Modern Day Scribes and Pharisees
Copyright by Lois Gibson
Are you familiar with a group of religious people who were alive at the time of Jesus' ministry? They were called the Pharisees. These people survived the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD and modern day Judaism originated from them.
They had a zeal for the law of God, as did other Jewish religious groups. An emphasis was placed on obeying the oral law, which is included in the Mishnah and Talmud. The Mishnah "...is the oral conversation of the rabbis as they discussed the proper interpretation and course of action requisite upon Jews in regard to the Mosaic law. There is no presentation of evidence but a continual appeal to authority hallowed by age or scriptural foundation. Essentially then, the Mishnah is a complex, verbal and continuous commentary, explaining but objective to the Torah of Moses." 1 (Emphasis mine)
Their name implies "the separated ones." They lived in separate communities, not fellowshipping with sinners. Most of the scribes were Pharisees and these people were interpreters of the law and their tradition. They gave detailed regulations for just about everything.
The Pharisees were quite vocal in their opposition to the ministry of Jesus and his disciples. Their emphasis on the oral law, along with their self-righteousness, contributed to their attacks. The oral law explained as well as supplemented the law and was added with the intention of helping people keep God's commandments. In other words, they were trying to help God by adding some rules and guidelines which they felt would be beneficial. They claimed that the oral law came from Moses, just as the written law.
"Perhaps the most striking example that could be selected of the manner in which the Rabbis developed a Biblical ordinance is the Sabbath. Whereas Scripture merely lays down the general law that no manner of work is to be performed on that day, a whole Talmudic tractate is devoted to the study of what does or does not constitute a desecration of the Sabbath." 2
The Rabbis defined 39 categories of actions which would be forbidden on the Sabbath. Let's look at the extent to which they took their rules relating to the transfer of an object from one domain to another on the Sabbath.
"The beggar, for example, stands outside and the householder inside, and the beggar stretches forth his hand into the interior and places something in the householder's hand or takes it from his hand and draws it outside. In that event the beggar is guilty (of an infraction of the Sabbath law) and the householder is free of guilt. If the householder stretched forth his hand and put something into the beggar's hand or drew from it and brought it into the house, then the householder is guilty and the beggar is free of guilt. If the beggar stretched forth his hand into the interior, and the householder takes something out of it or puts something into it, they are both free of guilt. If the householder stretched forth his hand outside and the beggar took something from it or put something into it which the former draws into the house, both are guilty." 3
They may have had good intentions, but God doesn't need our help! As a result of their strictness in this area, they lost sight of the real meaning behind the law. "For all their piety, they placed great burdens of religious obligation on the ordinary people. They had lost the spirit of the law and turned devotion into a system. God became to them almost a machine, bound to bless the person who carried out the right rituals at the right time. Jesus' concept of God, however, was of a loving Father who cared for people and provided for their needs, and who asked to be loved and obeyed from the heart and not simply to be recognized by outward and often empty ritual." 4 They were so intent on following the letter of the law that they neglected to see or understand the spirit behind it.
Why is it important to understand the Pharisees? How does this pertain to Christians today? Certainly the Pharisees are no longer with us...or are they? Smith's Bible Dictionary puts it well when it states, "A knowledge of the opinions and practices of the Pharisees at the time of Christ is of great importance for entering deeply into the genius of the Christian religion. ...To understand the Pharisees is by contrast an aid toward understanding the spirit of uncorrupted Christianity." 5
Sometimes we forget that the Pharisees were not practicing a foreign religion. It is important to realize that they were one of the religious Jewish leaders of the time. They were not heathen. They should have welcomed Jesus with open arms as his arrival was prophesied in their sacred text, yet they didn't. Instead, they fought with Jesus, tried to trap him in his words and plotted to kill him. What went wrong?
