). Some consider this one of the hardest sayings of Jesus Christ.
The scribes and Pharisees were esteemed by most Jews in that day as the paragon or epitome of spirituality or religiousness. How could anyone surpass their high achievement and status?
Understanding what Jesus meant
We can understand the seemingly impossible dictum of Christ when we take The Whole Counsel of God (Acts 20:27) in His word.
The apostle Paul described himself as a rising “star” among his contemporary Pharisees (Galatians 1:14), and “concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless (Philippians 3:6).
Not having received God’s Spirit before his conversion to the Christian faith, Paul obeyed God’s law by the letter of the law, not by the Spirit of the law. After he was converted and ordained a minister of Christ’s gospel, Paul became a minister of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit, for, he said, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (2 Corinthians 3:6).
How does the letter of the law kill? Paul went on to explain the difference between Christ’s ministry and that of Moses. He called the latter “the ministry of death (Verse 7). And that is because, according to the letter of the law under Moses’ ministry, a sinner or transgressor of the law received the death penalty. In contrast, Paul described the ministry of Christ as “the ministry of righteousness” (Verse 8), and the “ministry of reconciliation” (Verse 18).
Reconciliation means being restored to a right relationship with God. Isaiah 59:2 declares: “But your iniquities have separated you from God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear…” We are reconciled to God through Christ’s supreme sacrifice of Himself on Calvary’s cross, whereby we are redeemed from sin’s death penalty, thus forgiving and cleansing us of sin—making us “righteous” and able to obey God’s law (Luke 1:8) through His Spirit (Romans 8:7-11). [See: The Ransomed of the LORD, God’s Spirit and Obedience, and The Higher Law of the Spirit.]
Thus Christ’s ministry of the Spirit is a ministry of LIFE! Jesus said that the word He spoke during His earthly ministry were “Spirit and life” (John 6:63).
Obedience by the letter versus by the Spirit
Jesus showed the example of obedience by the letter, such as when a man does not actually or literally commit adultery with a woman who is not his own wife, but he could commit adultery in his mind and heart by lusting after a woman who is not one’s wife (Matthew 5:237-28).
God is interested in what’s inside our minds and hearts, and will judge us accordingly [“I, the LORD, search the heart; I test the mind, even to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings” (Jeremiah 17:10)].
The righteousness which the scribes and Pharisees exhibited was merely outward; inwardly – in their heart and mind or spirit – they were “full of lawlessness and iniquity” (Matthew 23:28). [See: Hypocrisy: Why God So Hates It!]
Paul said: “But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3:21).
That is how we are able to exceed the merely outward righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. This is one of the things impossible with men but fully possible with God! Unless we have such righteousness through faith in Christ, we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven! [See: Does God Require Us to Do the Impossible? and “I Never Knew You!”]
Pedro R. Meléndez, Jr.