Is it possible for Christians to see their relationship with Jesus as a set of perfunctory duties without their hearts being engaged? Can Christians be blind to the glaring sins of pride and worldly ambition lurking in their own lives? Do some Christians always see themselves as being better than others? Friends, the answer to these questions is simply, yes.
One day, in the life of Jesus and the disciples, they set out to cross over to the other side of the lake. While making the journey, the disciples discovered they had forgotten to bring some bread. At that very moment Jesus interjects:
“Watch out! Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Missing the greater implications of what Jesus was saying to them, they began to argue with each other because they thought Jesus was referring to the lack of bread. Jesus then says to them, "Why can’t you understand that I’m not talking about bread? So again, I say, ‘Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ Then at last they understood that he wasn’t speaking about the yeast in bread, but about the deceptive teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees" (Matthew 16:5-12).
When Jesus warned the disciples about the deceptive teaching of the Pharisees, it raises an important question, "Who exactly are the Pharisees and what did they teach?"
At the time of Jesus' ministry, the Pharisees were the popular religious party of the day (John 7:48). They were extremely accurate and minute in all matters appertaining to the law of Moses (See: Mat 9:14; Mat 23:15; Luke 11:39; Luke 18:12). When Paul was brought before the council of Jerusalem, he professed that he was a Pharisee (Acts 23:6-8; Acts 26:4, 5) and he also boasted to the Philippians about his own strict adherence to the law (Phil. 3:6).
There was much that was sound in their teaching, yet their system of religion was a form and nothing more. Theirs was a very lax morality (Matt. 15:4-5, 8; Mat 23:3, 14, 23, 25; John 8:7). In the first mention of them in the New Testament (Matt. 3:7), they are ranked by John the Baptist as a "generation of vipers" and later by Jesus in the same way (see Matt. 23:33). They were noted for their self-righteousness and their pride (Mat 9:11; Luke 7:39; Luke 18:11, 12) and were frequently rebuked by Jesus (Mat 12:39; Mat 16:1-4).
From the very beginning of Jesus' ministry, the Pharisees were jealous, bitter and persistent enemies of Jesus. They could not bear his teaching and they sought by every means to destroy his influence among the people.
In Matthew 23:23-28, Jesus addressed the incongruence between the teachings and lifestyle of the Pharisees:
What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things. Blind guides! You strain your water, so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat, but you swallow a camel! “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence!
You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too. “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.
So, the Pharisees were very good at appearing righteousness on the outside, but inwardly they were filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness. Jesus warned his listeners in his Sermon on the Mount, that “Unless their righteousness was better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, they would never enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 5:20)!"
It's important then that our righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees. It must go deeper than outward appearances, because our entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven depends on it.
Jesus' rebuke to the Pharisees is an opportunity for us to examine our own lives. Are we guilty of tithing but ignoring the more important matters of justice, mercy and faith? Do we strain over little things like our traditions while falling head over heels into worldliness? Are we busy keeping up appearances while hiding moral rot in our lives? If we can answer yes to any of these questions, then we need to see the Pharisee in each of us.
On March 24, 1989, the world witnessed one of the greatest oil spills of this century. When the Exxon Valdez dumped all its oil in Prince William Sound, Alaska, the world watched in horror. However, few people realize just how small that mess was in comparison to the environmental disaster re-created each year in the United States by “Do-it-Yourselfers”. The EPA estimates that American households improperly dump about 193 million gallons of used oil every year, or roughly the equivalent of 17 Exxon Valdez oil spills.
Unwittingly, many self-righteous Christians are quick to point out the "Valdez" sins in others but fail to see the sum total of all the "little" sins in their own lives.
The Pharisees were critical of Jesus all the time. They were always straining to point out what they thought were his "transgressions" that conflicted with their interpretation of the law, while completely ignoring their own "Valdez" sins. They had a form of religion, but they never had a relationship with God. They were only interested in being a good Jew.
But the Apostle Paul, a Jew himself, said this to those who were priding themselves on being born Jews: "For you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by God’s Spirit (Rom. 2:28-29)."
Like the Pharisees, we can know and do all the right things and even pride ourselves with the good job we are doing. But if our hearts have never been changed by God's Spirit, then we are just performers and pretenders, and we will be more of a hindrance than a help at showing someone what it means to have a relationship with Jesus.
Let me illustrate this with an excerpt from a woman who wrote the following on a Wicca website: “Like many pagans, it took me quite a while to find my spiritual path. As a young Catholic, I disagreed with the theological teachings of the Catechism. As a grown up Catholic, I chafed against the rigid rules of conduct, for me the sacred text of the Christians was a legacy of rules . . . I wanted a religion that I could believe in completely, and one that let me, as a woman, participate fully.”
Can you hear her frustration with legalism? This woman never experienced a Christianity beyond rule keeping. Someone forgot to tell her that Christianity is a relationship with Christ.
Jesus wanted a relationship with his followers. He wanted them to obey his teachings, but not out of any
perfunctory obligation. He always spoke in terms of endearment. In John 14:15, he says, "If you love Me, keep My commandments." Obeying the teachings of Jesus was something to be done out of love not duty. And, love cannot be one-sided, or the relationship will not exist for very long. This is a major reason why Jesus says in John 14:15, "If you love Me, keep My commandments." Obedience is the way we reciprocate His love toward us. It's not a burden; it's a joy. If it's a burden, then we are fast becoming a Pharisee.
Jesus described what a relationship with him should look like. "If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love. "These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full (John 15:9-12)."
It's time to ask ourselves, "Is our relationship with Jesus one of joy or one of nit-picking and rule keeping?" "Are we modelling a life that is looking more like Jesus or more like the Pharisees?" Take a close look at your life today. Let's be sure we see the Pharisee in each of us and quickly deal with any hypocrisy lurking in our own lives. People are looking for the real Jesus. Let's not disappoint them when they meet us!