Sunday, 29 April 2012

The Pharisees and Jesus and Me

I was chatting to Chatterbox and Squidge last night about the Pharisees.  Chatterbox wanted to know what the Pharisees did wrong and why they didn't like Jesus.  I love talking to my girls about Jesus because they ask pretty difficult questions sometimes that really make me think. On this occasion it made me think about Jesus and how the Pharisees reacted to Him, and also how this applies to my life.

One of the things we talked about is that the Pharisees (also the teachers of the law and the scribes) constantly criticised Jesus and most of their interactions between them and Jesus were them testing Jesus in order to trip Him up.  Why didn't they like him?  Well, it was as if they were jealous of Jesus (intimated in John 4:1-2).  They loved their position in society and were fearful that Jesus' popularity would usurp that position and so they plotted to kill him (John 11:49-53). Jesus totally turned their understanding of the law upside down, He called them hypocrites because they kept the letter of the law but inwardly they were steeped in sin, ""Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean" (Matthew 23:27).

The Pharisees had totally misunderstood the purpose of God's law, which was twofold: to show mankind the perfection of God and mankind's inability to measure up to perfection - thus showing man's helplessness without God and man's need for a saviour (if there is no measuring stick how do we know if we fall short); to show the need for cleansing from sin (the sacrifices); and it was also instituted to protect the ordinary man and woman in a very volatile and difficult world.  For the Pharisees though, the keeping of God's law was a way of trampling on others, of flaunting their own ability to keep the law, and to weigh the people down with impossible burdens that they refused to help them with.  They weren't interested in God, they were interested in looking good, these white washed tombs looked great on the outside all clean and holy looking, but they had no love of God, no love of their fellow man, and certainly no humility: "Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long;" (Matthew 23:5)

Across the centuries God's voice has thundered out against this religious wickedness:

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally." Ezekiel 34:1-4

Then I said, “Listen, you leaders of Jacob, you rulers of Israel. Should you not embrace justice". Micah 3:1

He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:8

'To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice'. Proverbs 21:3

"For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings". Hosea 6:6

"Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow." Then all the people shall say, "Amen!" Deuteronomy 27:19

"Woe to those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
and robbing the fatherless." Isaiah 10:1-2
As the Old Testament prophets often cried out, it wasn't the actual keeping of the minutiae of the law that impressed God, but it was the heart of the person that God cared about.  You could sacrifice a thousand bulls with great ceremony, use all the right words, go through all the right cleansing ceremonies, but if you were just doing it to show off, to go one better than your neighbour, then it was no sacrifice at all.  As St. Paul wrote in the years after the truest sacrifice in history, the crucifixion of Jesus, it isn't the sacrifice which impresses God but the act of love (1 Corinthians 13). The Pharisees, though they could recite the law, they didn't keep it in its truest sense, they could tell Jesus that the most important laws were to love God and their fellow man, but they didn't live it.  They knew the scriptures like no-one else, but they didn't know the Spirit of the scriptures.  The law didn't light their hearts, it was simply a set of rules to act out, it was a way to keep themselves in power and keep themselves 'above' the rest.

The Pharisees obviously believed that it was the rules in themselves which were of benefit, and so they were obsessed with rules and their own keeping of those rules, and everyone seeing them keeping the rules, and making sure that everyone kept the rules to their own obsessive standard.  They had forgotten God and they had forgotten His love for His people.  They weren't interested in the poor, they weren't interested in the sick, they weren't interested in anything but themselves (See Matthew 23).  As Jesus pointed out, yes the keeping of the law was right, but it shouldn't stand in the way of mercy and justice.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!" Matthew 23:23-24.  You can almost imagine them spending hours faffing about measuring out their herbs and spices, keeping an eye on one another hoping they could catch their brothers with a mistake, whispering amongst each other, "Did you see Dave last week?  Totally forgot about his Oregano, totally didn't tithe it properly! What a waster." - because that's obviously what Pharisees talked like in the 1st century, honestly, scholars told me so. :) Meanwhile outside their window a beggar dies for want of food or water.

Tithes and offerings to God were for whom?

