More Righteous than the Religious

Jesus and the Pharisees

The title of this article may sound a little odd. But let me begin by stating that this article is not about how organized religion is wrong – it is not. The point of the article is not to say that religious people are not righteous – many of them are, and they should be. So what is the purpose of this article?

The title is based on one of Jesus’ statements from the Sermon on the Mount:

For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

The scribes and Pharisees were regarded as the religious leaders of that day. Jesus’ point was that in order to follow Him, we must live up to a higher standard than what is commonly accepted – even commended to us – among the religious world. Doing just enough to blend in with those who are religious is not enough to be part of His kingdom.

To emphasize His point, Jesus talked about six commands that would be generally accepted by most who claimed to be religious (such as the command not to murder). He then explained how we must do more than this. We must live according to the principles behind the command because God calls us to follow a higher standard.

Jesus mentioned six ways in which our righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees:

  • Murder – “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell” (Matthew 5:21-22). It is generally recognized that murder is wrong – not just by the religious world, but all of society. But we must do more than simply refrain from murdering. We must learn to control our emotions and not allow ourselves to be angry with our brethren. Jesus indicated the seriousness of this when He said that being angry with a brother puts one’s own soul in jeopardy (Matthew 5:22) and renders his service to God meaningless (Matthew 5:23-24).
  • Adultery – “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28). There is general agreement in the religious world of the concept that adultery is wrong. Unfortunately, many ignore God’s definition of adultery and condone adulterous marriages (cf. Matthew 19:9). Despite this, adultery is generally rejected – at least in principle – by religious people. But Jesus took it a step further. We must not even lust after someone, thereby committing adultery in our heart. He also taught that we must eliminate anything in our lives that hinders us in our battle against lust (Matthew 5:29-30).
  • Divorce – “It was said, ‘Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce’; but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:31-32). It used to be that divorce was rare among religious people. Now it is common and becoming more common even among brethren. But no matter how common it becomes, we have a different standard. Because of the hard hearts of the people, God, through Moses, gave the instruction about the certificate of divorce. But it was never His intention that one would put away his mate for just any reason (cf. Matthew 19:7-8). Today people put away their spouses for any cause. But Jesus gave just one exception to the rule that one was not to put away their spouse – unchastity or fornication on the part of their spouse.
  • Making Vows – “Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ But I say to you, make no oath at all… But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil” (Matthew 5:33-34, 37). Everyone understands that false vows are wrong. But why did Jesus tell us not to make any vows? First, we are unqualified to make these vows because we cannot confirm them ourselves. If we swear by heaven, earth, or Jerusalem (the examples that Jesus cited), what power do we have over these things? In addition to this, we are to speak the truth at all times (Ephesians 4:25). If we demonstrate that we are people of integrity who will keep their word, then vows should not be necessary. We should not make a vow in one situation because we believe it is more important to be truthful then and we want people to see that we know that. We need to be truthful in all situations.
  • Revenge – “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Matthew 5:38-39). Here Jesus was talking about retaliating for being wronged or getting “even” with someone. While this may be natural to want to do this, we are to be “patient when wronged” (2 Timothy 2:24). We are not to take our own vengeance but rather leave that to God (Romans 12:19) and, when necessary, the governing authorities which He ordained as the ones to execute vengeance in this life (Romans 13:1, 4).
  • Enemies – “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45). The first part about loving one’s neighbor is from Leviticus 19:18. But the second part about hating one’s enemy is not found in the Law of Moses. This was the interpretation that they were applying to the passage. But we are to love our enemies. God treats all men the same in this life, causing the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45). So we should treat them the same as well. If we love only those who love us, we are no better than those who are not following God (Matthew 5:46-47).

There are many who would seem religious by the world’s standards. But we are not following the world’s standards, we are following God’s. Jesus concluded by saying, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). We must strive for perfection, not what is accepted by the religious world around us.

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