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More Righteous Than a Pharisee

By David Battle

We commonly told that we are free from the law. While there is
truth in this statement by Paul we must put it into context. John
Wesley wrote a warning to Methodist about becoming a dead sect
that had the form of religion and not the power of religion
(Complete Works of John Wesley, Vol 13, 320). He explained that
if Methodist began to over emphasize certain things they would
become a dead denomination. We would have the form of
religion. We would have buildings and congregations. We would
have structure and boards. We would hold regular worship
services, evangelistic meetings, mission conferences, Sunday
Schools and even Vacation Bible Schools or Back Yard Bible Clubs.
We would have all the forms of cooperate religion but not the
power of God. We would continue to hold personal and family
prayer and have family devotions. We would visit the sick and
care for the dying. We would performs acts of mercy by helping
the poor and the down trodden. We would have all of the
trappings of personal devotion but not the power of God.
Wesley went on and explained that there were three ways in
which Methodist could become a dead denomination. First,
Methodist could overemphasize it doctrine or teaching to the
point that we become antinomian, lawless or libertarian. Second,
Methodist could overstress their experience and become
enthusiast or what we today would call charismatic. This would
be an interesting topic to study. Third, Methodist could
overemphasize our discipline and become Pharisees.
We often make fun of the Pharisees and criticize them, but the
Scripture does not record the debates between Christ and the
Pharisees in order for us to feel superior to the Pharisees.
Scripture gives those confrontations so that we learn to be better
Christians. Believe it or not, Pharisees were culturally model
citizens. Every Christian can easily become a Pharisee. Let us see
how this plays out in the very words of Jesus in Mat 5:17-20. Here
Jesus says:

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Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and the
Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.
I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the
smallest letter, not the least stroke of the pen, will by any
means disappear from the Law until everything is
accomplished. Anyone one breaks one of the least of these
commandments and teaches others to do the same will be
called the least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever
practices and teaches these commands will be called great
in the kingdom of heaven. 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. (Matt 5:17-20, NIV)
Before we go deeper into our investigation, I want us to note a
few things. First, Jesus tells us that he is not here to abolish the
law in the sense of making it null and void. He is here to fulfill it
or to accomplish its ultimate purpose which the law itself could
not do. He goes on to explain that the Law will remain in effect
until the destruction of heaven and earth. The law will no longer
be needed when the full plan of God is accomplished. Only once
God has finished with His complete work on earth will the law be
laid aside. When is God’s work fully accomplished? It is finished
in the day when the redeemed stand blameless and pure before
Him in the New Heavens and Earth. In that time, we will be like
Jesus. Our heart will be pure, and we will have put on the full
righteousness of Christ. There will be no need for law then
because we will be righteous. No one will have to tell us to do the
right thing. We will naturally do what is right because the Word of
God reigns in our hearts, and there will be no more sin.
But until then, we need the law for various reasons. First, the Law
teaches us what the minimum standard of social righteousness is.
Second, the Law shows us our sin, or how we fall short of the
glory of God. While these two reasons are not the only uses of
the law, they are the two that we will need to keep in mind today.
The other thing that I want you to notice is what Jesus teaches
about a person’s status in the kingdom. He points out two
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extremes. At the low end of the spectrum, there is the Christian
teacher who fudges on some minor points of the law. He finds
short cuts in keeping God’s law and then he teaches others how
soot by the perfect will of God. Jesus points out that this man will
have the lowest rank in the kingdom of God.
At the high end of the spectrum, Jesus describes a Christian
teacher who fully keeps the law and teaches others on how to
best keep the law. This man will be considered great in the
kingdom of heaven.
Matt 5:18-19 shows us the importance of the Law in the life of the
believer. We are not dealing with the matter of salvation, but we
are dealing with the Christian life. Note that both teachers are
members of the kingdom of heaven. The Christian life is not a life
of lawlessness. Christians are free, but they are not moral
libertarians. We do not live according to our own loves and
passions. The life we live is Christ living in us. When Christ lives
in us, we fully fulfill all the requirements of the law. The demands
of the law are fulfilled.
Jesus concludes this section in Matt 5:20 by changing the focus
from the Christian life to membership in the kingdom. He
explains in no uncertain terms the standard of righteousness that
one needs to enter the kingdom of God. The standard is a simple
one. Our righteousness must be greater than that of the Pharisee
and the teachers of the law.
Today our challenge is to understand the righteousness of the
Pharisees and the teachers of the law. Once we know their level
of righteousness, then we can determine how righteous we must
be to enter the kingdom of God.
We will do this first by seeking to understand who the Pharisees
really were and their relation to Christ and the early Church.
When we go through the New Testament, we note that often the
Pharisees have regular contact with Christians. The other Jewish
sects or denominations only appear occasionally in the New
Testament. The main groups were the Herodians, whom I doubt

