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How Not to be a Pharisee

The prophecies of the bible are one of its greatest mysteries. Though many claim to understand them, it’s likely that few actually do. In Matthew chapter 13 the bible says of us, “Though seeing, they do not see, though hearing, they do not hear or understand.” The people tasked with interpreting biblical prophecies in Jesus’s day were the Pharisees.

The Pharisees were religious and political leaders. Experts in Levitical law, they were highly respected, even revered, by Jewish communities. However, they were also the driving force behind the crucifixion of Jesus. How did this group of people, widely viewed as the most righteous and holy of men, fail to see Jesus for who he was? What was the root of their blindness? These men devoted their entire lives to the study of God, but when Jesus showed up, they denied he was the Messiah. The Pharisees played an important role, though, because Jesus’s crucifixion was necessary. It’s important that we don’t stand in judgment of these men who fulfilled the roles God had for them. Still, it’s understandable that Christians tend to view them as antagonists, an example of how not to behave.

One of the reasons Jesus was a controversial figure is the unexpected way he fulfilled messianic prophecy. The Messiah was supposed to be from Bethlehem, and Jesus, though born in Bethlehem, was raised in Nazareth. At the time there was a saying, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”. The Messiah was supposed to be born of the line of David. Joseph was of the line of David, and Mary joined the house of David through their marriage. However, since Jesus claimed to be the son of God and a virgin, not the son of Joseph, the Pharisees viewed his claim to the line of David as fraudulent. For these reasons the Pharisees were on high alert, viewing Jesus as a charlatan who needed to be debunked.

Despite the image above (and many other renaissance depictions) the bible doesn’t say Jesus walked around with a glowing halo at all times. That would be a dead giveaway that he was a holy being. It does say that he appeared to his disciples with Elijah and Moses (Luke 9:22-36). It also says he traveled around performing a great many miracles, healing people, bringing people back from the dead, walking on water, and feeding thousands of people with only 5 loaves of bread and two fish. These were his bonafides, even the Pharisee Nicodemus, said to him, “We all know that God has sent you to teach us. Your miraculous signs are evidence that God is with you.” John 3:2. Nicodemus admitted that Jesus was sent from God, but stopped short of acknowledging him as the Messiah.

Many people believed the Messiah would be a great military leader who would unite the Jews and free them from oppressive Roman rule. So when Jesus showed up preaching peace and loving one’s enemies, many people, not just the Pharisees, scoffed at his claim to the throne of heaven. He didn’t fit their preconceived ideas of what a Messiah was supposed to be. He came armed not with swords, but with words. And despite many people taking Luke 22:36 out of context to support their modern day political agenda, Jesus was peaceful unto death. When Peter attacked the soldiers who came to arrest Jesus, he healed them and rebuked his own disciple. The point of the swords was not self-defense, but to fulfill prophecy, it says so in the very next verse:

“Now, however,” He told them, “the one with a purse should take it, and likewise a bag; and the one without a sword should sell his cloak and buy one. 37For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in Me: ‘And He was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about Me is reaching its fulfillment.” Luke 22:36-37

Jesus wasn’t using the swords for self defense, he needed them to fulfill messianic prophecy and to give the Romans a legal reason to arrest him. If Jesus was using the swords for self defense, then he failed, and his crucifixion is actually not the willing sacrifice of a sinless Messiah, but the defeat of an ordinary man.

Jesus did actually fulfill the messianic prophecies, just not in the way the Pharisees expected. Since no one knew the holy books better than the Pharisees, who better to interpret the prophecies? The idea that they could be wrong about the prophecies was, to them, laughable. But in the context of the crucifixion, duplicity was necessary. If everyone had fully believed immediately in Jesus as the foretold savior, he would never have been put to death, and mankind would never have been saved by his sacrifice.

In this way, the doubt of the Pharisees was inevitable and understandable, but that doesn’t make their behavior an example we should aspire to follow. The Pharisees were also arrogant, assuming they fully understood the mind and intentions of the almighty God. They were legalistic and pedantic, refusing to make allowances within the prophecies for the possibility that their interpretation could be faulty. By the time of Jesus’s life, over a thousand years had passed since Moses and the Hebrews dwelt in the desert with the pillar of fire that represented the spirit of God. The men interpreting the law were not doing so via burning bush but by scroll and inherited tradition.

There are many people today who have theories of how all the unfulfilled biblical prophecies will come to pass. There are books and movies made about prophecies that some have taken to be fact rather than interpretation. People make boogeymen of policies and technology, claiming they were predicted in the bible, even if only the most tenuous possible connection exists. Might these be representative of some modern day Pharisees? What are some ways in your life that you yourself have acted like a Pharisee? Have you left room in your beliefs for the possibility that you could be wrong about your interpretations of scripture and the prophecies? Or do you think you fully know the mind and intentions of God? Jesus made many teachings via parable, but one of the few unambiguous edicts he made was this: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Matthew 24:36. So we are meant to live as though he could return any day, not wasting time with frivolous quarrels, or pointless speculation, but loving and forgiving and serving one another, just as Christ did.

When all else fails, remember Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”

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