Exceeding Righteousness, Part 2

Intro:  Return again to Matthew 5:20 –  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.   

  • These words contrast the righteousness that Jesus has just described in the character of the kingdom citizen with the most popular and prevalent perception of righteousness as seen in the Pharisees and Scribes.
  • Have you ever seen two sides of the same person?  Maybe someone that you didn’t think ever got angry or animate about anything shows you the other side. There is a sense in which we see the other side of Jesus in His confrontation with the Pharisees and Scribes. The compassionate Healer becomes a stern Judge. Just as He heals those who come to Him, He condemns those who reject Him.  One of the classic confrontations between Jesus and the Pharisees is recorded in Mark 7.  We can learn something about the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees by considering Jesus’ condemnation recorded here.


I.  Pharisee Accusations:  Read Mark 7:1-16  (note: Jesus had no respect for the Pharisee’s attitude toward the truth. How can any Gospel preacher today defend the Pharisees? Jesus has several complaints here that help us identify the nature of their righteousness).

A.   What did these Pharisees have against Jesus?  They accused Him and the disciples of “not walking according to the traditions of the elders” (v. 5). It may seem strange that the Pharisees would be so bold to accuse Jesus of not following a tradition. By Jesus’ day, the tradition of the elders had for many years supplanted Scripture as the supreme religious authority in the minds of Jewish leaders and of most of the people. The traditions even affirmed that “the words of scribes are more lovely than the words of the law,” and it became a greater offense in Judaism to transgress the teaching of some rabbi such as the revered Hillel than to trangress the teaching of Scripture.  (from The MacArthur New Testament Commentary)

B.  “Eat bread with unwashed hands”…the specific accusation concerned the disciples’ failure to wash their hands prior to eating. This washing had nothing to do with hygiene, but referred to ceremonial rinsing. The purpose was to remove the ritual defilement caused by having touched something unclean, such as a dead body or a Gentile.

  • Some of the rabbis even taught that a certain demon named Shibtah attached itself to people’s hands while they slept and that, if he were not ceremonially washed away, he would actually enter the body through the food handled by defiled hands.
  • The value of ceremonial rinsing was held so high that one rabbi insisted that “whosoever has his abode in the land of Israel and eats his common food with rinsed hands may rest assured that he shall obtain eternal life.”
  • Another rabbi taught that it would be better to walk four miles out of the way to get water than to eat with unwashed hands.
  • A certain rabbi who was imprisoned and given a small ration of water used it to wash his hands before eating rather than to drink, claiming he would rather die than transgress the tradition.

1.  “Wash their hands in a special way…” (v. 3) The manner in which the tradition was performed was also important. (John McArthur gives some details)

  • Water jars were kept ready to be used before every meal. (Jesus in Cana) The minimum amount of water to be used was enough to fill one and a half egg shells.
  • The water was first poured on both hands, held with the fingers pointed upward; and it must run down the arm as far as the wrist and drop off from the wrist, for the water was now itself unclean, having touched the unclean hands.
  • And if it ran down the fingers again it would render them unclean. The process was repeated with hands held in the downward direction, the fingers pointing down. And finally each hand was cleansed by being rubbed with the fist of the other. A strict Jew would do this before every meal and between every course in every meal.

2.   The Law of Moses never instructed the Jews to wash their hands as the Pharisees were doing.

3.  Jesus was unwilling to allow these traditionalists to impose their illegitimate authority on his disciples.  He condemned their sectarian attitude toward the truth.


II.   Jesus condemned their “righteousness” on at least 4 levels:


A.  Their heart was far from God – Mark. 7:6 –  6 He answered and said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me. The nature of traditions is that they tend to so simplify focus on the outward requirements that inward compliance is ignored or deemed unimportant.

1.   Obedience is redefined as mere outward compliance without reference to the spirit. (Jesus quotes from Isa. 29:13 – ASV marginal note says “learned by rote”). As long as we meet the outward criteria we can assume we are acceptable to God.  Ex.  – demanding people to “come forward in a service, rather than being satisfied with just what God has required may lead to a lessening of the command. If they come forward, they have repented.

