(This post is part of a series of short studies in Mark's Gospel)
Why was Jesus so hard on the Pharisees? In what way were they hypocritical? Is it possible for us to portray the Pharisees “unfairly” or irresponsibly and in such a way that contributes to antisemitism?
In Mark 7:6-8, Jesus identifies the Pharisees as 1) hypocrites, 2) those about whom Isaiah had prophesied rightly, and 3) those who had abandoned the commandment of God and were holding to human tradition (and it is appropriate to infer here that the human tradition they were holding to is being contrasted to the commandment of God, and is therefore opposed to it). Specifically, Isaiah’s prophecy names the Pharisees as those “who honor [God] with their lips, but [whose] hearts are far from [Him],” and as those whose worship of God is in vain. The Pharisees are specifically named five other times in the gospel of Mark (2:16-24; 3:3; 8:11-15; 10:2; 12:13). They are never presented in a positive light. In every encounter they have with Jesus and his disciples, they accuse Him of unrighteousness while exalting in their own righteousness. The Pharisees were those who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (cf. Luke 18:9). They claimed to obey the law, but if they had truly known what it meant to obey it, they “would not have condemned the guiltless” (cf. Matthew 12:7).
Jesus said to the Pharisees that the kingdom of God would be taken away from them, and given to a nation bearing its fruits. And there was no doubt in their minds that he was speaking of them (cf. Matthew 21:43-45). Jesus addressed the Pharisees as descendants of those who had murdered the prophets, judged them guilty of “all the righteous blood shed on the earth,” and prophesied that judgment was about to come on their first century generation. Though they looked righteous on the outside, on the inside they were full of “all kinds of filth...hypocrisy and lawlessness” (cf. Matthew 23:1-38). The Pharisees were the “violent who sought to take the kingdom by force” (cf. Matthew 11:12); and Jesus accused them of hiding knowledge from the people: “You don’t enter the kingdom yourselves, and you prevent others from entering” (cf. Luke 11:52).
While the Pharisees are sometimes presented by extra biblical sources as those who were concerned with returning Israel to a pure religion through a stricter observance of the law, this characterization does not line up with the words of Jesus as recorded in the gospels. I believe in fact that as Jesus often quoted Isaiah to expose the Pharisees’ hypocrisy and self-righteousness, they were those whom Isaiah accused of “trampling on the Sabbath, and pursuing their own interests on God’s holy day;” and who used the law to oppress God’s people (cf. Isaiah 58:1-5).
There are ways, however, in which irresponsible “Christian” portrayals of the Pharisees have contributed to anti-Jewish attitudes. It would never be responsible, or truthful, for example, to portray the self-righteousness of the Pharisees in the first century as attributable to their race. I am always perplexed when professing Christians do this, for it is completely antithetical to a theology of the cross, which understands Christ’s death as the atonement for the sins of “the whole world.” Indeed, those who crucified Christ did so because of “the definite plan and knowledge of God” (cf. Acts 2:23). “It was the will of the Lord to crush Him with pain.” “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed” (cf. Isaiah 53:1-12). Therefore, any portrayal of the Pharisees with an anti-Semitic tone would be wholly incompatible with the Gospel. Instead, we should responsibly remind ourselves of Paul’s piercing question, “What then, are we better than they?” (cf. Romans 3:9) whenever we find ourselves pointing an accusing finger at others, including the Pharisees. It is true that the Pharisees (those of them who didn’t become believers) remained condemned for their self-righteousness; but it is also true that that same spirit of self-righteousness is bound up in each of us until we have been broken by the judgment of the Gospel, and have responded with repentance and faith.
 Isaiah 29:13 The Lord said: Because these people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote; 14 so I will again do amazing things with this people, shocking and amazing. The wisdom of their wise shall perish, and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden. 15 Ha! You who hide a plan too deep for the Lord, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, "Who sees us? Who knows us?"
A while back someone posted on our forum some thoughts about our obedience to Old Testament law today, not suggesting that it is required we obey it in order to be justified, but that perhaps we should be motivated out of gratitude to obey those laws, and also for practical reasons as many of them are wise guides for living. And another question was raised: If we are not under obligation to obey the law--either Old Testament or New Testament--in order to be justified before God, then what is our motivation to live morally? Or for that matter, to abstain from immorality?
The reason I am so drawn to having this conversation is that it's right where we all live. And it involves that tension I think we all feel between the legalism we were brought up with and our understanding of liberty in Christ, and also the tension between the fact (yes, it is a fact) that our consciences have been cleansed and are now absolutely perfect and guilt free--no, we couldn't possibly be cleaner, purer, or more righteous in God's sight--and the feeling we sometimes have that we are guilty.
