Can Our Righteousness Exceed that of the Pharisees?

 For I say to you that unless your righteousness greatly surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter into the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:20 (LEB)

One of the errors Christians believe is that the Pharisees were constantly being upbraided by Jesus for being a stickler on the keeping of the law of Moses. As if Jesus was continually saying “relax guys, we don’t need to keep the law of God that strictly”. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Matthew 5:17–20 (LEB)

17 “Do not think that I have come to destroy the law or the prophets. I have not come to destroy them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one tiny letter or one stroke of a letter will pass away from the law until all takes place. 19 Therefore whoever abolishes one of the least of these commandments and teaches people to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever keeps them and teaches them, this person will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I say to you that unless your righteousness greatly surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter into the kingdom of heaven.

The Christian narrative says, “see the Pharisees kept the law and it didn’t save them”, or “Jesus continually broke the law”. Unfortunately, people are left with this impression for several reasons. Poor teaching, lack of personal study and curiosity of the things of God, laziness and perhaps the hopes that Jesus did break the law and people like me, who are saying to uphold the commandments, are completely wrong. Keeping the law will not save anyone; however, the issue here is that the religious leadership was doing a terrible job of keeping God’s law, or the instructions for living a pleasing life to God He gave the world through Israel.

Mark 7:1–8 (LEB)

7 And the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered to him. And they saw that some of his disciples were eating their bread with unclean—that is, unwashed—hands. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands ritually, thus holding fast to the traditions of the elders. And when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions which they have received and hold fast to—for example, the washing of cups and pitchers and bronze kettles and dining couches.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with unclean hands?” So he said to them, “Isaiah prophesied correctly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far, far away from me. And they worship me in vain, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ Abandoning the commandment of God, you hold fast to the tradition of men.”

It is unlikely one will ever hear this explained from a church pulpit, or at least I never have. Jesus, Yeshua in Hebrew, was being ridiculed for not ritually washing his hands before eating. The Pharisees also had rules about washing pots, cups and kettles. There is nothing in the commandments of God that require any of these things. These were Jewish traditions. There are volumes of rules the Pharisees adhered to that did not come from God. This is very much like the thousands of church denominations today with all of their various traditions.

Matthew 12:9–14 (LEB)

And going on from there he came into their synagogue. 10 And behold, there was a man who had a withered hand, and they asked him, saying, “Is it permitted to heal on the Sabbath?” in order that they could accuse him. 11 But he said to them, “What man will there be among you who will have one sheep and if this one fell into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 Then to what degree is a man worth more than a sheep? So then, it is permitted to do good on the Sabbath.”

13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand,” and he stretched it out, and it was restored as healthy as the other one. 14 But the Pharisees went out and plotted against him in order that they could destroy him.

Yeshua was trying to teach the proper way to keep the Sabbath. Healing was permitted just as saving a life, child birth and circumcision, if the required eighth day after child birth happened to fall on a Sabbath. By the time of the first century, there were many additional laws attached to the original commandments God gave through Moses.

Nehemiah 13:16–19 (LEB)

16 Tyrian men who lived in Jerusalem brought fish and every kind of merchandise and sold it on the Sabbath to the descendants of Judah and in Jerusalem. 17 So I quarreled with the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this evil thing that you are doing, profaning the day of the Sabbath? 18 Did not your ancestors do this also, and our God brought on us all of this disaster and on this city too? Now you are adding fierce wrath on Israel by profaning the Sabbath!”

19 So when it became dark at the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I commanded that the doors be shut and said that they should not be opened until after the Sabbath. And I appointed some of my young men over the gates to prevent any goods being brought in on the day of the Sabbath.

After the exiles returned to the land, Nehemiah was very disturbed to see commerce on the Sabbath day. He knew this was one of the reasons they were exiled in the first place. He ordered the gates shut at dark before the Sabbath and they couldn’t be opened until after the Sabbath. If “at dark” was before the Sabbath, doesn’t that imply the Sabbath actually starts at dawn? In other words, is this where we get the tradition of starting the Sabbath on the night before? The only Sabbath that starts the day before in the Torah is Yom Kippur and it specifically says so.

Leviticus 23:32 (LEB)

32 It is a Sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall deny yourselves on the ninth day of the month in the evening—from evening to evening you must observe your extraordinary Sabbath.”

It is a special Sabbath that starts the evening of the ninth day. The actual day is the tenth day of the month. This year it started the evening of October 4th by some calendars. Why would there be a need to tell people to start this day the evening of the day before if the day started at sundown? The answer is there wouldn’t be.

Many traditions had crept in causing heavy burdens on the people. The actual commands of God are not that hard. How hard is it to have one day a week to rest from one’s work? It should be a blessing. Surely one day a week we can cease from commerce and enjoy God’s creation!

Matthew 11:28–30 (LEB)

28 Come to me, all of you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke on you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy to carry and my burden is light.”

Yahuah told us through Moses not to change His commands by adding or taking away anything. Deuteronomy 12:32 (LEB), “All of the things that I am commanding you, you must diligently observe; you shall not add to it, and you shall not take away from it.” How can anyone then heap on rules and regulations that were never given by God, or negate instructions God told us to do? The answer is they cannot. This is what Yeshua tried to get across to them.

Mark 7:8–13 (LEB)

Abandoning the commandment of God, you hold fast to the tradition of men.” And he said to them, “You splendidly ignore the commandment of God so that you can keep your tradition. 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘The one who speaks evil of father or mother must certainly die.’ 11 But you say, ‘If a man says to his father or to his mother, “Whatever benefit you would have received from me is corban” (that is, a gift to God), 12 you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or his mother, 13 thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down, and you do many similar things such as this.”

