The religious leaders of Jesus’s day were certain they had God all figured out. In reality, they were so far off base they thought Jesus was demon-possessed and plotted to have him killed. Bottom line: he wasn’t whom they expected, and their religious misconceptions kept them from recognizing God in human form.
If God visited the Christian Church today, would we be so shocked and offended by His theology that we would do whatever it took to silence His message? Surely not! we say. We know God, we know what He’d say, and we know we’re doing what’s right.
Maybe we shouldn’t be so cocky. History does has a tendency to repeat itself, after all. Instead of scoffing at the epic error of the religious leaders, I think we should consider this question:
How did religious authorities who dedicated their lives to studying the scriptures manage to get so far off the mark without realizing it?
After answering that question, we need to examine our own thinking and faith to make sure we aren’t following in their footsteps.
While many believers today spend a lot of time berating sinners and loving religious leaders, Jesus did the opposite. He spent a lot of time berating religious leaders and loving sinners. His harsh words of judgement were not for the prostitutes, thieves, and murderers in his company. They were reserved for the religious experts of the day: the Pharisees.
The Pharisees were a large, influential religious sect focused on rigid observance of the Law and Traditions of Moses. They were honored among Jews as religious authority figures. Ironically, while they were immersed in Scripture, they knew little of the God to whom the Scriptures referred.
Here are some characteristics of the Pharisees as the bible describes them:
- Loud and Proud. The Pharisees were proud of their good works, and they wanted everyone to notice. Matthew 23:5-6 tells us “They do all their deeds to be seen by others…and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues...” Jesus told this parable in Luke 18 to describe the heart position of Pharisees when they prayed: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: `God, I thank you that I am not like other men–robbers, evildoers, adulterers–or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, `God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
- Self-righteous Hypocrites. In Matthew 23: 2-3, Jesus said, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice.” Pharisees went to great lengths to appear righteous by following the rules, but inside they were evil. They prayed loud, long prayers in public, but behind closed doors they did what was evil in God’s sight. Jesus called them “white washed tombs full of dead men’s bones.”
- Focused on scripture while ignoring God. Pharisees forgot that knowing about God included being in a relationship with Him and being taught by Him. John 6:45 puts it this way: “It is written in the Prophets: `They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me.” Sadly, the Pharisees’ relationship with God began and ended with the study of scripture, and this prevented them from accurately interpreting the scripture as well as current events. For example, they knew scripture had prophesied the Christ would come from Bethlehem, and because they thought Jesus came from Galilee, they rejected him as Messiah. Of course, they never bothered asking Jesus what his city of birth was. They just assumed they knew.
- Focused on being and appearing RIGHT. The pharisees often had arguments with Jesus, many of them public. When Jesus put their theology to shame and pointed out their hypocrisy, rather than repent, they became enraged. They spent hours concocting questions for Jesus that would confuse Him or cause Him to deny the validity of their teachings so they could win the ongoing argument. When that didn’t work, they plotted to kill Him. They preferred to be murderers rather than be “wrong.” They couldn’t be in relationship with Jesus because they were too arrogant to be corrected and unwilling to be taught, thinking they already understood everything perfectly.
- Blind. The Pharisees were blinded by their own arrogant thinking and hardness of heart. They were incapable of seeing truth because they were so locked into the “rightness” of their screwed-up theology. John 9: 39-41 tells us,“Then Jesus declared, ‘For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind may see and those who see may become blind.’ Some of the Pharisees who were with Him heard this, and they asked Him, ‘Are we blind too?’ ‘If you were blind,’Jesus replied, ‘you would not be guilty of sin. But since you claim you can see, your guilt remains.’
- Lacked empathy or love for people. The Pharisees saw everyone’s sin but their own. They believed the remedy for that sin was giving sinful people more rules to follow. Matthew 23:4 tells us that “they tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.” Rather than bring sinners to the Father, they drove people away from God with their legalism. Jesus told them in Matthew 23: 13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.”
- Legalistic. Pharisees lives revolved around rules. What to eat, what to say, what to wear. How often to pray. Etc, etc, etc. They’d taken the laws of Moses and written an “amplified version” so to speak. For example, God’s request that his people rest and reflect on Him one day a week (sabbath rest) birthed a whole new set of rules revolving around the what the Pharisees believed actually constituted work and what didn’t. God’s request that they give a tenth of their income as tithe birthed a set of regulations about what things needed tithing and what didn’t…even down to counting out individual tea leaves or other spices. This zealous rule-following wasn’t inspired by their desire to please God, but by their desire to appear righteous.
- Heavily influenced by Satan. While pharisees saw themselves as God’s appointed messengers, Jesus called them “children of Hell” and “sons of the Devil.” Wow, what a scathing description! Not only were they terrible at representing God, they were actually siding with and working alongside the Enemy. John 8: 42-44 shows this clearly. “Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on My own, but He sent Me. Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you are unable to accept My message. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out his desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, refusing to uphold the truth, because there is no truth in him.”
Let’s bring this a little closer to home by examining ourselves.
- Are we prideful about our good works, and do we need others to notice them?
- Do we pretend to have it all together and hide our failures behind a Christian facade?
- Are we so busy examining scripture that we’ve neglected to spend time in God’s presence listening to His voice and getting to know what He thinks?
- Do we hate admitting we’re wrong? Will we do anything to win a religious argument?
- Are we so locked into our theology that we are unteachable and blind to any truth that doesn’t line up with our thinking?
- Is our legalistic or judgmental attitude turning people away from God?
- Do we follow our own religious traditions and preferences as if they were God’s commands and teach them to others as if they were necessary religious requirements?
- Are we inadvertently working on the side of evil by believing the Enemy’s lies?
We don’t want to repeat the tragedy and folly of the pharisees. If any of the above descriptors are true of us, then we need to pay attention. It’s easy to get prideful and set in our religious ways.
Do we have any religious preconceptions or misconceptions that would keep us from recognizing God if He were to appear to us in the flesh at this time in human history? Please comment below…I would love to hear your thoughts.