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MATTHEW v. 20.
FOR I SAY UNTO YOU, THAT EXCEPT YOUR RIGHTEOUSNESS SHALL EXCEED THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF THE SCRIBES AND PHARISEES, YE SHALL IN NO CASE ENTER INTO THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN."
"THIS is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work."* But, if it be good, it is also responsible and laborious, and can only be properly performed by much holy zeal, and heavenly mindedness, blended with proper gifts and grace. Fidelity, tenderness, patience, prudence, and courage, are essential to the qualifications of a Christian pastor, that so he may "approve himself unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”† His situation, when standing up in "Christ's stead" to deliver "the ministry of reconciliation," is at once the most awful, and the most dignified, which a worm of the earth can sustain; and, therefore, "woe unto him if he preach not the gospel." And perhaps nothing is better calculated to induce him faithfully to discharge its arduous duties, and to preserve him from the denunciation which hangs over
the careless shepherd, than the combined consideration of the value of the souls committed to his inspection, and the universal integrity and firmness of his Great Examplar, in the dispensation of heavenly truth.
These reflections have been awakened in my mind by the language of the text, when viewed in connection with the circumstances under which it was uttered. The passage itself was designed to complete the proof of the two-fold proposition in the preceding verse, and contains as solemn a sentiment as revelation can produce. To the Jews, who considered the piety of their priests unattainable by the common people, the declaration must have been startling indeed. Behold the impressive spectacle, and listen to the momentous declaration so positively made. See the Lord Jesus Christ, as yet believed by his hearers in general to be no other than the "son of a carpenter," standing up in the face of day, surrounded, probably, by some of the very individuals whom He condemns, and telling the multitude, who, to this moment, had considered the expounders of their laws, and the accredited promoters of their religion, perfectly immaculate, and as the brightest models of scriptural piety in the whole world,-that unless they should exceed in deeds of righteousness these very men, they could not be saved! What fortitude, and what faithfulness, are here! What sensations must arise in their minds on hearing such an affirmation! But it belongs, in all its breadths and lengths, as much to ourselves as to them: and may the Lord give us grace to reduce it to all the practical purposes of life. Favour me with your attention while I endeavour, by divine assistance,
I. TO EXPLAIN THE GREAT TRUTHS WHICH IT CONTAINS; AND,
II. OFFER TO YOUR SERIOUS CONSIDERATION A FEW REMARKS WHICH ARISE FROM THEM.
Į. I WILL ENDEAVOUR TO EXPLAIN THE GREAT
TRUTHS WHICH MY TEXT CONTAINS.
"For I say unto you." These words are the preface to the solemn truth which he was about to utter. It was the frequent custom of this Divine Preacher, when on the point of delivering a sentiment of more than ordinary moment, to rouse the attention of his hearers, by some such phraseology. Thus, we often read of his saying, "Verily, verily," before He addressed those around Him on any subject of universal interest and importance for them to know, and for mankind to understand and embrace. In the case before us, it might be equivalent to this—“ I, who know the truth, and who am come to bear testimony to it, who am well acquainted both with the evil nature of sin, its odiousness in the sight of my Almighty Father, and the necessity of being sanctified from its defiling influence; and who have, moreover, a perfect knowledge of all the secret recesses of the human heart,-I say unto you, that except your righteousness shall surpass that of the Scribes and Pharisees ye cannot be saved."
A question, therefore, naturally arises, who these "Scribes and Pharisees" were? The force of our Lord's observation materially depends on this point: --- The "Scribes" were a very considerable body of men in Judea, of the tribe of Levi, and who were the official writers and expounders of the law, both ceremonial and moral. They taught in the temple with all the self complacency which generally accompanies ignorance, and they affected the utmost degree of piety and virtue. Inasmuch as they occupied the seat of Moses, they exercised a large degree of power over both the civil and ecclesiastical affairs of their nation. As few individuals, at that time, could write, even among the most dignified, the office they sustained was accounted very honourable and important. It was associated with the court, the army, and the temple; by
which means they were generally wealthy, especially in the earlier days of the Jewish polity.
The "Pharisees" were a religious sect, rather than official persons. There were four of these sects among the Jews at this time; namely, the Sadduces, Essenes, Herodians, and the Pharisees, who were the most popular and powerful of all. The Sadduces did not believe in the immortality of the soul, or the resurrection of the body; but the Pharisees believed both. The Essenes were a small sect of religionists, and their faith appears to have been a modification of the system of the Pharisees. They dwelt, for the most part, in woods and mountains; held little intercourse with the world in general; lived in the most rigid and abstemious manner; and their outward habits were much the same as the general body from which they are supposed to spring. Their solitary life may account for their not being mentioned in the New Testament. The Herodians seem to be a distinct class of men; and, though the learned are not quite agreed as to their particular creed, yet the probable opinion is, that they were a time-serving sect, who taught the propriety of blending the things of men with the things of God, and whose religious doctrines and discipline were a compound of heathen rites and Jewish ceremonies. They came to Christ with a subtle question, in order to ensnare him, if it had been possible, into their net. "And they sent unto him certain of the Pharisees, and of the Herodians, to catch him in his words. And when they were come, they say unto him, Master, we know that thou art true, and carest for no man; for thou regardest not the person of men, but teachest the way of God in truth; Is it lawful to give tribute to Cæsar, or not? Shall we give, or shall we not give? But he, knowing their hypocrisy, said unto them, Why tempt ye me? bring me a penny that I
may see it."* Such was their deep and deliberate artifice and it is worthy of remark, that although these two sects were at enmity with each other, the Pharisees hating the Herodians, because the Herodians supported the throne of Cæsar, by the imposition of tribute on the Jews; yet they could join hand in hand when any scheme of opposition and hatred to Christ was to be promoted by such a coalition. So pitiful and degrading are the subterfuges of men when they espouse and uphold a bad cause.
Having offered these explanatory observations, I will now proceed to show you how far "the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees" extended, wherein it was deficient,—and then the way will be clear to ascertain the meaning of our Saviour, in the requisition he makes as the indispensable term of our salvation.
Now, as to the "righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees," doubtless, in the matter of outward appearance, it extended very far, especially "before men." It is said even to have been a kind of proverb among the people, that "if but two men were to enter the kingdom of heaven, the one would be a Scribe, and the other a Pharisee." The Scribes were accounted holy by office, and some of them belonged to the "leaven of the Pharisees." The Pharisees were accredited holy by their high professions of piety; and it was regarded as a matter of utter impossibility to equal, much more to "exceed," their religious purity and rectitude. They were the strictest class in the land of Judea, according to the intimation of the apostle. They were distinguished by their diligence in the performance of "the deeds of the law," which had respect to washings, and external ceremonies; and they were thought to be the brighest patterns