“Making void the word of God by traditions”: this sounds similar to changing the Sabbath from the seventh day to the day of the sun, Sunday. We get another clue as to how our righteousness can exceed the Pharisees from Yeshua in Matthew chapter twenty-three.

Matthew 23:1–6 (LEB)

23 Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on the seat of Moses. Therefore do and observe everything that they tell you, but do not do as they do, for they tell others to do something and do not do it themselves. And they tie up heavy burdens and put them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing with their finger to move them. And they do all their deeds in order to be seen by people, for they make their phylacteries broad and make their tassels long. And they love the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues.

When the Pharisees sit on the seat of Moses they read the scriptures, but their lives do not reflect it. How can people not see that Yeshua was saying to do everything Moses said to do? The Pharisees did not do what Moses said even though they sat in his authority. Yeshua never negated the instructions of God, he only clarified how we should keep them. Many Christians claim it is wrong to do what God said in his instructions, but there is only evidence of Yeshua upholding these instructions and clarifying the error of man’s traditions being taught as commands of God. Our righteousness will exceed that of the Pharisees if we just do what He said! Our own righteousness comes from rules we make up and keep where God’s righteousness are the instructions He gave us to keep.

One example of this that comes to mind is the contentious subject of alcohol. Many Christian denominations allow alcohol consumption, while many forbid it. Consuming alcohol does not make a person a drunkard, but all drunkards consume alcohol. This mentality would forbid all sexual relations for fear of someone being sexually immoral. That would quickly bring the end of the human race. The Torah permits alcohol consumption, so forbidding it is adding to the law of God.

Deuteronomy 14:22–26 (LEB)

22 “Certainly you must give a tithe of all the yield of your seed, which comes forth from your field year after year. 23 And you shall eat before Yahweh your God in the place that he will choose to make to dwell his name there the tithe of your grain, your wine and your olive oil and the firstling of your herd and your flock, so that you may learn to revere Yahweh your God always. 24 But if the distance is too great for you, so that you are not able to transport it, because the place that Yahweh your God will choose to set his name there, it is too far from you, when Yahweh your God will bless you, 25 then in that case you may exchange for money, and you shall take the money to your hand and go to the place that Yahweh your God will choose. 2You may spend the money for anything that you desire, for oxen or for sheep or for wine or for strong drink or for anything that you desire, and you shall eat it there before Yahweh your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your household.

That is a different way than a tithe is viewed today. The point is that just as the Pharisees made up rules, churches today make up rules and shame everyone into following their rules and preferences citing them as commandments from God. The only commandments that matter are from the words He gave us. Anything else is simply someone imposing their preferences on us.

Psalm 119:142–144 (LEB)

142 Your righteousness is an everlasting righteousness, and your law is truth. 143 Trouble and anguish have found me; your commands delight me. 144 The righteousness of your testimonies is forever; give me understanding that I may live.

Thankfully, Yeshua promised He would send the Spirit to help us understand and keep God’s commandments. We are able to be in His righteousness by the help of the Spirit of grace.

Hebrews 13:20–21 (LEB)

20 Now may the God of peace, who brought up from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, 21 equip you with every good thing to do his will, carrying out in us what is pleasing before him through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever. Amen.

The writer of Hebrews gives us a lot of understanding in the conclusion of his letter. 20 Now may the God of peace [the Father, Yahuah], who brought up from the dead our Lord Jesus[ the son, Yeshua], the great shepherd of the sheep[Messiah’s identity], by the blood of the eternal covenant [covenant between God and His people], 21 equip you with every good thing to do his will[His commandments and instructions], carrying out in us what is pleasing before him[His commandments and instructions] through Jesus Christ[by way of His Spirit].

This eternal covenant spoken about did not come out of thin air to the writer of Hebrews. Isaiah also spoke about the eternal covenant. This is the covenant Yeshua ratified with his blood instead of the blood of bulls. It is a refreshing of the covenant of Israel that they broke. Through Yeshua, everyone can now be part of it; however, there are terms.

Isaiah 24:4–6 (LEB)

The earth dries up, it withers; the world languishes, it withers. The elevated of the people of the earth languish, and the earth is defiled beneath its inhabitants. For they have transgressed laws; they have passed by statutes; they have broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse devours the earth, and the inhabitants in it suffer for their guilt. Therefore the inhabitants of the earth burn, and few men are left.

1 John 5:18–21 (LEB)

18 We know that everyone who is fathered by God does not sin, but the one fathered by God, he protects him, and the evil one does not touch him. 19 We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. 20 And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, in order that we may know the one who is true, and we are in the one who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. This one is the true God and eternal life. 21 Little children, guard yourselves from idols.

Everything Yeshua does points to us being able to be one with the Father just as he is. Being one with the Father has to be in line with His instructions, otherwise we will have to throw three quarters or more of the Bible away. It is by His spirit we can live by His word.

John 14:23–26 (LEB)

23 Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves me he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and will take up residence with him. 24 The one who does not love me does not keep my words, and the word that you hear is not mine, but the Father’s who sent me. 25 These things I have spoken to you while residing with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name—that one will teach you all things, and will remind you of everything that I said to you.

I don’t know how it could be any clearer. The Pharisees heaped rules and burdens on people God never did, then did not do what God actually said to do. This is why our righteousness can exceed theirs. It is the righteousness of God we have when we do what God said to do by His Spirit through Yeshua. He gave us His instructions through Moses, the prophets and His son; then He gave us His Spirit by His son to reside in us. All we need to do is what He said. Self righteousness is when we make up our own rules. Do not call people who try to uphold the laws of God Pharisees. It is the people that place their traditions and preferences in place of the laws of God and tell us to do them instead of the commands of God that are acting in the same manner as the Pharisees. Repent and believe the gospel!

Featured photo by shraga kopstein on Unsplash.

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