Sermon audio here.
The Pharisees are to the Bible what the Green Bay Packers are to Bears fans. They’re the bad guys. When we see them we boo and hiss. But that’s today. Back then, to be a Pharisee was to be on the religious all-star team. They were as good at religion as Brett Farve was at throwing touchdowns.
We might see the Pharisees as the enemy today, but hindsight’s 20/20. Outwardly, the Pharisees were good people—as righteous as they come. If you were walking down a dark alley at night, you would’ve been glad to see a Pharisee. These were the guys you wanted to set your daughter up with. Pharisees were educated, godly, clean (they were always washing stuff), and often wealthy.
The Pharisees were as preoccupied with righteousness as Solomon was with finding new wives to marry. The Pharisees’ whole existence was built around following God’s laws. 10 Commandments weren’t nearly enough for them, so they came up with the 613 commandments.
Imagine their reaction, then, when Jesus says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Say what? That’s impossible. That would be like saying you have to throw better than Brett Favre to get into heaven. Now Jay Cutler we could probably manage… but I digress.
With these words Jesus is telling us that as far as God’s concerned, there are no good people. The only way you can earn eternal life is by doing better than the Pharisees. You’ve got to throw better than Favre.
Now you’d think that the Pharisees, with all of their burdensome commandments, would have come up with a system that was harder to keep than the one God established. After all, you’d think it would be harder to keep 613 commandments than 10.
But it wasn’t. Their system was easier. It was still really hard, but it was possible. Keeping the God’s commandments is not. God demands absolute perfection. His standards are way higher than the Pharisees’. These religious all-stars may have impressed themselves and others, but God wasn’t impressed. They may have been righteous by their own standards, but not by God’s.
Here’s why. Jesus says, “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” The Pharisee says, “Don’t walk more than 100 steps on Saturday.” Now counting the number of steps you take one day of the week is burdensome, but you can do it if you really want to.
On the other hand, no one can love God as we should. We’ve received an inheritance from Adam called sin which makes that impossible. Only a Pharisee could lay his head on the pillow at night and think, “I did it today. I loved the Lord my God perfectly. I loved Him with everything I have.”
The Law says “Love your neighbor as yourself.” We don’t. When I’m sitting on the couch watching the Blues and my throat’s shot from screaming at the TV and I need water (and probably an Advil), I don’t think twice about getting up, going into the kitchen, and getting it.
But let’s say I’m sitting there watching the game, and one of my children, flesh of my flesh, one whom I love, comes up to me and says, “papa, I’m thirsty” I groan, I wait for the commercial break, and labor my way into the kitchen like I’m one of Pharaoh’s slaves. See the difference? When Jesus tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves, He’s telling us to have the same instinctive love we have for ourselves for our neighbor.
The Lord says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The Pharisee says, “Wrap this leather pouch on your arm and pray three times a day.” The Pharisees may have come up with 613 commandments, but they aren’t nearly as difficult as God’s 10. The 613 may be hard, but they’re not impossible. God’s are, and unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
But why do the Pharisees and their 613 commandments matter today? After all, we don’t have any Pharisees running around with their burdensome (but obtainable) righteousness. If anything, you might think we, as a society, have become permissive almost to the point of lawlessness. But that’s exactly where we most closely resemble the Pharisees today, culturally speaking. America has one great commandment, and it’s called tolerance.
Anything goes, and the most tolerant people are considered the most righteous. The worst thing you can do is point to a universal standard like God’s commandments, because that means we can’t decide for ourselves what’s right and wrong.
God’s Commandments are especially offensive to the sinful flesh because they will always accuse you of failing to keep them. Unless you’ve vainly imagined you’ve kept them they will always leave you feeling guilty. This is, by the way, a godly guilt, the guilt that leads to repentance and faith in the One who kept the Law for you.
The Lord has given us His Law, above all,
to show you your sin,
to accuse you before God,
to expose your sinfulness and deep, deep corruption, and the wrath that you deserve from God.
That’s the number one function of the law—to terrify you, to bring you to the end of yourself so that you cry out Lord, have mercy.
The devil takes the law and misuses it. Instead of condemning you, he dumbs it down so you think you’ve kept it. The devil wants you to think you’re a good person, that you’ve kept the Commandments.
If we say we’ve kept the Commandments, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sin, God is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleans us from all unrighteousness.
Now we might not have 613 commandments, but we have our own, self-chosen standards of holiness. You may not realize this. In general we’re too secular to think in these terms, so today we speak of “expectations” rather than “holiness.”
We all have expectations of ourselves, expectations of what we have to do to be “a good person.” Those are our own personal standards of holiness. We measure ourselves by them, and depending on how well we’ve done, we’re either left with pride or despair.
The problem with those standards is that, like the Pharisees’, they’re lower than God’s—even if they’re really difficult. Jesus says love your neighbor as yourself. He says be perfect as I am perfect. Whatever your standard is, it’s too low. It’s not nearly as high as God’s, not even close. Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
What this means is if you’re going to reach the Kingdom of Heaven, it’ll be no thanks to you. God isn’t impressed when you live up to whatever pathetic standard you’ve cooked up for yourself. The Kingdom of Heaven comes by way of another righteousness—the righteousness of Christ Himself. This comes, dear saints, not by your doing, but by the Lord’s doing—by dying, His rising, His washing, His feeding, His forgiving.
Jesus attacks your righteousness so there’s space for something better—His own righteousness, His keeping the Law, His blood and holiness. He gives it all to you for free. You sin is forgiven you. Take and eat your salvation. You have the righteousness of Christ which far exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.
Soli Deo Gloria