Religion Gone Bad

Jesus was not popular with everybody. He had followers and admirers, but he upset a lot of people and made enemies. Who do you think were his fiercest enemies?

  • As a poor travelling preacher, Jesus would inevitably have had encounters with the very worst of society, such as thugs in the cities and bandits in the open country. But we don’t read of these encounters.
  • There were the Romans – the harsh military overlords whose laws and taxes were a heavy burden for Jesus and his people the Jews. As far as we know, Jesus never said a word against them.
  • Then there was Herod, the depraved puppet king of Galilee who murdered John the Baptist. Jesus seems to have taken no particular interest in him.
  • There were the chief priests in Jerusalem – a corrupt, self-serving elite who ran the temple for their own profit and ruthlessly exploited the common people. Jesus did rebuke them in no uncertain terms on a number of occasions.
  • But there was a particular group of people who seem to have been Jesus’ main opponents throughout his ministry. They were constantly harrying and provoking him, and it’s clear from the ferocity of some of his rebukes that he saw them as his most dangerous detractors. These people were the scribes and Pharisees.

Good, upright people!

Who were the scribes and Pharisees, and what was it that made them such relentless enemies of the Lord?

  • ‘Scribe’ is the English translation of a Greek word that means ‘student of the scriptures’. (The ‘scriptures’ they studied were what we know as the Old Testament of the Bible.) The scribes’ occupation was writing copies of the scriptures, and teaching people what they said. Scribes were studious men who were widely respected for their knowledge, and they were often addressed as ‘teacher’. They often served as judges in legal cases, and were also known as ‘lawyers’.
  • ‘Pharisee’ means ‘separated one’ – the Pharisees were a group who grew out of the patriots of a Jewish independence movement around 150 years previously. They were highly religious people, who insisted on strict observance of religious laws. The Pharisees were the moral leaders of their communities.

The scribes and Pharisees were the upright, peace-loving, clean-living, God-fearing, respectable pillars of society in Jesus’ day. It’s interesting, and worrying, to see that it was these people who were Jesus’ fiercest enemies.

Let’s consider some of the things the Lord said about the scribes and Pharisees. It might make pretty uncomfortable reading.

Ruled by rules

The scribes and Pharisees loved to make rules. In the book of Exodus God gave a law to the nation of Israel, but the scribes and Pharisees had embellished God’s law with a whole lot of extra traditions of their own, which governed their whole lives. Sometimes (the human heart being a very devious thing) they could use obedience to their own complicated rules as a way of side-stepping obedience to God’s law! Mark 7:1-13 relates an occasion Jesus fell foul of one of their rules by not washing his hands before eating. The scribes and Pharisees were indignant. But he reminded them that God’s law was more important than their own laws, and he quoted to them the Jewish prophet Isaiah: “This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. And in vain they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”

Rules and traditions are useful: they provide order and structure in daily life, and they prevent misbehaviour. The same is true for rules and traditions concerning our service to God. But the example of the scribes and Pharisees shows how rules can be dangerous:

  • There’s always the possibility that your rules and traditions might conflict with what the Bible says! You must never be afraid of reviewing them in the light of Bible teaching.
  • However good the rules are, if your religion is about obeying rules it enables you to tick them off and then sit back and think you’ve earned God’s approval. That is completely the wrong attitude.

What God wants is that we understand him, and try to be like him. This is much more than following rules! As another prophet, Micah said:

He has shown you, O man, what is good: And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?
Micah 6:8

Self-righteousness

You can read in Mark 2:15-17 about an occasion when Jesus and his disciples were invited to a meal, and they were joined by ‘many tax collectors and sinners’ – the dregs of society, the kind of people that a respectable person would not want to socialise with. The local scribes and Pharisees were scandalised. But Jesus said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” He was keen to preach God’s message of forgiveness and salvation to anyone who would listen, and the Bible shows that it was often the ‘tax collectors and sinners’ who responded best to his preaching.

Fundamental to the Gospel that Jesus and his followers taught is the call to repentance (that is, turning away from our sins). Those who are aware of their need of forgiveness will appreciate this – but it is meaningless to those who have a high opinion of their own righteousness.

The apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans puts it like this: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
Romans 3:23

Hypocrisy

It was the week before the Jewish Passover, and Jesus arrived in Jerusalem with the crowds of pilgrims who’d come to keep the feast. This was to be the Passover on which he died. He spent the week teaching in the temple. His enemies attacked him on every side, trying to ensnare him and trip him up with his words, but they failed. Matthew 22 ends with the comment: And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day on did anyone dare question him anymore (verse 46).

Before he left his disciples, Jesus was keen to warn them of the dangers that they would face. The whole of Matthew 23 is devoted to a warning about adopting the attitude of the scribes and Pharisees, and the Lord sums it up in one word – ‘hypocrisy’.  A hypocrite was an actor in a Greek play – the actor often wore a mask in front of his face to portray the character he was playing. Jesus uses this word of the scribes and Pharisees, because they were people who presented to the outside world a false appearance.

“They say, and do not do” (verse 3). They were good at telling other people how they should live their lives, but secretly they took a more relaxed view when it came to their own conduct.

“All their works they do to be seen by men” (verse 5).  They loved to appear righteous, to be admired by other people, but it was only skin-deep. They were concerned about what other people thought of them, not about what God thought of them.

Then starting in verse 13 the Lord pronounced a series of eight ‘woes’, which must have brought the startled crowds running  to see what was going on and left the scribes and Pharisees in the audience boiling with rage. Each pronouncement begins “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” and each one is an incisive observation of how the religion of the scribes and Pharisees, which was so impressive on the surface, was actually mere play-acting.

It’s easy enough to put on a good show, and we may well fool other people, but we cannot fool God. As he once said to his prophet Samuel, “The Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)

The warning

During his ministry the Lord Jesus met many different kinds of people, he preached the message of the Gospel to everyone, and there are wonderful accounts of how his message broke through all kinds of barriers and softened the hearts of the most unlikely people, from Roman soldiers to Jewish guerrillas, from noblemen to beggars. But there were those who were resistant to his message, and it’s very noticeable that his most hardened opponents were the respectable, upright pillars of society, the scribes and Pharisees.

We’re given a lot of detail about Jesus’ verbal skirmishes with them, and about his analysis of their problem. Obviously there’s a reason the Bible writers provide all this detail, and that reason must be that it’s a warning to us against falling into the same trap they fell into. The scribes and Pharisees are a grotesque caricature of what it can be like when religion goes wrong.

As a final thought, the apostle Paul had been a Pharisee, but when he was converted to Christianity he renounced his former life. In his letter to the Philippians he reflects on the old life he’s left behind:

I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith.
Philippians 3:8-9

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