Tag Archives: Torah

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 12: Sixth Anthesis

Read Matthew 5:43-48

“Therefore, the proud may not stand in Your presence, for You hate all who do evil.” (Psalms 5:5 NLT)

Risen “You have heard the law says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you!” Jesus proclaims his sixth and final antithesis to what must have been a stunned crowd. Honestly, these words should stun even us today! As of 2012, there are 2.2 billion Christians in the world, which makes up about 31.5% of the world’s population. Out of that 2.2 billion, how many of us truly give a wholehearted attempt to love our enemies?

As was mentioned in the previous devotion, there is NO COMMANDMENT in the Hebrew Scriptures stating that one should hate his/her enemies. Jesus’ language here is hyperbolic and rhetorical. What Jesus is doing is taking the conventional wisdom and purposfully conflating it with the law, not for any dubious purpose but because individuals and societies have often conflated the two. In the Hebrew Scriptures it says that God hates all evildoers (e.g. Psalms 5:5). What’s more, it follows that God’s people would hate evildoers as well (e.g. Deuteronomy 23:3-7; 30:7; Psalms 26:5; 139:21-22).

This is not to say that all Jews advocated for hating one’s enemies, and I would be amiss to even possibly imply that. That is not the case at all, nor is Jesus making that case. What Jesus is doing is shifting the extension love from just “God’s people” to all people, for God created all people (including the evildoers). I would also be amiss to not state that Jesus isn’t basing his command on some sort of humanitarn and/or human rights ideal or principal; rather, he is basing it solely on HIS AUTHORITY to set his own command and appose it with the Torah. He does so based off of his knowledge of the nature of God who loves and shows no impartiality (Matthew 5:45).

What’s more, his juxtapositioning of his command with the Torah reminds us of God’s eschatological (end-time) plan being enacted in the coming Kingdom. Jesus saw himself as the advent of God’s Kingdom, and he saw his disciples as children of God and “citizens” of that Kingdom. Thus, Jesus commands that his disciples conduct themselves in a way that is consistent and appropriate with their status as children of God and citizens of God’s Kingdom.

Jesus then uses two interesting examples to further his point. “In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For He gives His sunlight to both the evil and the good, and He sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much” (Matthew 5:45-46 NLT).

While Jesus was known to be “friends of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19), and while we know that Jesus saw his messages a being inclusive of Gentiles (aka “pagans”, Matthew 28:18-20), he uses these two examples because of the general disdain among Jews for tax collectors and Gentiles. And there was good reason for that disdain. Tax collectors were unpatriotic Jews who were employed by the Romans to collect taxes from their own people. What’s more, they would jack up the taxes so that they could increase their profit.

Also, it was the Gentiles (aka the pagans) who were occupying and tainting the Holy Land. It was the Romans, and the Greeks before them, and the Babylonians before them, and the Assyrians before them, and the Phillistines before them, and Egypt before them who had continually kept Judah and Israel from being an independent and sovereign nations. On top of that, the Jews were divided against themselves, with some wishing to become even more like the Gentiles.

Thus, Jesus is showing the extent of God’s impartiality, and the extent in which he EXPECTS his disciples to be impartial in their showing love to others. How can you call yourself God’s children if you are doing no different than the corrupt tax collectors or the idolatrous Gentiles? How can you say, “I am God’s” if your actions scream “blessed be the WAY OF THE WORLD!” Therefore, Jesus concludes his series of antitheses with this command, “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Reflect on this. Do not dilute Jesus’ call for perfection in order to find comfort and shelter from what is seemingly impossible and unattainable. Let it, for the next several days, sink in and stir up in you a desire to understand what Jesus means by perfect. Let it cause you to reflect on your own actions and on whether or not your life has lived up to God’s expectations. In our next devotion, we will take a deeper look at this seemingly impossible command.

To hate anyone is to participate in evil. To participate in evil is to become an evildoer.

Lord, steer me away from hate, especially when it is an easier path than love. Keep my heart righteous, my thoughts pure, and my actions holy. Amen.

The Sermon, part 9: Third Antithesis

Read Matthew 5:31-32

“For I hate divorce!” says the LORD, the God of Israel. “To divorce your wife is to overwhelm her with cruelty, ” says the LORD of Heaven’s Armies. “So guard your heart; do not be unfaithful to your wife.” (Malachi 2:16)

0308_divorce_650x455It is quite often that we will hear that divorce is on the rise in the United States. News outlets, religious leaders, and even television networks have all used the claim that about 50% of all married couples end in divorce. It is the case that, back in the 1970’s and early 1980’s divorce was at an all-time high and that there seemed to be a a marriage crisis on the rise.

The most common stat for divorce in the United States is that 40-50% of married couples end in divorce. While, I am not entirely sure if that stat holds up or not, what seems to be true is that divorce rates among married couples is actually down from the early 1980’s. For instance, the New York Times reports that 70% of couples married in the 1990’s reached their 15th anniversary, which is up from 65% of couples married in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Of those married after 2000, 11% of college-educated couples were divorced by their seventh anniversary, and 17% of couples without college degrees were divorced.