'And the Levite, because he has no portion nor inheritance with you, and the stranger and the fatherless and the widow who are within your gates, may come and eat and be satisfied, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do'. (Deuteronomy 14:29)

God didn't ask for tithes just to make a bunch of holy men rich or to give them a reason to be extra special and religious in their giving, but so that the community was supported and that no-one would go hungry.  The money went to the priests because it was their livelihood to serve in the Temple, but also for the stranger (immigrants who were without money to support themselves), the fatherless and the widow.  Tithing was not an arbitrary rule of law, but was meant to be for the deeper reason of mercy and justice for the weak and the poor.

The Pharisees even turned fasting into an exhibition. The Pharisees liked everyone to know that they were fasting - acting all somber with such pain on their faces! I can imagine them, one eye out for an audience, "Ohh, so hungry, ohhh, so weak, ohhh but it's all for God, oh yes, oh how I suffer, oh can I just sit down for a moment in prayer for God to keep me going, ohhh I'm so weakened". This was another example of how they had misunderstood the reason for the things of God, they were fasting for show - and by gum if they see that someone else wasn't fasting they'd be whispering and pointing the finger straight away.

As Isaiah prophesied hundreds of years before:

“In fact, in the day of your fast you find pleasure, And exploit all your laborers. Indeed you fast for strife and debate, And to strike with the fist of wickedness. You will not fast as you do this day, To make your voice heard on high. Is it a fast that I have chosen, A day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, And to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Would you call this a fast, And an acceptable day to the Lord?

“Is this not the fast that I have chosen: To loose the bonds of wickedness, To undo the heavy burdens, To let the oppressed go free, And that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; When you see the naked, that you cover him, And not hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light shall break forth like the morning, Your healing shall spring forth speedily, And your righteousness shall go before you; The glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; You shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’

“If you take away the yoke from your midst, The pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, If you extend your soul to the hungry And satisfy the afflicted soul, Then your light shall dawn in the darkness, And your darkness shall be as the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, And satisfy your soul in drought, And strengthen your bones; You shall be like a watered garden, And like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail."  (Isaiah 58:3-11)

Why did God want them to fast?  To understand what hunger is.  To draw up in their souls an empathy for the poor and hungry.  That they might set aside their own food to feed those who cannot feed themselves.  Not to make an exhibition of yourself, not to point your finger at others and make them work extra because you are too busy being holy and fasting yourself to do anything.

In fact, as Jesus pointed out to the Pharisees (another time after they had criticised Him), that they followed traditions made by men that seemed holy but were in fact against the very commands of God.  The Pharisees were claiming that they were doing the works of God by giving to God instead of helping their family (Matthew 15:7-9).  But Jesus said that their hearts were far from God.  Their parents may have needed financial or practical help but they pretended that what they would have given to them was actually given to God - thus acting like they weren't helping for 'holy' reasons. For the Pharisees to not help their family was to dishonour not only their parents, but also goes against the command to help the needy.  Again their religiousness broke God's holy law of mercy and justice.

One of the accusations leveled at Jesus many times by the Pharisees (and all their 'holy' mates the Scribe and teachers of the law) was that He broke the Sabbath by healing on the Sabbath:

Mark 1:21-28 Jesus casts out a demon
Mark 1:29-31 Jesus heals Peter's mother-in-law
Mark 3:1-6 Man with withered hand
John 9 Man born blind
John 5:1-18 A man healed at the pool of Bethsaida. Carried his mat.
Luke 14:1-6 Man with dropsy healed
Luke 13: 10-17 Woman with spirit of infirmity healed

Again they do not understand the reason for the Sabbath, for the Pharisees it is another rule to show off about and to burden others with. In Luke 13 and 14, where people are healed on the Sabbath and the religious dudes get the hump about it, Jesus points out that if a donkey falls into a pit on the Sabbath the most decent thing to do is to pull it out - why would you therefore not rescue a child of God from his own pit?  The Sabbath is God's day of rest, and what better rest than to be loosed of sickness, infirmity, spiritual oppression?  If you had seen a blind man healed would you not be impressed?  But bizarrely instead of being amazed the Pharisees are annoyed that Jesus has healed on the Sabbath.  This is incomprehensible obsessiveness on their part.  A person is healed from a life-long infirmity and all they can obsess about is whether or not Jesus should have healed on the Sabbath!  Equally, despite being well versed in the scriptures, they were unable to see that releasing people from bondage and its relationship with the Sabbath is something God speaks constantly about in the scriptures - the Sabbath Year and the Year of Jubilee being one such example.

