The Pharisees In The Gospel Of Matthew
Authored By Mike Furey
The Pharisees are no doubt among the most dedicated groups of believers in the first century of the Common Era. Jesus recognized the fervency and the devotion of this major sect in Judaism in his famous "Sermon on the Mount" in Matthew 5:20. He also recognized their soul winning zeal, however misguided, in Matthew 23:15. Jesus obviously cared deeply for this group, otherwise he would not have directed messages to them and risked his life in prophetically challenging their system. Why do we have such a negative perception of them? Why do we use their name as an insult to others? The Gospel of Matthew contains numerous references to this fundamentalist Bible-believing "denomination." I think that by examining the relationship of Jesus and the Pharisees we can gain some important guidance for our own claims to a dedicated walk with God. The crucial question is what was the number one message Jesus offered to this group. I won't keep it a secret: repentance.
Before Jesus was turned loose by the Spirit to inspire the people with fresh rabbinical midrash, his cousin John the Baptizer prepared the way. In Mt. 3:1, John is found preaching away and aloud in the inconvenient wilderness where many came to hear his powerful and convincing sermons. John's message, Mt 3:2-12, is directed at many individuals, including persons described as Pharisees in verse seven. John tells them their religious heritage as Israelites and children of Abraham was ready to be axed. They had a religion without repentance. They had tzedekah and tefillah, but no tsuvah (charity and prayer, but no repentance). They lived a code but without a conscience tempered by fear and love of the Lord. It was rote religion that turned persons into venomous snakes and fearless sinners. John cried, "Repent" and every one knew he was right. Then John proclaimed the coming of Messiah. Then Jesus appeared at one of his sermon sessions at the River Jordan. Jesus modelled righteous behavior and he himself fulfilled all righteousness by receiving miqveh or baptism. Baptism is not a Torah requirement. It developed out of halakah or applied interpretations of a rabbi or chief of the synagogues. Since a priest would have to be submerged in order to perform a particular sacrificial rite (Leviticus 16:23,24), those Jews who desired to live the strictest life possible emulated some of the priestly requirements. Sometime during the rise of synagogues in the intertestamental period the practice of baptism evolved. It became a strong extrabiblical tradition that the Holy Spirit endorsed and readopted in the Church. Therefore, tradition is not the problem. Tradition is necessary for a healthful spiritual life. The problem is substituting external tradition in place of internal repentance. Baptism is an outward sign of an inward act of remorse and mental transformation. But how hard it is for religious folks to humble themselves in front of their friends, family, and peers to admit a flaw and a need for the Heavenly Father? True repentance is one of the most difficult acts a human being can do. But confession is the beginning of salvation. A person has got to admit he or she needs help before he or she can ever be healed. A songwriter said, "O Lord, it's hard to be humble."
Matthew 9:11,14,34. In this situation the Pharisees see Jesus eating at some notoriously sinful person's household. There was a big dinner party with lots of "publicans" and real sinner types. Jesus went to parties where strong drink and loose men and women were available. The Pharisees had an honest question. How could Jesus associate with such evil persons and risk being drawn into their lewd behavior? In short, Jesus said he came to call people to repentance. He needed to be where the sick were, not hidden in a synagogue or church. Then some of John's disciples came and asked Jesus the same question and they recognized that the Pharisees appeared more spiritual than Jesus and his disciples. By verse thirty-four, the Pharisees tentatively observe that Jesus is filled with a demonic spirit. If Jesus can cast out demons and eat with "demonic" people, it must be that he is comfortable with them because he is one himself. At this point the Pharisees only suggest that Jesus has an evil spirit. Three chapters later, Jesus is not just demon possessed; the Pharisees claim that Jesus has Beelzebub, the Lord of the flies, the prince of demons himself inhabiting him. Jesus tries to reason with them and prove that he is not from Satan but the Holy Spirit.
Matthew 12;2,14,24,38. What really upset the Pharisees is how Jesus apparently violated the Sabbath. The Sabbath, the tithe, and the diet were three of the top religious and legal concerns of Pharisaism. When they attack Jesus verbally for corn "plucking" on the Sabbath, Jesus gives them a repeat sermon: Don't you know what God means when he said I will have mercy and not sacrifice...? The laws involving the types of "work" permissible on a sacred day are very complex. Rabbis have conflicting opinions about what is permissible. Jesus is acting like Socrates calling forth self-examination because the religious life lived without thought and self-examination is not worth living. After that exchange Jesus does something else on the Sabbath, he heals a man of a crippled up hand. Jesus rebuked them for caring more for their own sheep (animals) than their God's sheep (people). The Pharisees had no problem helping a lost lamb find its way out of a ditch on the Sabbath and felt no remorse in their conscience for working the cattle out of a pit on the Sabbath, but if it came to assisting a human being with a life need, it would have to wait till tomorrow. (A really pious Pharisee would have shared his kosher food with them instead of finding fault.) At this point in Matthew the Pharisees in verse fourteen begin to plot a way to kill him. How nice of the religious leaders, who believe every word of the Hebrew scriptures, to come together to plan how to destroy someone. Religion without repentance is worse than anything the Mafia could come up with. It is scientifically proven that religious zealots are potentially the most dangerous persons to others. Blind impassioned religion and evil are not very different.
