Let’s read that verse.  Matthew 5:20 says, “For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.”  Matthew, chapters 5-7, is what is commonly called the Sermon on the Mount. Let’s look at these scribes and Pharisees and see if we can learn why the Lord referred to them in this verse.  Let’s look first at the Pharisees.

THE PHARISEES were a prominent sect of religious people during the time of the Lord Jesus on the earth.  Josephus, the Jewish historian, mentions them as early as 161 BC.  The Greek word for Pharisee is ‘Pharisaios’, which is of Hebrew origin.  It means, “a separatist, or exclusively religious.”  These people prided themselves on their superior sanctity of life, their devotion to God, and their study of the law.  Why would the Lord say that to enter the kingdom of heaven that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees?  They separated themselves, they lived holy lives, there were devoted to the Lord and His law.  Well, let’s consider a couple of verses where the Lord speaks of the Pharisees.

  • Matthew 23:14, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.”
  • Matthew 23:25, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.”

What is the common word in these verses that the Lord uses to describe the Pharisees?  HYPOCRITES!  In fact, the Lord calls them ‘hypocrites’ seven times in Matthew 23!  In Matthew 23:27 the Lord says to them, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.”  This describes perfectly their condition.  On the outside, they looked beautifully righteous, but on the inside, they were spiritually dead.  These people, for the most part, were not righteous at all; they only gave the pretense that they were righteous.

THE SCRIBES were a group of men who made copies of the Word of God and were charged with the important task that the copies they made were pure and exact.  However, as important as their jobs were, they were identified with the Pharisees in their hypocrisy.  In the seven times in Matthew 23 that the Lord calls the Pharisees hypocrites, he also addresses the scribes as hypocrites.  Over and over again in that chapter, the Lord says, “Woe unto you, SCRIBES and PHARISEES…”  The Lord said of these men in Matthew 23:3, “All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.”  This is the very definition of a hypocrite, one who says one thing, but does another…and that’s exactly what they were doing.  They were properly teaching the law, but they were not following the law themselves.  The Lord said of the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 15:8, “This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me.”

This should help us understand the words of the Lord in Matthew 5:20.  Our righteousness must be real and sincere, not a sham and hypocritical.  Who knows our hearts?  Who knows if our righteousness is real or not?  The Lord, Himself knows.  We read in 2 Timothy 2:19, “…The Lord knoweth them that are his.”  What about your righteousness?  True righteousness is a gift of God to those who put their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.  2 Corinthians 5:21 tells us, “For he hath made him (Christ Jesus) to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.”  As far as your own attempts to be righteous by your own works, we read in Isaiah 64:6, “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.”  There is only ONE WAY to be righteous before God, by putting your faith in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.  (197.10)