Jesus taught his disciples to beware of the teaching of the Pharisees. He had much to say against them. One may have expected Jesus to come and expose the false gods of that time. On the contrary, he made a point of exposing the Pharisees and scribes. He gave sharp rebukes which cut to the heart, inciting them even more. Why, he said the harlots would make it to heaven before them! What an insult this must have been to the Pharisees. So pious and religious; so concerned about God's law. They appeared to be a wonderful example of one who was living a pure and holy life before God. They prayed on the street corners. They fasted twice a week for all to see. Their phylacteries were bigger and their fringes were more evident. "It was yet another example of ostentation, an attempt to project an image of holiness and goodness to the world. Jesus called such people 'whitewashed tombs', painted on the outside but inwardly rotten. They should have known better; their own Scriptures reminded them that "man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart"'." 6 Why did Jesus rebuke these people? Who would ever think that they were so far from God?
THE PHARISEES ATTACK
Throughout the ministry of Jesus the Pharisees never stopped in their attacks against his character and works. After his death, they continued their efforts to stop the spread of his Gospel by persecuting the disciples, causing some to blaspheme and killing others. There were even ones who became believers and later caused a division in the church by insisting that the Gentiles be circumcised, wanting to remain under the law instead of living by grace.
There were many areas where they disagreed with Jesus. They considered him a sinner and accused him of blasphemy when he healed and forgave the sins of a man with palsy. They certainly didn't approve of people equating Jesus with the Christ. They asked Jesus to rebuke his followers because of their praises during his triumphant entrance to Jerusalem.
They requested more than once for a sign and were refused and equated with a wicked generation. Jesus' disciples were criticized when they picked and ate corn on the Sabbath. Jesus was accused of casting out demons through demons, which brought about his teaching on blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. They could not understand how or why he would eat and associate with tax collectors and sinners.
PHARISEES AND THE WITHERED ARM
The best examples to show this group's attitude deal with healing. Their reaction is incredible! Here comes Jesus into the synagogue, the Pharisees watching him, waiting for an opportunity to accuse (Luke 6:6-11). A man with a withered hand was attending the service. Eyeing Jesus suspiciously and with malicious intent, they waited to see if he would heal on the Sabbath. "No work is allowed on the Sabbath," one may have said to the other. "And healing is definitely a work!" another agreed. It looks to me as if the Pharisees may have deliberately brought this man to the synagogue, not that he would be healed, but to have some evidence to use against Jesus! They were not concerned with this man's condition.
Jesus looks at them in anger, seeing such hardness in their hearts. He poses a question: Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or evil; to save life or destroy? At this, the room becomes quiet. He tells the crippled man to stretch out his hand and it is instantly healed and restored as the other. Oh, how happy they were! A miracle occurred! A deformed hand has been healed! The Pharisees broke out in spontaneous, wonderful praise to God....
No, they were not happy. It was wrong of Jesus to do this. It was the Sabbath. He broke the law. How dare he! There was no joy here as the Pharisees became absolutely infuriated and enraged. They left and you could see them talking amongst themselves, trying to devise some way to kill Jesus.
What is wrong with this scene? Where is the excitement that someone was healed? Where are the praises to God for his intervention? Where is any concern for this man? We can only guess at how long he had the condition or what pain he might have endured. It didn't matter to the Pharisees. They knew beyond a shadow of a doubt it was unlawful for him to be healed on that day. I guess it must have been lawful to plot someone's death on the Sabbath; that must not have been considered a work.
PHARISEES AND THE BLIND MAN
Another example is the man born blind who was healed...on the Sabbath (John 9:1-41). This incident shows a misconception that some believers have. Jesus and his disciples are walking on the Sabbath and pass a man who was blind from birth. The disciples ask who sinned to cause his condition; was it the parents or the man? Some Christians are quick to lay the blame on a person when tragedy strikes, as the story of Job and his "friends illustrate. So Jesus replied that neither was the case and that it was for God's power to be shown. He proceeds to spit on the ground, making some mud, and places this on the eyes of the blind man. Instructed to go and wash in a certain pool, the man obeys and is healed.
