Personally, I have always found it intriguing that Jesus saved his most harsh criticism for the Pharisees — the Jewish religious leaders of the day. Of course, we aren’t ignoring the Sadducees and “teachers of the law,” but for sake of brevity, we can more or less lump them all together. Jesus certainly seemed to, as he invariably scolded them all as a group.
In today’s vernacular, the Pharisees were the legalists of their time. They believed in following legal traditions — not just those in Scripture, mind you, but some 613 laws and “traditions of the fathers” believed to be required in order to remain holy, and a Jew, before God.
More than this though, Jesus accused them, often, of being hypocrites who placed heavy burdens on people but failed to meet their own standards.
One might have thought that Jesus was pointing holy fingers of guilt at the sinners of the time. There was certainly no shortage of tax collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners. Instead, Jesus was accused of hanging out with them, eating with them, and caring for them. Imagine the shock of it!
This certainly begs the question — are there Pharisees active in the Church today? Are there those who make every effort to get others to “toe the theological line?”
Do we see hypocritical Christians who seem willing to point out the speck in the eyes of others, all the while ignoring the plank in their own? (Matthew 7:3-5).
Without any doubt, Matthew 23 represents a rather scathing condemnation of the Pharisees. He holds nothing back. His indictment started with attacking their hypocrisy and their affection for showing off and soaking in praise and adulation. And then he gets really tough.
What follows is known as the “Seven Woes” on the teachers of the law and the Pharisees. He proceeds to label them as children of hell, blind guides, blind fools, lovers of gold who are full of greed and self-indulgence.
Whitewashed tombs who look beautiful on the outside, but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean, having the appearance of righteousness, but full of hypocrisy and wickedness on the inside, and then told them all they were murderers and snakes.
Yet, for those labeled sinners, Jesus showed love and care. His harshest words were “go and sin no more.”
But have we learned any lessons from these words? Or are we doomed to repeat the very same mistakes that Jesus so clearly and harshly condemned? Do we have rule-makers who try to point fingers of guilt at others?
Who demands that everyone follow the very same rules and more that got us into trouble before Christ? Does Christianity suffer from accusations and actual examples of hypocrisy?
I think we all know the answer to those questions. Indeed — yes. Paul’s admonition to the Jews in Rome applies to many who call themselves by Christ’s name today.
Not Much Has Changed
It strikes me that not much has changed. Today, among non-believers, the two predominant negative perceptions of our faith seem to be that there are too many rules to follow, and Christians are nothing but hypocrites. Sadly, to a very great extent, they are not wrong.
As I considered this article, I thought back to the church in which I was raised. The rules were numerous and rather overwhelming. You must do this to go to heaven! You can’t do that!
That particular denomination gave equal credibility to the teachings of the Bible and their own traditions, determined by men some hundreds of years after Christ.
As a teenager, I could easily see that far too many were doing nothing more than following the rules of that church, assuming it was enough to absolve their sins and get them into eternity. But their hearts and lives were all too obviously, very far from Christ.
My father was one of those — a man who went to church every Sunday “religiously,” and who knew all the rules, but who lived his life ignorant of the teachings of Christ. As a Marine Colonel, he loved setting out the rules for me, with “heck to pay” if I offended those rules in any way.
Yet, he never taught me anything about loving and caring for others. In other words, what Jesus saw in the Pharisees, I saw in my father. I’m quite certain I am not alone in that experience. As I matured in my faith and knowledge of Scripture, this all reminded me of Paul’s words in Colossians 2:21-22,
Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” These rules…are based merely on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
Sadly, we have all experienced others who tell us that once we give our lives to Christ, then it’s even more important to follow all the laws — all of the dos and the don’ts. We see discussions of “is it a sin to do this…or to do that?”
We see those who walk in the name of Christ pointing fingers at other people, other groups, and other religions, telling them how sinful they are and how they are going to hell. We even see so-called Christians protesting at military funerals and other groups with whom they disagree.
Mind please, I am not at all saying we should not stand up for our faith, for what we believe, but it should not be brandished as a weapon of mass destruction.
I must ask — is this how Jesus lived his life? Is it how he taught us we should live ours?
Indeed, if we could not achieve salvation by keeping a set of laws, what in the world makes us think we can keep it that way?
In His Image
One thing we do know is that Christ Jesus never sinned, but to leave it at that statement is far too simplistic. Jesus was not following a set of rules, he was living who he was and is. He embodied the Father.
Jesus treated people — who were all sinners and, at that time, enemies of the living God — with love. compassion, and care. He didn’t need rules and rites and rituals — he was the living image of God Almighty, and it was on display in everything he did. Simply, it is who he is.
We, humans, are created in God’s image. We were created to carry that image through our lives, having “put to death…whatever belongs” (Colossians 3:5) to our “earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed…” Now we are to rid ourselves “…of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from” our lips (Colossians 3:8).
Why? In verses 9 and 10, Paul explains “…since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in the knowledge in the image of its Creator.”
It bears repeating. We have put on the new self, which is being renewed in the image of its Creator. In His image.
Our New Self
Once we have taken Christ into our hearts, and we abide in him, his Spirit lives within us to walk and to grow — in that image. The fruit of that Spirit? Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
Paul and the other New Testament writers were not giving us a new set of rules to live by. Christ did away with all that — he rendered the Law obsolete (Hebrews 8:13). Obsolete, meaning no longer necessary.
It once was valid, but no longer. No, we were, are, being taught what it looks like to live as an image-bearer of Christ Jesus and the Father. Jesus was showing us to not imitate the Pharisees but to imitate Him.
Freedom in Christ, as Paul taught, means we are free of the shackles of the law of death, but we are now held to a higher standard as disciples of Christ Jesus. If we truly love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind and with all our strength — then we will love our neighbors as ourselves. And there is indeed no greater commandment than these (Mark 12:30-32).
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Greg Grandchamp is the author of "In Pursuit of Truth, A Journey Begins" — an easy-to-read search that answers to most common questions about Jesus Christ. Was he real? Who did he claim to be? What did he teach? Greg is an everyday guy on the same journey as everyone else — in pursuit of truth. You can reach Greg by email [email protected] and on Facebook.