Crossways Concepts

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Insights from the scripture as lead by the Holy Spirit

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The Faith of the Pharisees

If you ask somebody what describes a real Christian, they might say, “a 'real' Christian is going to be set apart by avoiding sin and a dedication to Scripture, prayer and church.”  This sounds quite reasonable.  If an individual is really dedicated in these areas, then this would seem to be clear evidence of a person that is sincere about their Christianity.  To dedicate one's a person's life to these activities obviously requires an exercise of faith. Doesn't it?

As we look in the Bible, we see a group that held these priorities up to the highest level.  These guys were totally focused on avoiding sin, Scripture, prayer and God's house.  They had the admiration of virtually everybody for their dedication.  These guys were considered the spiritual superstars of their day.

This group was happily going on serving with all possible enthusiasm until the day that Jesus showed up.  In the 23rd chapter of Matthew, Jesus takes off his “nice guy” gloves and tears into these guys.  He chews them out from left-to-right, then back again.  He effectively says, “You may have done all these things to try to please God, but He isn't impressed.”

The group that Jesus criticized was, of course, the Pharisees.  The Pharisees were a sect that was intent on following everything they found in the law and the prophets.  They were highly dedicated and had a strong sense of tradition.  

These guys truly believed that they were doing better than anybody else at pleasing God.  In all the world of worshipers of the God of Abraham, the Pharisees were positive that they were living the life that God wanted to see.  There was no other people that were so dedicated to the law, Scripture, prayer and the temple.  God simply had to be thrilled with them!

Among the critical comments Jesus made, He said, “You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men's bones and every impurity.” (Matthew 23:27)  This was a huge insult against them.  Of course, the Pharisees responded by getting upset because they were sure they were living life the way God intended.  They got angry, angry enough to have Jesus killed!

Jesus must have been confusing to the Pharisees.  He seems almost like a prophet, with His miracles and teachings, but His teachings were so contrary to the ways of the Pharisees.  To make matters worse, He spoke terribly about them.  If they are pleasing God and He is speaking against them, then logically they were sure Jesus was against God.  Because they were positive that they were right, then He must be wrong.

Even though Jesus was, to the Pharisees, an obvious false-teacher, people were listening to Him.  In order to protect God's people from His outrageous teachings, this guy must be silenced.  Whatever must be done can be justified, because they are fighting for God.  If Jesus must die, that is a small sacrifice for a holy cause.

So how did the Pharisees get so far off track?  What can we learn from them?

The whole Bible come from the mouth of God.  Everything that is in there, has a purpose.  I believe that the many stories of the Pharisees are in the Bible for a reason, a Kingdom reason.  Yet there is very little teaching taken from all those many stories.  That is largely because this discussion can get very uncomfortable.

We like hanging onto the idea that the Pharisees were just power-hungry people that had gotten themselves into a position of leadership and were willing to do anything to make sure they stayed in power.  We like the idea that their's was a simple surrender to a base human desire – we can relate to that and it doesn't make us uncomfortable at all.

However, the idea that they had their whole lives dedicated to a lie and never had a clue, that is more than a little bit scary because of where that line of logic can go.  If they dedicated their life to serving God the best way they knew how and never had a clue that their lives might not be pleasing to God, they what assurance do we have that our efforts are any more pleasing to God?

Doesn't Jesus describe how there are going to people getting totally shocked by their fate when they attempt to enter Heaven?  He says:

Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of My Father in heaven. On that day many will say to Me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in Your name, drive out demons in Your name, and do many miracles in Your name?’ Then I will announce to them, ‘I never knew you! Depart from Me, you lawbreakers!’ (Matthew 7:21-23)

Nobody wants to hear those words, that would be totally heart-breaking.  Yet Jesus says it is going to happen – there will be people that will approach the throne positive of their salvation, but be 100% wrong.  For them, it will be exactly like the Pharisees.  Even though they might believe that they have done everything necessary to enter Heaven, they will be wrong.

This is a really scary thought, no doubt about it.  So how can we be really certain about our salvation?

To find that answer, we need to look closely at the information that God provided us about the Pharisees and how they fell into their deception.

First, the Pharisees were focused on “doing” stuff to please God.  Scripture says, “For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift— not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:8-10)  Our salvation is a function of faith, our actions are only a response to our faith in God – an act of obedience to the God that we have made ruler over our lives.  To think that our actions are the key to our pleasing God is like believing that if we just keep driving we won't need to ever buy gasoline.  Just as the gasoline is the essential first step to driving, faith is the essential first step to pleasing God.

Paul said, “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6).  We can do all the most wonderful actions in the world, but if we don't have faith, then God will never be impressed.  If we have real faith, then works will flow out of that faith.  Attempting to please God by doing works without real faith is counterfeit religion.

From a human standpoint, this is crazy sounding.  We can't help but look around and compare ourselves to others, we do it all the time.  The flip side of this is that we know that people are looking at us and comparing themselves to us.  Because we are prideful creatures, we want to look good when people look at us.  If we call ourselves a Christian, then we want to be sure that when people look at us that they see us acting very Christian.  From the human standpoint, “seeing is believing”, so our visible religion has got to be the most important thing.

