God’s People, part 125: Pharisees

Read John 3:1-21

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  (Luke 18:14, NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

PhariseesPart 125: Pharisees. The Pharisees were a group of people who came into existence somewhere in between the 160s and the 150s BCE, though their roots go much deeper. Following the end of the Jewish exile, Persia had ordered the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple and the refortification of Jerusalem. Once the Second Temple was completed, the Sadducee party had been established. They were, as was discussed in the last devotion, a group of priests and elites who were in charge of the Temple and the worship life of Judah. They were also a very influential and powerful political party.

With that said, the Temple was rebuilt and the Sadducee’s authority established at the behest of a foreign government. Thus, there was much skepticism among people about the legitimacy of the Temple and its leadership. As a result of this skepticism, new sects and/or schools of thought arose.

On top of this, things had changed from they way they once were. No longer was the Temple the ONLY institution for Jewish religious life. This is because, during the period of the exile, there was NO TEMPLE. Thus, the Jews who were NOT exiled, formed local houses of prayer known as Synagogues. The Synagogue meetings carried on even despite the Second Temple being built. Even though most Jews could not regularly attend the Temple service, they would observe their Jewish faith in their Synagogues. The only thing they could not do was sacrifice to God, which could only happen at the Temple.

These Synagogue meetings were led by local scribes and and sages, who were later called “rabbis” or teachers/masters. They would meet on Mondays, Thursdays and Shabbats (aka Sabbaths) and read portions of the Torah, following the tradition established by Ezra. They also maintained the Oral Tradition which was passed down from Mount Sinai to their time.

When the Greeks took over and began to bring Greek influence and culture into Israel, a rift developed between the Sadducees and the sages/teachers over dealings with the Gentiles. This only heightened with the reign of the Seleucid King Antiochus IV, who banned Jewish observances and forced Jews to worship Greek gods. Following the defeat of the Seluecids by the Maccabees, the Sadducees went from being merely a religious group to being a political group as well.

Also around that time, the Pharisees rose up out of the sages/teachers to be a religious/political group in opposition to the Sadducees. The word Pharisee in Greek is Φαρισαῖος (pronounced far-is-ah’-yos) and was derived from the Hebrew word פָּרָשׁ (pronounced paw-rash’), which literally means “to separate”. Thus, the word Pharisee literally means “Separatist”. They’re whole point as a religious and political sect was to promote the separation from Greek culture. How did one do that, through taking the Bible seriously and obeying the LAWS of God.

So, as you can see, the Pharisees started off as a really good group in response to the corruption of other groups. They believed that absolutely loyalty to God was a must if Israel was going to be restored to her rightful place as a sovereign kingdom blessed by God. As with all good things, however, politics and power got in the way and the Pharisees soon forgot why they were Pharisees in the first place.

They became oppressive with the extra rules and regulations they created to ensure that people would follow the Law (e.g. how many steps you could take before it was considered “working on the Sabbath”). They burdened the people with taking things way too far in the other direction of the Sadducees. The Sadducees were on one end of the extremes, and the Pharisees became the other end of the extremes.

The challenge for us is to recognize the danger of extremes. Often times when there is push back against extremism, those pushing back become extremists themselves. We can easily see this in the world, and the political climate, around us. When the KKK amass to rally, so do the anti-fascists (Antifa). What ensues is pure chaos that counters anything God could possibly be calling us to.

Let us be a people who do not become extremists, but follow the heart and soul of what Jesus Christ taught and did. Let us not respond to extremism in extreme ways, but represent the balance as representatives of our LORD Jesus Christ who resisted the temptations of both the Sadducees and the Pharisees. That may not make us popular with either extreme, but it will keep us righteous and in line with God

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
Following the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, the Pharisees evolved into Rabbinic Judaism, which exists to this day.

PRAYER
Lord, keep me clear from the extremes and center me on you and your ways. Amen.

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