Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Will the Real Pharisee Please Stand Up?

If you grew up in the 80's, it's likely you saw the blockbuster, academy award winning film, "Pee-Wee's Great Adventure." In the film, Pee-Wee gets into an argument with his neighborhood nemesis by the ever so intelligent method of name-calling. An insult would be thrown out, and Pee-Wee would respond by saying, "I know you are, but what am I." Although you would expect something more of Christians these days, name-calling remains standard fare in Christian forms of argumentation today that mimics much of the Pee-Wee Herman style of defense.

One of the ways people try to win an argument is by labeling you something shameful. In secular culture, if you are called a racist, that designation (unless it's true) serves only to shut down the conversation, so that the other side does not get a hearing. We have Christian terms that serve the same purpose. One of those labels is the term "Pharisee."

If you've ever had a conversation with an antinomian (i.e., someone who believes that the Christian life is one that is lived without law), then you likely have heard the term "Pharisee" applied to either yourself or someone else who argues that a particular Scripture ought to be observed by Christians. In modern evangelical fiction, the Pharisee is a person who tries to obey the law, and supposedly God doesn't desire that, but faith (which is usually interpreted as a friendship relationship with God). In other words, the good Christian doesn't need to observe the commands in Scripture. That's a legalistic, i.e., Pharisaical, attempt to be pleasing to God. Christ was opposed to the Pharisees. Hence, Christ is opposed to anyone who says we need to obey the Scripture.

All of this stems, of course, from either an illiterate knowledge, or culturally blinded reading, of Scripture. The Gospel of Matthew gives us the exact reason Christ was opposed to the Pharisees, and here it is in a nutshell:

 And [thus] you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your  tradition . "You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, 'This people honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far away from Me. 'But in vain do they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.'" (15:6b-9)

This is the way the Pharisees are presented throughout the Gospels. In Matthew 3:7-12, John the Baptist chastises the Pharisees as those who do not bear fruit that is worthy/fitting for someone who has supposedly repented. He orders them to do good works, rather than trust in their supposed relationship with God that is void of them if they are to avoid eternal punishment.

When we come to the Sermon on the Mount, the entire sermon is a contrast between the Pharisaical form of righteousness and the form that is acceptable to God. The kind of righteousness performed by Pharisees is only for show. It doesn't stem from their desire for God to rule over all of their lives. Instead, they offer up long prayers, give extra tithes, put on extra special clothing as a sign of their worship toward God, and technically, rather than whole-heartedly, observe only the explicit teaching of the moral law. When they do not observe the moral law, they replace it with ceremony/ritual or cultural ideas. Hence, Christ states in 5:20, "For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses [that] of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven."

Despite what some teach, it is out of context to suggest that the Sermon on the Mount is attempting to show us what we can't do so that we trust in Christ's righteousness. This isn't point at all. One can apply this to the justification issue, but Christ, in Matthew, is specifically speaking here about what ought to come forth from a saved person's life. He is talking about the fruit of a repentant life, the marks of one who has a real relationship with God and is saved. Hence, the Sermon on the Mount is arguing that we need to obey the Scripture to its fullest, applying it anywhere and everywhere in our lives, because it displays God's authority, God's kingdom/rule/dominion, over us. A lawless life is a God-less life, and thus proves that we never knew Christ and He never knew us (7:21-23).

So the Pharisees do not represent the person who tells you to obey Scripture. The irony is that the Pharisees represent the antinomian who is calling you a Pharisee. In other words, the person who is arguing against applying what Scripture teaches is moral and good is something he or she needs to do each day in life is the Pharisee. They're the one who do not do the deeds of Abraham or Moses (John 7:19; 8:39).

The Pharisees are what I call religious rebels. They want some sort of spirituality because it makes them feel acceptable to God, but they don't want God imposing on their lives. They want His blessings, but not the transformation of lifestyle and thought through which blessing from a genuine relationship with God is received. In essence, the want to do what is displeasing to God, but still have Him be pleased with them. After all, if God is not pleased with you, you feel bad about yourself. The Pharisaical quest is a quest to feel good about the self, and is simply another avenue the self takes to toward a pleasure-filled life void of God's rule.

The Pharisee essentially sees God's rule as a burden. He views law as a requirement to be fulfilled in order to feel accepted by God. That's why he fails to obey it to the fullest extent and only technically obeys what he feels he has to. This is a person who wants to preserve as much of his life as he can without giving up his spirituality that gives him some sense of purpose or "righteousness" in his life. But his life remains as untransformed as if he had never known God at all, because in fact he hasn't ever known God. God never came into his life. God's presence is marked by a change in one's disposition toward the Scripture as that which is a vehicle of love rather than burden and obligation. The love of God begins to set one on a path that seeks to let God reign over every aspect of his or her life. Thus, the genuine presence of God in one's life is also marked by both an internal and external obedience to what Christ has commanded. The life that God enters will never be the same again. It is addicted to God's transforming love and rule. In short, it wants God to rule; but the mind of the antinomian, i.e., the Pharisee, does not. It's goal is to preserve the self. It wants to protect whatever pursuits give it the most satisfaction in the moment. It wants a god, to be sure, but not the God. It wants a god who is accommodating to our self directed lives, not one that demands to take the reigns.

Have no doubt, the winds and the rains will come, and the house built on sand will fall. The Pharisee will not enter the kingdom of God, no matter how religious he or she may be, because God doesn't want observe your religion, He wants you to observe His. That is a religion where we love God with everything we've got, our whole, rather than just partial, thoughts and lives.

So the next time you are called a Pharisee for holding someone accountable to Scripture, you can simply reply, "I know you are, but what am I."


  1. "When they do not observe the moral law, they replace it with ceremony/ritual or cultural ideas."

    I was listening to a snippet of Dennis Prager on the radio this morning and he was mentioning how there are liberal Jews and liberal Catholics who are really fastidious about maintaining their religious rituals and ceremonial decorum, but be really liberal about issues like abortion and gay marriage.

    Then I read your article and it reinforces Prager's point. Nice.

    "The irony is that the Pharisees represent the antinomian who is calling you a Pharisee."

    If you ever use the term "Liberal Pharisee" to describe a LibProt or an Emerger, they become rather displeased. ;-)

    "So the next time you are called a Pharisee for holding someone accountable to Scripture, you can simply reply, "I know you are, but what am I."

    Great way to close off an excellent essay. Walk in the mature way of Pee Wee Hodge!

    (Jus' kidding!)

  2. LOL. Thanks Truth. Pee Wee is my model for all conversations I get into. I figure if I ever make people too angry about what I say to where they want to beat me up, I can just get up on a bar and start dancing to "Tequila" in order to get out of it.

  3. I saw the movie. That tequila dancing scene was pretty funny.

    If you can pull it off like Pee-Wee did... cool!