Not long after I became a Christian, I received my first Bible. As I read through it, I came across Matthew 5:20: “ ‘For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven’ ” (nkjv).
I didn’t know what to make of this. I was reading the Bible for the first time in my life. So when I read that my righteousness had to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, I thought, “There is no way. How righteous does God want me to be?”
At that point in my life, I didn’t understand that there was a big difference between God’s righteousness and my own. In other words, there is a big difference between genuine righteousness and self-righteousness.
When Jesus made this statement to the disciples, it definitely would have had a bombshell effect. After all, who could measure up to a standard like that?
The scribes had dedicated their lives to the study and interpretation of Scripture. Many of the transcripts we have today can be traced back to those scribes who faithfully guarded the Word that was given to them. These were dedicated men. They knew the Bible.
The Pharisees were a set-apart people. Translated from the original language, the very word “Pharisee” means “a separatist.” They would go beyond the requirements of the law and add more to it. They would quibble over the smallest legalistic point.
Then along came Jesus. Unlike these religious leaders, His authority did not come from some leading rabbi.
In those days, when a teacher of the law wanted to make a point, he would say, “As Rabbi Hallel once said.... Therefore....” But Jesus didn’t quote rabbis. He would even say, “You have heard that it was said...but I say....”
Jesus did not have to quote another authority because He was the authority. He was God in human form.
Ironically, Jesus was accused a number of times of breaking the Mosaic Law, specifically breaking the Sabbath. The truth is that Jesus was the only One who kept the law perfectly. He never broke a single commandment throughout His entire life. He never stepped out of harmony with His Father, not even for a moment.
Yet the religious leaders accused Him, of all men, of breaking the law. It was because they had twisted, misinterpreted, and perverted the real message the law had come to give.
Jesus said, “I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17 nlt). The word “fulfill” used in this verse could be translated as “to carry it out, to make it full, to get to the heart of it.”
He lived by the law. As I mentioned, He obeyed it explicitly. He did everything the law pointed to.
Jesus was exposing the artificial righteousness of the religious leaders. Their righteousness was an external masquerade. Their religion was a dead ritual, not a living relationship. It never hit their hearts. The irony is that it made them proud instead of humble.
That is why Jesus saved His most scathing words not for tax collectors or prostitutes, but for that Pharisees. They were interested in actions instead of motives, doing rather than being, and details rather than principles.
In Jeremiah 17:10, God said, “I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings” (nkjv). God is still looking at the heart today.
Instead of trying by our own efforts to somehow be righteous, we need to acknowledge that we are sinners separated from God.
He loved us so much that He sent His Son to die in our place, and now has credited the righteousness of Christ to our spiritual account. As a result, we have a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, not because of what we have done, but because of what God has done for us.If we know anything of that righteousness, it should work its way through our lives, and we should seek to be godly people. We can’t do it on our own, but as Philippians 4:13 reminds us, we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.
The story of Johnny Cash’s life and spiritual struggles offers hope to anyone who has had trouble staying on the straight and narrow path—and reminds us that God redeems broken lives and makes them whole again. My new book, Johnny Cash: The Redemption of an American Icon is a fascinating look at a unique and talented musician and follower of Christ!