Everyone knew him, so the news spread quickly of his healing. The people wanted to know how it happened. He replied that it was someone named Jesus and they wondered where he was. He had no idea. They proceeded to take him to the Pharisees, where he was greeted with smiling faces and shouts of joy that he could now see! No, they wanted to know how he was healed and so he proceeded to tell the story. Not Jesus again! And on the Sabbath! The Pharisees argued amongst themselves. Some felt he broke the law and was a sinner; others said a sinner was incapable of such a miracle.
So they ask the former blind man what he thought of the one who healed him. He replies that he is a prophet. "Oh, this man is not telling the truth! He wasn't born blind! one says. The parents are then called in and grilled. "Is this your son? Was he born blind? How is he now healed? The parents were afraid of the Pharisees and told them they didn't know how he was healed; they should ask their son as he was old enough to speak for himself.
The man is called back and told to give praise to God for his healing because they know that Jesus is a sinner. He responds that he can't say if he's a sinner, but he does know that he once was blind but now can see. "How did it happen? he's asked again. I guess by this time the man was getting impatient and fed up with these people. "I already told you and you didn't listen! Why do you want to hear it again? Will you then be his disciple?
That did it! Now the Pharisees are even more angry. "We follow Moses! You're this man's disciple! We have no idea who this guy is, but we know that God spoke to Moses. The man said that this was really something! Here someone makes him see and they have no idea who he is. "And furthermore, God doesn't hear sinners and we know this. But if one follows God and does his will, God hears him. Jesus could do nothing if he were not of God!
Needless to say, the Pharisees weren't interested in being taught by an obvious sinner and threw him out. They were not happy that a man born blind was healed. A great miracle had taken place and they were infuriated.
Later overhearing Jesus tell the man that he came so they which were blind would see and those who saw would be blind, they knew he referred to them. Oh, how they hated Jesus! Jesus proceeded with a parable to show that if anybody tries to enter into heaven any other way than through the door, he was the same as a thief and robber. Jesus is the door and one must go through him to be saved. The Pharisees were trying to enter in another way. They were sure their added rules would do it and make them righteous.
When it came to the Pharisees, Jesus did not mince words. He was straightforward in his response to them and their doctrine. During Jesus' ministry he gave many names to the Pharisees. He called them a brood of vipers (who would want to spend time with them?!), evil, hypocrites, blind fools and guides. He told them that they didn't know God, that they worshipped him in vain, and that the kingdom of God would be taken from them. Jesus exposed them for wanting to be seen and justified in the sight of men and that they caused people to be lost because of their teachings. He spoke several parables against them, including the man who had two sons, the householder who planted a vineyard, letting it out to husbandmen, and the king who made a marriage for his son (Matthew 21-22). He had much to say in judgment of the Pharisees (John 8:26). Even John the Baptist called them vipers (Matthew 3:7). Read Matthew 23 for a scathing judgment against them:
Why was Jesus so upset with these people? What had they done that so angered him? To answer these questions, one must study the remarks made against them. All will not be covered, but let's touch on some.
THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF THE PHARISEES
In Matthew 5:20, Jesus makes a statement about the righteousness of the Pharisees:
What was wrong with the righteousness of the Pharisees? The answer is that they stood in their own righteousness and not God's. The Bible tells us that our righteousness is as filthy rags in the sight of God (Isaiah 64:6). Man cannot justify himself. No matter what good deeds he does, no matter how many rules he keeps, he cannot make himself righteous.
Examine a few verses dealing with the subject of righteousness. Deuteronomy 6:25 says:
By obeying the law and keeping the commandments one would then be considered righteous. There was a problem here in that it wasn't necessarily an inward righteousness but rather one which was granted to them by obedience to the law. You could have been obedient in your outward actions, yet the condition of your heart could show differently.
"For Jesus ethics was fundamentally a matter of a person's character rather than of his activity. What he is, is more important than what he does, for his character will determine his actions. It is no wonder, therefore, that Jesus insisted that the righteousness of the members of his kingdom must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees... Righteousness for the latter took no account of why a person conformed to the law, only that he did so in an outward manner. ...It explains at once why he never legislated over ethical issues and never expected his disciples to do so. 7
No one was able to keep the law because if they broke just one small part, they broke ALL the law (James 2:10). Galatians 2:16 tells us that we are not justified by the works of the law and nobody can be. Paul goes on to state in verse 21, "...for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain. In other words, Christ died for nothing if we could be made righteous by the law. His death would not have been necessary.
