The scribes and Pharisees were, in their day, the most highly respected and admired religious leaders in the world. Everyone stood in awe of them. But our Lord said to his disciples, "Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven." Those words must have been astounding to the people who first heard them. The scribes were the religious scholars of the day. They were the men who copied and expounded the scriptures. They gave their lives entirely to this one great work for God and his people. They consecrated themselves to this one noble work. The Pharisees were the strictest sect of the Jews. No one exceeded the Pharisee in outward morality, obedience to the law, saying of prayers, tithing, sabbath keeping, scripture memory, personal righteousness and public approval. Yet, our Lord declares, "Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you cannot be saved!"
Is the Lord telling us that we must do more and be better than the scribes and Pharisees? Is he saying that we must gain a greater measure of personal holiness than those men had? Not at all. In fact, he is saying just the opposite! The Lord is telling us that it is utterly impossible for any man to gain favor with God on the basis of his own, personal righteousness. There never has been a child of Adam upon this earth good enough, righteous enough, holy enough to inherit or inhabit the kingdom of heaven, and there never shall be. You and I must get every thought of personal righteousness out of our minds, and the very word "good" out of our vocabulary, when we think or speak of any human being in God' s sight! We have no righteousness of our own before God, and no ability to produce righteousness. If we would be saved, we must have the righteousness of God in Christ imputed and imparted to us. It is this righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees! Do what you may, without the righteousness of God in Christ, you cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven.