Better Than the Pharisees

Carl Bloch's painting depicting Jesus sitting before a crowd and delivering the Sermon on the Mount
The Sermon on the Mount
Carl Bloch, 1890

Matthew 5:20 – 30:

For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.

“So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

“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 lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”

How could anyone’s righteousness exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees? In many ways, these individuals were seen as the protectors of the law. They knew the law inside and out. Their conduct was seen an spotless. But they had a problem, and we see Jesus address this issue in many places, none more so than Matthew 23. Their problem was this: their righteous conduct was superficial. They enforced and upheld the outer signs of the law, but they missed the deeper meanings that should have affected their hearts.

Going Beyond Compliance 

Romans 10:1 – 3 records Paul commending many of his former colleagues for having a zeal to God but missing the deeper knowledge of the scripture, for God’s word goes beyond our conduct. It goes to our motives and our attitudes. It touches upon and changes our hearts. Nothing exemplifies this distinction more than the very first examples Jesus touches upon in Matthew 5 — murder and adultery.

Jesus says that it’s not enough to simply avoid doing these things. He’s not looking for simple compliance. He wants our hearts, and He says that contemptuous and hateful attitudes are just as wrong and sinful. James 1:19 – 20 says that worldly anger undermines God’s righteousness, so we should never let it control us. Animosity is a poison that spreads, so Jesus tells us to take care of it quickly in Matthew 5:24 – 25. Paul will later tell us to not let the sun go down on our anger. The idea is the same: take care of these things quickly.

Jesus goes to the same extreme with the sin of adultery. He warns us against sinning in our hearts, even if we do nothing outward that would reveal that inner sin. He goes so far to say that it is better to lose an eye or a hand rather than allow them to lead you into judgment. This may not look like physical dismemberment, but it may mean we cut other things out of our lives that lead us away from God and into temptation.

Keep Your Heart

Proverbs 4:23 – 27:

For they are life to those who find them, and healing to all their flesh.

Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.

Put away from you crooked speech, and put devious talk far from you.

Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you.

Ponder the path of your feet; then all your ways will be sure.

Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil.

Most of us can say that we’ve never committed murder or adultery. That’s easy. What’s harder is being the living sacrifice Paul describes in Romans 12. This requires more than outward compliance. It’s about who we are in our hearts. We should be diligent and vigilant in guarding our hearts and living the way Jesus would have us. Put away crooked and hateful words. Keep you eyes forward. With your step, and keep on that path laid out for all of us.

lesson by Don Larsen