Can You Really Be Holier Than A Pharisee?

Can You Really Be Holier Than A Pharisee?

The Pharisees are some of the bad guys in the New Testament.

They plotted against Jesus and were resistant to the gospel at every turn.

But what did these villains actually look and act like?

According to the first-century historian Josephus, “the Pharisees were the group most influential with the people, were noted for their accurate and therefore authoritative interpretations of Jewish law, and had their own traditions and way of life to which they were faithful. They had a simple standard of living and cultivated harmonious relations with others.” (Harper’s Bible dictionary, 783)

They were “zealous observers of the law” and “concerned with ritual purity, tithing food according to OT law, and correct observance of Sabbath.” (783)

Honestly, when I look at the Pharisees, I think: “They seem to be a lot holier than me…”

But in today’s devotional verse, Jesus says something pretty surprising:

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 ESV

The Greek word for righteous here also means “religious observances” and “charity.”

So is Jesus really saying: “Unless your lifestyle of religious observance and tithing outshines the scribes and Pharisees, you’ll never enter the kingdom of heaven…”

…or is there something else at work here?

The Pharisees spent their lives clawing and scratching for the praise and applause of people (Matthew 6:2).

They may have been beautiful on the outside, but their insides were rotten (Matthew 23:27).

Jesus said he came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets… Which is what the Pharisees thought they were doing.

You see, Jesus lived in complete harmony with God’s Law. He fulfilled it, down to every detail.

And through the cross, Jesus’ righteousness becomes ours.

His perfect life becomes our perfect life…

His death to sin becomes our death to sin…

And his resurrection becomes our resurrection…

Let that sink in for a moment.

Now answer these questions: “Does your life reflect the reality that Jesus’ righteousness has become yours? Or do you spend your life trying to impress people and show off your ‘righteousness’?”

Because Jesus perfectly fulfilled the Law—we stand blameless before God.

Is There Still A Place For Holy Living?

Don’t hear what I’m not saying, however. We are called to holiness. We’re called to righteousness because we’re being made into the image of the Holy One himself, Jesus (Romans 8:29).

Jesus wasn’t telling us to live in sin and not worry about God’s word. He said just the opposite.

Instead, he shows us that fulfilling God’s law goes beyond external adherence. It’s more than “looking the part.”

To follow Jesus is to seek God, rather than man’s approval.

The way of Jesus is the way of the cross. It is the way of death to oneself.

To be more righteous than a Pharisee means being in Christ. And to be in Christ means that you’re being made like him by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Who are you living for?


Devotion by Jordan Loftis. Jordan is the editor of Short Daily Devotions and the author of The Men With Bare Feet: Discovering Intimacy With God Through Moses, Joshua, and Jesus.