As can be seen by the stats, there isn’t as much of a “marriage crisis” as is often reported. While far too many marriages end up in divorce in this country, without doubt,  some Christian circles often overplay the divorce rate in order to push their theological and, often, political agendas. Even more unfortunately, there are some people who have remained in their marital covenant despite suffering tremendous physical, emotional and/or verbal abuse because they have been taught that Jesus forbade divorce.

Jesus’ words have been used by the Church and by ministers in a way that has been damning to spouses who are suffering under domestic violence and oppression. Rather that being redeemed by the Redeemer, many abused spouses have found themselves shackled under an even more stringent law that what the Torah offered up. This is a real shame because Jesus’ words were intended to liberate, not oppress.

Again, Jesus offers up another antithesis here. The Torah permitted any man who got a certificate from the appropriate authority to divorce his wife. While some Jewish circles called for stricter measures, in practice this could be done for any number of reasons. It could be done for good reasons such as infidelity; however, it could be done because a woman was considered by her husband to be “lazy”, or “infertile”, or not eager enough in having sex.

What’s more, a woman could not get a certificate of divorce, only a man could. While there were provisions in the Torah to protect divorced woman, such as permission to remarry, such provisions worked better on paper than in practice. What man would marry a woman who had already been married and could not please her first husband? Often times these women would become destitute and were shunned by even their families for bringing shame upon their household.

Jesus, in this antithetical form, acknowledges what the law says and then replaces it with what he says: “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:31-32 NRSV). Notice, again, Jesus reverses the laws focus from the woman to the man. Jesus states that that any man who divorces his wife CAUSES her to commit adultery. This may sound harsh on the wife, but if you read it carefully, the culpability is really on the HUSBAND.

Again, this was not said by Jesus in order to establish a new marital LAW, but rather to teach the people that God’s ways and standards are higher than ours. Jesus isn’t pushing for a new sort of legalism, nor is Jesus looking for abused spouses to remain in abusive relationships; however, Jesus is showing the people that while the religious leaders teaches the Law as given to Moses by God, Jesus gives the Law with the very authority of God. The Law isn’t presented by Christ to enslave us in some sort of legalistic system; rather, the Law is presented to point us to Christ who is the fulfillment of the Law.

Yes, let us take marriage seriously. With that said, let us also take seriously Christ’s call to grace and humility. Let us recognize that none of us can live up to the Law by our own standards, let alone by God’s. When we overlook Christ for our own theological and/or political agendas, it is we who are divorcing oursleves from the one who God has joined us with: JESUS CHRIST. Let us keep that understanding in our hearts so that we will not find ourselves separated from the one who came to save us.

“If you feel that you can follow a few little rules or some clever gimmicks to make you a mature Christian, then you have fallen into a subtle trap of legalism.” – J. Vernon McGee

Lord, teach me to be open to your heart so that you can fulfill the LAW within me. Amen.

The Sermon, part 6: Relocated

Read Matthew 5:21-32

“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.’” (Matthew 28:18 NRSV)

jesusauthorityFollowing Jesus’ claim that he is the fulfillment of the Torah and the Prophets, he taught his disciples that in order for them to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, they had better exceed the Pharisees in their understanding and application of the law. I spent the better part of the last devotion discussing the historical context of both Jesus’ and Matthew’s time periods, respectively, in order to caution you that it would not be wise to take Jesus’ words out of those two contexts when trying to understand what he means. If you did not read it, I suggest you go back and read the last devotion as it is important.

Jesus’ claim that there is a higher standard than that which the Pharisees are putting forth, is one that Jesus intends to support by a series of examples of exactly how that higher standard comes to fruition in the Law. For Jesus, and even more so for Matthew and his community, the Pharisaic understanding of rigid adherence to “the letter of the law”, missed the very heart of it. Yet, again, I caution the reader not to pass judgment against a group of people we hardly know apart from these words written against them.

Rather than focusing on the Pharisees and whether or not they had the right understanding of the Law, we will focus on Jesus’ understanding of the Torah itself by looking at the examples he puts forth. These examples are actually antitheses of the law as it is written in the Torah. This may sound strange, for how can Jesus go against what is written in the Torah? Well, in short, he doesn’t go against it as much as he goes beyond what is written.

Over the next twenty-seven or so verses, Jesus will do something that will astound the people listening to him, so much so that when he is finished with the Sermon on the Mount as a whole, the Bible has this to say, “Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:28-29 NRSV). By the end of his sermon, Jesus no doubt gets the attention of the crowd, and also the attention of the religious leaders.

Over the next several devotions we will look at each of these six antitheses individually to gain a better understanding of what Jesus is pointing to in the Law of Moses; however, for the purpose of this specific devotion, I will introduce the format in which Jesus pronounces these antitheses to the the Torah. For each of the six, Jesus starts of saying, “You have heard that it was said…”, followed by the Law as it is found in writing in the Torah and as was read in the synagogue. Jesus then proceeds by saying, “but I say to you…”, in which he then proceeds to give his own pronouncement of Law.

