"For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven" (v. 20). We purpose to expound this verse by supplying answers to the following questions. First, who or what were the scribes and Pharisees? Second, what was the character of their righteousness? Third, what is the nature of that superior righteousness which Christ requires from His subjects? Fourth, how is it obtained? Fifth, how is it manifested? Sixth, wherein does it exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees? Seventh, what is signified by "ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven? Eighth, what is the relation of verse 20 to the context?
Before seeking an answer to the above questions, let us point out what a startling effect this statement of Christ's must have produced upon His hearers. The scribes were the most renowned teachers of the Law, and the Pharisees had the reputation of being the most exemplary models of Judaism; and for our Lord to have solemnly affirmed that such righteousness as they possessed was altogether inadequate for entitling them to an entrance into the kingdom which He had come to set up must have seemed a most radical and startling declaration. The Pharisees were looked up to as those who had attained to the very pinnacle of personal piety, and the common people supposed that such heights of spirituality were quite beyond their reach. Men in general imagined that they could not be expected to equal their attainments. It was a proverb among the Jews that "If but two men were to enter heaven, the one would be a scribe and the other a Pharisee."
First, who were the scribes and Pharisees? The word "scribe" is a name of office, whereof there were two sorts among the Jews: civil and ecclesiastical. The former were public notaries, registering the affairs of state: such a one was Shimshai (Ezra 4:8). The latter were employed in expounding the Scriptures: such a one was Ezra (7:1, 5, 6). It was to the latter Christ referred in this Gospel: see 8:52; 23:2— interpreters of the Law of Moses. They were of the tribe of Levi. The name "Pharisee" betokens a sect, and not an office. They differed from the scribes inasmuch as they formed a code of morals and of ceremonial acts more rigid than the Law of Moses enjoined, basing it on the traditions of the fathers: and were held in highest esteem among the Jews: see Acts 23:6; 26:5. The scribes, then, were the doctors of the Law; the Pharisees professing the purest practice of it.
Second, what was the character of their righteousness, and wherein lay its defectiveness? First, the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was an external one only, consisting of certain outward observances of the Law. They were strict in abstaining from such gross sins as adultery, theft, murder and idolatry; but they made no conscience of impure thoughts, covetousness, hatred, and coldness of heart toward God; and therefore did Christ say unto them, "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess," etc. (Matthew 23:25, 27, 28). Second, their observance of God's Law was a partial one: they laid far more stress upon its ceremonial precepts than upon its moral requirements; and therefore did Christ say unto them, "Ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith" (Matthew 23:23). Third, their actions proceeded from unsound principles: self-interest, rather than the glory of God, was their ruling motive. They were forward in fasting, praying at street corners, and giving alms ostentatiously; but it was all done to enhance their reputation among men (Matthew 23:5-7).
Righteousness of soul, purity of heart, the scribes and Pharisees had no regard for. In their religion we have an exemplification of what is the natural persuasion of men the world over, namely, that a religion of external performances will suffice to ensure a blissful eternity. True, there are many who would deny this in words, but in works they substantiate it. They bring their bodies to the house of prayer, but not their souls; they worship with their mouths, but not "in spirit and in truth." They are sticklers for immersion or early morning communion, yet take no thought of keeping their hearts with all diligence (Prov. 4:23). Multitudes of professing Christians abstain from external acts of violence, yet hesitate not to rob their neighbors of a good name by spreading evil reports against them. Thousands who would not dare to rob openly, yet misrepresent their goods and cheat their customers; which shows they have more fear of breaking man's laws than they have of breaking those of God.
Third, what is the nature of that righteousness which Christ requires from His subjects? There are three kinds of righteousness spoken of in the Scriptures. First, inherent, which Adam had when he left the hands of his Maker (Eccl. 7:29), which none possess by nature today. Second, imputed righteousness (Rom. 4:6), which is the whole of our justification before God. Third, imparted righteousness (Eph. 4:24), when God the Spirit makes us new creatures. Most of the older writers concluded that it was the second of these which Christ referred to here in Matthew 5:20, but we are satisfied that this was a mistake. It is true that the sinner's title for heaven can consist only of the perfect righteousness of Christ being imputed to him upon his believing, yet there must be an experimental meetness for the inheritance of the saints in light as well as a legal right, and this we obtain through our regeneration and sanctification.
