Righteous living has always been a cornerstone of godly living. Ever since the Creation, God has had the expectation of man and woman that he and she both live according to His command. However, both man and woman failed – as every man and woman have since. So, when Jesus declares, “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mat. 5:20), what is He teaching? It should be obvious that Jesus Christ was not commanding mankind to do the impossible (to live a perfect life)– this would be completely worthless.
In Matthew, Jesus describes the quality of human behavior. This understanding of “righteousness” does not describe a perfect life, but instead a blameless one – a life which seeks to be right, even if imperfect. With this understanding we can better understand Christ’s intention with His command. The Jewish audience to whom He was delivering His Sermon on the Mount were very familiar with the scribes and Pharisees. Their religious station and expertise were considered by to make them de facto righteous men. The Pharisees believed that because of their position, and because of their outward overtures concerning the Law, that they were righteous men before God.
Christ’s definition of righteousness was much different than the Pharisees. He emphasized the importance of the inward man over the outward man. He explained that true piety came from a humble and repentant heart, not from a heart proud of its own accomplishment. In this light, the man who admits and confronts his own sin, through the Gospel of Christ and its power of forgiveness, is more righteous than the man who claims good deeds for himself. What is the difference? The difference lies within the heart. A heart which seeks to do right, and is broken when imperfections occur, is a righteous heart.
The scribes and Pharisees would never have this kind of righteousness for the same reason many in the world refuse the Gospel – they could not admit their own sin. In order for our own righteousness to surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees we have to learn from their mistake. It is not the outward things which make us righteous (even if they are worthwhile), it is the inward power of the Gospel upon a heart which can be broken by the horror of sin.
(Psalm 51:17 ASV – The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: A broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.)