“But I warn you–unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teacher of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:20, NLT).
I can’t imagine the disbelief that swept down the hillside as those words left the lips of Jesus. The religious teachers and Pharisees were experts in both the knowledge of the law and of its practice. Most of the listeners in the audience would have probably thought, “impossible!” Jesus would spend the rest of what we call Matthew chapter 5 providing compare and contrast examples of what he was teaching, which could best be summarized as living life from the inside out versus outside in.
I think Paul’s letter to the Colossian believers is helpful at this point, providing some guidance on how to actually exceed the righteousness of Pharisees.
First, he reminds us that keeping a thousand rules won’t make you one iota more like Christ.
“You have died with Christ, and he has set you free from the spiritual powers of this world. So why do you keep on following the rules of the world, such as, “Don’t handle! Don’t taste! Don’t touch!”? Such rules are mere human teachings about things that deteriorate as we use them. These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline. But they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires” (Colossians 2:20-23, NLT).
Next, he tells us to change the direction of our thinking about our lives as Christians.
“Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. And when Christ, who is youra life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory” (Colossians 3:1-4, NLT).
Then, he challenges us to put to death the evil thoughts that come from thinking about the things of earth.
“So put to death the sinful, earthly things lurking within you. Have nothing to do with sexual immorality, impurity, lust, and evil desires. Don’t be greedy, for a greedy person is an idolater, worshiping the things of this world. Because of these sins, the anger of God is coming. You used to do these things when your life was still part of this world. But now is the time to get rid of anger, rage, malicious behavior, slander, and dirty language. Don’t lie to each other, for you have stripped off your old sinful nature and all its wicked deeds” (Colossians 3:5-9, NLT).
Finally, he encourages us to put on our new nature.
“Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him. In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us. Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful” (Colossians 3:10-15, NLT)
A helpful way to remember this is to think about the recent reality television series, “What Not To Wear.” In the show, a person would have an opportunity to receive a wardrobe makeover. The condition to this premise was that the individual would be required to trash their old wardrobe before they could be fitted for a new one. As part of the process, experts would teach the person how to pick new clothes that would compliment their physical appearance and personality. I think the key thing Paul would appreciate about the show was the requirement to throw the old away. No matter how nice the new is, it is somewhat diminished when blended with the old. That’s why I buy a new shirt and tie each time I purchase a suit.
Paul’s challenge seems a bit out of reach. But in the end I think he’s right.