We fully agree with Mr. J. C. Philpot when he pointed out on Matthew 5:20, "Christ did not mean an external righteousness wrought out by His obedience to the Law for them, but an internal righteousness wrought out by the Holy Spirit in them. Thus, we read of the inward as well as the outward apparel of the Church: 'The King's daughter is all glorious within; her clothing is of wrought gold' (Ps. 45:13). Two kinds of righteousness belong to the queen: her imputed righteousness is her outward robe, the 'clothing of wrought gold'; but imparted righteousness is her inward adorning, which makes her 'all glorious within.' This inward glory is the new man in the heart, with all his gifts and graces." This must be so if the Church is conformed to her head, for He was "without spot" externally, and "without blemish" internally.
As this is a point which is much disputed, we must labour it a little further. That righteousness which will bring men to heaven is not a bare imputed one, but an imputed righteousness which is accompanied by an imparted one. Justification and sanctification must never be severed: wherever the former be pronounced, the other (in its fundamental aspect) has already been bestowed. The one concerns our standing before God, the other respects our state in ourselves. Romans 8 is just as vital and blessed a part of the Gospel as is Romans 5, and it is to the irreparable loss of the saint if the one be emphasized to the virtual exclusion of the other. Surely righteousness alone secures for us a standing before God, but evangelical righteousness is the certain proof thereof, and as the tree is known by its fruits so imputed righteousness can be recognized in no other way than by inward righteousness with its effects in the life.
To this writer the simplest and most conclusive way of ascertaining the nature of the righteousness which Christ requires from all who shall have part in His everlasting kingdom is to observe that it is placed in direct antithesis from the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. Now as we have pointed out, the defects of the latter lay chiefly in three things. First, their righteousness was wholly an external one, but God requires Truth in the inward parts: "Man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart" (1 Sam. 16:7). Second. their righteousness was partial, stressing certain parts of the Law which suited their tastes, while utterly ignoring or nullifying other vital features thereof. The righteousness which God requires is a universal obedience: a living by every word that proceeds out of His mouth. Third, their righteousness issued from a foul spring: instead of keeping the Law from a desire to please and glorify its Giver, their observance of it was only in order to promote their reputation among men.
This superior righteousness, then, consists of an obedience to the Divine Law which would be acceptable to a holy but gracious God. Such an obedience must necessarily spring from the fear of God and love to God: that is, from a genuine reverence for His authority, and from a true desire to please Him. It must comprise a strict conformity to the revealed will of God, without any self-invented and self-imposed additions thereto. It must give particular attention to the "weightier matters of the law," namely justice, mercy and faith. It must be a sincere and not a feigned obedience, a filial and not a slavish one, a disinterested and not a selfish one. It must be a symmetrical or complete one, having respect to all God's commandments. Such an obedience will not puff up or encourage self-righteousness, but will cause the one who sincerely aims thereat to walk softly before the Lord, and will produce humility and denying of self.
Fourth, how is this superior righteousness obtained? Not by the strivings of a fallen creature, but by the effectual working of Divine grace. Such an obedience as we have delineated above can only proceed from a heart that is reconciled to God, because "the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be" (Rom. 8:7). Now as 2 Corinthians 5:17, 18, so plainly teaches us. God's reconciling us to Himself by Jesus Christ is the immediate outcome of our being made new creatures in Christ. Initially we become partakers of this righteousness at the new birth, when a holy nature is communicated by the Spirit, so that there is now a principle within us which "delights in the law of God" (Rom. 7:22) and causes us to "serve" it (Rom. 7:25). Progressively, this inward righteousness is developed as we "grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ," which is through our using the appointed means and by learning to draw our strength from the Lord. Perfectly, this inward righteousness will only be consummated at our glorification, when we shall be filled with all the fullness of God.
Fifth, how is this evangelical righteousness manifested? Inasmuch as this inward righteousness consists of and proceeds from a new creation to holiness it is known by the fruits it produces. A radical change is affected in the temper and life of its possessor, so that he now loathes and shuns what he formerly delighted in, and loves and seeks after the things he once disliked. It is evidenced by a real hatred of sin and an unfeigned love of God. It is known by the felt antagonism between the two natures in the believer. His indwelling corruptions continually war against this principle of righteousness, so that often he is prevented from doing the good which he desires and strives to perform. This conflict with the flesh humbles the Christian, causes him to mourn over his sad failures, and to confess he is but an unprofitable servant. Nevertheless, he continues in his efforts to mortify the old man and vivify the new. Another proof of indwelling righteousness is that its possessor has an ever-deepening appreciation of the forbearance of God and an increasing valuation of the precious blood of Christ.