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anyone here has known about. If you watch the history channel,
you may know about the Essenes, but they are only mentioned in
passing in the New Testament. You may remember that some of
Jesus’ disciples were members of the Zealots who were
nationalistic revolutionaries. They sought to bring the kingdom of
heaven in by the sword. The last two groups have more play time
in the New Testament. The Sadducees appear toward the end of
the Gospel narrative because they managed the Temple and the
court system that condemned Jesus. This group was aristocratic
and sophisticated. When we compare them to Jesus, we discover
that they were theologically very different form Jesus. First, they
only accepted the five books of Moses as canonical or
authoritative revelation. Second, if the Pentateuch did not
expressly affirm a matter they did not accept it. For example, the
books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy
do not directly address the matter of life after death; therefore,
the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection. Jesus rebukes
them for their doctrinal error in Matt 22:31-32 by pointing out the
Lord was the God of the Living not the dead. The Sadducees and
Jesus were very different theologically and ethically.
The last group, we know as the Pharisees and the teachers of the
law. These men were the teachers and preachers of Israel. They
taught the people the word of God. If we look at the debates
between Jesus and the Pharisees, we would see that the debates
were over the application of Scripture more so than the
interpretation. The basic theology of Jesus and the Pharisees was
the same.
In Matthew 23, Jesus pronounces a series of woes or curses upon
the Pharisees. If you turn to this passage, we will disregard the
woes for a moment and note the actions of the Pharisees from a
social perspective. In other words, we look content of the
passage from man’s perspective not God’s perspective.
Now, let us survey Matthew 23. Our passage open in Matthew
23:2-3a by recording Jesus as saying, “The teachers of the law
and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and
do everything they tell you . . .” (NIV). His condemnation is not
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for what they believed They taught by the authority of Moses,
and their teaching was authoritative. From this, we can surmise
they were very respectable people in their communities. If we
were to go through this passage looking for positive attributes of
the Pharisees, we can find several.
They were very evangelistic (Matt 23:15). They would travel far
and wide to bring people in their faith.
They were concerned about precise legal terms. They were
meticulous in giving their tithe (Matt 23:23). They would tithe on
their full employment income, including what their employer pays
for them. They would even tithe on their full social security and
They were concerned about avoiding the appearance of evil in
Matt 23:25. They want to make sure no one could accuse them of
doing something wrong. They knew how to make sure every
thing always looked just right.
They were concerned about honoring and memorializing the great
heroes of the faith in Matt 23:29. They remembered the saint of
old and their sacrifices for the work of God. If they lived today,
they could name and explain all the great men of the faith. They
would know who John Wiclif, John Knox, Augustine, John Wesley,
Joseph Fletcher, Peter Cartwright, Francis Asbury, and Dwight
Moody were. They honored these men like these for their
faithfulness to God.
From other passages we know that the Pharisees spent regular
time in prayer and even fasted. Some fasted twice a week. They
were very devout people.
If we pause and think for a moment, we quickly can realize that
the Pharisees were theologically close to Christianity. Jesus
personally trained twelve men as his disciples to be His Apostles
after the resurrection. He sent the Twelve to represent him
throughout the world. He commissioned them to write the 27
books of the New Testament. Yet, 18 of those books were written
by men other than the Twelve Apostles. Paul wrote at least 13 of

