Today, we have Christian denominations that disagree on how to interpret the Bible and live by its teachings. They agree that they love God and want to follow Jesus. They just don’t agree on how to go about doing so.
The same was true in first century Judaism. There were multiple sects, the four most prominent being Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots…and Pharisees.
- Sadducees were more elite and politically connected. They were the aristocracy of the Jewish leadership. They were the ones who ran the Temple activities.
- Essenes, of Dead Sea Scroll fame, were the separatists. They disconnected from normal life to live in their own communities and worship without bothering, or being bothered by, anyone else.
- Zealots were the violent-action folks. They wanted to purify the land by fighting, and throwing out Rome and anyone else that didn’t live up to their standards.
And then there were the Pharisees. These were the role models for the common people. They spent their time studying God’s law as their occupation. So, they were the ones who taught the people about the law. They were exceedingly zealous (as opposed to the capital-Z Zealots) to uphold every single point of the law, every single moment of every single day.
This was not necessarily a bad thing, until they developed two afflictions: Over-protectiveness of their own interpretation of the law, and a kind of tunnel vision as to how it was to be kept.
In hopes of making it impossible to break the law, they did what they called “putting a fence” 1 around it. If the law said “Don’t work on the Sabbath,” then they said “Work is defined as carrying something over a certain weight for more than a certain distance.” The laudable intent was to protect the law from being violated, and to protect the follower from violating the law by accident. Those “oral traditions” are still a significant part of Jewish practice today 2.
The problem came when the fence started being regarded as if it were the law itself. Then a new fence might be needed to keep anyone from getting too close to the original one. Over time, those fences could consolidate and thicken until they blocked the view of the actual law from God.
In the case of Sabbath “work”, for instance, the allowed weight might keep getting lower, and the distance shorter, until almost any movement with almost anything in your hand would count as “breaking the Sabbath” to the Pharisees.
As a result of all their focus on legal details, the Pharisees had trouble widening their vision enough to realize who Jesus was. He was too unconventional. He healed on the Sabbath (and even told the healed man to pick up his mat and walk, “working” on the Sabbath!) He hung out with sinners and tax collectors, the lower caste who weren’t even attempting to follow all the rules. He touched the unclean: the sick, the lepers, and the dying…even the dead. To the Pharisees, those infractions of the “fence” blinded them to the fact that God was doing miraculous things.
They were also blinded to the fact that Jesus was literally fulfilling prophecy after prophecy of the Messiah. He just wasn’t — yet — fulfilling the prophecies they wanted to focus on. He wasn’t forming an army to drive out the Romans. He wasn’t cleaning house, building a righteous kingdom with Jerusalem as His throne and vindicating all of the abuse that the Jews had suffered. Rather, those prophecies remained for the future, while Jesus was building a spiritual kingdom open to everyone…even Gentiles. He was fulfilling the law, with its atoning sacrifices, by presenting Himself as the ultimate sacrifice. But they couldn’t see past their own preconceptions to get to the truth.
Jesus vs. the Pharisees
Almost every encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees was a conflict. The Pharisees fussed at Jesus for breaking fences; He fussed at them for putting their fences ahead of true righteousness. One of Jesus’ most shocking statements was “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20). The Pharisees were attempting the height of righteousness. How could that be surpassed? By honoring the spirit of the law, as well as the letter: “But if you had known what this means, ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT A SACRIFICE,’ [a quote of Hosea 6:6] you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Matthew 12:7). Matthew 15:1-14 has a more extended description of how the Pharisees twisted the legal rules to crush the true meaning of God’s law. Matthew 23:13-36 is even more emphatic.
Not all Pharisees were that hard-headed and hard-hearted. Like any group of people, there was a range of personalities and attitudes. Most famously, Nicodemus was a Pharisee who came to Jesus saying “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” (John 3:1-2). John 9:16 describes confusion among other Pharisees, with some impressed by the miracles and others upset by them happening on the Sabbath. And, while researching for this article, I found a verse that I had not noticed before: In Luke 13:31, Pharisees told Jesus to leave the area because Herod wanted to kill Him. It seems that these Pharisees may have been trying to protect Jesus. (However, other interpretations are that they just wanted to get Jesus to leave, and were using any pretext available.)
Later on, after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, the leading Pharisee Gamaliel counseled the others to be cautious of persecuting His followers. In Acts 5:33-39, he said “I say to you, stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action is of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God.” Acts 15:5 mentions Pharisees who had believed in Jesus. And, of course, the Apostle Paul was a Pharisee whose meeting with the resurrected Jesus changed him into a force who planted churches throughout Asia Minor and wrote much of the New Testament! (Acts 26:1-23)
Do we still have Pharisees today, among Christians rather than Jews? Yes, we do!
- We have well-meaning people trying their best to do what is right.
- We have some of those people deciding that their definition of “right” is the only correct one. That definition is based on meeting their expectations rather than on having God’s heart toward others.
- We have people therefore condemning someone for looking wrong — clothes, hair, makeup, tattoos, piercings — or for listening to the wrong music or using the wrong language or eating and drinking the wrong things. This in spite of the condemned person violating only a fence, not actually God’s law.
- We then have people missing God’s presence in that person who isn’t acting, or even worshipping, in the expected “proper” way.
- And, finally, we have people losing out on examples of God’s magnificent, unexpected, out-of-the-box work in the world.
That is as sad now as it was in the first century. Just think about it: The Pharisees had the Son of God performing miracles right in front of them, healing the lame as prophesied 3 of the Messiah they had expected for centuries…and they missed it because all they saw was someone carrying a sleeping mat on the Sabbath! (John 5:1-17) That is both so ridiculous that it’s funny, and so short-sighted and small-minded that it’s infuriating. More than anything, though, it’s so very sad. They could have joined in with the turning point of history. Instead, they fought against it and will be forever remembered as being on the wrong side of that history. 😢
How often do modern-day Pharisees miss seeing God’s work, or even interfere with that work, because they are so blinded by their own way of doing things? May God open our eyes and soften our hearts!