Matthew 5:19, 20 Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
The way that our righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees is through inner-heart transformation instead of outward conformity. In his book “The Prodigal God,” Timothy Keller says, “The Pharisees had not been transformed, but sought only and were content with outward conformity to religious rules and practices…How can the inner workings of the heart be changed from a dynamic of fear and anger to that of love, joy, and gratitude? Here is how. You need to be moved by the sight of what it cost to bring you home. The key difference between a Pharisee and a believer in Jesus is inner-heart motivation. Pharisees are being good but out of a fear-fueled need to control God. They don’t really trust him or love him. To them God is an exacting boss, not a loving father.” We, as Christians, have encountered the living God, and our obedience is the result of a heart-felt belief in the mercy of God.
American Christian author Philip Yancey said of the Pharisees, “God’s law [the Old Testament] contains 248 commandments and 365 prohibitions, and they were determined to keep them all. They also had 1,521 additions to the list. For example, in order to fulfill the third commandment, ‘You shall not misuse the name of the Lord,’ they refused to pronounce God’s name at all. To avoid sexual temptation, they had a practice of lowering their heads and not even looking at women (the most scrupulous of these were known as ‘bleeding Pharisees’ because of frequent collisions with walls and other obstacles). To avoid defiling the Sabbath, they outlawed thirty-nine activities that might be construed as ‘work.’ It must have been quite a blow when Jesus said that these pious and popular individuals could not even get into the Kingdom of God, let alone enjoy a special status in the Kingdom.”
Yancey continues: “The Pharisees were very strict. How can we exceed their righteousness? They were meticulous in keeping the law. Our righteousness has to exceed that of the Pharisees not in degree, but in kind. Our righteousness has to be a different kind of righteousness. It is not that the Christian can keep 240 of the commandments and that the Pharisees could only keep 230. No, Christian righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees because it is a righteousness of the heart. It is deeper, internal, rather than shallow and external.”
We are not called to rule-keeping, but to delighting in Christ. Our righteousness is the righteousness of the heart. Our motivation is internal, not external. We are not called to religion, but we are called to relationship..