David in Psalm 143:2 shows that in God's sight, no man shall be justified. We are a people born into sin. There is nothing we can do on our own to overcome this state. Any attempt at righteousness on our part, no matter how great, would fall far short of the holiness of our God. Left on our own, we'd have no hope. If the Christian will accept by faith what Jesus did for us and rest in God's Word, he/she will be made righteous in the sight of God (Romans 3:20-22). Not in his or her own righteousness, but the righteousness of God.
In Philippians 3:9 Paul goes on to say :
Paul certainly knew what he was talking about as he'd experienced both sides, having been a Pharisee persecuting the Christians before meeting Jesus on the way to Damascus.
If anyone tries to be righteous through the letter of the law, they will miserably fail. If anyone, like the Pharisees, add commandments which God did not give and set them up as God given, they will fall into the same fate of the Pharisees. Instead of accepting the righteousness of God by faith, they will walk in their own self-righteousness.
PHARISEES AND THE LAW
The Pharisees had lost sight of the law's meaning. In Matthew 9:12-13, when the Pharisees complained that Jesus was eating with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus had this to say:
God did not delight in the sacrifices made by Israel. It was a continual reminder of the sins of the people. These sacrifices could not take away sin. They just atoned for the time, pointing ahead to when Jesus, the perfect sacrifice, would be slain once for all mankind. Hebrews 10:5-10 puts it this way:
Consider also Hosea 6:6:
and Isaiah 1:11:
David, confessing his sins in Psalm 51, states this in verses 16-17:
The Pharisees were so swept up in their self-righteousness and an intense desire to follow every possible minute detail of the law that they did not offer the true sacrifices of God, as explained by David.
Remember the prayer of the Pharisee as he went into the temple to pray? A publican was there as well. The Pharisee approached God in prayer, thanking him that he wasn't as other bad people or the publican who was praying in the same room. He then proceeds to parade before God the good deeds he has performed. Why, he tithes everything he has and fasts two times each week! God must be pleased and impressed! Where is the broken spirit; the broken and contrite heart? Out of the abundance of his heart he spoke words of pride and arrogance. He thought that because he didn't sin like one in adultery that he was saved. He thought that he could work his way to heaven.
Now look at the publican who wouldn't even go up front, nor look toward heaven. He asked God for mercy because he was a sinner. He humbled himself and didn't try to hide or cover up his sins. This account is recorded in Luke 18:9-14 and the ninth verse starts:
Can you see where this parable applies to some even today? We are warned in I Corinthians 10:12:
The Pharisees were trying to make themselves righteous by adding their man made rules to God's Word. By these, they felt it helped them to keep the commandments of God. They ended up trusting in their own righteousness. Smith's Bible Dictionary says, "It was a leading aim of the Redeemer to teach men that true piety consisted not in forms, but in substance, not in outward observances, but in inward spirit. The whole system of Pharisaic piety led to exactly opposite conclusions. ...Indeed the whole spirit of their religion was summed up, not in confession of sin and in humility, but in a proud self-righteousness at variance with any true conception of man's relation to either God or his fellow creatures. 8
All the law revolves around two commandments (Luke 10:25-37). The first is to love God with all your heart, soul and mind. The second is to love your neighbor as yourself. (Even a lawyer tried to get around the latter by asking who was his neighbor, thus trying to justify himself.) Perhaps we've forgotten this truth. If we spent more time following these two principles, we might learn what God means by desiring mercy and not sacrifice.
