You’ve probably heard someone say at some point “Don’t be such a Pharisee.” Typically these words are uttered when someone is being overly scrupulous in “rule keeping” in the Christian life. If there’s one type of person in the New Testament that you don’t want to be compared to, surely it’s the Pharisees. Though one could consider the question of the Pharisees from a variety of perspectives, let’s look at how Jesus responds to the Pharisees in the Gospel of Matthew.

The Pharisees frequently oppose Jesus in the Gospels. Jesus is often critiqued by the Pharisees, and he in turn reproaches them for their errant ways. He strongly warns his disciples not to follow their teaching. But what exactly was the Pharisees’ problem? Was it that they were too concerned with following God’s law? Or was it something else?

Contrary to what you may have heard, Jesus does not rebuke the Pharisees for giving too much attention to God’s law. Jesus never denigrates or downplays the law of God. Where it looks like he might be (Sabbath controversies, for example), Jesus is instead critiquing misunderstandings and misappropriations of God’s law.

Far from critiquing the Pharisees for focusing too assiduously on God’s law, Jesus critiques them for not being concerned enough with God’s written law. They didn’t give it too much attention; they gave it too little attention.

Listening to the Sermon on the Mount

Jesus’s interest in paying careful attention to the law is evident in the Sermon on the Mount. Though it may be the most well-known of all Jesus’ teaching, it’s also some of the most difficult to understand. Is Jesus teaching that God’s law is impossible to keep? Is he teaching Christian perfectionism? The answer is neither.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus points both to the ongoing relevance of the law of God, and to his own role in fulfilling the law of God. He shows us how we are to keep God’s law, and he shows us how its standards are greater than we might imagine.

An important passage is Matthew 5:17–20. In 5:17 Jesus denies that he has come to abolish the law. Anticipating later misunderstandings about the law in the Christian life, Jesus denies that the law’s relevance is abrogated. Instead, Jesus states that he has come to fulfill the law.

Fulfill is a key term in Matthew that highlights Christ as the goal of the Scriptures and his unique task in accomplishing salvation. Jesus is saying, in other words, that he is the proper goal of the law. Matthew 5:18 (“For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished”) confirms that Jesus is not lessening the law, but is speaking of both the permanence of the law and its accomplishment.

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That Jesus did not come to do away with the law is evident in Matthew 5:21–48. These verses are often called the “antitheses” because Jesus contradicts what many people thought about God’s law.

Let’s be clear at this point. When Jesus says: “You have heard it said, but I say to you,” he’s not contradicting the law of God itself. Instead, he’s correcting misunderstandings of the law of God whereby the spiritual character of the law was being watered down to thin, external observances only. Jesus calls us back to the law of God and shows how true obedience is deeper than we might imagine. In this regard it’s instructive that the first four of the six “antitheses” seem to draw upon the Ten Commandments. Jesus is showing us what the Ten Commandments require.

In short, in the Sermon on the Mount we see that the law of God requires more of us than only external obedience, and we can’t really understand God’s law apart from the one who fulfills the law. The Sermon on the Mount, in other words, is about the law of God accomplished (what Jesus does), and the law of God applied (its relevance to our lives).

Two Errors of the Pharisees

This brings us to one of the perennially perplexing passages in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:20: “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.”

Many interpretations of this passage seem to turn it on its head. It’s often thought: The righteousness of the Pharisees points to their superlative rule keeping. If the only way we can enter the kingdom of heaven is to be better rule keepers than the Pharisees, then we’re all without hope. Jesus must mean something else. He’s not encouraging self-righteous rule keeping, but is showing us how far we fall short.

This approach, however, is misguided. The call to a greater righteousness in 5:20 is a real call to righteous living. This does not come by avoiding God’s law, but by demonstrating a deeper commitment to righteousness than the Pharisees—despite their rule keeping of a certain kind. The Pharisees thought they were on the right track, but Jesus shows otherwise.

The righteousness of the Pharisees was insufficient in at least two ways. First, they didn’t give sufficient attention to the depths of God’s law. They viewed righteousness—at least in practice—as something external. This why Jesus critiques them for missing the most important parts of the law (Matt. 23:23). They are whitewashed tombs. They look good on the outside, but inside they’re full of dead men’s bones (Matt. 23:27).

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The Pharisees’ rule keeping was hollow. They hadn’t given sufficient attention to the most important parts of God’s law. They also had the tendency to elevate human traditions to a position of law-like status, violating the law of God in the process (Matt. 15:5–9).

