Pharisees

June 15, 2010 at 4:55 pm | Posted in Christianity | Leave a comment
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Often, when we are hearing about events that took place in the gospels, we are told about the enemies of Jesus. Those people who opposed Him and tried everything they could to show Him to be a charlatan. Of all the groups that did this, the one that Christians are most familiar with are the Pharisees. Because of the often simple light in which this group is painted, many people don’t realize the dangers inherent in what they said and did. To understand this, it is important to understand where the Pharisees came from.
 
The group of Jews known as Pharisees arose during the reign of John Hyrcanus. They came from the Hasidism, which was a militant religious community that was focused on obedience to the Law and worship to God. They began around 168 B.C. (before Christ!…). The name Pharisee means “separated one” and was applied to this group because they separated themselves from the Hellenistic influence brought in through the Greeks. At the time of Jesus, it is believed that there were around 6,000 Pharisees in Israel. The Pharisees saw the entire Old Testament as authoritative, but accepted oral tradition as authoritative as well. They believed in the existence of angels and demons. They believed in life after death and bodily resurrection. They believed that the study of the Law was worship. They strove to live holy by keeping the Law and saw the Law as determining what was clean and unclean. They felt very strongly about obedience to the Law and developed a set of regulations to help save people from breaking the Law. There are 613 laws in the Old Testament and the discussions that they had were as specific as whether or not a person should eat an egg laid on the Sabbath. The Pharisees lived for the Law and sought to use it in all situations.
 
This short description of the Pharisees shows that they were well-versed in the Law. They knew what it said, but when Jesus came, His teachings revealed that they didn’t understand the Law they loved so much. Because of their strict interpretation of the Law, the Pharisees didn’t have a good relationship with the people. The Pharisees outlasted all of the other sects/groups in Israel and are believed to be the founders of modern Judaism.
 
When the time came for Jesus to enter the world, the Pharisees were the majority of the Sanhedrin and ruled over all religious situations. As Jesus began His ministry, He often found Himself at odds with the Pharisees. They strictly inforced the laws and traditions on others (while they often failed to do so themselves) while Jesus preached the true meaning of the Law. Jesus preached justice and holiness balanced with grace and mercy. When Jesus preached on the Law, it was different from what the Pharisees taught. The Pharisees held to the letter of the Law, while Jesus preached the spirit of it. The best example of this is found in the sermon Jesus preached on Mount Olivet (Matthew 5-7). Here, Jesus is preaching to His disciples and tells them that exactly what is expected of them if they are to be true followers of Him. He tells them where/how true blessing comes, He warns them that they will be persecuted for believing in Him, and He explains that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Then, He moves on to the Law. He tells them that He didn’t come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, and that the Law will remain “until all is accomplished”. He tells His disciples that their righteousness must surpass that of the Pharisees if they are to enter the kingdom of the heaven and expounds on this with specific examples:
 

You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’; but I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, so that your opponent may not hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Truly I say to you, you will not come out of there until you have paid up the last cent. (Matthew 5:21-26)

 
Here, Jesus shows the letter of the Law. The Law says you shall not commit murder or you’ll be liable to the courts. This is what the Pharisees would have stood on and as far as they would have taken it. Jesus, however, takes it further and shows the spirit of the Law. If someone is angry with a brother, they are guilty of murder and in danger of being cast into hell for their sin. While hatred is not the same as actually killing someone, the source of both is the same. It is a matter of the heart and Jesus is making this clear to His disciples. He also makes it clear that their offering will mean nothing if their heart is not right before God. The reconciliation should be paramount. It is so important that they are to leave their gift at the altar and go be reconciled with that brother they are in opposition to.
 
We see this again in the next section of verses:
 

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw if from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to go to hell. (Matthew 5:27-30)

Again, Jesus shows that there is more to the Law than the letter. He shows us that the heart is in question again. To lust after someone (man or woman) is the same as committing adultery with them. The source, again, is the same for both sins. It is not enough to refrain from the actual act. As disciples of Christ, we are to refrain from lusting after someone as well. He then uses hyperbole to explain just how horrible the sin is and how hard we should strive to rid ourselves of it. Jesus says that we should be willing to pluck out our eye or cut off our hand if it causes us to sin so that we will be spared from the wrath of God in hell. Jesus then continues:
 

It was said, ‘Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce’; but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:31-32)

This could be considered an extension of the last quote, but it is the same pattern as the others: “You have heard it said……but I say to you”. It is evident that what Jesus says is to be understood to expound on what the Law says and to clarify the Law in the confusion of the Pharisees. Here, Jesus confirms the tragedy of divorce and how both He and God the Father hate divorce. He also shows the disciples that if the divorce is not for reasons of infidelity, both husband and wife would be in a position to commit adultery as would someone who marries a woman divorced for something other than infidelity.
 

Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great king. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is evil. (Matthew 5:33-37)

The law in Numbers 30:2 said that if a man makes a vow/oath to bind himself to an obligation, he shouldn’t violate his word and should accomplish everything he vowed. Here, Jesus is once again taking it deeper. If a man makes a vow binding himself to an obligation, he is puting himself in God’s position in some ways. He is saying that he will be able to fulfill the vow because he knows what is going to happen. He knows exactly how things are going to go and what specific things will take place to allow him to state that he will be able to fulfill the vow. This is something that man cannot know. Only God knows for sure what will really happen and whether or not a man will be able to fulfill the vow. Because of this, Jesus tells His disciples that it is best for them to not make vows at all. They should only respond with a simple yes or no. According to Jesus, anything beyond these simple answers is evil.
 

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you. (Matthew 5:38-42)

In the Law, if something was done to you or yours, it would be done to the one who did it to you. Jesus is saying here that if someone insults you (slaps you on the cheek), then let it go and don’t retaliate. This does not mean that a Christian cannot defend themself if they’re being attacked. Christians are to be above and beyond what the world is. Sadly, this isn’t the case in many instances…
 

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward to you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, you are to be perfect, as you heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)

It is a natural reaction to hate our enemies. It is the response of the flesh. However, Jesus says that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. This wasn’t just something that Jesus talked about either. When Jesus was ridiculed, mocked, spat upon, beaten, scourged, and nailed to a cross like a common criminal; one of the first things that He said was, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) Loving our neighbor does not mean that we agree with what they are doing. It doesn’t mean that we overlook their sin. It does mean that our hearts are so much like Christ’s that we are more concerned with the fact that our enemies will go to hell without repentance than we are concerned with what they are saying or doing to us. Loving only those who are nice to us or love us means little. It is easy to do. Jesus’ use of the tax collector as an example of someone who loves those who love him would have made the Jews bristle. Tax collectors were among the lowest of the low in the Jewish society of that time (kind of like lawyers today). The same would have happened when they heard Jesus mention the Gentiles. To the Jews, a Gentile was unclean and, therefore, unworthy of time, attention, or even contact.
 
Throughout His ministry, Jesus used the Pharisees as examples of empty religious rituals. They were called hypocrites, “whitewashed tombs”, blind guides, fools,serpents and vipers. They were shown to be outwardly righteous while being inwardly full of lawlessness. Jesus revealed how they liked the high seats at banquets, the greetings that came with their position, and do all their deeds to be noticed by men. He exposed the burdens that they laid on the people. He said that they do things like tithe their goods, but they “neglect the weightier matters of the Law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness.”
 
Today, at least in America, there seems to be two types of Pharisees. The first type are those who are just like the Pharisees of old. They build a false image and facade to bring them attention, glory, and fame. They do all things to garner attention from others. They hold to a legalistic view of the scriptures and use them to place undue burdens on those they have influence over. Outwardly, these men and women are righteous and look exactly like Christians. They talk the talk and even do things that many would consider righteous. But, inwardly they are full of unrighteousness. They enjoy the places of honor and the greetings and titles given to them by men. The other type of Pharisees are those who actually hold to a balanced, exegetical hermeneutic and keep God and His Word above their own judgment and desires. They are unafraid of the scriptures, knowing that rebuke from the Word only brings growth to themselves and glory to God. Instead of using the scriptures to build a facade, they use them to build a foundation that will withstand any storm. They are willing to change their lives to conform to the Word. These people are often called Pharisees by those who hold to a legalistic view of one of God’s many characteristics as they ignore or disregard the others. For instance, many will loudly shout that “God is love” (even though many cannot even give the verse where scripture says this) but those same people will rant and rage when told that the scriptures show God to be a just Judge of all the world (Hebrews 12:23). They will claim grace and mercy in abundance but will violently attack any who talk about sin and the judgment that God has already given for that sin.
 
As Christians, we should have a balanced, exegetical hermeneutic. We should rightly understand the scriptures and continually placed their truth above our opinions and desires. We should be ready and willing to change our views to line up with scripture instead of sucking the life out of the scriptures in order to build a weak frame to hang our idolatry on. We should be laying our lives open before God in humility and prayer, asking Him to show us the many places we have fallen short and to give us the wisdom to understand the scriptures so that we can live our lives glorifying Him. If we become stray from the narrow road and become legalists in either direction, we are inhibiting our own growth in Christ and may be hindering others from coming to repentance and faith in Jesus so that they may be saved…

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