Pharisees get a bad rap.
I know, I know–there’s that whole “brood of vipers,” “conspiring to kill Jesus” thing. Not their brightest moments. But did you know that several of Jesus’ followers, and many, many members of the early church, were Pharisees? At the crucifixion, all but one of Jesus’ male disciples ran off–it was left to two soft-hearted Pharisees to collect and bury Jesus’ body while young John and The Women looked on and mourned.
Before we write Pharisees off as small-minded legalists, we should probably try to understand where they were coming from. Because they have something important to teach us. Even Jesus admitted that.
Pharisaism, and rabbinic Judaism in general, began to develop after Judah was taken into captivity. The exiled Jews couldn’t travel to the temple to worship anymore, so the local synagogues took on great importance, not only as a place to worship, but as a place to learn about their history and customs, and preserve the unique heritage God had given them.
Repentant Jews began to think about what had caused the downfall of their beloved land. The answer was clear–the people had turned away from God, had failed to keep the Covenant he had given them through Moses. The Book of Dueteronomy was written, a fresh Chronicle of their history set down to show where they had gone wrong. The people were looking back, mourning the sins of their nation, and mapping out a better course for the future.
The exile had a purging effect, and the remaining Jews vowed not to repeat the mistakes of their forefathers. The best, the brightest, the most zealous, well-educated and orthodox among them, set themselves to understanding and interpreting the law.
The studied the scriptures inside and out, determined to understand God’s word, so they could live lives that were holy and pleasing to Him.
They faithfully taught what they had learned to their fellow Jews and anyone else who would listen, in the synagogues and the town squares.
They wrote volumes and volumes of commentary, books about their understanding and interpretation of biblical concepts.
They held meetings and conventions to discuss areas of controversy among their peers.
They worked hard to pass laws and legislation that would prevent people from breaking the Covenant. They had been down that road, and weren’t going there again. Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD.
They even sent out missionaries to preach the Good News of God’s Covenant to the gentiles, so they could share their hope of glory, and live lives that were holy and pleasing to God as well.
Do these people sound familiar to you?
These were the Pharisees. You know, the ones Jesus was always getting so all-fired frustrated with.
I can’t help but think this might have some application for modern evangelicalism.