In Matthew 5:20, Jesus said:

“For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”

What did Jesus mean by that statement? Some have concluded that Jesus brought a “more difficult” law and we have to be even more obedient to the law than the Pharisees were. However, when considering the context, Jesus had something different in mind.

Righteousness can’t come through law.

The scribes and Pharisee’s righteousness was a righteousness they attempted to gain through their obedience to the law (Lk. 18:9-14). They felt that they were righteous because of their works (Mt. 23). However, no matter how “good” one may be, one can never be justified by law. Yet, the scribes and Pharisees, described in the context of Matthew 5, believed they were justified by their law-keeping.

They felt like they had lived up to the demands of the law by keeping the law. However, Jesus explains that everyone is guilty of breaking the law, even those “righteous” scribes and Pharisees (Ja. 2:10). You see, even though someone may have never murdered or committed adultery, Jesus explains that they were still lawbreakers because they had committed hateful and lustful thoughts (Mt. 5:20-30). Thus, they were condemned by the law.

“For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all” (James 2:10).

Who can say that they have never had a hateful or lustful thought? No one can! Jesus’ point is simple: Everyone is guilty of law breaking.

There is none righteous, no not one” (Rom. 3:10).

Jesus was not raising the standard of morality in Matthew 5, for wrong thoughts have always been sinful.

“The thoughts of the wicked are an abomination to the Lord” (Prov. 15:26).

“Their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity” (Isa. 59:7)

O Jerusalem, wash your heart from wickedness, That you may be saved. How long shall your evil thoughts lodge within you? (Jer. 4:14).

Lust and hate in the heart were explicitly condemned in the Old Testament:

Do not lust after her beauty in your heart, Nor let her allure you with her eyelids. (Prov. 6:25).

“Do not covet your neighbor’s wife…” (Ex. 20:17)

“I have made a covenant with my eyes; Why then should I look upon a young woman?” (Job 31:1)

“You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord (Lev. 19:17-18).

“If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall surely bring it back to him again. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden, and you would refrain from helping it, you shall surely help him with it” (Exodus 23:4-5).

“If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink…” (Prov. 25:21)


The Scribes and Pharisees were masters at taking parts of the law they were good at and elevating those parts of the law to the exclusion of others:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone” (Mt. 23:23).

In doing so, they found self-righteousness, believing that they could save themselves through the law since they were keeping parts of the law that they had been able to corner, creating their own standard of righteousness:

“For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God” (Rom. 10:3).

Instead of realizing that they needed a Savior since they couldn’t keep the law perfectly, they had deceived themselves into believing they were righteous because of their law-keeping.

The righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees was a righteousness attempted to be gained through law-keeping.

In Matthew 5, Jesus was demonstrating that no matter how “good” one may be, one can never be guilt-free of God’s law. All accountable humans are guilty of law breaking. We cannot rely upon our own obedience to the law to save us because:

“all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).

The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). The righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was a righteousness that attempted to come from and through the law. This righteousness that comes from the law cannot save us! Paul said:

“If righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain” (Gal. 2:21).

Jesus came to fulfill the law (Mt. 5:17). He came to take away the sins and curse that the law brings (2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:10-14; 1 Pet. 2:24; etc.). There was not and is not any law system that humans can be justified by.

“For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law” (Gal. 3:21).

Faith in Jesus Christ is the righteousness that exceeds the Scribes and Pharisees.

If we want to be justified and righteous in the sight of God, our righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. Our righteousness can’t come through law if we want to go to heaven, our righteousness must be different. The only way to exceed their righteousness is by having a righteousness that is apart from the law.

“But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets” (Rom. 3:21).

We must have:

“the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ” (Rom. 3:22).

Our righteousness must come through Jesus and be in Jesus (Rom. 3:21-4:25; Gal. 2:17-3:25).

“and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith” (Phil. 3:9).

No matter how hard one tries to follow God, they will always fall short, always! The blood of Jesus is constantly cleansing His followers (1 Jn. 1:7-9)—not because we are sinless, but because we are sinful (Isa. 64:6).

If our righteousness is going to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, then we must understand that righteousness doesn’t come through the law, any law (Rom. 7:13-25). Our righteousness must come through faith in Jesus Christ. Thankfully, our righteousness isn’t dependent upon how “right” we are on everything. God loves us so much that He can take our unrighteousness and make us righteous through a relationship with Him (Rom. 4:25; Jn. 15:14-15; Jn. 17:3; Phil. 3:10; Heb. 2:11-13). Faith in Jesus Christ is the righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees.

– Kevin Pendergrass

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