“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
The scribes and Pharisees were not wicked men, not even by any worldly standards. Because they opposed Jesus and because he called them hypocrites, we tend to think of scribes and Pharisees as bad people. The truth is that the scribes and Pharisees studied their Bibles, sought the commandments of God, and tried to obey every commandment they found. They were good husbands and fathers, good neighbors, good workers, and good citizens. Everyone in the Jewish world looked up to them and respected them. Some Jews disagreed with the Pharisees about interpreting the Bible, but no one said they were bad people.
No one said scribes and Pharisees were wicked, but Jesus said they were not good enough for God’s kingdom. They knew their Bibles well, and they were trying their best to be good people, but they still did not measure up to God’s standards. Sometimes people say of a virtuous person, “If she doesn’t deserve to go to heaven, nobody does.” This precisely matches what Jesus means; no one deserves to enter the kingdom of heaven. No one is good enough for God. No one meets God’s standards.
If the best is still not good enough for God, how do we become better? Certainly not by trying harder; that route already has failed. We become good enough for God when we acquire a righteousness that did not come from our lives. We measure up to God’s standards when a perfect life is substituted for our flawed lives.
In most cases, such an exchange would be considered cheating. Shouldn’t we get what we deserve? God loves us too much to give us what we deserve. Therefore, God blesses us, giving us what Jesus deserves. Jesus in turn goes willingly to the cross and accepts the punishment we deserve.
For more than thirty years, Jesus lived among us. He was one of us. During those years, he obeyed the rules we should be obeying. In the entire history of the world, his life is the only example of real righteousness. Only Jesus achieved pure moral perfection. His righteousness is credited to our accounts as Jesus takes the blame for our sins and pays our debt in full. We have a better righteousness than that of the scribes and Pharisees: we have the righteousness of Jesus, which is perfect and pure. When God looks at us, he sees the sinless life that Jesus lived. For that reason, God calls us his sons. For that reason, he gives us the rewards Jesus earned. For that reason, he invites us to enter the kingdom of heaven. J.