The Pharisees have a bad reputation that is mostly undeserved. Their name has become a synonym for hypocrite and legalist. The Pharisees only wanted to please God in everything they did. A Pharisee was “a separated one,” as do words such as “Puritan’ or “Fundamentalist” mean—two other words with bad reputations. Like the Pharisees, they just wanted to please God above everything.
The Pharisees believed that the way to please God was by keeping His Laws. They took law-keeping farther than most, though. For example, some of them believed you shouldn’t walk more than a sixth of a mile from home on the Sabbath. Others believed that walking with a pebble in your shoe on the Sabbath was sinful, since you were carrying a burden. One Pharisee writer wrote satirically that there were seven kinds of Pharisees, including the “shoulder” Pharisees, who wore their good deeds on their shoulders, the “score-keeping” Pharisee who kept a record of everyone’s sins, and the “bloody-headed Pharisees” who had scars on the foreheads from running into walls while avoiding looking at women. The lengths that some of them went to keep the Law were amazing!
The same is true of Christians today who have the same way of thinking as the Pharisees. Some Christians will not enter movie theaters, play cards, dance, makeup, or wear beards, for fear of offending God. As a boy, I remember old people who would not drink Coke because the bottles reminded them of beer bottles. We’ve all heard of the Amish, who refuse to use modern appliances. And let’s not even talk about what the castrati of Russia did to stay pure!
Pharisees were the largest Jewish group in Jesus’ day, so he was always interacting with them. Early in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus dealt with issues regarding these Pharisees. Jesus had to explain His position to them. If He agreed with them, the crowd would reject Him, because they didn’t trust the Pharisees. But He couldn’t just reject them either because they were actually right about the importance of the Bible, even if they were wrong about how they applied it.
So Jesus started with agreeing with them. “Don’t think I have come to destroy the Bible,” He said. “I came to fulfill it. The Word of God is important. Not one dot of an I or line of a T will disappear until it is all fulfilled.” The Pharisees were right about the Bible. It is infallible, inerrant, and important. But then he said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, you cannot enter the Kingdom of God.”
How would Jesus say it today? Think of the strictest, most devout and most restricted religious devotee you know, and insert them here in place of Pharisees. “Unless you out-Puritan the Puritans”, “Unless you are more God-honoring than a Trappist monk”, “Unless you are more devout than the Amish”---that is exactly what Jesus is saying.
The problem with the Pharisees and with those like them is not that they’re too righteous, but that they aren’t righteous enough. They try to be righteous, but they miss the point. They have confused obedience with inner change. They go through the motions, but don’t know why they do it. They have made a virtue out of ignorance, telling others not to ask questions, but to blindly follow their interpretations.
I have heard many sermons on morality and obedience, the evils of alcohol, homosexuality, pornography, or abortion. These are vital, important issues and we must speak out against them. But most of the sermons I have heard on these subject could have just as easily been preached by a Pharisee, a Muslim, or even a moral unbeliever. Is it really a Christian sermon if there is nothing of Christ in it, but only a lecture on human behavior? Without real devotion, there is no life in the Spirit. The Pharisees missed the point--not because they were bad people, but because they never understood God themselves.
Imagine thinking Moby Dick was just about catching whales! Imagine thinking Hamlet was just about some Old Danish king! It’s not just what the Bible says on the surface, but the truth underlying the Word—the rightful place of God in our lives. The Pharisees read the Bible as a rule book and missed its purpose. The Bible is about a relationship with God. If you leave out the story, the rules don’t make sense. The Law come out of the stories--the story doesn’t come from the Law.
“The Law”--that is, the set of rules that were kept and embellished by the Pharisees--came mostly from four books in the Bible—Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. If you only pay attention to these four out of the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament, you will naturally miss the point. The Bible is about worship, not Law. Worship is a term that expresses our whole relationship to God—a relationship of love and dependency upon Him. We exist to honor, praise and serve Him. The Laws were instructions on how we worship. Without that relationship, keeping the Law doesn’t mean a thing.