It is astonishing to imagine the Pharisee's short sightedness - and yet sadly I see such obsessiveness in Christians today.  Even in secular law, for example, if someone was sick lying in a house and a person had to break into their house to save them, technically, the person breaking into the property has broken the law, however, most reasonable people would say that there was a just reason for breaking in.  It would be ridiculous for a judge to convict someone who had done this in order to save a person's life (there have been instances of such craziness, but such action is widely held to be an unacceptable application of the law).  So equally, even if you think that Jesus has broken a law, why should Jesus be chastised for healing on the Sabbath?

I've even read articles online where people, even atheists, have hit out at Jesus for not keeping the Sabbath - in their eyes thus proving He wasn't who He said He was.  Madness!  So the miracles prove Jesus isn't the Son of God?  How does that work?

I believe Jesus is Who He said He was (I am after all a Christian) and His actions on the Sabbath are in keeping with the heart of God not against it.  Firstly, He is the Son of God - Who else would have the authority to do whatever He pleased on the Sabbath?  Secondly, though God instituted the law He is above all else a God of mercy and justice, the law is good, but mercy and justice must be placed as the ultimate aim.  Thirdly, Jesus gives us a picture of the Kingdom of God where there is no longer sickness and death - a beautiful type of Sabbath rest.  Fourthly, the gospel of Jesus Christ is our new Sabbath rest - indeed Jesus Himself is our new Sabbath rest - for just as the Israelites were promised the land of Canaan so we have the promised hope of Heaven and we gain this hope through Christ.  Fifth, just as God rested from His work of creation on the seventh day we now rest from works of righteousness, for that righteousness is given to us in Christ - we are a new creation!

So how do I apply all this to my own walk with God?

So, what did I learn from all this?  What compromised the Pharisees religion?

It is a little confusing that Jesus said that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees we will not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:20).  Does this mean that the Pharisees were righteous?  I don't believe so, I think that Jesus is saying that it is impossible without God to enter the kingdom of heaven. Even if you spent your whole life following the law and following every jot and tittle, you would not be righteous enough.  We need God.  We need the love of God in our hearts and to extend that love to others - justice and mercy.  It is the heart that God cares about, the actions mean nothing without love.  That is why we need Jesus.  We need the life of God within our hearts through the Holy Spirit, and that life enters us when we are born-again - new life, new creation, washed clean, new beginning.

It's not about the rules, it's about receiving and living out the life of Christ.  And to receive Christ we need to be humble.

This is where the Pharisees, the Scribes and the Teachers of the Law didn't understand.  They saw rules, and then they made extra rules on top of rules to ensure that the rules didn't get accidentally broken.  They were so focused on the rules they couldn't see the reason for them.  They didn't see tithes as a way of protecting those who had no money, they just saw rules.  They didn't see the Sabbath as God's way of making sure they weren't overworked by hard taskmasters - they got at least one day's rest a week - they just saw it as another rule. They didn't pray for the sick, they just saw them as unclean, and an inconvenience.  They didn't see sacrifice as the need for atonement, they saw it as a way of showing off and a way of making money from visitors to the Temple.  They seemed to do all the right things, to the ordinary man, but inside they were dirty, arrogant, unforgiving, critical, obsessive, greedy, and blasphemous.

They saw rules, they saw a way of being better than others, they saw a way of controlling others.  They couldn't hear the heartbeat of God.  They couldn't see the love of God reaching out to his children.  They made worshipping God for the ordinary man and woman a chore and a burden.  They didn't recognise His only Son because they were so fixated on maintaining their popularity, ensuring that the rules were kept, and controlling people.

They missed the point.

Oh Lord, may I never miss the point.  May I follow Jesus in my heart as well as my actions.


  1. Interesting. But.... you say God was impressed at animals being sacrificed. What about the commandment "thou shalt not kill" I take that to mean that I shouldn't take an animals life or have someone else do it for my own enjoyment of the flesh.
    So many things are contradicted in the Bible.

