How to Avoid the Folly of the PhariseesAugust 27, 2018
by Brandon Crowe
You’ve probably heard someone say at some point “Don’t be such a Pharisee.” Typically these words are uttered when someone is being overly scrupulous in “rule keeping” in the Christian life. If there’s one type of person in the New Testament that you don’t want to be compared to, surely it’s the Pharisees. Though one could consider the question of the Pharisees from a variety of perspectives, let’s look at how Jesus responds to the Pharisees in the Gospel of Matthew.
The Pharisees frequently oppose Jesus in the Gospels. Jesus is often critiqued by the Pharisees, and he in turn reproaches them for their errant ways. He strongly warns his disciples not to follow their teaching. But what exactly was the Pharisees’ problem? Was it that they were too concerned with following God’s law? Or was it something else?
Contrary to what you may have heard, Jesus does not rebuke the Pharisees for giving too much attention to God’s law. Jesus never denigrates or downplays the law of God. Where it looks like he might be (Sabbath controversies, for example), Jesus is instead critiquing misunderstandings and misappropriations of God’s law.
The Pharisees thought they were on the right track, but Jesus shows otherwise.
Far from critiquing the Pharisees for focusing too assiduously on God’s law, Jesus critiques them for not being concerned enough with God’s written law. They didn’t give it too much attention; they gave it too little attention.
Listening to the Sermon on the Mount
Jesus’s interest in paying careful attention to the law is evident in the Sermon on the Mount. Though it may be the most well-known of all Jesus’s teaching, it’s also some of the most difficult to understand. Is Jesus teaching that God’s law is impossible to keep? Is he teaching Christian perfectionism? The answer is neither.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus points both to the ongoing relevance of the law of God, and to his own role in fulfilling the law of God. He shows us how we are to keep God’s law, and he shows us how its standards are greater than we might imagine.
An important passage is Matthew 5:17–20. In 5:17 Jesus denies that he has come to abolish the law. Anticipating later misunderstandings about the law in the Christian life, Jesus denies that the law’s relevance is abrogated. Instead, Jesus states that he has come to fulfill the law.
Fulfill is a key term in Matthew that highlights Christ as the goal of the Scriptures and his unique task in accomplishing salvation. Jesus is saying, in other words, that he is the proper goal of the law. Matthew 5:18 (“For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the law until everything is accomplished”) confirms that Jesus is not lessening the law, but is speaking of both the permanence of the law and its accomplishment.
That Jesus did not come to do away with the law is evident in Matthew 5:21–48. These verses are often called the “antitheses” because Jesus contradicts what many people thought about God’s law.
Let’s be clear at this point. When Jesus says: “You have heard it said, but I say to you,” he’s not contradicting the law of God itself. Instead, he’s correcting misunderstandings of the law of God whereby the spiritual character of the law was being watered down to thin, external observances only. Jesus calls us back to the law of God and shows how true obedience is deeper than we might imagine. In this regard it’s instructive that the first four of the six “antitheses” seem to draw upon the Ten Commandments. Jesus is showing us what the Ten Commandments require.
In short, in the Sermon on the Mount we see that the law of God requires more of us than only external obedience, and we can’t really understand God’s law apart from the one who fulfills the law. The Sermon on the Mount, in other words, is about the law of God accomplished (what Jesus does), and the law of God applied (its relevance to our lives).
Two Errors of the Pharisees
In the Sermon on the Mount we see that the law of God requires more of us than only external obedience.
This brings us to one of the perennially perplexing passages in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:20: “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Many interpretations of this passage seem to turn it on its head. It’s often thought: The righteousness of the Pharisees points to their superlative rule keeping. If the only way we can enter the kingdom of heaven is to be better rule keepers than the Pharisees, then we’re all without hope. Jesus must mean something else. He’s not encouraging self-righteous rule keeping, but is showing us how far we fall short.
This approach, however, is misguided. The call to a greater righteousness in 5:20 is a real call to righteous living. This does not come by avoiding God’s law, but by demonstrating a deeper commitment to righteousness than the Pharisees—despite their rule keeping of a certain kind. The Pharisees thought they were on the right track, but Jesus shows otherwise.
The righteousness of the Pharisees was insufficient in at least two ways. First, they didn’t give sufficient attention to the depths of God’s law. They viewed righteousness—at least in practice—as something external. This why Jesus critiques them for missing the most important parts of the law (Matt. 23:23). They are whitewashed tombs. They look good on the outside, but inside they’re full of dead men’s bones (Matt. 23:27).
The Pharisees’ rule keeping was hollow. They hadn’t given sufficient attention to the most important parts of God’s law. They also had the tendency to elevate human traditions to a position of law-like status, violating the law of God in the process (Matt. 15:5–9).
Second, they not only missed the true character of the righteousness required in God’s law, they also missed the role of Jesus in relation to the law.
It’s in this light that Matthew 5:19 makes sense: “Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
Interview with Books at a GlanceMay 09, 2018
by Brandon Crowe