The Prophet to the Pharisees

Let me preface these remarks by stating, for the record, that I in no way claim to be an expert in
Jewish Studies, Talmud, Etc.

Consider this: for their entire history as a distinct religious, ethnic group the Jews had depended on God to send a prophet, who would help guide them, turn them back to the Law, guard against false interpretations of scripture, and act as a go between them and God, since their inception as a nation. The problem is the Jews stopped believing the prophets or hearkening to their message, so God stopped sending prophets. Between Malachi and Jesus, there are no prophets. Only silence. 400 years of it. Absolutely nothing was revealed, which would ultimately be considered canonical scripture for neither Jews nor Christians.

God said, “I’ve talked til I’m blue in the face, and you have stopped up your ears. So, I’m done.”

But, God wasn’t really done. He was acting behind the world scene, moving peoples, raising up empires, inspiring the pagan philosophers to seek after and love truth. He was also preserving a line of blood, with royal lineage, which could be traced back to King David and Abraham. This line, this royal line, was God anointed and appointed to hold the scepter of Judah for all time. It wasn’t only a royal line, but also a prophetic one.

However, the Jews had been used to getting new revelation from prophets, and since God stopped sending prophets, nothing new was forthcoming. So, they were left with somewhat of a vacuum to fill.  Obviously this would lead them to lean heavily on Torah, the Prophets, and the Wisdom Literature, right? You know, God’s divinely inspired revelation to them. Well… not quite. What it did lead them to do was develop an authoritative Oral Tradition ( which was designed to interpret the Torah and provide insights as to how to apply the Law. I think God’s silence explains the rise of the sect of the Pharisees.

Some will argue, rightly, that Mishnah and Talmud traditions predate the 400 years of divine silence. That is a point of history, which cannot be denied. Rabbis had been codifying their interpretations of the Hebrew scriptures in an Oral Tradition for many centuries prior to it’s written form, which was compiled around 200BC. Is it any coincidence that the rise of the sect of the Pharisees occurs immediately subsequent to the Oral Law’s conversion into written form (text)? Consider this additional fact of history, a great many revered rabbis had been killed in the “Great Revolt” and the “Bar-Kokhbah Rebellion”. Could this have contributed to the Pharisees taking so much political and religious power? The destruction of the Jewish way of life via with the decimation of its political and religious leadership undoubtedly left a power vacuum, which was eventually filled by the scribes and the pharisees, and, to a lesser degree, the Herodians and Sadducees.

According to, “The Oral Law is a legal commentary on the Torah, explaining how its commandments are to be carried out. Common sense suggests that some sort of oral tradition was always needed to accompany the Written Law, because the Torah alone, even with its 613 commandments, is an insufficient guide to Jewish life. For example, the fourth of the Ten Commandments, ordains, “Remember the Sabbath day to make it holy” (Exodus 20:8). From the Sabbath’s inclusion in the Ten Commandments, it is clear that the Torah regards it as an important holiday. Yet when one looks for the specific biblical laws regulating how to observe the day, one finds only injunctions against lighting a fire, going away from one’s dwelling, cutting down a tree, plowing and harvesting. Would merely refraining from these few activities fulfill the biblical command to make the Sabbath holy? Indeed, the Sabbath rituals that are most commonly associated with holiness-lighting of candles, reciting the kiddush, and the reading of the weekly Torah portion are found not in the Torah, but in the Oral Law.”

The Pharisees of Jesus day adhered to this religious, rabbinic Oral Tradition.  It had equal authority in their eyes, as written scripture (Torah, the Prophets, and Wisdom Books).  In effect, the Oral Tradition could render moot an explicit command from scripture, as in the example above regarding lighting candles.  The next time you read through any gospel, but most especially Mark’s, try to read it with eyes that see that almost everything Jesus did revolved around disrupting the Jewish Rabbinic Oral Tradition. He was more than mildly annoyed at the religion of the Pharisees. It isn’t incidental that there are so many conflicts between Him and them. It is no mistake that Jesus was born in the time of Herod, when temple worship was corrupted, co-opted and ritualized.

Jesus called the Pharisees to the mat at every opportunity. He derides them, sneers at them, and makes a public mockery of them, even calling them a “Brood of Vipers” and “Den of thieves”.  (In today’s terms, this would be like using the most derogatory racial epithet you can think of.) He is constantly pointing out their blatant hypocrisy.  They accuse him of blaspheming against the Law. But, He says that He came to establish the law, and this is why most of His energy is spent trying to tear down the rabbinic oral tradition (which was not Law). This is what N.T. Wright says got him killed.