2.  This leads to a lack of true humility before God. In contrast the Christian is poor in spirit (humble) and mourns over his sinfulness, and is meek.


B.  They made their tradition greater than God’s Law.  – Mark 7:7-9 7 And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’  8 For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men — the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do.”  9 He said to them, “All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition.

1.  The teachings of men were the Litmus test of faithfulness.  The Mishnah states:  “An offense against the sayings of the scribes is worse than one against the Scripture“…”The sayings of the elders have more weight than those of the prophets“… “It is more punishable to act against the words of the scribes than against those of Scripture.”  There are many religions who have elevated tradition above the Bible. They cannot provide any scripture to support their practice. (Infant baptism, instrumental worship, religious holidays, etc.)

2.   But we must be careful here, lest we believe we do not have our own traditions.  Would we be willing to judge another Christian as unfaithful based on their willingness to follow our traditions?  (Closing a service w/o an invitation or an invitation song? Not meeting on Wed. evening or meeting in individual homes on Wed (or even Thursday evening)?  Use of the building, announcements, etc..)  These things must be regulated according to the principles of God’s word, but our interpretations are not the same as God’s specific regulation.

3.  True Christians hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness and is merciful to others, allowing God to establish the parameters of fellowship.


C.  Their application of the tradition made the Word of God void. Mark 7:10-13 –  10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’  11 But you say, ‘If a man says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is Corban” — ‘ (that is, a gift to God),  12 then you no longer let him do anything for his father or his mother,  13 making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down. And many such things you do.”

1.   According to the Pharisee, the Jewish child could excuse himself to his needy parents by declaring what he should have used to support them as “corban”  (given to God). If he had once devoted his property – once said it was “corban,” or a gift to God – it could not be appropriated even to the support of a parent. If a parent was needy and poor, and if he should apply to a son for assistance, and the son should reply, though in anger, “It is devoted to God; this property which you need, and by which you might be profited by me, is “corban” – I have given it to God;” the Jews said the property could not be recalled, and the son was not under obligation to aid a parent with it.   (from Barnes’ Notes)

2.  How do you react when tradition violates the will of God? Some would decide not to rock the boat. What did Jesus do? Is He a good example?  Jesus could have just gotten his disciples to go along with washing their hands. Paul could have circumcised Titus. He would not allow the Word of God to be devalued among God’s people.

3.  The Christian must do better: He must be willing to obey every commandment of God, and not set aside even the least of His commandments.


D.  They hypocritically judged others, because they did not keep the law themselves. Matthew 23:1-4 – Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, 2 saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.  3 Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do.  4 For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.  As we mentioned, the obedience was outward and partial.

1.  Jesus went on to say that their hypocrisy made it impossible for them to bring others to God.  Matt 23:13-15 – “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.  14 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore you will receive greater condemnation.  15 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.

2.  Jesus recognized the real tragedy of hypocrisy among God’s people.  The world sees through it.  It destroys the influence we are exhibit as God’s people.

3.   The hypocrite cannot effective let his light shine. The hypocrite does not seek to bring glory to God through his good works, but glory to himself. But the Christian must live a sincere life so as to let his light shine and influence a decaying world with the salt of his good deeds.


Conclusion:   Jesus’ words escalated the disciples’ perception of righteousness to a higher level. So they do ours as well. Every aspect of our service to God must be analyzed in view of Jesus expectation.

  • We must be willing to honestly assess our treatment of our traditions. Never allow our traditions to take an equal place alongside God’s word.
    • In a future lesson, we will also see how the Pharisees’ righteousness fell short in its basic understanding of how a person attained righteousness.  The Pharisee trusted in himself – we must trust in God.
    • Commit ourselves to patterning ourselves after Jesus’ model of the righteous citizen of the kingdom.
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