“Be careful not to practise your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” —Matthew 6:1
As far as the common Jew was concerned, the Pharisees and teachers of the law were the pacesetters in righteousness. They were the arch-conservatives of their day, known for their strict adherence to the Law and separation from anything defiling. This is why those listening to the Sermon on the Mount would have been dumbfounded when Jesus said, “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). From all outward appearances, these were the most righteous people in Israel, so what hope did anyone else have?
Quite a lot, actually, for true righteousness is not about outward appearance. Doing the right thing does not make us right people. Jesus would later rebuke the Pharisees for their totally external righteousness, saying, “You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” (Matthew 23:27).
The Pharisees’ approach to righteousness was like applying makeup to a rash. They tried their best to live right before God and looked good for it, but they never dealt with the source of the virus: their sinful hearts. For that, we need to receive Christ, the only truly righteous One, who cleanses us of sin and makes us righteous.
Self-righteousness is concerned with drawing attention to oneself, but true righteousness is rooted in and points back to God. When we are the source of our acts of righteousness, the aim is to develop our reputation. But when God is the source of our acts of righteousness, the aim will be to glorify Him. People will see “your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). The mark of genuine spiritual life in believers is that as we interact with others, they in some measure become conscious of God because our lives point the way to Christ, the source of our righteousness.
Trying to surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees on our own strength will only make us their equals. This is an ever-present danger for the evangelical church, for like the Pharisees, we place a high authority on Scripture, know right and wrong and are genuinely concerned with holiness. These are good and important concerns, but the temptation then and now is that we may behave righteously to impress rather than as a true expression of our hearts. It is not behaving better that lets us surpass the Pharisees; true righteousness that merits the kingdom is Christ’s righteousness imputed to us and lived out through us.
PRAYER: Lord Jesus, thank You that I do not need to surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees on my own strength but that You want to be the source of my righteousness.