Why the Pharisees Aren't Who We Think They Are

Every story needs a good villain. When we read the gospels, it is easy to cast the Pharisees in that role. After all, it seems they were always in Jesus’ grill, bucking up against his efforts to bring a much needed rebrand to religion of the day. But, exactly who were the Pharisees, and what does the Bible really tell us about Jesus’ view and relationship with them? Perhaps knowing the answers to these questions can help us have a healthier approach to the people we encounter in our lives today.

The Pharisees were a major religious sect among many in ancient Israel. During the days of Jesus, they held substantial influence over social and political affairs. Some of the beliefs and practices that set them apart actually make them quite relatable and on par with most modern Christians. Pharisees believed in the importance of living out holiness and righteousness in everyday life, and they, unlike many other religious sects, had a strong belief in the afterlife and a general resurrection.

Our tendency is to focus on the increasing conflict Jesus had with some Pharisees and scribes (who were legal scholars and not all Pharisees themselves) in the days and weeks leading up to the crucifixion. However, a careful reading of the gospels (and other books of the New Testament) shows that Jesus’ interaction with and opinion of the Pharisees was not always negative.

There is a popular passage underscoring Jesus’ view of the Pharisees found in Luke 5. Jesus had a crowd of curious followers with him, it seemed, everywhere he went — beyond the official twelve apostles we are most aware of. Some disciples of the Pharisees were among them, and they show up regularly asking questions as they tried to understand why Jesus did and said certain things. On one occasion, Jesus was dining at a party with “sinners and tax collectors” at the house of the apostle Matthew. This decision was perplexing to the Pharisees in the group following Jesus as they saw Jesus as a respected teacher who ought to distance himself from eating with less than reputable men.

Jesus answered and said to them, “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” Luke 5:31-32

In this passage, Jesus equates the Pharisees as being “well” and “righteous.” That is hardly a rebuke against their practices and beliefs. In Jesus’ estimation, the Pharisees, generally speaking, did not require his time and attention. They were already living out the commands and expectations of God. Later on in the gospels, a vocal core of Pharisees become hostile against Jesus, and Jesus lodges some sharp criticism at them. But at this stage of the story, those tensions have not yet developed.

There are other places where we see Jesus’ relationship with Pharisees that is hardly antagonistic. We find him eating at the house of a Pharisee in Luke 7:36 and again in Luke 11:37 and 14:1. Prominent Pharisees publicly spoke out on Jesus’ behalf such as Nicodemus. Gamiliel does the same for the early followers of Jesus in Acts. We see a group of Pharisees try to protect Jesus from harm in Luke 13:31. Later on in the New Testament, we see followers of Jesus who retain their association with the Pharisees (Acts 15:5), including Paul (Acts 23:6, Philippians 3:5).

As we progress through the gospels, we clearly see how a strong, influential group of Pharisees go from being curious to outright antagonistic in their relationship with Jesus. In that, we see Jesus’ criticism of their hardened hearts and lack of compassion. These men eventually conspire against Jesus to have him tried and executed on the cross, missing the fact that the very Messiah they longed for was the man they had grown to detest and fear so much. Given this, it is no wonder that we tend to see all Pharisees in the same negative light as those that sent Jesus, whom we love, to his death.

The lesson for me, and I hope for you, is to remind myself of the dangers of painting with too wide a brush when it comes to my attitude toward different groups of people. The Pharisees were not all bad people. In fact, probably most of them were men that we would find to be honorable and sincere in their pursuit of God. Yet, I have allowed the actions of some to taint my view of the whole. Do I make that same mistake with other groups in life? 

Jesus shows us time and time again how he pushes past group identity to get at the heart of individuals. I want to express that same grace, compassion and love in my own life. I hope you desire to do the same.

Flex Your Meek

Look around. It seems that, every day, there is someone (or a group of someones) flexing their muscles in order to stand up for something they believe in. Hopefully, the only muscle they flex are their vocal cords. Or course, there are a lot of finger muscles being flexed too as people let their “voices” be heard on social media. This can lead to Christ-followers to wonder: I want to stand up for what I believe in, but aren’t I supposed to be “meek”?

Perhaps the issue is that we misunderstand what the word “meek” means. When Jesus says, “The meek will inherit the earth” in Matthew 5:5, he’s not talking about weakness or timidity. After all, he used the same word to describe both himself and Moses. Neither of them were weak and timid. So what does it mean?

Meekness is the idea of strength under control. Think about a horse that has been tamed. There is incredible strength in that horse, but since he is under control, his strength can be focused on productive good instead of wild harm.

God gives us incredible strength, and he wants us to use that strength for good. What, then, does meekness look like for us? Perhaps it means we don’t join in the wild, out-of-control thrashing we see in the world. It means being reserved and focused. It means recognizing God’s power and obeying him instead of living life in our own, unbridled strength.


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In the Face of Fear

Many followers of Jesus find that the future is blanketed with fear and anxiety. We look down the road and see dark clouds and terrible battles before us. There is a never-ending pandemic. The political power in Washington continues to shift to that which is antagonistic to the church.

Yet, to quote Bear Grylls in his devotional book Soul Fuel, “When we know who are are, who we follow, and who we can trust, it breeds an incredible freedom, especially from fear.”

Now, you may be like me. You read that and say to yourself, “That’s a great sentiment, but it doesn’t feel real.” I believe that is because most of us forget that God never promises to give us the strength to avoid difficulty. He promises to give us the strength to go through difficulty. And going through difficulty doesn’t always end with a Disney happy ending. After all, for every Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, there have been millions of devoted Christ-followers who have been tortured, abused and murdered simply because of their faith in God. Yes, I know. That’s not exactly the kind of statement that makes it out of the Christian church marketing department.

But when we honestly begin to grab hold of this truth — that our identity and success is about who’s we are not what is happening to us — we can find freedom from fear, worry and anxiety. We can truly find ourselves aligned with words of the Apostle Paul in Thessalonians 5:18 when he writes, “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

I pray that you and I will find that freedom in the days and months ahead. We are not bound by which political party controls the Senate or the White House. We are not bound by the latest CDC memo about the coronavirus. We are not bound by circumstances. Because we belong to Jesus, and his promises will be true tomorrow just as they are today and have been since the dawn of time.


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Never Say Goodbye

When it comes to our attitude towards the year of our Lord two-thousand, twenty, few of us would opt to apply the sentiment of the classic Bon Jovi song “Never Say Goodbye.” We’re ready to say “good riddance” and move on to brighter, greener days.

But, perhaps, while we say goodbye to 2020, we don’t completely cut the ties. Perhaps there is something about this year-of-all-years that is worth holding onto.

The Apostle James tells us in chapter 1 of his book, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

I don’t know about you, but the idea of being “mature and compete, not lacking anything” perks my interest. If that could be me! But, for that to happen, I must let perseverance finish its work, and perseverance only comes from facing trials of many kinds.

So, I suppose, my point is: Let’s not be too quick to bury 2020 in the dark corners of our minds, stored away like that ugly Christmas serving tray we got from Aunt Betty back in 1997. Instead, as we move forward, let’s hold onto the lessons of what God has taught us about our own perseverance and maturity over the past twelve months.

What has God taught you through the trials of 2020? What is it he may be still trying to teach you? Did you respond to trials well or poorly? What can this teach you about how to anticipate your response to future trials (spoiler alert, they’ll be coming)?

Say goodbye to 2020 and hello to 2021, but when it comes to the valuable lessons God is teaching us in his lifelong process of maturing us, never say goodbye to those. Hold onto them. Cherish them. Use them.