Contrasting Forms of Righteousness in Matthew 5: how Jesus’ way is different from that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law

This past weekend in my message, “Real Righteousness,” I focused on Jesus’ striking statement in Matthew 5:20:

“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

While this statement has often plagued interpreters, I believe Jesus is redefining righteousness for his hearers by offering a stark contrast between His agenda and what people often viewed as righteousness. This new righteousness is different than the righteousness of the Pharisees and teachers of the law. The righteousness of the Pharisees and teachers of the law was old and deficient. Jesus is bringing a new and surpassing righteousness that is real on the inside and outside.

In his very insightful book, Reading the Sermon on the Mount: Character Formation and Decision Making in Matthew 5-7, Charles H. Talbert summarizes the contrast between the old and the new righteousness. I have rephrased and summarized here his insights on pages 64-65. The righteousness of the Pharisees and the scribes looked like this:[1]

  • they rely on birth instead of observance of God’s will (John 8:39)
  • they teach but do not practice what they teach (Matthew 23:3)
  • they focus on minor things and neglect major things (23:23-24)
  • they do what they do for human approval (23:5, 27-28)
  • they seek to evade the intent of the Law (23:16-22; 15:1-9)
  • they persecute God’s messengers (23:29-36; 12:14), failing to recognize God’s Spirit or to understand the meaning of Jesus’ ministry

The new, surpassing righteousness of Jesus embodied and taught His disciples was different. It looked like this:

  • instead of formal obedience, it aims for radical obedience (Matthew 5:21-48)
  • this righteousness does not seek human approval, but God’s approval (6:1-18)
  • this righteousness is neither greedy nor anxious but trusts in God’s providential goodness (6:19-34)
  • this righteousness is a lifestyle that walks the talk and is critical, not of others, but of the self as a means toward self-awareness and growth with God (7:1-12)

As Talbert helpful summarizes:

“For Matthew, living with a surpassing righteousness means living faithfully within a covenant relationship that encompasses both vertical and horizontal dimensions, and is only possible if such a life is divinely enabled. Left to our own resources, we cannot be faithful. So living justly is as much a  matter of receiving as it is of giving.”


[1] Charles H. Talbert, Reading the Sermon on the Mount: Character Formation and Decision Making in Matthew 5-7 (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2004), 64-65.

One thought on “Contrasting Forms of Righteousness in Matthew 5: how Jesus’ way is different from that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s