The Making of a Pharisee

Once while having a conversation with a perspective new church member about the gospel and what it means to be a Christian in general and a Methodist Christian in particular, the person shared with me her understanding of what Christianity was all about. She had been in an out of different churches of different denominations off and on her whole life. She had been out of church for a while before the Lord led her to mine, as she stated it. She wanted to recommit her life and join our church. She summarized her understanding of Christianity and the Bible this way: God realized that he had been wrong and had made a mistake by giving the law so He sent Jesus to straighten it all out by showing us that life is really all about love. In other words, “all you need is love; love is all you need.” That may be the gospel of the Beatles, but that’s not the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately her misunderstanding of the gospel is not all that uncommon. In reality it really wasn’t all her fault because over the years in different denominations this was the synthesized succinct summary of what she had been taught. That is that the law was a bad idea that Jesus came to correct. Countless are the times I have heard ministers, Methodist and otherwise, espouse similar sentiments in one form or another, by pitting love against the law. I’ve had church members who believed that because Jesus came “to fulfill the law” and was “the end of the law” (Romans 10:4) that we should not pay any attention to the Old Testament contra 2 Timothy 3:16-17. The understanding I myself had at one time and one that I’ve heard expressed by many others is that we today under grace have it so much better than those who were under the law because we don’t have to be concerned about keeping the law. Some are even leery of the Ten Commandments. I was once cornered by someone who very suspiciously asked, “where does it say in the New Testament that we should keep the Ten Commandments?” And some ministers in my own denomination accuse me and those like me who talk about the importance of keeping the commandments with regards to sexual holiness of being legalists and even call us Pharisees.

Now of course I don’t believe or teach that one must obey the commandments perfectly to be saved. What I do believe and teach is that people must be saved by accepting Christ as Lord and Savior through faith so they can be forgiven for the ways they have broken God’s law and empowered by God’s Spirit to begin to live a life of ever increasing obedience to God’s law from a renewed heart. This, by the way, was the promise of the New Covenant, which I have written about before (See HERE) (also Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:26-27). Yet the fact that I teach we shouldn’t neglect and certainly never reject the commandments, especially those pesky unpopular ones, brings charges of legalism and Phariseeism.

The truth is Jesus never indicated that he had come to nullify the law with love, rather he came to activate the law by love. It wasn’t the law and law-keeping itself that he had problems with. Rather it was misinterpretations, superstitious misapplications, and man-made traditions that were set up as unnecessary additions and even substitutions that he had a problem with.

When the Pharisees criticized his disciples for not keeping the tradition of the elders he tissot-the-pharisees-question-jesusresponded, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:3 ESV). He goes on to reveal how they had developed a tradition that allowed them to give pretense to keeping the commandment to honor father and mother with financial support in old age  while in reality they were not keeping it at all. The way it is put in Mark, Jesus said, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!” (7:9), “thus making void the word of God by your tradition” (v. 13). So, again, it wasn’t the commandments of Scripture, which he clearly believed to be the word of God, that Jesus had a problem with; it was the traditions and commandments of men that allowed people to honor God with their lips but not in their hearts (see Isaiah 29:13; also see context of Matthew 15 and Mark 7).

Wrongheaded interpretations had led to competing traditions that actually kept people from seeing the truth of Scripture, and thus unable to recognize the one right in front of them who was fulfilling Scripture right before their eyes. Indeed he was the embodiment in the flesh of the spirit and essence of what it was all about.

The same is true today. People are leaving, breaking, and even rejecting the commandments of God for human traditions that have been exalted above God’s word. These traditions have a way of inoculating people in a bad way against what is actually the cure for the curse, the gospel of Jesus Christ. These traditions protect the virus of sin, while rejecting the antibody of the blood of Jesus Christ and the healing balm of the Holy Spirit. Now, regarding the state of Christianity in America today, Dr. Timothy Tennent said:

“it is way too simplistic to reduce the church’s current problems to a ‘progressive’ vs. ‘conservative’ struggle. That struggle is there and shouldn’t be ignored, but that is not the point of this article. My point is that all Christian movements in the West have struggled with the transition to post-Christendom. We have reacted in different ways: The mainline churches have said, ‘let’s accommodate the church’s doctrine to the latest cultural social demands and maybe they will like us again.’ The evangelicals have said, ‘Let’s preach part of the gospel, downplay the negative, costly side, and keep our services lively and entertaining, without a lot of demands.’ But neither ‘solution’ is sustainable. We need robust Christian identity, transformed lives, a kingdom vision for society, all linked with a deep commitment to catechesis. The ‘bar’ must be raised, not lowered.”  (

Mainline and evangelical denominations have both developed traditions in different ways in an attempt to make Christianity more appealing to the world and the worldly. In the Mainline denominations a social gospel/social justice tradition of “doing good” generically without regard to the particularities of the gospel as laid out in Scripture became the main thing at the expense of the Main One. It is in this stream of tradition that one might find resistance to the notion that people need to be saved from sin personally or to place faith in God the Father through Christ particularly. In some evangelical streams of tradition one might find resistance to the notion that people’s lives should be personally transformed as forgiveness through an easy decision is emphasized at the expense of new birth and becoming a new creation in Christ who lives differently. Any mention of the importance and significance of good works might be met with strong objections that emphasize salvation by grace without regard for the fact that we are saved BY grace, THROUGH faith, FOR good works (Ephesians 2:8-10).

