“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 (Jesus speaking)
Today is our fifth installment of the Sermon on the Mount.
Yesterday, we saw Jesus assure His disciples that He was not departing from the Old Testament; on the contrary, He was building on it. Today, we see Jesus telling His disciples something that hardly any of them expected to hear – that the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was insufficient for Jesus’ kingdom.
This statement doesn’t strike our modern ears the same way it struck their ancient ones – mainly because the expression “scribes and Pharisees” carries negative connotations for us that it did not carry in the time of Jesus.
The occupation of “scribe” was necessary in ancient times because there were no printing presses or automatic copiers. The way that the written word was copied and transmitted was by scribes. Literacy rates among the general population in ancient times was lower than it is today. Scribes acted as “interpreters” of the written word, making it known by speaking it to those who could not read for themselves. In those days, going to a synagogue was, at least in one sense, the equivalent of you opening your Bible and reading it. People appreciated the role of scribes and it required some special education to qualify for it.
As for “Pharisees,” they were considered by many as the most interested and zealous about “doing things by the book” (i.e. the Bible) – much like evangelical Christians would be in America today. While “Pharisee” today would be considered synonymous with “hypocrite,” consider how Paul described his Jewish pedigree:
…circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee;
– Philippians 3:5
It’s clear from this and other first century writings that Pharisees enjoyed a positive image then that they do not have today.
Since the scribes and Pharisees were considered among the most pious and dedicated Jews of that day, imagine what Jesus’ disciples thought when He told them that degree of righteousness wasn’t good enough for the kingdom of God!
(Remember that prayer is more about listening than talking. Use the words below to start yourself, but then allow time to reflect more on the Scripture above before you say the “Amen.” During that time of quiet reflection, let God shape your thoughts and wait for a sense of peace to come. That’s your signal to say “Amen” and go forth to the day.)
Lord Jesus, You are showing us that it matters little if other people think we are close to You; it only matters if You think we are close to You…(this is where you remain quiet to let Him work in your thoughts)… Amen.
(All scriptures, unless otherwise noted, are taken from the NASB.)