Tag Archives: Pharisees

God’s People, part 125: Pharisees

Read John 3:1-21

“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

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

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

The Sermon, part 5: Higher Standard

Read Matthew 5:20

“For Christ is the [purpose] of the Law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:4 NRSV)

Jesus had just told his disciples that he did not come to abolish the Torah or the Prophets; rather, Jesus had come to be the fulfillment of them. As was mentioned in the previous devotion, this does not mean that Jesus fulfillls the law by any sort of legalistic way. His teachings neither summarize the Law, nor do they offer a “new interpretation” of the it. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets because they point directly to him, the Messiah, and his coming to usher in God’s reign.

Jesus then takes that one step forward, just in case anyone may have thought that the Torah and the Prophets were now “history”. Such a willy-nilly approach to understanding Christ’s prophetic fulfillment of Scripture is even more unacceptable than that of the hypocrisy of some of the Pharisees. “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

An important historical side note needs to be entered here. It can be said with much certainty that there were Pharisees in Jesus’ day; however, they were not as prominent of a group as they were in the time that Matthew was writing his Gospel. It is quite probable that Jesus did face opposition from some Pharisees as he traveled town to town with his message of God’s Kingdom come; yet, there can be no doubt that Matthew’s community was the one truly facing opposition from the Pharisees.

The reason for noting this is because in Jesus’ day, the group that was really in power were the Sadducees who controlled and presided over the Temple. They were the ones that made up the majority of the Sanhedrin, at least at the time of Jesus, which was the ruling religious body of Judea. What’s more, the Sadducees and the Pharisees were opponents of each other. This can be seen in Paul’s craftily pitting the Pharisees against the Sadducees in Acts 23:6-8.

In Matthew’s day, however, the Temple was long destroyed and the Sadducees were not more. It was the Pharisees, at that point in history, who were working to redefine what it meant to be Jewish without a Temple to make sacrifices for the atonement of sins. Their answer was strict observance of the Law, with the understanding that if you strictly observe Torah, that equals an atoning sacrifice greater than the slaughter of animals. Matthew’s community, on the other hand, believed Jesus to be the answer to the question of how to be Jewish apart from the Temple. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection not only provided atonement for the believer, they were the ultimate fulfillment of God’s Law and the Prophets.

I note this because it is important that we don’t become false judges of the Pharisees as a group. I would imagine that most Pharisees were earnest, faithful people who were living out their call to follow God in the way that they understood that. Jesus’ teachings, while certainly calling out the hypocrisy of some of the religious leaders of his day, were pointed straight at the disciples. It was imperative to Jesus that his disciples realize that in order to be of the Kingdom of God, they have to exceed the “righteousness” being taught by the Pharisees. In other words, God has a higher standard.

As we will see in the next several devotions, Jesus lays out what he believes to be the true standard of God in the Law and the Prophets. In the meantime, let us reflect on the following warning that Jesus gives his disciples. What does it mean for us to exceed the Law and the Prophets?  What does it mean for us to live our lives in the same manner that Christ lived his, as a fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets? If Christ is within us, then that fulfillment should be evident. Let us reflect on these questions as we await what Christ has to teach us.

“Being a Christian is more than just an instantaneous conversion – it is a daily process whereby you grow to be more and more like Christ.” – Billy Graham

Lord, teach me your way that I may, through you, represent your coming Kingdom. Amen.

Journey with Jesus: Holy Tuesday


Matthew 21:23 – 24:51; Mark 11:27-13:37; Luke 20:1-21:36


Wow, and I thought yesterday was tense! I was shaking from head to toe when Jesus started to overturn those tables and was shouting like a madman! Part of me was scared that the Romans, perched in towers overlooking the Temple complex, would descend on us and crush us right then and right there. The other part of me was excited because Jesus was finally showing the zeal that we have been taught that the Messiah would have. I began to wonder if, perhaps Jesus was this Messiah…cleansing the House of God before purging Israel of her enemies.

But today Jesus started teaching really strange things! He spoke in parables that were set up to make the Pharisees look bad. He compared the Pharisees to a group of murderous farm tenants who refused to give the farm owner his due and killed anyone the farm owner sent them…including his own son! Jesus went on to flat-out curse the Pharisees and the scribes shouting, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.”

You could just feel the tension in the air. The religious leaders looked beyond mad. If looks could kill…well you know how the phrase goes. Then, Jesus questioned their knowledge of the very scriptures they are well versed in. He asked them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?” I got the real sense that he was referring to himself! Was he saying that he was going to be rejected and die? How could he be the Messiah and die? How was that even possible if the Messiah was supposed to free Israel from oppression? Why would this “Messiah” curse our religious leaders? Wouldn’t the Messiah focus his energy on Rome?


What are your expectations of Jesus? Who is Jesus to you? Do you find that your “Jesus” falls in line with what you think he should be? When you hear or read Jesus’ words of chastisement, who do you envision Jesus talking to? Is he talking about “them”, or is he talking about “us”? Is he talking about “you” or is he talking about “me”?

On this Holy Tuesday, let us remember Jesus’ warnings to the religious leaders of the day. Will we continue to cross land and sea to create converts to OUR way? Will we look like we are righteous on the outside, when in reality we are dead on the inside? Will we be the ones who reject the stone only to be crushed by it? Or will we lay down OUR way and make GOD’s way the cornerstone of our faith? What is God’s way, “No, O people, the LORD has told you what is good, and this is what He requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)


Lord, humble me and become the cornerstone of my faith. Let me drop my religion and pick up your love, compassion and mercy in its stead. Amen.