Second, the Pharisees’ righteousness was insufficient because they missed the one who fulfilled all righteousness. They not only missed the true character of the righteousness required in God’s law, they also missed the role of Jesus in relation to the law.

It’s in this light that Matthew 5:19 makes sense: “Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly 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.”

Here Jesus says that our position in God’s kingdom is directly related to how much attention we give to the details of God’s law! This is a far cry from downplaying the law of God. Venerable theologian John Murray captured it well: “The criterion of our standing in the kingdom of God and of reward in the age to come is nothing else than meticulous observance of the commandments of God in the minutial details of their prescription and the earnest inculcation of such observance on the part of others.”

If Murray is right, then angst may begin to set in. How do we possibly know how to apply God’s law in all its details today?

This is where systematic theology can help, with its distinction between moral, ceremonial, and civil aspects of God’s law. This is also where the New Testament epistles are so valuable, which teach us how to live according to God’s law as we await the return of Christ. The Letter of James is particularly helpful, as he focuses on the moral law of God in a way that echoes the Sermon on the Mount. James, like Jesus, encourages us forward in holiness, since life in the kingdom requires a greater righteousness. The New Testament epistles also follow the teaching of Christ to show us something crucial about God’s law: The law is about love of God and love of neighbor (See Rom. 13:8–10; Gal. 5:14; James 2:8.).

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Love does not negate our need to think carefully about how to apply God’s law to specific situations, but it provides a hermeneutical compass to keep us on track. Matthew is particularly interested in this. In Jesus’ first two conflicts with the Pharisees he quotes Hosea 6:6, showing that God desires mercy (or steadfast love), not bare sacrifice (Matt. 9:13; 12:7). The Pharisees actually seemed to be pretty good at the smaller details of God’s law, such as tithing. Yet despite this, they missed the most important things: They neglected justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matt. 23:23).

How to Avoid the Pharisees’ Folly

To summarize, the Pharisees in Matthew had at least two major problems. First, they downplayed the level of obedience required by the law of God. Second, they missed the significance of Christ himself.

It’s true that we don’t want to be like the Pharisees in these ways. But we must not overreact in the wrong direction. We don’t avoid being like the Pharisees by avoiding God’s moral law. Instead, we fall into the pharisaic trap if we neglect careful attention to the law of God, including the need for love and mercy. We also fall into the pharisaic trap if we downplay the role of Christ himself.

The desire of many to avoid being like the Pharisees in the New Testament is understandable. The Pharisees often rejected Jesus and his teaching. But the term “Pharisee” shouldn’t be a stock put-down. Indeed, we find something interesting as we keep reading.

When the apostles and elders gather to discuss the relevance of God’s law for the Gentiles in Acts 15, that group includes some Pharisees who believe in Jesus. And one of the more prominent figures at this Jerusalem Council—Paul of Tarsus, a one time-persecutor of Jesus and the church—continued to identify himself as a Pharisee (Acts 23:6). Being a Pharisee does not mean being without hope, for our salvation comes not from our ability to obey God’s law, but from the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

God’s law is too deep for us to handle in our own strength. We can’t meet the depths of what it requires, which is perfection. Even so, it remains immensely practical in our daily lives. Though we may not have an inclination to steal diamonds in a daring raid from a jewelry store, are we doing all we can to meet the needs of those around us? This is what it means not to steal (Eph. 4:28).

This approach is reflected in the Westminster Larger Catechism, which not only lists a host of things forbidden in the eighth commandment, but also expounds upon what is positively required, including frugality, generosity in lending, and diligence in our work. Where did the authors get this? It comes in large measure from the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Yet despite the emphasis on following God’s law in our daily lives, this same catechism teaches that the law requires perfect obedience that can only be met by Jesus. We need both perspectives.

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If we don’t want to make the mistake of the Pharisees, we must wrestle both with the depths of God’s law in our daily lives and with our need for Jesus. Jesus frees us from the burden of perfect obedience, even as he strengthens our obligation to obey God’s law.

“Don’t be such a Pharisee!”—give careful attention to the depths of God’s law and love the one who fulfilled it on our behalf.

Brandon Crowe is associate professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary. His most recent book is The Last Adam: A Theology of the Obedient Life of Jesus in the Gospels (Baker Academic, 2017).