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the books, and he was not one of the original Twelve. He wrote
the book of Romans which is the theological heart of the New
Where did Paul get his theological training? In Philippians 3:5,
Paul tells us that he was a Pharisee. When he gives his defense
before King Agrippa, he states that “The Jews all know the way I
have lived ever since I was a child. . .. They can testify that
according to the strictest sect of our religion, I lived as a
Pharisee” (Acts 26:4-5, NIV). Paul had earlier pointed out that he
had learned under a great Pharisee named Gamaliel. Please note,
Jesus chose a Pharisee to write most important of the books of the
New Testament. A Pharisee gave us Romans, which is the
theological heart of the New Testament.
The reason I have said all this is to point out to us that the
Pharisee are very much like the best of us. Jesus pointed out that
in order to get into heaven, we have to be more righteous than
the Pharisee and the teachers of the Law. They lived by a very
high public standard of righteousness. They were the men who
ran the charities. They were the one’s who looked out for the
good of the communities. They never missed public worship. If
you were to visit in their homes, you would discover that they
held daily family devotions and took time for personal worship.
The Pharisee were very good people.
Yet in all their goodness and faithful devotion to God, they could
not enter the kingdom of heaven. Their times of corporate and
personal worship were not good enough for God’s kingdom. Their
civic charities did not earn them any merit before God. Their
work in feeding the poor and supporting the widows did not make
them righteous before God.
God expects a greater righteousness than that of the Pharisee.
He expects a righteousness of heart not merely of action. You
see the Pharisee made the mistake of associating social
righteousness with godliness.
Look at how Jesus develops this point. Return with me to
Matthew 5. Right after Jesus states that we have to be more

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righteous than the Pharisees in order to enter the kingdom of
heaven in Matt 5:20, he begins showing the difference.
You have heard that it was said to the people long ago. “‘Do
not murder,’ and anyone who murders will be subject to
judgment.” But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his
brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says
to his brother, “Raca” is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But
anyone who says “You fool” will be in danger of the fire of
hell. (Matt 5:21-22, NIV)
The Old Testament law established the minimum standard for a
society to have justice. A society can not tolerate people who
murder. Law enforcement cannot control our thoughts, but the
judicial system will judge our actions.
God is not like man who judges the outward appearance of things.
God judges our hearts. Only those with a pure heart can enter
the kingdom of heaven. If our hearts have been defiled by anger,
we are no longer worthy of God’s kingdom. If our lips have
insulted anyone, we must give an account for defamation of the
image of God. Look at the end of Matt 5:22. Just calling a person
a “fool” puts your soul in danger of the fire of hell.
Have you ever stated that someone was stupid? Or dumb? Have
you ever thought that someone was an idiot? If so, you will not
enter the kingdom of heaven. God will hold us accountable for
any spite against one of His image bearers or one of His children.
You better make sure that you have made things right before you
face the holy Sovereign Creator. Be careful when you enter the
heavenly court. Do not think that you will be able be acquitted by
appealing to the good you have done. The Pharisees did much
good, but they were not good enough. They lived their lives in
strict spiritual discipline yet they were not holy enough to enter
the kingdom of holiness.
You do well to live your life in conformity to civil and social justice.
Even Al Capone lived within the dictates of civil law. The FBI
could not pin any crime on him. The government got him for fully

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declaring his income on his taxes. If you live your life within the
conformity of civil order, you are no better than gangsters and the

If your standing before God concerns you, then go to
Work Cited
Complete Works of Johns Wesley in Saga Digital Library Collected
Works 1995

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