If you’re a church person, you know that the group of people known as the Pharisees get a bad rap in Scripture. The Pharisees were groups (seven different styles to be exact) of very religious people who lived during the time of Jesus.
Pharisaical Judaism began its development during the time of the Babylonian captivity (beginning around 586 B.C.). Away from Jerusalem with no temple to offer sacrifices, the Jewish people began to develop ways around the direct requirements of the Law of Moses so that they could practice their religion.
Jacob Neusner, in a book entitled “An Invitation to the Talmud,” states that with the development of the oral traditions, the Jews succeeded in “removing themselves from history” so that, where ever they found themselves, they could continue the practice of the Jewish faith.
One example of what these oral traditions did involves the sacrifice. Without the temple, there was no way to sacrifice and therefore no way to absolve sin. The Rabbis answered this need by calling the dinner table the altar and the evening meal the sacrifice.
They were thus symbolically fulfilling the requirements of the law in a place where the actual sacrifice had become impossible.
In short, they were erecting protective fences around the Law to keep people from transgressing. But in the process, the traditions became more important than the Law, and like many today, most devout Jews who read and studied the traditions, gave lip service to the Torah — the book of the Law — but few actually read it.
The result is, the traditions became so heavy and burdensome that no one could possibly master it. Yet the more burdensome and complex it became, the more zealously the Jewish legalists revered and propagated it.
That is why Jesus accused them, “They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.” (Matthew 23:4, NLT) and then says, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!” (Mark 7:9, NIV84).
When we view the Pharisees as the antagonists of the New Testament (which they were), we forget that they didn’t become that way by trying to be evil; they became that way precisely because they were trying to do good. In fact, they were the cleanest, most outwardly righteous people of their day.
In order to get that way and stay that way, they developed an elaborate system of rules and regulations that ended up separating them from the relationship they were supposed to have with God. The result being, when He showed up in the person of Christ, they killed Him because He threatened their traditions.
It is easy for us Christians to become very judgmental of this group. In fact, the sad history of the early church beginning near the end of the second century is full of examples of anti-Semitism because of this very thing.
In the fourth century, St. Augustine developed his theology of end times based, not so much on Scripture, but the anti-Semitic allegorical interpretations of one of the early church fathers, Origen.
Before we land too hard on the group of Pharisees, we need to stop and consider that in many cases we in the Christian church are just like them. Throughout the centuries of our existence, we have at times venerated tradition over truth.
Here’s a quick test to help you determine whether your focus is more on traditions than it is on truth, more on religious rituals than a living relationship. If you ever find yourself opposing some new idea in your church with the words, “We’ve never done it that way before,” your focus is on religious ritual rather than relevant relationships.
Here’s what I know about us Christians: we are not against culture, we just want to live in a past culture and that is precisely the thing that keeps us from impacting our current culture. The Pharisee in us blinds us to the needs around us.
Dr. John Pearrell is pastor of Gateway Community Church in Covington. For more information, visit the Gateway website at www.gatewaycommunity.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.