The Righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees

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. – Matthew 5:19-20

What is the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, and why does their righteousness ban them from the kingdom of heaven?

There are a few things that could be said. One thing that stands out to me is their tendency to consider themselves to be righteous while they condemn others for their sin.

As Jesus said, “I am not come to call the righteous, but the sinners to repentance.”

If we do not realize that we are sinners in need of a savior, but trust in our own righteousness, we cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Our own righteousness can take many forms. This can include following the law. We might think that because we are generally law-abiding, that means we are good people. We might think that if we follow what society says is righteous, then we are righteous.

Here’s the problem.

Law and societal norms are not the righteousness of God.

His righteousness goes much deeper—even to the issues of the heart—as we will see if we continue reading Matthew 5. For example, someone might think that they are righteous because they have never committed physical murder. Jesus says that if you hate someone in your heart, you are murderous. Who then among us has not been murderous according to the perfect righteousness of God?

We all have blood on our hands. We all need Jesus, and unless we humble ourselves to recognize that we are sinners, we cannot go to the Savior and The Physician who can transform our wicked hearts into something more like Him as He heals our mental and emotional wounds, shows us a better way, and give us the ability to do as He would have us by the working of the Holy Spirit in us.

If we do not know that we are sinners, but instead focus on the sins of others, we are as the scribes and Pharisees.

There are many, aren’t there?

There are the scribes and Pharisees of every social movement today. People love to show how virtuous they are as they tear down others hatefully and call it righteous as they do so. There are the scribes and Pharisees of science who say you must obey the letter of their laws of science so-called or be killed, but they themselves do not obey what science says.

“They bind heavy burdens and grievous to be born and lay them on man’s shoulders, but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.”

If we are not aware, we Christians can be as the scribes and Pharisees too. We want to be on-guard against hypocrisy as we bash certain sins but ignore others, justify our sin through legalism, call ourselves righteous because of our good works, or deny the work and will of Jesus for our lives.

We also do not want to be as the scribes and Pharisees who “did their works to be seen of man.”

Putting on shows of outer righteousness while denying how sinful we are is a particularly distasteful form of hypocrisy. It does not matter how good our lives look from the outside when our inner world is seeped in sin, usually hidden sins that we can cover up as we pretend to be “good people.”

There is no room for pride, vanity, lust, lying, and greed in the Kingdom of Heaven just as there is no place for the sins that some Christians harp over—usually self-righteously—because they look at the sins of others instead of healing their own in Jesus.

“Take heed to yourselves.” “Get the beam out of your own eye.” Jesus said these things for a reason, and we should listen. Once we can see more clearly, we are in a position to do some good for those who are bound to sin. Otherwise, we just make things worse, and we add more sin to ourselves.

It is always better to be honest about who we are. Honest sinners who know they are sinners are more accepted of God than all the lying righteous people. However, we should be righteous, not by our strength alone but by His working in us.

I suppose, if I could coin a term for what I believe in this regard, it would be “Honest Holiness.” I do believe in holiness for Christians, but I also believe that only Jesus is truly holy. There is always more to seek. We should be “poor in spirit” as we push forward, obtain more of the Christ-like nature, and glorify God in truth—not fakery—which He hates, as He deals patiently and mercifully with us, freeing us in His own time according to the measure of His own perfect and pleasing will.

Glory in His grace, not our works. However, grace will create in us many good works. His works. We cannot do His works if we proudly rely on our own, as the scribes and Pharisees.

On a final note, do not think that we are above those who killed the prophets, as Jesus said.

Do not think that we are better than the big sinners of our history in general.

If we do not realize that ordinary people, like us, are capable of extraordinary evil, then we testify to the fact that we are as those who killed the prophets and committed other great evils.


Because we are not honest about who we are, and if we are not honest, we cannot repent. We cannot seek Jesus. We cannot be healed by The Physician.

Consider the scripture below. “This generation” that Jesus mentions is not a generation of time, but of type. This type of person exists in all time. We do not want to be of the scribes and Pharisees, because their end is the damnation of hell. Read more in Matthew 23-24.

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous,

And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.

Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets.

Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers.

Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?

Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city:

That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar.

 Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation. (Matthew 23: 30-36).

This article is part of a series that considers the Parables of Jesus. Right now, we are looking at the statements Jesus made during His Sermon on the Mount, to which He referenced in His Parable of the Building on Rock and Sand. Visit the link for quick access to all articles written within this series. Subscribe for notifications of future posts.

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