More Righteous Than a Pharisee

By David Battle

We commonly told that we are free from the law. While there is truth in this statement by Paul we must put it into context. John Wesley wrote a warning to Methodist about becoming a dead sect that had the form of religion and not the power of religion (Complete Works of John Wesley, Vol 13, 320). He explained that if Methodist began to over emphasize certain things they would become a dead denomination. We would have the form of religion. We would have buildings and congregations. We would have structure and boards. We would hold regular worship services, evangelistic meetings, mission conferences, Sunday Schools and even Vacation Bible Schools or Back Yard Bible Clubs. We would have all the forms of cooperate religion but not the power of God. We would continue to hold personal and family prayer and have family devotions. We would visit the sick and care for the dying. We would performs acts of mercy by helping the poor and the down trodden. We would have all of the trappings of personal devotion but not the power of God. Wesley went on and explained that there were three ways in which Methodist could become a dead denomination. First, Methodist could overemphasize it doctrine or teaching to the point that we become antinomian, lawless or libertarian. Second, Methodist could overstress their experience and become enthusiast or what we today would call charismatic. This would be an interesting topic to study. Third, Methodist could overemphasize our discipline and become Pharisees. We often make fun of the Pharisees and criticize them, but the Scripture does not record the debates between Christ and the Pharisees in order for us to feel superior to the Pharisees. Scripture gives those confrontations so that we learn to be better Christians. Believe it or not, Pharisees were culturally model citizens. Every Christian can easily become a Pharisee. Let us see how this plays out in the very words of Jesus in Mat 5:17-20. Here Jesus says:
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Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of the pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone one breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 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. (Matt 5:17-20, NIV) Before we go deeper into our investigation, I want us to note a few things. First, Jesus tells us that he is not here to abolish the law in the sense of making it null and void. He is here to fulfill it or to accomplish its ultimate purpose which the law itself could not do. He goes on to explain that the Law will remain in effect until the destruction of heaven and earth. The law will no longer be needed when the full plan of God is accomplished. Only once God has finished with His complete work on earth will the law be laid aside. When is God’s work fully accomplished? It is finished in the day when the redeemed stand blameless and pure before Him in the New Heavens and Earth. In that time, we will be like Jesus. Our heart will be pure, and we will have put on the full righteousness of Christ. There will be no need for law then because we will be righteous. No one will have to tell us to do the right thing. We will naturally do what is right because the Word of God reigns in our hearts, and there will be no more sin. But until then, we need the law for various reasons. First, the Law teaches us what the minimum standard of social righteousness is. Second, the Law shows us our sin, or how we fall short of the glory of God. While these two reasons are not the only uses of the law, they are the two that we will need to keep in mind today. The other thing that I want you to notice is what Jesus teaches about a person’s status in the kingdom. He points out two
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extremes. At the low end of the spectrum, there is the Christian teacher who fudges on some minor points of the law. He finds short cuts in keeping God’s law and then he teaches others how soot by the perfect will of God. Jesus points out that this man will have the lowest rank in the kingdom of God. At the high end of the spectrum, Jesus describes a Christian teacher who fully keeps the law and teaches others on how to best keep the law. This man will be considered great in the kingdom of heaven. Matt 5:18-19 shows us the importance of the Law in the life of the believer. We are not dealing with the matter of salvation, but we are dealing with the Christian life. Note that both teachers are members of the kingdom of heaven. The Christian life is not a life of lawlessness. Christians are free, but they are not moral libertarians. We do not live according to our own loves and passions. The life we live is Christ living in us. When Christ lives in us, we fully fulfill all the requirements of the law. The demands of the law are fulfilled. Jesus concludes this section in Matt 5:20 by changing the focus from the Christian life to membership in the kingdom. He explains in no uncertain terms the standard of righteousness that one needs to enter the kingdom of God. The standard is a simple one. Our righteousness must be greater than that of the Pharisee and the teachers of the law. Today our challenge is to understand the righteousness of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. Once we know their level of righteousness, then we can determine how righteous we must be to enter the kingdom of God. We will do this first by seeking to understand who the Pharisees really were and their relation to Christ and the early Church. When we go through the New Testament, we note that often the Pharisees have regular contact with Christians. The other Jewish sects or denominations only appear occasionally in the New Testament. The main groups were the Herodians, whom I doubt
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anyone here has known about. If you watch the history channel, you may know about the Essenes, but they are only mentioned in passing in the New Testament. You may remember that some of Jesus’ disciples were members of the Zealots who were nationalistic revolutionaries. They sought to bring the kingdom of heaven in by the sword. The last two groups have more play time in the New Testament. The Sadducees appear toward the end of the Gospel narrative because they managed the Temple and the court system that condemned Jesus. This group was aristocratic and sophisticated. When we compare them to Jesus, we discover that they were theologically very different form Jesus. First, they only accepted the five books of Moses as canonical or authoritative revelation. Second, if the Pentateuch did not expressly affirm a matter they did not accept it. For example, the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy do not directly address the matter of life after death; therefore, the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection. Jesus rebukes them for their doctrinal error in Matt 22:31-32 by pointing out the Lord was the God of the Living not the dead. The Sadducees and Jesus were very different theologically and ethically. The last group, we know as the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. These men were the teachers and preachers of Israel. They taught the people the word of God. If we look at the debates between Jesus and the Pharisees, we would see that the debates were over the application of Scripture more so than the interpretation. The basic theology of Jesus and the Pharisees was the same. In Matthew 23, Jesus pronounces a series of woes or curses upon the Pharisees. If you turn to this passage, we will disregard the woes for a moment and note the actions of the Pharisees from a social perspective. In other words, we look content of the passage from man’s perspective not God’s perspective. Now, let us survey Matthew 23. Our passage open in Matthew 23:2-3a by recording Jesus as saying, “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you . . .” (NIV). His condemnation is not
