If we were to go back to the first century and ask the average Jew what it meant to be “righteous,” we would probably get an answer like, “Keeping the law of Moses.” That would have been a great answer in that day because, as Jews, that’s what they were charged to do. When we look at the sermon on the mount, Jesus gave much the same answer, In Matthew 5.17–19, Jesus emphasized the importance of the Law and the Prophets (i.e., the Scriptures). At this point in the sermon, we might imagine Jesus getting choruses of “Amen” as He affirmed the necessity of keeping even “the least” of the commandments. But those choruses would have been silenced upon Jesus’ next words, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Just as a first-century Jew would consider the law of Moses their source of righteousness, that same Jew would look to the scribes and Pharisees as the way to understand how to keep the law of Moses.

When we talk about the idea of “righteousness,” we need to be very careful about what it is that we’re actually seeking, because there are some things (or some people) that we can look to as standards of righteousness that don’t really accomplish the goal of achieving righteousness.

The Righteousness of Others

Jesus highlighted the problem that the scribes and Pharisees had when He spoke of annulling even the least of the commandments. Whatever righteousness they had was based on an incomplete perception of God’s expectations. Thus their teaching could never completely measure up to the full picture of what was necessary to reach for the righteousness of God. This meant that relying solely on the scribes and Pharisees to achieve God’s righteousness was an effort in futility.

The same is true today. We often look to the teaching or examples of notable individuals for how to conduct ourselves in pursuit of God’s righteousness. And there is a place for doing this. Paul sometimes admonished Christians to imitate his example (1 Cor 11.1). But no Christian is perfect in every respect (or, likely, in any respect). So if we try to achieve righteousness strictly on the basis of what certain Christians do (or what people write), we are seeking perfection on the basis of imperfect individuals, compounded because we will only do so imperfectly.

The Righteousness of Human Tradition

As Jesus continued in this sermon, He said a number of times, “You have heard that it was said,” followed by, “But I say to you.” We might raise an eyebrow at this because some of these things that had been said were direct quotations from the law of Moses, if not the Ten Commandments. The issue wasn’t with the law of Moses, it was with the tradition that had built up around the law of Moses.

As was further demonstrated in Matthew 15, the Pharisees took the commands of God and built a tradition around them that had the effect of canceling out the commandment itself. They claimed to honor father and mother, but built a loophole into the application of the commandment that, so far as God was concerned, resulted in them not honoring father and mother.

If men are inadequate examples and sources of righteousness, can their traditions and laws be far behind? In fact, they are worse, because they are imperfect representations of our imperfect understanding of the way things are or should be. Thinking of our civil laws, consider that while we hold up the United States Constitution as a great document, we’ve amended it 27 times since ratifying it, have made numerous efforts to amend it that didn’t happen, and many have more things they’d like to amend. Consider that there are things which are legal in this country which are against God’s law. Nothing that man comes up with is perfect, and no effort to explain, amplify, elaborate upon, or summarize the righteousness of God is going to be able to, on its own merits, bring people to that righteousness.

The Righteousness of Self

Coming back to the sermon on the mount, there’s another dangerous source of righteousness: self. In the first half of chapter 6, Jesus warned His audience against doing things to receive the notice or praise of men. When we do good things in order to be noticed, we set ourselves up as our own standard of righteousness. We want to turn our magnifying glass for seeking God’s righteousness into a magic mirror that we can ask who is the most righteous one of all (with the expectation that it will say we are). Jesus began chapter 7 with an admonition about judging others. The problem was not the judging itself, but judging on the assumption of self-righteousness.

Judging someone else’s speck while assuming there isn’t a huge log in my own eye. The essential problem with viewing ourselves as the standard of righteousness is that we will never be motivated to improve. Consider the prayer of the Pharisee in Luke 18: “God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.” Is there anything in his words that suggests he thought he had any room for improvement in his service to God? Once we’ve decided that we’re okay, we go one step further and make ourselves arbiters of God’s will, resulting in us making a false god in our own image, rather than conforming ourselves to the image of God’s Son.

The True Source of Righteousness

Jesus points out in the sermon where we need to find righteousness. He said, “But seek first [God’s] kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Righteousness won’t be found in seeking the righteousness of others. It won’t be found in traditions. It won’t be found by following after ourselves and our own desires. It is found by following after God.

How do we do this? We do it by seeking Christ. We are told in Hebrews 1.3 that He is the “exact” representation of God’s nature. Unlike the example of man, the example of Christ as He walked on this earth perfectly demonstrates God’s righteousness.

We do it by seeking God’s word. Just as Jesus explains God’s righteousness to us, God’s word shows us Jesus’ example, and is God’s own record of His will and how we can seek His righteousness. This is why it is important for us to read the Scriptures for ourselves, so that we can get as close to the source of righteousness as possible.

We do it by understanding that we still haven’t reached perfection. We still need God’s mercy, like the tax collector of Luke 18. We still need to reach forward and press on, as Paul did in Philippians, so that we can draw closer to the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.