If the Pharisees rejected Him, like a stone which builders would not use in their masonry, it is only because He first rejected. He is a stumbling block to many, and a stone of offense.


Let’s do a quick run down, and then I’ll give some juicy examples of Jesus putting the smack down on some reprobate pharisees.

  • The Pharisees had departed from God’s written word (sola Scriptura) and elevated their oral rabbinic tradition to the position of co-equal authority with it.  This violated Moses injunction, in Deuteronomy 4:2, not to add or subtract to his commands. Maybe this is why Jesus plainly chastises certain scribes and Pharisees saying, “If you had believed Moses, then you would believe on me.”
  • The Oral tradition is not God’s Word, and cannot hope to change hearts.  All it can do is justify religious stuffiness, while keep the uninitiated alienated from God.  Jesus paid a special attention to the people who had the least amount of access to the holiness religion had to offer: prostitutes, drunks, tax collectors, children, cripples, adulterers, the leprous, etc.  He gave his holiness to those who could not afford their own, and to them of whom no privilege of birth or wealth had garnered such access.
  • Jesus is concerned with destroying the religion of Pharisees, not only because it was a disease to their own souls, but also because they held power and influence over God’s people.  Their religion is a closed circle, of rites and rehearsed prayers, doomed to decadence and decay.  But a life lead by the Holy Spirit is fresh and vibrant, and it will always lead to life
  • Jesus does not hesitate to point out that by their traditions the Pharisees make God’s word moot. They add to and subtract from God’s Law.
  • N.T. Wright says it was this kind of establishment defying blasphemy that got Jesus killed, not preaching about love and Heaven.  “As long as the multitudes misunderstood Jesus they followed him, but as soon as they really understood what he was saying they abandoned him.

Here are some examples of when Jesus’ gospel came up against the Pharisee’s traditions, in no particular order.
1. Don’t heal on the Sabbath: (Luke 6) A man comes to Jesus with a withered hand. The Pharisees watch to see if he will heal the man. It is the Sabbath, so the assumption is that if Jesus heals then he is breaking the Sabbath traditions. Jesus tells the man to reach out his hand. The man complies and is instantly made whole. Jesus declares that he is the Lord of the Sabbath, and therefore is in the ultimate position to interpret Sabbath observance. He asks them, is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath? This is an example of how Pharisees plotted to kill Jesus for one of his good deeds. (One might call to memory that Jesus eventually asks them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?”)

2. David eats the show bread: (Also Luke 6) Jesus asks the Pharisees to recall a time from antiquity, when David and his men broke temple custom. The soldiers and David entered a forbidden area of teh temple, took and ate show bread (which was reserved only for priests). Technically they profaned God’s holy place, yet, God did not strike them down. This simple reminder is Jesus’ way of trying to shake the Pharisees out of their settled interpretations and traditions. He asks them a simple question, as if to further divide them from their spiritual assumptions. Don’t you remember the exception God, in his gracious provision, made for hungry David? He needed rest from his toils and release from his starving stomach. Should someone be so slavishly devoted to keeping Sabbath, that it ceases to be a day of rest? It is hard work after all, going through the motions which the Pharisees taught. The Pharisees dreamed up complex systems of ritual, which had to be painstakingly practiced, and the end result was robbing the Sabbath of resting in God’s finished work.

3. The Son of Man is Lord also of the Sabbath: (Matthew 12) In a parallel account of the one found above in Luke, Jesus here adds the extra explanation that priest work the temple even on Sabbath. Obviously the priests can’t keep the Sabbath and do their priestly duties at the same time, unless they were acting under a special provision of God. Which of course they were. Pharisees had to instantly recognize that servants of God, serving God in the proscribed ways, couldn’t be found guilty of violating Sabbath. Jesus is basically equivocating himself to a priest offering godly service, so it is impossible for him to be breaking Sabbath. Regardless of what Pharisee tradition may teach about Sabbath observance, Jesus is exempt. Furthermore, he declares himself to be the Lord of the Sabbath. In Jesus, not in religious devotion or ritual, can one have true rest from sin and peace with God. Jesus will refresh you with his Holy Spirit, which is like a well of living water.