It is one thing to love with words. Words come easy and may not reflect true love. I John 3:18 admonishes us not to love in word, but rather in our actions. James emphasized this in chapter 2, a good chapter to study. Verse 18 reads:
James was speaking about our actions of love; how we treat our brothers, sisters and neighbors. He was not referring to the works of the law or religious dos and don'ts. He understood the two commandments upon which all the law rested; principles which are still in place today. The works of the law were done away in Christ, yet the principles, or spirit, that the law rested upon was not. You cannot see my faith if I don't have any actions to back it up. If I have faith, I will help my brother and sister in need; I will help my neighbor even if it's someone I don't particularly like. My faith will lead me to action. Belief in God is not enough as James points out that the devils also believe. Unfortunately, the Pharisees did not comprehend this as they were not truly concerned with the well-being of people. Numbers and rules were more important, hence their intense anger when Jesus healed on the Sabbath.
CONCLUSION: COMMANDMENT OR TRADITION?
The tradition of the Pharisees trapped them in a world far from God. In Matthew 15:1-20 they approach Jesus, asking why his disciples broke their tradition by not washing their hands before eating. Jesus replies in verse 3 with a powerful truth, "Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition? Study this carefully. Jesus was telling them that their traditions were causing them to break God's commandments.
How could that be? They only expanded on what God himself had ordained. Just some guidelines to put the finishing touches on what God had written. They were self built fences to stop them from sinning, yet these same fences were keeping them from God. These added rules, which God never gave, caused them to worship God in vain. It made them blind leaders of the blind with the end result being an eternity in hell. They did not understand that it is what comes from the heart that matters. All their self imposed outward rules profited them nothing. Disobeying them did not defile, but rather what was in the heart. Look at Colossians 2:16-23:
Even after Jesus showed them their error they would not repent. They would not acknowledge the truth of the matter. They continued to cling to their added rules. "But that's the way we've done it for years! Are you telling me that it's now okay for him to eat with unwashed hands, when for years I had to wash mine? How could we have been wrong for all those years?" On the other hand, Paul the Pharisee, when shown he was following error, repented and changed (I Timothy 1:12-15).
There is a parable about a man with two sons. One son was asked to work in his father's vineyard but refused. Afterward, realizing he was wrong, he repented and went to work. The other son was asked the same and said he would go, but did not. Jesus showed that the first son, though he had initially refused, was the one who did his father's will. The other agreed to the work in lip service, having his heart far from the job. It ends with a thought provoking statement which we should consider today in Matthew 21:32:
In other words, after being shown the truth, they chose not to believe and change their ways. Jesus made it clear that there was nothing sinful about eating with unwashed hands. He explained that there were many other man made rules that they followed. Instead of being open to the fact that what they taught was in error, they made a conscious decision to remain steep in tradition. They could no longer see the forest for the trees. They were blinded by their strict and unwavering adherence to their own set of rules. It led them down a terrible path.
I believe that this applies to some in todays churches who hold steadfast to doctrine which has been added to God's Word. They refuse to break from the tradition of men. They bind heavy burdens on the people. They distort the beauty and truth of God's Word and make serving God a hardship with long lists of rules to keep. Though they are shown that their rules and by-laws have no biblical foundation, they continue to embrace and teach them. They despise those who do not walk as they do. They barely fellowship with those not in their particular group. They change the attitudes of their converts from one of love to that of pride and self-righteousness and even fear. They shun or judge those who do not follow the letter of their law. They refuse to see the harm they have caused. Surely the fences they've erected for years must remain so we may better keep God's commandments. There is a desire for sacrifice and not mercy. Thus the spirit of Phariseeism continues.
1 Merrill C. Tenney, General Editor, The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Volume 5, 1975 ed., s.v. "Mishnah," 590.
2 Rev. Dr. A. Cohen, Everyman's Talmud (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1949), 154.
3 Ibid, 155.
4 J.A. Thompson, Handbook of Life in Bible Times (Downer's Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1986), 344.
5 William Smith, L.L.D., Smith's Bible Dictionary (McLean: MacDonald Publishing Company,), 507.
6 J.A. Thompson, Handbook of Life in Bible Times (Downer's Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1986), 107.
7 Donald Guthrie, BD, MTh, PhD, New Testament Theology (Downer's Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1981), 897.
8 William Smith, L.L.D., Smith's Bible Dictionary (McLean: MacDonald Publishing Company,), 508.
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August 23, 1997
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