How to Avoid the Foolishness of the Pharisees

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.

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’ 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).

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SOURCE: Christianity Today, Brandon D. Crowe