What makes someone a Pharisee?
We have a tendency to use the term as a pejorative, to label those with whom we disagree. It is common for those who lean a little to the left to label fundamentalists and conservatives as Pharisees. The appellation was common, and I believe largely unfair, in the Baptist Identity debate that dominated Baptist blogs a few years back. We tend to put this bullet in the gun and aim it at those on the other side of whatever debate in which we are currently involved.
That is not what this series of posts is going to be about. There is little to be gained from trying to pin the label on others, fair or not. Jesus warned us against pulling specks from our brothers’ eyes while we still have beams in our own. What concerns me is whether the attitudes, methods and traits exhibited by the Pharisees can be seen in me, in my church, and even in my denomination. I need to look at myself and my own spiritual issues and tendencies.
I have enough problems with my own Pharisaic tendencies without trying to confront everyone else’s.
You Might Be a Pharisee If…
With apologies to our brother-in-Christ Jeff Foxworthy, I am going to steal his old comedy standard to identify the tendencies and characteristics of Pharisees. You might be a Pharisee if you see these tendencies in your life. I have identified around 10 or 12 of these, but as this series goes on I may combine some of them or separate them. Who knows how many I will discuss.
Today, we start with the heart and soul of Phariseeism.
The Pharisees may not have been the comic book villains we Christians have portrayed them as, but they had a fundamental problem. They were scholars of the law and they realized how hard it was to keep that Law. So, they devised their human systems, which Jesus labeled as “traditions”, to give a clear set of rules by which one could consider himself to have fulfilled the Law of God. They reduced the impossible Law of God to manageable steps.
Moises Silva points this out in the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible article on the Pharisees.
“A prominent Jewish scholar believes that the Pharisees, in contrast to the idealistic prophets of the OT, appreciated the weaknesses of human nature and adjusted the impossibly high standards of the Law so as to take into account the realities of life.”
The Pharisees were passionate to see God’s Law observed, but also were populists who desired to help the people find a way to fulfill that difficult Law. When Paul was recounting his life as a Pharisee in Philippians 3, he claimed that in terms of legalistic righteousness, he was faultless. Paul knew better than to assert that he had perfectly fulfilled the Law of God – his entire doctrine of grace was built on the impossibility of keeping the law. He, a former Pharisee, was claiming that he had followed the Pharisaic traditions which were designed to be accessible to sincere Jews.
Silva expounds further on this.
The Pharisaic regulations were numerous and aggravating, but at least they could be fulfilled. Those who followed scrupulously the rabbinic traditions were in danger of concluding that their conduct satisfied God’s demands (cf. Paul’s description of his own preconversion attitude, Phil 3:6). And a muted sense of one’s sin goes hand in hand with a false sense of spiritual security; the need to depend on God’s mercy no longer appears crucial.
This was the fundamental fault of the Pharisees. Yes, they were legalistic and rigid, they opposed Jesus and the early church, and they were all about power and control. But their chief fault was that instead of casting themselves on the mercies of God’s grace, they attempted to build an edifice by which they could climb the Law of God to attain the favor and pleasure of God.
Here is the heart of the problem with the Pharisees.
1) The Law of God is hard; no, it is impossible.
God gave a Law that was a standard for human being. If we kept the Law perfectly, we could please God, earn his favor and win a spot in glory with him for all eternity. But, as Paul would later conclude, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The Law is perfect, but we are not.
In fact, for human being like us, with our sin natures, the dictates of the Law are beyond our abilities. Let’s be honest, we don’t even make it past the first commandment. “No other gods.” Nothing in this life is to take the place of or be a rival in our affection for Almighty God. We are to love him with all our heart and all our soul and all our might. (Don’t you hate that word “all” sometimes?) But we are all guilty of allowing other things to come between us and the purity of our passion for God, are we not?
One commandment; one failure!
And who among us wants to claim that we have perfectly kept the command to honor our parents? I believe that my mom and dad would say that in general, I was a good kid. But there were times when my behavior could not honestly described as honoring to them.
There are commands that I can hold my lapels and claim to have kept fully. I have never committed adultery, before my marriage or since the day I took my vows. I’m such a good boy, right? But then, Jesus doubled down on this command by saying that if I had looked upon a woman with lust in my heart, I have committed the sin of adultery in my heart. Certainly, the consequences are different, but the sin is the same.