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for what they believed They taught by the authority of Moses, and their teaching was authoritative. From this, we can surmise they were very respectable people in their communities. If we were to go through this passage looking for positive attributes of the Pharisees, we can find several. They were very evangelistic (Matt 23:15). They would travel far and wide to bring people in their faith. They were concerned about precise legal terms. They were meticulous in giving their tithe (Matt 23:23). They would tithe on their full employment income, including what their employer pays for them. They would even tithe on their full social security and benefits. They were concerned about avoiding the appearance of evil in Matt 23:25. They want to make sure no one could accuse them of doing something wrong. They knew how to make sure every thing always looked just right. They were concerned about honoring and memorializing the great heroes of the faith in Matt 23:29. They remembered the saint of old and their sacrifices for the work of God. If they lived today, they could name and explain all the great men of the faith. They would know who John Wiclif, John Knox, Augustine, John Wesley, Joseph Fletcher, Peter Cartwright, Francis Asbury, and Dwight Moody were. They honored these men like these for their faithfulness to God. From other passages we know that the Pharisees spent regular time in prayer and even fasted. Some fasted twice a week. They were very devout people. If we pause and think for a moment, we quickly can realize that the Pharisees were theologically close to Christianity. Jesus personally trained twelve men as his disciples to be His Apostles after the resurrection. He sent the Twelve to represent him throughout the world. He commissioned them to write the 27 books of the New Testament. Yet, 18 of those books were written by men other than the Twelve Apostles. Paul wrote at least 13 of
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the books, and he was not one of the original Twelve. He wrote the book of Romans which is the theological heart of the New Testament. Where did Paul get his theological training? In Philippians 3:5, Paul tells us that he was a Pharisee. When he gives his defense before King Agrippa, he states that “The Jews all know the way I have lived ever since I was a child. . .. They can testify that according to the strictest sect of our religion, I lived as a Pharisee” (Acts 26:4-5, NIV). Paul had earlier pointed out that he had learned under a great Pharisee named Gamaliel. Please note, Jesus chose a Pharisee to write most important of the books of the New Testament. A Pharisee gave us Romans, which is the theological heart of the New Testament. The reason I have said all this is to point out to us that the Pharisee are very much like the best of us. Jesus pointed out that in order to get into heaven, we have to be more righteous than the Pharisee and the teachers of the Law. They lived by a very high public standard of righteousness. They were the men who ran the charities. They were the one’s who looked out for the good of the communities. They never missed public worship. If you were to visit in their homes, you would discover that they held daily family devotions and took time for personal worship. The Pharisee were very good people. Yet in all their goodness and faithful devotion to God, they could not enter the kingdom of heaven. Their times of corporate and personal worship were not good enough for God’s kingdom. Their civic charities did not earn them any merit before God. Their work in feeding the poor and supporting the widows did not make them righteous before God. God expects a greater righteousness than that of the Pharisee. He expects a righteousness of heart not merely of action. You see the Pharisee made the mistake of associating social righteousness with godliness. Look at how Jesus develops this point. Return with me to Matthew 5. Right after Jesus states that we have to be more
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righteous than the Pharisees in order to enter the kingdom of heaven in Matt 5:20, he begins showing the difference. You have heard that it was said to the people long ago. “‘Do not murder,’ and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, “Raca” is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says “You fool” will be in danger of the fire of hell. (Matt 5:21-22, NIV) The Old Testament law established the minimum standard for a society to have justice. A society can not tolerate people who murder. Law enforcement cannot control our thoughts, but the judicial system will judge our actions. God is not like man who judges the outward appearance of things. God judges our hearts. Only those with a pure heart can enter the kingdom of heaven. If our hearts have been defiled by anger, we are no longer worthy of God’s kingdom. If our lips have insulted anyone, we must give an account for defamation of the image of God. Look at the end of Matt 5:22. Just calling a person a “fool” puts your soul in danger of the fire of hell. Have you ever stated that someone was stupid? Or dumb? Have you ever thought that someone was an idiot? If so, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. God will hold us accountable for any spite against one of His image bearers or one of His children. You better make sure that you have made things right before you face the holy Sovereign Creator. Be careful when you enter the heavenly court. Do not think that you will be able be acquitted by appealing to the good you have done. The Pharisees did much good, but they were not good enough. They lived their lives in strict spiritual discipline yet they were not holy enough to enter the kingdom of holiness. You do well to live your life in conformity to civil and social justice. Even Al Capone lived within the dictates of civil law. The FBI could not pin any crime on him. The government got him for fully
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declaring his income on his taxes. If you live your life within the conformity of civil order, you are no better than gangsters and the mafia. If your standing before God concerns you, then go to Work Cited Complete Works of Johns Wesley in Saga Digital Library Collected Works 1995

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