Who’s better than a Pharisee?

Matthew 5:17–20

What attitude should a New Testament Christian have towards to Old Testament Law? Some would say we have to obey every word of it exactly. Others would say it no longer applies and we can ignore all of it. The truth is rather more subtle and complex. We do know for sure that Jesus did not come to abolish the law. He explicitly says so in verse 17: ‘I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets.’

Why did he say this? Could it have been because many of the people thought he was trying to abolish the law? Perhaps Jesus is so blunt and direct in this statement because he needs to correct a misunderstanding among the Jews.

We can see for example in Matthew 12 the strenuous objections of the Jewish leaders over Jesus healing on the Sabbath, and in Matthew 15 they get terribly upset at his disciples for not washing their hands before eating. They may have thought he was destroying the law.

Or it could have been his disciples. They may have got so carried away that they thought his new way meant they could disregard all of the old ways and ignore the law, because following him was all that mattered. Maybe they thought that being obedient to Jesus made them holy and pure, and so it was the only thing that counted.

Or perhaps the misunderstanding arose among people who understood the gospel of grace, and realised that it excluded legalistic attempts at self-righteousness. These anarchists (or antinomians) then went too far by thinking grace meant they were free to do whatever they liked and break any law they wanted and they would still be saved.

We know that such attitudes arose in the early church and they persist to this day.

Wherever this idea came from, Jesus clearly denounces it. He says he ‘came to accomplish their purpose.’ That is, Jesus says he came to accomplish the purpose of the law of Moses and the writings of the prophets.

When the crowds turned against Jesus they were unable to identify a single offence he had committed against God’s law. He was totally obedient, even to death.

And Jesus went further by giving a deeper understanding of the purpose of the law and meaning of what the prophets had said. He was very hard on the Pharisees for their superficial piety, their legalistic outward conformity to man-made laws and traditions at the expense of the law of God.

Jesus showed conformity of heart and mind, which found expression in his selfless love and pure sacrificial heart.

Jesus brought the full revelation of the purpose and design of mankind, showing us God’s hope and desire for his children.

And Jesus was within himself the fulfilment of God’s promises. He was the reason for the laws and prophets. They were pointing towards him and he fulfilled them.

And so today we don’t understand Jesus in light of the law, but we are able to understand the law and the prophets in the light of Jesus. They are incredibly important, but they cannot be more important than the one they exist for.

Jesus is the law made flesh and walking among us. Jesus is the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecies.

In his next breath Jesus upholds the continued value of the law ‘until heaven and earth disappear’. So it will endure, but he also sets a time limit. Though he does say in Matthew 25 that his own teaching has no such time limit.

The law will be accomplished and then vanish, is what Jesus says. And his own teaching will last forever. The law has accomplished its purpose in one way when it has prepared us to follow Jesus as Messiah. It has accomplished its purpose when Jesus has completed his work of salvation. The law has to be seen as preparation for Jesus and not as separate from him. And the law is subject to Jesus.

Jesus is extremely careful how he teaches this point. He doesn’t throw out the law. He rejects excesses of lawlessness. He tells us that our personal behaviour has to measure up and even exceed this standard.

He says: ‘I warn you—unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!’


You have to be perfect. And yet we all know we aren’t perfect. We know we cannot be perfect.

Jesus is talking to ordinary people who knew all too well how far short they fall of the standard set by the Pharisees, who were the most religious and morally scrupulous of the Jews. It was all so obvious that they were in every way far from that standard, and yet Jesus is telling them to exceed it or fail to enter heaven.

How can an ordinary man or women dream of doing such a thing and being more righteous than the most righteous people in the world.

Paul’s answer in Philippians 3:9 is this: ‘I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith.’

We obtain the superior righteousness through faith, but then we need to express it in our lives as disciples.

This superior righteousness is not better obedience to religious laws. Jesus has already ruled that out. He has also said it is not to be morally liberal and free, relying solely on grace for our salvation.

We are not to be like the world, and we are not to be like the Pharisees.

We are to have strong morals and live in ways that are distinct and set us apart from the immoral ways of the world around us. Jesus has not given us permission to become gluttons and murderers and adulterers so that grace can shine. He has not told us it is alright to be jealous or gossip. In fact Jesus tells us that even to think bad thoughts is the equivalent to carrying out a bad action.

Jesus is also clear that we are not called to retreat into a world of rules where perfect obedience will be rewarded by admission to heaven when we die.

Jesus is holding us to his own standard, and saying that in our lives we are called to accomplish the purposes of the law just as he did. We are called to be a blessing to the world in the ways we have learned over the last couple of months. We are to live out the beatitudes, and in this way we shall exceed even the Pharisees because they failed to live this way.

Our challenge as a faith fellowship in 2014 is to live as we believe.

That means to live as people who are poor and realize their need for Jesus. To live as people who mourn, who are humble, who hunger and thirst for justice, who are merciful, whose hearts are pure, who work for peace, and who are persecuted for doing right.

We are called to an alternative lifestyle, rejecting the offers of the world and seeking the new way of Jesus. We are called to a whole life of discipleship in which Jesus has totally redefined righteousness in his messianic terms as self-giving love and purity of heart.

These should be our priorities from today – self-giving love and purity of heart.

About Pastor Simon

Pastor at Jinju International Christian Fellowship. Formerly of Eastbourne, East Sussex, UK. I am Simon Warner of Jinju Church. We speak English at Jinju Church, South Korea.
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