Pharisees Are Still Among Us

By: Mike Bishop
*originally published on December 15, 2020

Jesus and his radical invitation to join in the full life of God

If you read the Gospels, especially the Gospel of Luke, it does not take you long to realize that Jesus had a bit of a thing for the Pharisees. Outside of resistance from his own family and people of his home region, no one plotted, schemed, and outright hated Jesus more than the Pharisees.

In recent history, at least since the Protestant reformation, the Pharisees have been demonized as “legalistic” over against the message of “grace” through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Their agenda, as the story goes, was to present a way to salvation that was based on works and the law rather than love and grace.

Unfortunately, this is just not true.

The Pharisees were just one of several groups of influential Jewish movements at the time of Jesus who were trying to define their nation’s identity.
What did it mean to be a “true Jew”?

Was it political power alongside their Roman occupiers?

Was it separation and purity that would mark their acceptance?

Was it radical alignment with the laws and traditions of the Torah?

Or maybe the only option was violence?
At stake was nothing less than salvation. Not “I’m going to heaven when I die” salvation. That’s a later Christian construct. No, the Jews were concerned with who was going to be considered faithful and acceptable to the Messiah when he came to earth, removed the Romans from power, and set up his everlasting Kingdom with its home base in Jerusalem.

Enter Jesus.

By Chapter 11 in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus already had several run-ins with his Pharisaical adversaries. They had questioned his right to forgive sins, his treatment of the Sabbath, and interrogated him about his interpretation of Hebrew scripture. But in Chapter 11, things get serious.

After casting out a demon from a mute man, a Pharisee invites Jesus over for dinner. He enters the man’s house and sits down at his table. Before the meal even begins, the Pharisee questions the fact that Jesus did not perform the ritualistic hand-washing ceremony.

Not a good move.

What follows is a thirteen-verse diatribe against the Pharisees and their hypocrisy. Jesus even manages to offend the scribes, or religious lawyers, by criticizing the weight of their impossible demands on the people.
“Yes,” said Jesus, “what sorrow also awaits you experts in religious law! For you crush people with unbearable religious demands, and you never lift a finger to ease the burden. (Luke 11:46, NLT)
After a heated exchange, Jesus leaves and rejoins his disciples. The proverbial game was now on. Eventually, the Pharisees, scribes, and temple priests would set a trap that would lead to his gruesome death on a Roman cross.

Game over. Or so it seemed.
The rest of the story is familiar enough if you are a reader of the New Testament. Jesus’ death was not the end of the story. The Pharisees did not win. After his resurrection, a new movement that aligned with God’s Kingdom was born that became unstoppable. Some Pharisees even joined them. Eventually, persecution scattered this movement across the known world.

About forty years later, everything Jesus prophesied about the false Messianic hopes of the Pharisees came to pass. In 70 A.D., the future Roman emperor Titus and his army descended on Jerusalem, desecrated and destroyed the Temple, and left the nation of Israel in ruins.

Yet today, the spirit of the Pharisee is still
among us.

The Jesus movement, otherwise known as the global Church, is at an identity crossroads. If there were previous signs of decline like waning attendance, public leadership failures, and loss of influence on the wider culture, all of these signs grew much larger in 2020.

So who are the Pharisees of our age? If Jesus were to show up tomorrow, who would he call a “brood of vipers” and warn about their impending doom?

Well, pretty much all of us.

Any time a Christian leader says something like, “You can’t be a Christian if you [insert political party, theological position, what you had for breakfast],” that is the Pharisee spirit in action.

But the problem goes much deeper than those who have a public voice within the church. In each of our hearts is the basic desire to know who is “in” and who is “out” with God. Yet God’s desire is to simply know and love us. He is looking for faithfulness and obedience, not lines drawn in the sand.
In John Chapter 4, a story is recorded of Jesus walking with his disciples through Samaria to get to his home in Galilee. In the village of Sychar, there was a well that had historically been attributed to the Jewish patriarch Jacob. Jesus, tired and thirsty from the trip, approaches the well where a Samaritan woman was coming to fetch water.

The interchange that follows is one of the most radical conversations of Jesus recorded in the Gospels. We read this story as just another miraculous instance of Jesus tapping into heavenly powers for healing and redemption. But there is far more going on here than miracles.

Jesus flipped the script on religion forever.

If you were a Jew, and a male, you would not be caught dead in Samaria talking to a woman. Samaritans were apostates. They would not inherit the Kingdom if the Messiah returned. Certainly, a woman from that region would not be worth acknowledgment. Wait until the Pharisees find out about this!

Instead of Pharisaical rejection, Jesus invites the Samaritan woman into the full life of God. The Kingdom of God is available now and the Messiah is here to give access. Religion divides and draws boundaries to keep those divisions sacred and secure. Jesus tears all that down in one sentence:
“But the time is coming — indeed it’s here now — when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship him that way.” (John 4:23, NLT)
Today, Christians have a choice. It’s black and white. We can continue to follow the way of the Pharisee. We can set boundaries that define who is considered a “true believer” and who is rejected by God. That way is arbitrary and contrary to the way of Jesus.

Or, we can humble ourselves, repent of our idolatry of being right, and invite those around us into the full life of God by becoming a follower of Jesus. Then, the living waters will flow and forever destroy the spirit of the Pharisee.
“Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again. But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.” (John 4:13)

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