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UCGia Bible Insights Thursday, March 07 2024

Three reasons Christ clashed with the Pharisees

In Matthew chapter 23, Christ warned His audience, and us, not to follow the example of the scribes and Pharisees, who were the religious leaders in Israel at that time, using the phrase “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” seven times.

In this chapter and on several other occasions, Christ used the epithet “hypocrite” to describe the behaviour of some of the Pharisees. The word is derived from a Greek word originally meaning “one who answers” or “an interpreter” (Thayer’s Dictionary of New Testament Words). Later it was used of an actor and, over time, came to mean one who pretends or plays a part outwardly, while having different feelings or intentions inwardly.

The first reason Christ and the Pharisees clashed was because they failed to acknowledge Jesus as their Messiah. With their professed knowledge of the scriptures, they should have recognised the timing of His first coming. When the wise men came looking for Jesus as a young child, the scribes and chief priests were able to identify where Christ was to be born (Matthew 2:1-8). Herod certainly believed He had arrived (verses 8-18), and others were also looking for the Messiah’s birth at this time (Luke 2:25-35).

During His ministry the Pharisees repeatedly refused to accept Jesus as the Christ, partly because they thought He was from Galilee, which they considered a poor and uneducated area, when he was actually born in Bethlehem (John 7:32, 40-52). Nicodemus had previously come to Christ and admitted that “we know you are a teacher come from God,” referring to himself and other high-ranking Pharisees. But the Pharisees still spoke against Him, sought His death and dissuaded those who heard Him from learning more (Matthew 23:13). In this they were repeating their forefathers’ failure to recognise the prophets sent by God (verses 29-39).

The Pharisees also came into conflict with Christ because they seemed to give greater heed to the Oral Law than to the written laws of God. The “oral law” was believed to have been the words of Moses passed down from mouth to mouth. However, Moses wrote all the law in a book (Deuteronomy 31:24), and left a written command to read the words of the law to Israel at least every seventh year (verse 9-12). There is no suggestion that any oral law was to be added.

Later in Israel’s history the written law was lost, possibly for as long as 70 years during the 55-year reign of King Manasseh and through the first 18 years of Josiah, after which the book of the law was rediscovered (2 Kings 22:8; 2 Chronicles 34:15). Following the return of the Jews after their captivity in Babylon, the priest Ezra read from the book of the law (Nehemiah 8:1-8).

We are told the Pharisees cared less for “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matthew 23:23). This can be seen in their approach to the Sabbath. In Matthew chapter 12 the Pharisees condemned the disciples for picking handfuls of grain on the Sabbath day. They saw this as “reaping” which would be considered work (verses 1-8). Later the same day they became incensed at Christ for healing a man with a withered hand and plotted to kill him (Matthew 12:9-14), a direct breach of God’s commandment regarding premeditated murder.

While the Sabbath commandment forbids work from which one would earn one’s living it does make provision for basic human (or animal) needs and comforts (Luke 13:10-17). As Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath(Mark 2:27). It should be a delight, not a burden (Isaiah 58:13-14). Thus the pharisaical traditions and additions to the law of God often had the effect of undermining the very law they appeared to honor and obey. Little wonder Christ said of them, “You reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition(Mark 7:8-9).

The third area of conflict had to do with the Pharisees wanting to appear righteous before others and tending to look down on those whom they considered less pious. Their religion was often a source of pride, and they could be hard-hearted and lacking in the humility required by God (Micah 6:8). Christ referred to this propensity of the Pharisees to seek honor from men rather than God in His reprimand (Matthew 23:5-12, 24-28). Instead of leading people to God, these men more frequently influenced the few who actually followed them to become Pharisees like themselves (Matthew 23:13,15).

When speaking to the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 15:8-9 Christ quoted from the prophet Isaiah 29:13, concluding, “These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” In other words they were not teaching the whole truth from the Bible, but had incorporated error, superstition and human tradition into their religious life and teaching.