And how do we assuage that "guilty" feeling? I think it's often by trying to be more obedient. It's our nature to try to do that. But when we find ourselves seeking relief from the feeling of guilt in obedience to law--any law, OT, NT, some standard we set up in our mind derived from comparing ourselves to others, whatever--it should be a red flag to us that we have forgotten the cross. For however brief a moment, and to whatever degree, when we seek to relieve our guilty feeling through our own performance, we have forgotten His mercy. And that is a very dangerous thing. Because as soon as we forget His mercy to us, we diminish our capacity to show it to others.
Something else that needs to be pointed out whenever we start talking about obeying Old Testament law (even as a wise and practical guide for living), is that Scripture doesn't make any distinction within that code that allows any parceling. So you simply cannot separate a discussion about obedience to any Old Testament law without dealing with the dilemma presented by the fact that Jesus and the apostles never said anything along the lines of, "Ok, guys, here is a list of the ones we are doing away with, and here is a list of the ones that still apply." Christians have those lists in their heads but they are nowhere in Scripture. So if we speak of obedience to certain laws--or to even one of them--"out of gratitude," then how do we avoid advocating the obedience of the entire law out of gratitude?
But now back to motive. If our motive is not to assuage our guilty conscience, since we are truly guilt-free, then what motive do we have to obey--specifically, setting the Old Testament law aside, what motive do we have to abstain from immorality as defined by the New Testament? Certainly, the "law of Christ" can be summed up as 1. Love God and 2. Love others. And if that is all we ever thought about, if our motive was simply love for God and others in response to His love for us, out of thankfulness, then wouldn't "immorality" be a non-issue? When we think of New Testament admonitions toward how we should "walk" as God's people, love as the motive really does cover everything. "We love because He first loved us," and we prove He has loved us when we love one another (1 John).
But there is another "motive" we all tend toward. Or I know I am confronted with this every day. The best way I know to illustrate it is with this familiar passage:
1Co 6:9 Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, 1Co 6:10 Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. 1Co 6:11 And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.
Legalists loooooove this passage. The self-righteous simply adore it. Never mind that it condemns them all with the same standard by which they judge others. They can't be bothered with that. They just love to use it to prove that salvation is by works!
Let's face the facts, if it were true that by doing something on that list, you are disinherited from the kingdom, then we are all dead. The cross did nothing for us, and we have no hope. We've all done things on that list since becoming Christians. But the power of the cross and the glory of mercy is stated right there in that passage: even though we still do those things, those things are not who we are.
"And such were some of you. But you are washed." In other words, in God's eyes that is not who you are, anymore. And it has nothing to do with your ability to avoid doing those things. And thank God it doesn't!
What then is my motive for abstaining from those things which I know to be immoral as the Bible defines immorality, and both harmful to myself and others? It certainly is not to assuage my guilt over having done them, or even my guilt for continuing to fall into them. I am free of that guilt because of Christ's righteousness. And because of His mercies new every morning. But when I do those things I still may feel guilty. And such a feeling of guilt or shame , when it doesn't drive me to my knees in thankfulness at the foot of the cross, may instead drive me back to legalism, which always leads to projecting judgment onto someone else. Self-righteousness is the twin brother of guilt, they are truly two sides of the same coin. And both are an affront to the finished work of Christ.
So just as falling into self-righteous law keeping should be a red flag reminding me to not forget the cross; falling into immorality should be a red flag reminding me to not forget the cross. And when I do fall and feel guilty, I need to run to the cross and be reminded that I am forgiven and cleansed. And be restored once again to the joy of that forgiveness so that I can share it with others. And love them. My motive? "The love of Christ compels me." That's the communion we are invited to experience with Him and with one another in Him, whereby we "fulfill the law of Christ."
I was recently asked this question. I hope some of you may be encouraged by the response below.
In Revelation, John writes about the "works you did at first" to the Ephesians, and to those in Sardis he writes, "I know your works;...you are dead." What kind of works could John be referring to?
Regarding the admonition to the church at Ephesus to "do the works you did at first," there is a parallel structure that is significant:
"You have abandoned the love you had first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first."
"The love you had" and "the works you did" are clearly paralleled, and cannot be separated.
In Paul's letter to the Ephesians, he praised them for their faith and "love for all the saints" (Ephesians 1). They had obeyed the gospel by believing, and the resulting fruit of that belief was love for God and His people. Many of the believers in all of these churches were Jews. In order to believe the gospel they had to repent of their former "dead works" (ie, self-righteousness under the law, cf. Hebrews 6:1). When some law-abiding Jews asked Jesus, "what must we do, to be doing the works of God?" He answered, "this is the work of God, that you believe on Him who He has sent" (John 6:28,29). A common theme throughout the New Testament is the temptation that Jewish believers, who were being persecuted by the self-proclaimed "Jews" who were of the "synagogue of Satan," had to return to the law after believing the gospel of grace. When John writes here, "repent from where you have fallen," we might consider the connection to Paul's statement to the Galatians that if they returned to self-righteousness and trusting in the "flesh" (ie, their own efforts to keep the law) after having begun by the "spirit," they had "fallen from grace" (Galatians 5).