In both traditions above love may be pitted against law in some way, even though Jesus indicated that as lawlessness increases love will decrease (Matthew 24:12). Still there are other traditions that have turned the gospel into the most effective way to be able to live the “good life” in terms of material prosperity and blessing. In this case the emphasis is on the very things that Jesus himself said don’t worry about, what you’re going to eat and what you’re going to drink and what you’re going to wear, and laying up for oneself treasure on earth (Matthew 6:19-34).

In Mainline circles and, more and more, even in evangelical circles a tradition of interpretation has developed to allow some to feel that they can reimagine the longstanding teaching of the church regarding sexual ethics. Some still insist that Scripture never really meant what the Church had claimed that it meant with regards to homosexuality. More and more others are admitting that we really have NOT just misunderstood Scripture, but that they are in fact simply rejecting the commands of Scripture as antiquated and wrong. William Loader who has written over 4,000 pages on ancient Jewish and Christian beliefs about sex admits that the Bible does not condone any sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage. Loader simply believes the Bible, including Jesus as recorded therein, was just wrong. He believes contraception makes sex outside of marriage acceptable in the modern world. Apparently, lost on him is that contraception must be used consistently by fallible and oft sexually irrational human-beings (see Loader’s small book that summarizes much of his work, “Making Sense of Sex”). As I have also shown before, Luke Timothy Johnson, a Bible Scholar at Emory University, also admits that the Bible is clear with regards to homosexual behavior of any kind being against the commands of Scripture. Yet somehow he believes that he and others can “reject the straightforward commands of Scripture” “in the name of the gospel” (his words) rather than in spite of it. In reality this can only be a tradition acting as a substitute for the gospel.

Again, Jesus said:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:17-21 ESV

Here Jesus echoes something that the law itself says in Deuteronomy 4, which is repeated in chapter 12, “You shall not add to the word that I command you, not take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you” (Deuteronomy 4:2). This truth is also echoed in the dire warning at the end of the book of Revelation, which says:

“I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.” Revelation 22:18-19

Without the whole thing we just won’t have the real thing. Don’t settle for any cheap imitation or any saccharine substitute. Competing traditions only make the word of God void in your life.

Jesus did not come to abolish, but to fulfill the law. Nevertheless in an attempt to justify another tradition someone once said, but that was only until Jesus died on the cross, then the law was abolished. NO! That is NOT what Jesus said. He did not say not one jot or tittle would pass away until he died on the cross, he said until heaven and earth pass away!

So I know this brings up a lot of questions, especially when it comes to the commandments that we obviously no longer keep literally, like circumcision and the dietary restrictions, and the sacrifices. And I know that there are some things that the apostle Paul said that are hard to understand that some will “twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15-18). Nonetheless, there are answers to these questions. The short answer is the spirit of all of the law is kept through faith in Christ even though not all of the letter of the law is. In other words, for example, the spirit of the sacrificial laws are kept through faith in the atoning sacrifice of Christ who was the fulfillment of all those laws. The spirit of circumcision is kept when we are set apart as a special people by the circumcision of our hearts by the Spirit through faith in Christ. The symbolic laws, what the Church has described as ceremonial laws, are kept in spirit through faith in Christ. With the moral laws you cannot keep their spirit without keeping the letter (i.e. you can’t keep the law against murder without actually refraining from murdering or as Jesus said even harboring anger in your heart, which goes deeper than the letter), but with the ceremonial and more symbolic laws the spirit of them can be kept in Christ even though the letter of them is not. You see this in Paul’s argument in Romans 2:25-29 with regards to circumcision. It also seems to be what Paul is getting at when he says paradoxically that “neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God” (1 Corinthians 7:19), even though circumcision was a commandment of God.

Nevertheless, I know there will be many questions that still arise with these things that are indeed hard to understand. These things can only be understood in the context of the story of the Bible as a whole. The bottom line is this, Jesus did not come to replace the law with love, he came to activate the law by love, by his loving sacrifice and by the outpouring of the Spirit who pours God’s love into our hearts (Romans 5:5). And “this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments” (1 John 5:3).

Neither did Jesus give us the two great commandments to love God and neighbor as a substitute for the rest of the moral law, which is summed up in the Ten Commandments; Love is the fulfilling of the rest of the law. For it is on the two great commandments that the law and the prophets hang, not are hung up and put out of commission.

Pharisees, such as the ones who confronted Jesus, are not those who take the commandments of God too seriously, but those who don’t take them seriously enough. A Pharisee in this sense would be one who replaces God’s law with their own traditions. There are many ways to do that, and there is nothing new under the sun. Today there are many man-made traditions masquerading as “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). People still “have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God” in favor of their own tradition (Mark 7:9) through addition, subtraction, or substitution. Do not be deceived. If you don’t have the whole thing, you won’t have the real thing. And there is nothing better than the real thing.

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