4. Honor your Ma/Pa vs. Corban! (Matthew 15) This may be the most striking and overt depiction of Jesus’ wroth over what he calls the “your traditions”. In other words they are the traditions of pharisees, not the law of God. In verse 3, Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’a and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’b But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites!…” There is some historical context here that has to be know, in order to know exactly why Jesus was calling them hypocrites. The law of God says honor your father and mother. It is even one of the 10 Commandments. As a parent aged and became infirm, it might cost a considerable amount to “honor them” with nurses, food, and housing. So, smart sneaky Pharisees would devote their fortunes to God, in order to avoid spending any of their money on doing good for their parents. The tradition they kept (i.e devoting their fortunes to God) actually prevented them from doing the command of God (i.e. using their goods to honor their parents or do other good deeds). It is the height of hypocrisy when you use God’s word to justify disobeying God’s will. (*I’d like to take a moment and cite Andy Stanley for the above information, especially his sermon “Loopholes”. I borrowed from him wholesale. I just want to be intellectually honest and forth coming about the citation.)

5. Why don’t your disciples fast? (Matthew 9) This record is actually an interaction with the Disciples of John the Baptist, but Mark 2 seems to indicate that Pharisees were also involved. This is a little peculiar in that Jesus is not addressing Pharisees directly, but is still using them as a teaching tool. He did this often, while alone with his followers, but this account is unique in that he is addressing the public about the differences in his followers, John’s Disciples and the Pharisees. The point he is making is that Pharisees don’t have the joy of God, present and attendant in their lives, so it is fitting that they fast. Jesus’ disciples are in the very presence of Joy, so how can they do what is mournful. Jesus’ disciples know that there is a time for fasting/mourning and a time for feasting/celebrating. Jesus himself will direct them as to which one to do. He knows what is appropriate, and he defines the seasons of joy or sadness. A brief discussion of wine skins serves to illustrate that the old traditions and covenant will not live up to the new outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which God has elected. So, a lot of old wine skins will invariably burst, in their vain attempts to contain the new things God is doing. Likewise, the old festivals, traditions, and spiritual observances cannot be expected to continue on as they always have, in light of the Jesus movement across the earth. Certain things will fall by the wayside, as God clears the avenue for new expressions of His goodness and mercy. Why shouldn’t it be so?

6. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs…”  They were more concerned with appearances, than with the condition of their hearts.  Jesus proclaims that the Jews love the preeminent place in synagogue and love to be seen praying in public.  Their spirituality is meant to be seen.  It is pomp, circumstance, and ritual, designed to elicit the praises of others, rather than bring joy to God’s heart.  Any act of spirituality which is not for the express good of others, or the to bring joy to God, is not a legitimate function of the Jesus method for discipleship.   In fact, their hearts were so far removed from the intention of pleasing God, that they became nurseries for hate.  Their hearts nourished the murder of God’s messengers.  That is wild rebellion.

7. “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees”  Probably the “leaven of the Pharisees” is self righteousness.  The reason why they could not accept Jesus’ teaching, is because they put their trust in themselves in stead of in God’s saving power.  The scene in Mark occurs immediately after Jesus feeds the 4,000 followers.  The Pharisees provoke him to show them a sign, and yet he just accomplished a tremendous miracle.  We may be tempted to call them simpering fools, or nonspiritual religionists, but then we remember that even his own disciples did not understand what he had done.  The Pharisees would only accept “according to Hoyle” miracles, which came in the prepackaged ways they imagined and expected.  In Matthew 5:20  He warns his disciples that , “unless your righteousness be more than the Pharisees” you cannot see the kingdom of God.  This was a frightening and challenging charge.  His disciples were startled, and began to wonder if anyone would be able to make it into Heaven.  Their lack of righteousness came from lack of belief.  Just like the rich, young ruler who was unwilling to obey Jesus and follow, because of what it would cost him personally.  The Pharisees refused to pay the Lord his due.  They looked to their traditions for a righteousness apart from God’s provision in Jesus Christ.
For the record, Jesus states with explicit language, that he did not come to abolish the law or prophets, but to establish it.  He does not equivocate.  He does not leave room for misunderstanding.  He simply proclaims, freely and for all to hear, his purpose, mission statement, and way of life.  Which is, to complete and perfect the word of God, bringing into harmony the religious, moral, and civil mandates of Torah with the love, mercy, and spirit filled life of Grace. 

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