Sixth, wherein does this righteousness "exceed" the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees? The superiority of the Christian's righteousness has already been shown in some detail, but one or two other things may be pointed out in connection therewith. The Christian's righteousness springs out of love and faith, whereas theirs issued from an evil heart of unbelief. The Christian's righteousness is the result of his being made a partaker of the Divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4), whereas theirs was altogether human. The defects of the Christian's righteousness are covered by the infinite merits of Christ, whereas theirs has nothing to commend them unto God. Evangelical righteousness—according to the terms of the new covenant—is approved by God, but legal righteousness found no provision in the Sinaitic compact for its acceptance by the Most High. The righteousness of the Christian secures an entrance into heaven, but that of the scribes and Pharisees will exclude them therefrom.
Seventh, what is signified by "Ye shall in no case enter the kingdom of heaven," which is the Lord's verdict upon those who possess not this righteousness? In our comments upon verse 19 we pointed out that this expression, "the kingdom of heaven," is wider than the Church which is Christ's body, covering the whole sphere of profession—Christendom; thus including the counterfeit as well as the genuine. But we were careful to qualify that definition by saying this was its meaning in the "great majority of cases." There are one or two notable exceptions: as for example, "Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven" (18:3), where the kingdom of heaven must refer to the kingdom of glory. Such too is the case in our present verse: Christ was speaking of real righteousness, and that alone will secure entrance into heaven.
Eighth, what is the relation of our verse to its context? Let us recall that in the whole of this passage our Lord was engaged in refuting the erroneous conception which had been formed of His mission. His detachment from the religious leaders of His day, His disregard of the "traditions of the elders," and His proclamation of grace in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:16-22), had inclined many to regard Him as the opponent of Moses. True, He had come to bring in something new, something vastly superior to that which then obtained in Israel, nevertheless there was no real conflict between Christianity and Judaism: though differing much in incidentals, there is really perfect accord in fundamentals. Alas, that the spiritual unity of the two economies is now so little perceived, yea, is emphatically denied by most of the much-advertised "Bible teachers" of our day.
First, Christ plainly and emphatically declared He had not come to destroy the Law or the prophets, but to "fulfill" them (v. 17): in what ways He was to "fulfill" them we have endeavored to show. Second, He solemnly affirmed the perpetuity and immutability of the Law (v. 18), asserting that not the smallest part thereof could pass away till all was fulfilled. Third, He insisted that His own servants must maintain the integrity of the Law, both by practice and by preaching
(v. 19), otherwise they would not receive His approval. Fourth, so far was He from being antagonistic to Moses, He demanded of His subjects a righteousness which surpassed that of the scribes and Pharisees. Hereafter there was not the slightest occasion for any of His hearers to have any doubt of Christ's attitude toward the Law of God.
It is most important that we perceive clearly our Lord's design in verse 20. It was not there His purpose to state the terms on which men might obtain the Divine favour, rather was He describing the character of those who already possessed the same. No doubt many of the multitude which had there flocked around Him supposed— such is poor human nature—that by attaching themselves to His cause they would obtain greater latitude to indulge their lusts: it must therefore have been a real shock for them to learn that the morality and spirituality which was to distinguish the genuine citizens of His kingdom would be of a far more exalted character than that taught by the scribes and exemplified by the Pharisees: He would not regard anyone as His subject unless his righteousness exceeded theirs. Thus, the nature and demand of His kingdom was proof positive that He honored and maintained the Law.
With regard to the relation of our passage to its yet wider context, we may note how that one of the principal designs of Christ throughout this Sermon was to awaken His hearers to feel their deep need of that which alone could satisfy the requirements of a holy God. It was ignorance of the Law which permitted pharisaism to flourish, for they claimed to fulfill it in the outward letter, and consequently Christ here aimed to arouse conscience by enforcing its true import and requirements. It will be found that this Sermon returns again and again to one main idea: that of awakening men to a sense of their wretchedness, and shutting them up to the righteousness of God. That object could only be obtained by a spiritual application of the Law and by enforcing its inviolable exactions: thereby alone could they be prepared to appreciate and embrace the Gospel.