Exceeding Righteousness, Part 1

Intro:  As we come to the last verse of our featured text for 2009, it behooves us to review. Matthew 5:1-20 comprises a profile of spirituality as Jesus’ sermon confronts us with the type of person we are called to be.

1.  vs. 1-12:  Jesus’ sermon is revolutionary in many ways.  The first part of Matt. 5 (known as the beatitudes) describes a character and attitude that was contrary to all the current perceptions of happiness.

  • Can people be truly happy through thinking poorly of themselves, being meek, mourning over one’s sinfulness, extending mercy to others, focusing on inner purity, and being willing to suffer? Jesus paints a very countercultural picture of the child of God. Humility is at the center of true happiness.

2.    vs. 13-16: Added to this profound description is the influential place of the disciple in the dark world in which he lives. By living and teaching the truth we let our light shine and as the salt of the earth we forestall the corruption of our decaying society. We cannot deny or ignore the influence we are destined to wield.

3.    vs. 17-19: Although Jesus places emphasis on what we are inwardly, He will not allow us to discount the necessity of obedience to law. Contrary to the thinking of some of his detractors, Jesus did not come to ignore or destroy the validity of God’s law. His whole life was designed to perfect the law through His absolutely obedient life and prophecy fulfilling death.  The citizens in Jesus’ kingdom seek to obey every command and always command others to do so as well.

4.    In this, the last month of the year, we come to the last verse of our text.  Matt 5:20 –  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.  We will investigate Jesus’ words from several perspectives.


I.    Who were the Scribes & Pharisees? What connation comes to your mind when you hear the word Pharisee?

Note: Although we have a negative perception of the Scribe & Pharisee (rightfully so) we cannot ignore the resemblance between ourselves and these religious traditionalists. They show us how Satan can distort and invalidate the good intentions of God’s people and turn obedience into hypocrisy. These words apply.

A.  Who was the Scribe? – Nelson’s Dictionary says the Scribes were “members of a learned class in ancient Israel through New Testament times who studied the Scriptures and served as copyists, editors, and teachers. These students of the law were also referred to as “lawyers” in the N.T.

1.   They developed as a separate class of Jews during the period of the return from captivity. Ezra is described as both a scribe and a priest,(Ezra 7:6,11) and at first the priests were the ones responsible for both the interpretation and teaching of the law. But eventually this function passed to the scribes. Their interpretations became the rule of conduct among the Jews.

2.  By the time of Jesus, the scribes were a new upper class among the Jews. Josephus, the famous Jewish historian was a scribe. Some Scribes were Sadducees, but the majority were Pharisees and the N.T. often speaks of them together. Pharisaical traditionalism was based upon the scribal interpretations of the law.

a.   Scribes were ordained after a lengthy period of study (age 14 – 40). When they completed their study at the age of 40, the Scribe could be ordained. “As members with full rights, they could act as judges, be called rabbis, and occupy positions in administration of justice, government, and education. They joined the chief priests and aristocratic families who made up the SANHEDRIN. The scribes were held in greatest esteem by the people.” (from Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary)

b.   They taught that there were “secrets” of interpretation and forbidden degrees of knowledge, that hid the meaning of scripture from the common person, who could not be trusted to properly understand and apply the law.

B.  Who was the Pharisee? – One Dictionary defines a Pharisee as A member of an ancient Jewish sect that emphasized strict interpretation and observance of the Mosaic law in both its oral and written form. 2. A hypocritically self-righteous person.  The Pharisees were a popular sect of the Jewish religion dedicated to keeping the Law of Moses and keeping the Jews distinct from the Greek culture. They began as a reaction to Gentile paganism during the time between the testaments. They were concerned with “worldliness”.  The term “Pharisee” means “separate ones”.

1.   In their quest to encourage faithfulness to the laws of Moses, they stressed doctrinal purity, and developed a strict interpretation of God’s laws of purity. Those who were considered pure were not to associate with the impure. This certainly applied to the Gentiles & Samaritans.

a.  Traditions were developed to facilitate this distinctiveness, such as washing one’s hands when coming from the market, and before eating a meal; refusing to participate with Gentiles in common events. (Pharisee could not help a Gentile in childbirth, drink milk drawn by Gentile hands, could not wear garments made on a loom made out of wood that was cut by a Gentile.)  Even among Jews lines were drawn to distinguish the pure (clean) from the impure (unclean). To make sure that food items purchased had been tithed properly, the Pharisees demanded that they be declared “kosher”.

  • This led to an elitist approach to others and a judgmental attitude. Jesus’ apostles were perceived to be “unlearned men” in Acts 4 & the blind man was considered a “common sinner” in John 9.

b.  These traditions also developed through an attempt to define how the law was to be applied in every conceivable circumstance. Alfred Edersheim writes that the traditions “were either simply the laws laid down in Scripture; or else derived from, or traced to it by some ingenious and artificial method of exegesis; or added to it by way of amplification or for safety’s  sake; or finally, legalized customs. They provided for every possible and impossible case, entered into every detail of private, family, or public life; and with iron logic, unbending rigor, and the most minute analysis pursued and dominated man, turn whither he might, laying on him a yoke that was truly unbearable.”

c.  By enforcing these traditions as though they were law, the Pharisee externalized the law. Obedience was reduced to the outward observance of the tradition.

2.  The Pharisee came to place as much authority and credibility in the interpretations of the law as the law itself. The Pharisees and Scribes believed that their traditions were authoritative oral law given at Sinai and passed down.   ISBE says “The Pharisaic theory of tradition was that these additions to the written law and interpretations of it had been given by Moses to the elders and by them had been transmitted orally down through the ages. Their Mishnah says..”Moses received the (oral) Law from Sinai and delivered it to Joshua and Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets and the prophets to the men of the great synagogue.” (scribes)


II.  Scribe & Pharisee Righteousness:  We cannot understand Jesus’ words without properly defining “the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees”.  Jesus’ audience had a clear perception of what Jesus meant and therefore was able to compare their righteousness with the Pharisee righteousness that Jesus references here. Whatever their righteousness involved, it stood in great contrast to what Jesus had just spoken – the true character of righteousness.

A.  The Law concerning the Sabbath provided one of the most fertile grounds for the development of Pharisaical traditions. The law was short and easily understood. Exodus 20:8-10 – 8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates.    

1.  The law had to be interpreted into everyday life.  In order to keep from inadvertently violating the law, and in pursuit of the safe and infallible course the Pharisees erected a hedge of traditions around the law.  (how far could a Jew walk on the Sabbath without violating the actual command to not work?  – They came up with a distance)

2.  The tradition also provided a loophole whereby the Pharisee could avoid the accountability of the law itself. (If he laid down some food and a pallet to sleep on, then that was his home and he could walk further.

3.  These traditions eventually became more important than the law.

  • Tailor could not carry a needle; scribe could not carry a pen
  • could not sell to a gentile on Friday unless he had time to get home.
  • could not remove your fingernails with your teeth, or your hair, mustache.
  •  In recognizing amount of actual law as contrasted with the vast amount of interpretation of law , One Rabbi concluded that the traditions were “Mountains suspended by a hair


Part 2 to come…..

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