Think of it like a child’s relationship to her parents. Family relationships are based on love. We have kids so we can love them. Out of love, we make rules for our kids-- “Go to bed” “Say please and thank you” “Don’t play in the street.” These laws are temporary. Not every parent on the block will have the same rules for their children, but that’s all right. When we get older, if we’ve taught them right, we don’t need these rules.
As we get older, the love relationship with our children doesn’t change, but the law relationship does. Our kids can go in the street, since they already learned not to. They can go to bed when we want. The love relationship with our parents outlives the law relationship. One day, in the far future when our parents are very, very old, we may even be the ones making rules for them! Even so, the love stays. The law is temporary, but the love is forever.
No ritual or law we observe in service to God is permanent. When we go to heaven, there will not even be the Ten Commandments. There will be no need to tell people not to worship other Gods, because God will be the only God there. We don’t have to be told to honor our parents, because we will honor everyone, especially our real Father. There will be no stealing, killing, adultery, or bearing false witness. Who’s going to be jealous in heaven, when we will be able to experience every delight all the time?
The Pharisees mistook the Law of God for God. They were Law-worshippers, not God-worshippers. Our righteousness must be greater than theirs, because it is based on a love relationship, not a law relationship. We are free to keep the Old Testament laws or not keep some of them, because our righteousness is based not in our scrupulous law-keeping, but on our understanding the Law’s original purpose.
At first, God gave Adam and Eve two commandments. The first was a positive one—to keep and tend His garden, which is the world. The second was a negative one—not to eat of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. These commands gave them a way to show their love and devotion to Him. Love exists without action, but its expression and practice that requires we do something to prove it. When someone you love is in need, you want to do something to show your love to them. When we love God, we want to show it in some way. Keeping His commandments shows our love.
Adam and Eve’s real sin was not just that they ate the forbidden fruit. It went deeper than that—they fell out of love with God. The sin might have been repaired, if only they were willing to repair the relationship. Instead, they hid themselves, breaking the relationship out of fear and shame. From that time on, humans feared God more than they loved Him, and their approach to Him was fear-based, not love-based.
Eons later, God created a special people to love Him—the Hebrews. Their purpose was to reestablish devotion towards God, and to call the rest of the world to love Him. In order to maintain that love, God gave them special laws and rituals, to maintain that love through the generations. God created a whole culture by decree, based on the love of Him. It included dietary laws, forms of dress, special days, etc., so they could express what it meant to worship Him. These traditions provided a necessary structure to maintain this love-based community. Like a family needs a house to live together, a community needs rituals and structure to keep it together.
But just as a house is not a family and a set of rules is not a religion. The laws were made as an aid to worship, but they are not worship. They weren’t bad, they just weren’t complete.
Here’s the Pharisee’s problem. They confused the house with the family. Jesus didn’t come to change the house, but to heal the family. There wasn’t anything wrong with the way they worshipped, it was the object of their worship. When we focus on the details of the Law, It becomes like an OCD obsession. We wind up keeping the Law for its own sake, not for God’s sake. We take the Bible and make it an idol, not a tool. We maintain the house, but there’s no one at home.
Have you ever heard of the expression, “You can’t see the forest for the trees?” I think there are two kinds of people in the world, those who only see the forest, and those who only see the trees. One sees only the big picture, while the other sees the details. The Pharisees were “tree” people. They became so obsessed with the details of theology and morality that they forgot to love God and others.
The Old Testament law contains many detailed descriptions about how to keep the Sabbath, what to eat, etc., but is also includes Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If the details get in the way of the love, then we must set aside the details long enough to get the big picture.
Most of us would consider ourselves religious, but that doesn’t make us right. Just doing religious things don’t make us God’s. In order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven—that place where God is really our master—we must enter through the love of Jesus. We must first love Him, with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. He must be above all things to us. When we put Jesus, first, it is never an issue as whether or not we will obey. If it is within our power, as much as we can we will obey. God’s grace does the rest, giving us the strength to obey.
Jesus can give us what the Law never could, which is the power to be good. He made us good through the Cross.