    1. I presume you are referring to the sixth commandment. The Hebrew word rendered 'kill' in the KJV means not simply to take life but it means 'murder', the unlawful taking of another human's life. It doesn't therefore refer to the killing of animals for food or sacrifice, which is not restricted in the scriptures. There is, of course, no more need for the sacrifice of animals because Christ was our sacrifice once and for all.

  2. Phariseeism - is such a hard thing - so easy to slip into and so hard to avoid...really it is the hardest hing - I struggle against it - and feel that it is one of my biggest pitfalls...

    1. It is far too easy to slip into without even noticing, lol, mainly because it is accompanied by feeling righteous! ;)

    2. I hadn't ever really thought about it like that "it is accompanied by feeling righteous!" Something about your phraseology makes me see it slightly differently.


  3. I was just about to type what you said in your comment to Melissa....I think we so easily fall into Phariseeism because it makes our flesh feel good. I also think that's why certain denominations like using rituals and such, they make us feel very 'religious' and pious, which is the total opposite of Jesus.

    Great post!

    1. Thanks Michele. You are right if we are engaged in mindless ritual it is worthless to God who sees our hearts. Even if I do something simple like sing a hymn with gusto just so that everyone can hear me singing it rather than actually lifting my heart to God, it can be a form of Phariseeism (lol, I have done this after someone commented I had a nice voice in church years ago!!).

      It's knowing when I am doing something for God or to earn 'points'. I've seen people accused of legalism because they have high standards in their lives - I know this is different.

  4. I also wanted to say that I read a post today that I think you would enjoy so I'll leave the link here:

  5. The comment of Ellen and your reply.....Christians do interpret the Bible to suit themselves in many cases. For instance Leviticus says that swine are unclean and not to be eaten but how many Christians still enjoy their pork chops, sausages and bacon butties!
    You have some thought provoking posts.

    1. The command in Leviticus was done away with as Jesus fulfilled the law in His ultimate sacrifice upon the cross and His resurrection into new life.

      There are specific instances in the the New Testament when God confirmed all food clean, for example here to the Apostle Peter in Acts 10:

      9 The next day, as they went on their journey and drew near the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour. 10 Then he became very hungry and wanted to eat; but while they made ready, he fell into a trance 11 and saw heaven opened and an object like a great sheet bound at the four corners, descending to him and let down to the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air. 13 And a voice came to him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.”

      14 But Peter said, “Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean.”

      15 And a voice spoke to him again the second time, “What God has cleansed you must not call common.” 16 This was done three times. And the object was taken up into heaven again.

      Jesus has declared an end to the law (Romans 10:4) as we have been cleansed and purified by Him. Peter needed to be aware of this as it appears he had not fully understood Jesus' words in Mark 7:17-23 when Jesus pointed out that it is the things that come out of a man's heart that cause uncleanness not the food that passes our lips.

  6. Just as I said - it can be interpreted to suit one's own wishes! Have a great day.

    1. Acts 10 is a command from God, if God declares food clean that was unclean before the atonement of Christ, He declares food clean. It's a very clear command, not open to 'interpretation'. My 'wishes' have no bearing on it at all it says what it says.

      Maybe you don't understand the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament?

      The Old Testament alone is the Jewish canon of scripture (it was given before Christ was born). The New Testament of Christ, which begins with the Gospels, has fulfilled the Old Testament. Jews live under what we call the Old Testament, Christians take both the Old and New together - The Bible.

      Christians believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah, the Jews believe that the Messiah is yet to come. The law was the guardian or teacher of God's people until we were made heirs of God's Kingdom in Christ. We do not live under the law of Moses, but we do believe the law was a shadow of the reality that is found in Christ.

      You originally said, "Christians do interpret the Bible to suit themselves in many cases". This is incorrect, it isn't to 'suit' ourselves, but is, as I pointed out, a clear command of Christian scripture - The Bible (which, as I pointed out includes both the Old AND the New Testaments) to declare all food clean. Therefore a Christian isn't being inconsistent or self-serving by eating pork products, a practising Jew, however, would not eat pork products and would not be able to use scripture to back up their behaviour because they only accept the old covenant.

      But your point was about Christians, and for Christians all food is clean.

    2. A very clear, concise and Biblically-accurate response.

    3. My goodness that was certainly telling me! Shall I go and stand in the corner right now?