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The Transformational Gospel of Jesus #7: Why was Jesus so hard on the Pharisee’s righteousness? Part 1

For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. -Matthew 5:20

It’s easy for us to beat up the Pharisees. After all, that is what Jesus seemed to do and we are willing to follow his lead. But what Jesus says here is quite shocking to his listeners. It’s like someone saying that if your righteousness doesn’t surpass that of Billy Graham or T.D. Jakes, you will not get into hailing distance of the kingdom. But, you protest, those guys are holy leaders. Exactly.

But Jesus is not disputing that Pharisees are known as holy men. He is saying that the righteousness they have laid out as the pathway to God’s favor actually is the road to nowhere. Their righteousness will not get them where they want to go, much less get you there. It will not bring you under His reign. Instead, it will leave you gasping in disbelief as you come to the impassable chasm between your efforts and God’s holiness. In short, you can’t get there from here.

The Pharisees were stuck. On the one hand, they were looking for the Messiah to come. On the other, they were trying to prepare, rather unsuccessfully, the people to receive him by ‘yoking’ them tighter and tighter to the Law. Their followers were ‘yoked’ to the law in a way the teacher thought God wanted them to live it out, which often turned out to be heavier and more conflicted as each new generation of rabbis came along with their added opinions. They reasoned that if all of Israel would keep the Law faithfully—read: the way we see it—then God would send his Messiah and Israel would be saved.

What they did not expect was that the coming Messiah would also usher in the new covenant promised by God in Jeremiah 31. The new covenant Jesus would cement between us and God asks for faith, not law keeping. God promised to infuse His law into our hearts and minds in this new covenant instead of asking us to follow an externally written law. (Jeremiah 31:33-34) Paul had a catchphrase for this—a righteousness that is by faith. (Romans 1:17; Philippians 3:9) Faith that God will display His glory through us. Faith in the faithfulness of God to justify us through Jesus on the cross. Faith in the faithfulness of God to transform us within by the power of the Spirit. The sign of this new covenant is the presence of the Spirit in everyone who puts their faith in Jesus. (Acts 2:39; Ephesians 1:13-14) Behavioral change comes not by working hard at keeping the law but by keeping in step with the Spirit as he changes us inwardly to want to obey the law. Ultimately, this covenant is about developing within us a deepening love for the exalted God, who loved His children first when we were still despicable. It is our growing love for Him that compels us to live the life for which He created us.

This was a different kind of righteousness, one the people who admired the Pharisees did not understand. Yet this is the righteousness that Jesus personally lived out. Not for political influence or religious positioning, but because he was His Father’s Son. And, of course, because his righteousness laid out a different pathway with God, it set him on a collision course with the Pharisees.

Steve Smith