Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 5:20b “. . .and Pharisees,. . .”
The word “Pharisees” means separatists, and was used as the title of a religious order of men who set themselves apart to live by a strict code of conduct. Their sect began about 200 years before Christ. Their intent was to keep the Jews from being corrupted, from accepting the customs and lifestyle of the Greek world. The Pharisees were eminently respected, totally religious, and precisely orthodox. No common person ever expected to be as good as a Pharisee. The latter, conscientious in every detail, scaled a height which seemed impossible for laymen to reach.
These men took legalistic obedience to the law as far as it could go. They may have displayed the strictest conformity to the letter of the law that our world has ever seen. Even Paul, before he became a Christian, was a Pharisee who had deemed himself as to the “righteousness which is in the law, blameless” (PH 3:6).
Pharisees were highly disciplined. They prayed in public, read Scripture regularly, attended worship daily, honored the Sabbath Day, tithed on everything, including “mint and anise and cummin” (MT 23:23). They were men in earnest.
Nevertheless, our Master said these men were headed for damnation (MT 23:33). To enter Christ’s kingdom requires a righteousness better than that of the Pharisees. Does this mean Jesus expects us to increase production, to attempt to do even more than Pharisees tried to do to merit heaven? Did Jesus want us to obey more laws than they did? If so, this is a tough order indeed, for in this detail they may have been the best that’s ever been. Obviously, if our righteousness is to be better than that of Pharisees, it must be a different type of righteousness. Something was seriously wrong with Pharisaism; it contained at least two fatal errors.
First, Scripture was not enough. To the written word of God, they added myriads of oral traditions. Their code of conduct was much stricter and more rigid than the Old Testament required. For example, these men fasted twice a week (LK 18:12), 103 times a year more than the Bible prescribed. They were so addicted to rules and regulations that Holy Writ did not have enough laws to satisfy them. The Pharisees actually made up more laws to obey. In an effort to protect the Old Testament from defilement, they built a fence around it, hedged it in with safeguards against infringements. Their efforts made obedience to God a confusing burden.
Second, their religion was totally external. They minded only the outside (MT 23:25). They were mere machines with no heart, robots churning out deeds in dead formality. They suffered from a grave heart-deficiency. Their motives were wrong. Their actions issued from a foul spring. Instead of having a desire to glorify God (5:16), they did good works in order to enhance their own reputations, “to be seen of men” (MT 23:5). The Talmud speaks of the tumbling Pharisee, who to look humble before men always hung down his head, thus often tripping. The Talmud also mentions the bleeding Pharisee, who, not to look at a woman, walked with eyes closed, and kept running into things, causing his head to bleed. The Pharisees constructed long articulate prayers (MT 23:14), which they enjoyed offering publicly at street corners (MT 6:5). Why the corner rather than the middle of the block? So people going both ways could see and hear them. Pharisees loved adulation, and craved the applause of men. This is ironic, for the Pharisees disdained the very rabble they sought to impress. The Pharisees were proud, self-satisfied, egocentric. Nevertheless, folks adored the Pharisees, and the Pharisees agreed wholeheartedly.
Matt. 5:20c “. . .ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
Despite the glamor, glitz, and glory Pharisees received, Jesus said their brand of righteousness was not good enough to enable one to enter His kingdom. The highest ranking religious leaders of Jesus’ day were clueless when it came to knowing how to be right with God. Jesus said Nicodemus needed to be born again (JN 3), but the latter had not the foggiest notion of what Jesus was talking about, even though Nicodemus was among the best and brightest stars Israel had ever produced.
To salvage people from spiritual devastation and everlasting damnation, Jesus knew what He had to do. He had to undertake an extremely dangerous mission and go head to head against set forms of morality supported by tradition, power, and privilege. To help people, He had to expose the two fatal flaws in Pharisaism.
First, Jesus helped us rediscover the Scriptures. He had already fought the casting off of law by those who desired to be lawless (5:19), and now He attacked the other extreme, the adding to the law by the Pharisees. Jesus had to remove the clutter, the barnacles which had encrusted themselves to the hull of the ship of Zion.
Jesus obeyed the God-given eternal mandate, but set aside man-made temporary interpretations. Discarding meticulous man-made rules as to what was clean or unclean, He met with social and moral outcasts, and treated women with dignity.
Second, Jesus helped us rediscover heart-religion. Rather than increasing our quantity of outward rules to follow, Jesus emphasized the quality of our inner life before God. Our calling is not to mere mechanical obedience to rules. Our goal is to do this plus much much more. Our intent is to please God in ways not spelled out. To obey God’s written commands is not the same as doing His will. The latter includes the former, but also expands on it. It is good to do what we are told by one we love. It is better to do what we are not told, to anticipate the beloved’s desire in advance. To go beyond the written letter of the law is ever the truest expression of love. We seek to do what pleases, though it is never laid down. Obey all the Laws as best we can? Absolutely, but even once this is done, the Christian still hungers and thirsts after righteousness, longing to do more than the minimum prescribed.
Brothers and sisters, I call us back to the simple prescription of Jesus: the Bible and heart-religion. Neither cast away Scripture nor add to it. Using it as our sole authority, thoroughly investigate it to learn what it says about being right with God. The Bible calls us away from trying to earn God’s favor, to merit salvation.
A seductive egotism makes us think “a religion of external performances will suffice to ensure a blissful eternity” (Pink). Any who believe that formal obedience to certain laws can get one into heaven does not understand the most basic truth about what is required to enter the kingdom of heaven. When Saul became a Christian and looked back upon all he had tried to do as a Pharisee to win God’s approval, He deemed it all rubbish (PH 3:8). His new desire was to gain Christ, not due to a righteousness of his own, but due to one from God by faith in Christ (PH 3:9).
Cease and desist all efforts to earn Heaven. Stop being a Pharisee. The Sermon on the Mount again and again returns us to one theme, to an awakening within us of our own weakness and helplessness. In verse 20, Jesus has taken us via another route back to the poverty of spirit necessary to enter the kingdom of heaven.
When we are born again, God enters us and does what only He can do. He brings forth within us new life, changing our motives, and producing in us an internal righteousness which the Holy Spirit works from within us. Let us not be like a Christmas tree, which puts its goodness on from the outside. Let us rather be like an apple tree, whose adornments rise from a life flowing within.