Regarding the "soiled garments" of those in Sardis (Revelation 3:1f), I believe this also is a reference to self-righteous works. Isaiah says, "all our righteousness are as filthy rags" (Isaiah 64:6). It is only in Christ that we are clothed with "robes of righteousness," and the beautiful "garments of salvation" (Isaiah 61:10).
Notice that the church at Sardis also is admonished to return to what they had "received and heard." Of course what they had received and heard was the same gospel that the Ephesians had received and heard, which had resulted in "the love they had at first." Again, the dichotomy between self-righteousness and faith in the righteousness of Christ by the gospel is emphasized.
This same contrast is evident in the message to the Laodiceans (Revelation 3:14f), who believed themselves to be "rich" but were in reality "poor, blind and naked." And what was the solution for their nakedness? In this clear allusion to the garden scene, the only remedy for the shame of nakedness is the righteousness of Christ. In the garden Adam and Eve tried to cover themselves with garments of their own making, but their shame remained. For as Isaiah says, "their webs shall not become garments, neither shall they cover themselves with their works" (Isaiah 59:6). Shame is always the result of our attempts to "buy" (work for) our own righteousness. But to the church at Laodicea, and to us today, Jesus says, "buy of me ("without money and without price"—Isaiah 55) gold tried in the fire, so you will be rich, and white raiment ("garments of salvation"—Isaiah 61) so you will be clothed, and so that the shame of your nakedness does not appear."
Again, "This is the work of God (i.e., the works you did at first): that you believe on Him Whom He has sent" (John 6:28,29).
I wanted to share some thoughts about a message we just added to our video archive at NCMI, called The Holiness of God.
We have a growing archive of sermons at our website. They are all wonderful messages that Ward has given communicating the beauty of the kingdom and grace of God. This one in particular, though, is probably one of the two or three most significant, and impactful to me personally. It is foundational to what our ministry is all about, because it so clearly defines God's radical mercy which He has lavished upon us. Indeed, it took an act of infinite mercy to bring us into the presence of an infinitely holy God.
Since I started seeing Christ in the Old Testament, this has become one of my favorite passages:
Isaiah 57:15 For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.
It seems to come up a lot in our podcast studies in the prophets, and it's often my "go to" passage when I am writing about the kindgom of heaven--its character and substance, how it was fulfilled, and how we experience it. In this sermon, Ward talks about this passage in conjunction with one of his bullet points: "The Holiness of God does not allow Him to dwell with evil." That statement should cause us all to pause and consider just what it took to make us the "many mansions--or dwelling places--in our Father's house." No less than this was required: that we be made holy as He is holy. Nothing less would ever do.
Ward also makes a rather provocative, yet entirely Biblical statement:
If you are saying in your heart, "God will never save that guy, he's too wicked," then God probably hasn't saved you.
When you consider it, in light of Isaiah 57:15, you will understand my heart's passion toward the ministry of NCMI. It's only in humbling ourselves before God's holiness, and seeing who we really are apart from Him, that we can know the incalculable riches of His mercy, and share it with others. So that we can truly experience the joy of forgiveness and presence with God. And rest in His completed work. For me, it's all right there in that passage.
There are so many Christians who have trusted Christ as their Savior, and yet are still burdened with feelings of guilt and shame. And that guilt and shame tends to come out toward others as self-righteousness and condemnation. And I think it's what mainly keeps people away from "churches." That is why this message is so needed.
I am personally so thankful for the technology of video and the internet, which allows us to share these messages with a wide audience. And I know there are all kinds of things competing for your time and attention. But I just wanted to encourage you all to listen to this one message even if you typically don't get a chance to listen regularly. I can't tell you how many times I had to pause it while editing through tears (as I need a clear view to insert text at the appropriate places). And also, I was thinking of so many applications of this message to current preterist "in-house" debates on the forums, including the unbiblical concept known as "progressive sanctification" which is being argued for and against. It occurred to me as I was listening to this message and as I considered the cross, the most awesome display of God's power there ever was, and what it accomplished: my holiness in His sight--that this "progressive sanctification" notion is a particularly blatant offense to God. And it must grieve Him to know that His children still see themselves as lacking something, when He's already given them Himself.
I have been married to my loving husband Keith for 26 years. We have three beautiful and brilliant children, ages 24, 22 and 20. Nothing cheers my heart more than having them all at home, yet nothing is more satisfying to my mind than watching them grow from afar. My personal passion is theology: the knowledge and experience of the Truth and Mercy found only in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and displayed in the lives and communion of His people. My husband and I love to travel, and because our children are often out and about in the world, we get lots of opportunities to see it! And we also love to fill our home with friends who love us, and love our wine collection.