Next Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath and they get so upset. They accuse Jesus of possession. Jesus reasons with them and I think they are somewhat convinced of his words. So they ask for a sign. If Jesus is Messiah, he could easily erase their doubts by giving them some miraculous sign. Jesus gives them the Word of God, which is better than any sign which is subjective and temporary. He gives them the sign of Jonah. The whole point of this speech event is repentance. Jesus, in verses thirty-eight through forty-six, calls forth repentance of the Pharisees; that is their sign. If we would repent we could see God in our lives in a clear and undeniable way.
Matthew 15:1,12. At this scene, Jesus goes against Oral Law of which the Pharisees are among the main proponents. The Pharisees actually attack Jesus for not complying with Oral Law or the interpretations of rabbis in different life situations. Oral Law is believed by strict followers of Judaism to have been handed down from Moses, (Mishnah, Aboth 1:1). They believe that as Moses handed over the Ten Commandments and the Torah, he also handed down verbal interpretations of those commandments. This is Oral Law. In other words, the rabbis would study the Bible for answers to daily problems and then make rulings or laws based on the Bible in light of Mosaic tradition. They said Moses gave them this power because he put judges in place to determine God's will. Therefore, whatever the judges declare is approved by Moses and carries equal if not more weight than what Moses and God said in Torah. The Torah is like a tree of life. What God first said is the root and what the rabbis add on is the tree and branches. Jesus tells them that Oral Law has denied God's Law. Jesus is shaking the tree and is throwing the entire process of halakah into serious crisis. I can not underestimate how powerful an encounter this is. A good Jew today may still think Jesus is wrong. Jews today still observe the tree of life and technically what I am doing today is claiming to be speaking in the name of God and updating the message for our times and needs. We humans must not forget that we just may make errors in the name of God from time to time and need to be in a continual state of repentance and reformation.
Matthew 16:1,6,12. They seek another sign; he gives them Jonah again. Jesus warns his disciples of pharisaic doctrines.
Matthew 19:3. The Pharisees ask Jesus about divorce. His answer: what does the Bible say? Then he comments: fornication is the only grounds for divorce. But your legal manuvering and loophole factory has made easy-divorce-to-go like fast food. Religion without requiring repentance is destructive to family life.
Matthew 21:45. Jesus preaches openly at Jerusalem the capitol and the heartland of Judaism. It's the high point of his preaching "career." As the Pharisees listen they are embarrassed and amazed. The Pharisees want Jesus out so bad they want to lay hands on him but still have to wait.
Matthew 22:15,34,41. Jesus continues to preach and teach openly at the temple in Jerusalem even though he comes from no recognized rabbinical school of thought (he has no degree from any institutional authority). He takes questions. The Pharisees try to trap Jesus with trick questions. Jesus patiently deals with these leaders. But finally in the next chapter, he thunders out a sermon against Pharisaism. Jesus takes no pleasure in overpowering these leaders and no pleasure in shaming them publicly. But as a tactic to save the souls of men and women sometimes God has just got to bring judgment day early in order to wake up the religious dead. Please read chapter twenty-three.
Matthew 23. This is the Pharisee Chapter. This is the number one and best primary source of information concerning Pharisees in first century Judaism than any where else in recorded history. Jesus preached in the style of Jeremiah and dropped the hammer on them. The woe style is their wakeup call. Will they repent after his soul-shaking sermon? How do you like it when someone tells you that you are wrong? (I'll admit I don't like it; maybe there's hope for me.)
Matthew 27:62. The final appearance of the Pharisees in the Matthean text shows they have still not repented. Instead, they are continuing to practice deception. They are deceivers themselves and as the old proverb goes "it takes one to know one," they anticipate a potential situation of deception. They think Jesus may stage a false resurrection and so they take steps to thwart that attempt. They go to the governor, Pilate, and ask for security guards to the tomb. Pilate has them set in place and also allows the Pharisees and other leaders to do whatever they want to make it secure. The Pharisees and others set their own watch and place some kind of special seal on the tomb to make sure the stone is intact in front of the grave. But in their attempt to call Jesus a liar and deceiver they only help to prove that he wasn't. Nothing that humanity could have done could stop Jesus from raising from the dead. He is truly Lord. Instead of being clever and appearing so together, why don't we bow down before him and give him our lives anew and afresh and ever repentant?
Most importantly, Jesus gave the deceivers a chance to really see that he rose from the dead. They knew he had to have risen because they made sure his body wouldn't be stolen or the tomb disrupted in any way. They had tough Roman guards at the tomb, plus their own guards. They knew what had happened. God was merciful to them even in their highest evil. Indirectly, they were witnesses of the resurrection event itself; however, just as their unrepentant hearts lead to the murdering of Jesus, their unrepentant hearts entombed them further in a mindset of fundamentalist piety and religious death. Jesus told them to repent and he tried to reach them even from the open grave. We who think we are loyal to God need to examine our hearts and every area of our lives for places where we actually deny the sovereignty of God and exalt ourselves through the pious practice of our comfortable interpretations of our religion. We are still sinners in need of grace until the day we go out. Let's continue to be washed in the blood of Christ daily, especially if we think we're such good Christians.