I could also claim that I have never committed murder if Jesus had not added to the burden by saying that if I hate someone, I’ve committed murder in my heart.
No wonder it says that we have all sinned and have fallen short! The Law is simply too hard for us.
2) God intended the law to be a guide to Christ, not a way of salvation.
Paul defines the purpose of the law in Galatians 3:24.
So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.
The word guardian has been translated schoolmaster, pedagogue (that’s the Greek word) and in various other ways. The concept, though, is pretty clear. God’s Law was not meant to be our path to salvation. God knew that we could not keep it. The purpose of the Law was to show our utter inability and our need for Christ. By our failure, we would learn just how badly we needed Jesus Christ.
3) Grace is for failures.
Those who recognize their sin against God and realize they have no hope of righteousness through the law will then cast themselves on the Savior for their salvation. Because our loving Father knew our sin, our failure, he provided another way, the way of grace. It is the only way for sinful humanity. God did for us what we could not do for ourselves. Jesus lived the perfect life we could not live, earning the favor of God we could never merit. He died to pay for our sins and rose to offer life to those who believe. God did it, because we couldn’t!
4) Instead of walking in grace, the Pharisees constructed a system of works.
Instead of casting themselves on the grace of God, the Pharisees constructed a system of works in which they attempted to make the Law of God possible. “Follow these rules, perform these rituals, and observe these requirements, and God will accept you.” They dumbed down the righteousness and perfection of God to make it possible for human being to please him by their religious observance.
You Might Be a Pharisee If…
The Pharisees constructed their system of simpler steps to fulfilling the law of God. That Law was impossible and was meant to lead them to dependence on God. But instead of dependence, they turned to independence; to their own traditions which made them believe they were pleasing God.
Almost all of us here know that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone. Paul challenged the “foolish” Galatians to remember that living the Christian life is as much a work of grace as salvation.
Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Galatians 3:3
We need Christ every bit as much for our daily life as we did for our initial experience of salvation.
And the Christian life is hard – a God-sized task. Everything God commands for me to do is beyond my own ability and I must rely on the power of the Spirit of Christ within to enable me.
I fear that often we make the mistake of the Pharisees as we approach Christian living. As the Pharisees reduced the glory of God’s Law to a series of manageable steps, so we try to reduce the Christian life to equally manageable steps.
Many Christians believe that they are “good Christians” if they do certain things and refrain from certain others. If they attend church, work in its ministries, give their tithes and offerings and participate in the church’s rituals, then God must be smiling on them. Of course, they must also refrain from activities like smoking and drinking and pornography and immorality. If they do the dos and don’t do the don’ts, they are pleasing to God.
Of course, there are things every Christian should do and other things every Christian should not do. I am not arguing for a lack of Christian standards or behavioral norms. But we must be careful not to reduce the amazing life of God to a set of rules, moral principles, beliefs, or religious practices.
The Christian life goes far beyond a set of religious duties, rituals or activities. It is much more than observing a set of prohibitions. The Christian life is DEATH. We are to die to our sin and to the lives we had without Christ. We die with Christ and are raised to walk a new life in him. We are made new creations, indwelled by the Spirit and transformed to be like Christ. In our new lives, Christ is Lord of all and we live completely for him. That goes far beyond religious activity or moral strictures.
American Christianity has been trying to reduce the demands of the Christian life, downplaying the hard things and offering a faith that God offers no one. Jesus said that anyone who wanted to follow him would have to deny himself and die (take up his cross). Anything less than that is a perversion of Christianity.
I can go to church, read my Bible, tithe and give offerings, avoid the big sins, and still have a heart of selfishness, self-righteousness, greed, lust and pride. Phariseeism reduces Christianity to easy steps that mimic but are not really the full work of God. The chief failure of the Pharisees was not that they added to God’s commands, but that they attempted to make it possible for us to do in the flesh what can only be done in the Spirit. It is my observation that the American church is often guilty of that same fault.
The essence of Phariseeism is attempting to do by our own power what can ultimately only be done by God. It is a fault as common today as it was 2000 years ago when Pharisees walked the earth.