In Matthew 5:20 Jesus tells his disciples “ … unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  But what exactly does Jesus mean by “righteousness”?

The Greek word δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosune) “righteousness” corresponds to צְדָקָה (tzedakah) in the Hebrew Bible.  “Righteousness” refers to moral behavior that conforms to God’s Law. For example, the psalmist writes, “Judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness” (Ps. 7:8). The psalmist here asks God to evaluate him based upon his faithful obedience to the Torah’s commandments.

While in the writings of the Apostle Paul, “righteousness” is an end-times gift of the Spirit, this is not how Jesus uses the term in Matthew. “To do righteousness,” means to obey the commandments, while “to sin,” means to disobey the commandments. So, to “be righteous,” means to obey the Torah. But how are Jesus’ disciples to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees? Jesus, after all, acknowledged that his opponents were in fact very “righteous.”

To answer this question we need to understand that in Second Temple Judaism the issue was not whether or not you kept the Torah, but whether you kept the Torah correctly. Like Jesus, the Qumran Jews also rejected Pharisaic interpretations of the Torah. They despised the Pharisees and called them דורשי החלקות  (dorshey hachalaqot) – which means “seekers after the smooth things” (4Q169; CD 1:18).  This is a wordplay on דורשי ההלכות  (dorshey hahalachot) “seekers of the ways to walk.” In Hebrew, the word הֲלָכָה (halachah) means “the way to walk” and refers to the practice of applying the Torah to daily life and the word assigned to the compromising practices of the pharisees is hachlakah (which sounds very similar on purpose) and refers to something being “polished up/smoothed over”.

Not all Jews agreed on what it meant to be righteous in that era. Jesus’ followers exceeded the צְדָקָה (tzedakah) “righteousness” of the Scribes and Pharisees by following the correct interpretation of the Torah – in other words, the Messiah’s authoritative interpretation of the Torah. And thus, like the psalmist said, we will live our lives in conformity to God’s Law.



  1. Please email what the monthly plan is about because I am interested in taking these courses but am not sure I can afford them but perhaps monthly I can.
  2. Paul spoke post Resurrection and post Acts 2 of the Gift we share. Jesus here speaks of Torah’s righteousness, (not the gift) and the disciple’s righteousness was more than Pharisee’s because most Pharisee’s did not recognize Messiah, so how could the Pharisee’s be correct in what they believed. Is my understanding of your piece correct? J.
    • Hi Jerry. Thanks for your thoughtful response. Paul, for the most part, speaks of righteousness in the eschatological sense of the word, but that's not really my focus here. You're right that the Pharisees did not recognize Jesus - but this alone does not explain Matthew's understanding of righteousness. Matthew's point throughout the Gospel is that, yes, the Pharisees keep the Law but they don't keep it correctly--namely, the Law as Jesus' authoritatively interprets it.
  3. Shalom Alejem, This is an amazing look into Y'Shua's way of life and that He fulfilled the Torah and did not do away with it. A requirement for the Kohen Gadol and the Tzedakim of Tzesakim.
  4. There is only One who is truly righteous and His name is the Lord Jesus Christ. To exceed the righteousness of the scribes & Pharisees one must be born anew/again and receive Yeshu’a in his spirit. Only the Christ who lives in us can be truly poor in spirit, pure in heart, etc. Only He can fulfill Torah.
    • Hi Christian, You're right Matthew reveals that only Yeshua fulfills the Torah perfectly but this doesn't change the fact that this is the standard God (and he) holds us to. Well, to be more accurate, the standard He holds the nation of Israel to. In context (5:17-20) Jesus is talking about teaching and obeying the law as he interprets it, not specifically about being born again or receiving the Spirit. From Matthew's perspective, that is how one is "saved"
  5. It seems to me that there is only one standard of righteousness by which we can enter the kingdom of Heaven, and it is the righteousness of the Messiah that we are imputed along with the gift of saving faith. So what Jesus is saying in other words is “unless you are hidden in my righteousness” you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven, for all human righteousness is nothing but filthy rags.
    • I know these ideas challenge our thinking but we need to avoid automatically imposing Reformation theology on the Gospels in their original content. The truth be told, Matthew says nothing about the doctrine of "imputed righteousness" (which is, of course, a topic discussed in at least a zillion Systematic Theology textbooks). Remember, Yeshua said "your righteousness" not "my righteousness that I have imputed to you."

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  6. I agree!! Additionally, couldn’t Yeshua be using “righteousness” in Matt 5:20 more narrowly as it related to the preceding idiom in Matt 5:17. “Fulfilling the Torah” was to teach Torah properly but to also walk in it obediently as well. Maybe the righteousness was not to be like certain scribes & Pharisees, teaching it to others yet being hypocritically disobedient.
  7. Righteousness, the Pharisees and scribes advocated was the strict following of the law with all its interpretations. If we take that meaning neither Jesus nor his disciples and followers were righteous. Righteousness, Jesus demanded was coming into the saving grace of God. In that sense everybody, including tax collectors, prostitutes, had a chance to be saved, to be righteous.
  8. Hi Desmond. Matthew is clear that Yeshua has tons of God's grace available for everyone that asks - be they a tax collector, or prostitute, or even something worse! In fact, when his followers show just a tiny amount of obedience, and even if they come up short, he nevertheless blesses them with extraordinary wages beyond what they deserve. The key or Matthew is faithfulness, be they a repentant Pharisee or a reformed prostitute.
  9. Interesting that the Pharisees were called ““seekers of the ways to walk.”. After I was saved (secular and didn’t know it) I became a “seeker of truth”(no Biblical language). Replacement theology changed the meaning of my word truth to mean correct/ infallible doctrine instead of righteousness. I now know that truth is what was revealed (two-fold revelation of Christ), and I think exceeding righteousness is associated with having the mark of God (he built fences around the Torah).
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    2 Corinthians 5:10 , Romans 2:6-11,Luke 10:25-37 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?" 37 He said, "The one who showed him mercy." And Jesus said to him, "You go, and do likewise."GOD here is teaching


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