The Religion of the Pharisees (Part 4)
They carry to excess their care about smaller matters, and neglect what is of the highest importance. They are only afraid of external pollutions and disregard the greater purity.” – John Calvin
Matthew 12:6-7, I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.
Like conservative, Bible-believing Christians, the Pharisees held the Scriptures in high regard. However, in their close examination of the words of God, their conclusions were often devoid of the spirit of God. Listen as the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia article on the Pharisees continues –
Along with these traditions and traditional interpretations, the Pharisees were close students of the sacred text. On the turn of a sentence they suspended many decisions. So much so, that it is said of them later that they suspended mountains from hairs. This is especially the case with regard to the Sabbath law with its burdensome minutiae. At the same time there was care as to the actual wording of the text of the Law; this has a bearing on textual criticism, even to the present day. A specimen of Pharisaic exegesis which Paul turns against their followers may be seen in Galatians 3:16: ‘He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.’
In other words, and properly so (if it led to the correct interpretation of Scripture), they paid close attention to singulars and plurals. Paul’s observation of the singular is correct – seed, not seeds. We receive the benefits of the promise to Abraham through Christ, the seed of Abraham. But many times the Pharisees’ intricate, minute examinations led to imagined importance, and erroneous conclusions.
In our day, we are the ones who pay close attention to the Scriptures. And, I am afraid, we are the ones who are in the most danger of Pharisaism. I believe this is what has happened, and I think that this is why victims of abuse are being treated like they are. The small matters have been made big, while the really important things have been set aside. Preservation of marriage has become the house, and the occupants are secondary.
In a wonderful article entitled Where Are the Pharisees Today? [Reformation and Revival Journal, Summer, 1998], Eric Johnson writes –
The Pharisees, then, are very important characters in the greatest story ever told. But what are we to do with them today? If we only see them as bad guys in the old, old story, we will miss their importance for us today. For the Pharisees also provide a stunning parody of true religion. As passionate followers of God who nevertheless unwittingly fought against God, they offer a perplexing and disturbing picture of humanity’ s capacity for religious self-deception in the extreme.
Johnson continues –
The first group that comes to mind are Protestant fundamentalists. This group holds to a relatively strict moral code focusing on certain behaviors like drinking, dancing, smoking, and swearing, and on certain forms of entertainment like music, television, and movies. Like the Pharisees; their code was influenced by Scripture, but it too goes beyond Scripture in many of its particulars. Moreover, fundamentalists often reveal a sense of superiority when faced with others who do not share their views on skirt lengths and wine. It’s not uncommon for some in this tradition to raise serious questions about the genuineness of faith of other Christians who do not share their beliefs and behaviors. As a result, some in this group tend to form tightly controlled churches ruled over by a chief Pharisee, and fellowship only with other entirely like-minded Christians, believing ‘At least we have the truth.’
Johnson uses the term “fundamentalist,” but for our purposes in this series, we will expand that to “conservative, Bible-believing Christians.” Christians like ourselves, in other words. Christians who take the Bible seriously. I should add however that Johnson also goes on in his article to point out how evangelical liberals also share in the spirit of the Pharisees, as do the evangelical social gospel folks, as he describes them. In the end, Johnson sums it up – “Where does all this leave us? Grateful! Grateful that we’re not like them. We can thank God that we’re not like them! But that is the point, isn’t it? That is the point of the Pharisee. Where is the Pharisee today? Right here. I am the Pharisee. We are the Pharisees. The Pharisee is the archetype of the hypocrite in every believer. Christ’s battles with the Pharisees do us no personal good if we can see only other persons or groups as the enemies of Christ and the promoters of themselves. That would only confirm us in our likeness to them…. The Pharisees serve as an example of the best religion that humanity could come up with, exposed to the revelation of God. Yet these devoutly religious persons crucified the Lord of glory.”
And, we might note, they also persecuted and killed the true people of the Lord of Glory.
Well, we still haven’t gotten to the origin of the scribes and Sadducees. We will begin with that subject next time, and then we have a lot of work to do in Matthew 3.
Posts in this series
Part 4: Is this post.