When we think of the New Testament “bad guys” the Pharisees top the list. They are always seeming at war with Jesus, always pushing Him, always trying to trip Him up, always against Him at every turn.
So what Jesus tell us in Matthew 5: 17-20 may really surprise you:
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Even though the Pharisees have been some of His greatest opponents, here He says unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees, then you’ll not enter the kingdom of heaven.
What does He mean by that? Why is He commending them to us? The Pharisees actually had good intentions. In their past, the Israelites had not always kept the covenant. The Pharisees arose and became teachers of the law, became the ones that would make sure that the people would keep their promises.
But what happened was this. They became more focused on the letter of the law than the point of the law and the God that gave the law. So, for instance, when Jesus healed on the Sabbath, instead of celebrating the fact that God moved and healed, they saw the healing as work and you aren’t supposed to work on the Sabbath.
They missed the point.
And that’s what Jesus means by our righteousness must surpass that of the Pharisees. He is telling us, yes, keep the law. But, understand why you keep it. Understand the point of the law. Know only God, the One that gave the Law.
The law doesn’t exist for its own sake. It exists to show us our wrongs and point us to Jesus, who saves. Our righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees when we are not focused on “keeping the rules” but we are focused on God who gave the rules.
So, yes, keep the rules today. Do right. Do good. But don’t miss the point. Focus on Jesus above all. And He’ll take care of the rest.