This is the very trap that the Pharisees fell into.  Jesus talked about their fasting and their prayers being more for show than for God.  They got into that trap by trying to look righteous to the people around them.  After trying to look good for a while, their visible actions gradually became more and more important until they became the most important thing.

Consider the story of Martha and Mary from Luke 10,  Martha was focused on “doing”.  She said, “Lord don't you care that my sister has left me to serve alone?” (Luke 10:40)  For Martha, her service was the most important thing.  Her sister was following a track that was much closer to “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10, NIV)  Even though Martha was serving to the best of her ability, Christ was not pleased with her choice.

We may not stand on street-corners praying, like the Pharisees did, but we have our share of things we do because that is what Christians do.  We must always remember that our “doing” is not the way to God's heart.  The “doing” is supposed to be simply a side-effect of our faith.

Another shortcoming of the Pharisees was that they were too concerned with what people thought about them.  Jesus often criticized them for publicly fasting, enlarging their phylacteries and extending their tassels, all actions that are designed to make them appear more religious.  There were actions that were designed to impress people, but were worthless to God.

As humans we are all subject to the same temptation.  We can't help but be a bit concerned if people criticize us or think we are weird.  Jesus tells us that we should be more concerned about what God thinks, than what people think.  Furthermore, He tells us that WE WILL be persecuted.   When we lead a life that “fits in” with our culture, then the persecution that Christ predicted will never happen.  This isn't what Jesus intended for us.

If our view of the world has God as the most important thing, then that will trump any desire to please people.  On the other hand, if our faith doesn't put God on his proper throne, then these human desires will direct our actions.

It is generally a huge challenge to be obedient to the Lord when that potentially puts us in the path of ridicule or criticism.  While we can choose a path that avoids all uncomfortable social situations, it is likely not the path of obedience.  Many of the real heroes of the Bible wound up as martyrs, they didn't get there by fitting in and avoiding controversy. 

The next thing the Pharisees did wrong was to put too much stock into their traditions. Having faith and worshiping an invisible God is tough.  How we are supposed to approach build a relationship with the King of the Universe is not obvious.  So, we rely on the examples of those who have walked this road before us.  We build our religion on the shoulders of earlier Christians.  Following these traditions are good, but it can be a problem, too, because all humans are all imperfect.  We can learn things that shouldn't be passed on, right along with the good things.

Our wonderful God understands this, so He provides each us with the capacity to know what is right and true.  The Scripture says that the Holy Spirit, that dwells inside each of us, that “He will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13).  The Holy Spirit can direct us in what is true and away from what is false, but only if we listen to Him.  We will only listen to Him if our faith sets that quiet voice as more credible that the things we see with our eyes. 

The Pharisees believed that the traditions of their group were more credible than any voice that may have been whispering inside their heart.  As a result, their traditions became more and more corrupted with each passing generation.  While I suspect a few individuals became convicted and left the Pharisees, for the most part people went right on believing their eyes instead of their hearts.

It is always easier and generally more comfortable to just follow the example of others instead of seeking out what God wants in your life.  If a person's faith doesn't include Jesus being Lord over their life, they may choose to make tradition be their Lord by allowing it to dictate what they are to do.

However, of all the things the Pharisees did wrong, it all boils down to a short-coming of real faith.  Just what sort of God did they believe in?  What role did their faith allow Him to play in their life?

Faith is a funny thing, although it comes from God and it is God's will that we have faith, He allows us to turn him down.  In my own life, there have been many periods in which I became distracted by sin, busyness or business and allowed my faith to drain out.  Thank the Lord, He has always allowed a remnant of faith to remain in me, so I can find my way back to Him.

As we look at the lives of the Pharisees, we see that they did not really believe in the sovereignty of God over their lives.  They did not live as if God was in charge of they hearts, minds and actions.  If they had truly believed that God was in charge of everything they did, then they would remain open to His leading in all things.  If their faith included Him being king over their lives, then they would have known which traditions to trash and which to keep.  If the had seen God as Lord and Master, then they would have performed actions, not to impress people, but at His leading, with His power and for His kingdom.

Real faith isn't a matter of saying and doing the right things.  Real faith requires that we put God on His throne and us at His feet.  Real faith requires that we entrust Him with every aspect of our lives, not holding anything back.  In a real faith relationship, He must be our Master and we must be His faithful volunteer slave; we must care about pleasing Him more than anything else.

Although the Pharisees had faith, they lacked real faith.  I believe they were good men that really believed they were doing their best to please God, but through their flawed faith, they were on a collision course with the Almighty God.  Their battle to maintain real faith in a world that provides continuous distractions, is exactly what we face.  We are bombarded with opinions about what a good person should do, what a Christian should do and even what a church should do.  Following all these ideas is the easy course, because it doesn't require faith in God.

The only way that we, as individuals, can please God is to seek Him, allowing Him to build faith through that association.  Chase hard after Him, humbly laying yourselves at His feet and giving your life over to Him.  This isn't a once-in-a-lifetime event, this needs to be a daily or even hourly process.  Let Him fill you with faith.  Let Him lead your life with His word, guiding you through His written word and speaking to your heart.  Let Him be God.  Let Him be Lord over every aspect of your life. 

Through this process you will grow immune to the traps that the Pharisees fell into.  Through this process you will grow into the person that is pleasing to God.

©2010-2014, Crossways Concepts
Lexington, Ky

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