It is important to note that nowhere in the entirety of the Bible is the antithetical form found. Thus, you can imagine the shock that Jesus’ words must have caused the religious leaders! In the history of Judaism, no rabbi had ever proclaimed his/her own pronouncement of the Law in contrast with the Law of Moses in the Torah. Yet, in Matthew, Jesus does just that. Some would find much hope, comfort and challenge in Jesus’ words; however, others would see this as an attack upon the Word of God as handed down to the people from Moses.

No doubt, the antithetical form was meant to shock people and it should shock us as well. What Jesus does in today’s text is relocate God’s authority from the written text to himself. That authority comes through God’s presence in his life, his teachings, his ministry, his death and his resurrection. If we believe this to be true, if we accept Jesus relocation of authority to be the “Gospel Truth”, what then does this mean for us? How should we be living our lives in accordance with the Law as given by Jesus Christ? Read today’s text closely and carefully. If Christ is THE AUTHORITY, then let us reflect on the kind of heart-changes that Christ is working into our lives.

“Until the will and the affections are brought under the authority of Christ, we have not begun to understand, let alone to accept, His lordship.” – Elisabeth Elliot

Lord, I accept your authority and I choose to follow your lead. You are my Lord and my Savior. Amen.

The Sermon, part 4: Law or Prophets

Read Matthew 5:17-19

“‘But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel on that day,’ says the LORD. ‘I will put My instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My people.’” (Jeremiah 31:33 NLT)

p1010002_edited-1Jesus prefaces his sermon with today’s passage and, in fact, the whole of Jesus’ message regarding the Law in the Sermon on the Mount is book-ended between Matthew 5:17 and 7:12. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” This text has often been glossed over, underwritten, and overstated by various different people trying to make sense about what Jesus is actually teaching.

It is important to note that Matthew’s Jesus sets up his teachings on the law with this statement. Historically speaking, Matthew’s community was following a much adjusted version of Judaism that, to many traditional Jews, didn’t seem a whole lot like Judaism. Even within the church, there was a major disagreement on what it meant to be a follower of Jesus, who was historically a Jewish rabbi. Can anyone follow Jesus and do they have to submit to and follow the Jewish law if they truly want to be one of Jesus’ followers?

Matthew’s community had to defend itself from claims that they were abandoning the ways and laws of Judaism. What’s more, Matthew and his community were mostly Greek-speaking diaspora Jewish Christians who lived in Syria, possibly in and around Antioch. With that historical context in mind, it makes perfect sense that Matthew includes Jesus beginning his Sermon in this Way. Jesus was Jewish and Jesus did not come to abolish or ignore the Law, the Torah, of God as given to Moses.

Yet, as mentioned above, this is only a preface to Jesus’ teaching on the law. Jesus neither denies or delegitimizes the Law, nor does he affirm the status quo. Instead, as we’ll see in upcoming devotions, Jesus shows that he is the fulfillment of the Law. He is not a fullfillment in the sense that Jesus did everything required by the Law without breaking it. It is quite clear in Matthew and the other Gospels that Jesus did break the Law (at least as it was understood by religious leaders his time period).
Jesus does not fulfill the Law in the sense that he provides a new interpretation of it, nor are his teachings a mere summary of the Laws in the Torah. Before I get into how Jesus claims he is the fulfillment of the Law, it is also important to note that Jesus says he not only fulfills the Laws but the prophets. Why the prophets? Because Jesus views both the Torah and the prophets (Joshua-2 Kings and Isaiah-Malachi) as being wholly prophetic and pointing to the end-time fulfillment of God’s reigning Kingdom.

In other words, the Torah (Law) and the prophets point to the coming of the Messiah who was to usher in the Kingdom of God. Jesus, in essence, prefaces his teachings on the Law with this claim: “I have come as a fulfillment of the eschatological promise found in the Law and the Prophets.” Another way that this could be expressed is, “The Law and the Prophets point to me!” Jesus’ use of the phrase, “I have come” (vs. 17) presumes that Jesus had come from and was sent by God.

Then, Matthew’s Jesus follows this up with a word to those Greek/Gentile Christians in his community who believed the Law was irrelevant and were lending credence to the argument of the Matthean community’s opponents that Christians disregarded the Torah. Jesus makes it clear, every commandment remains important. Witht that said, Matthew does not exclude those who hold this view from the Kingdom of Heaven; rather, they are “the least in the Kingdom of Heaven.”

While it is important to get the context behind these teachings, it is also equally important not to miss the overall point Jesus is making to all of his disciples, as well as to his opponents. God’s Law and the prophets both point to Jesus, the Christ, as. God’s eschatological (end-times) promise. Dismissing the Law, as well as upholding it as the end unto itself entirely misses the point. Both polar viewpoints are incorrect because they both completely ignore and pass by the very person the Law points to, namely Jesus Christ. To dismiss the Law as useless, is to do dismiss Jesus Christ. To render the Law to some sort of legalistic measure, is to render the fulfillment of that law as impossible. Today’s challenge is to let go of our biases and humble ourselves to place of student at the feet of the One who is God’s Law fulfilled.

“It is not wisdom but Authority that make a law.” – Thomas Hobbes

Lord, humble me that I may learn all that it is you have to teach me. Amen.