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Groups in the Gospels (5): Religious Groups (cont)

Howard A Barnes, Westhoughton


Whilst the scribes discussed in the previous article were professionals, they had great support from a very strict religious sect among Jewish laymen called the Pharisees, a group which looked up to the scribes as religious mentors. The Pharisees were made up of all kinds of people - tradesmen or farmers, rich or poor, etc. Whilst the Sadducees were Jerusalem-based and prominent among the priestly families and rich landowners, and centred on the temple and its ritual, the Pharisees’ power-base was in the synagogues of the countryside towns and villages. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, himself a Pharisee, there were about 6,000 Pharisees in New Testament times.

Whereas all adult Jewish males had to "appear before the Lord" (Ex 23.17; 34.23) at the Temple in Jerusalem three times a year for the national feasts of Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles, in between they would often attend their own local synagogues up to three times a week. The scribes taught that no three days should go by without the public reading of the Scriptures in the synagogue (cp. 1 Tim 4.13), so as well as gathering there on Saturdays, the Sabbath day of rest, the Jews would usually also attend on Mondays and Thursdays. In this way, many people would constantly come under the influence of the scribes and Pharisees who occupied the most prestigious teachers’ seats in the synagogue. Although the actual beliefs they held were usually orthodox – for instance, unlike the Sadducees they believed in the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the body, and the existence of angels and demons - they did not follow these up practically in their own lives: "they say, and do not", said the Lord Jesus (Mt 23.3).

The Pharisees originated as a pious and spiritual group of Jews who quite properly reacted against the encroachment of outside worldly influences on Jewish life arising from the culture brought by their Greek (Alexander the Great) and later Roman conquerors in pre-new New Testament times. Paul told King Agrippa that the Pharisees were the strictest sect among the Jews (Acts 26.5). However, what had originally begun as a spiritual movement had, generally speaking, degenerated into a group of self-righteous and hypercritical hypocrites. The Pharisee in the parable told by the Lord Jesus thanked God, considering himself "not as other men" (Lk 18.11). Numbered notably among the Pharisees were Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, the great teacher Gamaliel, and his student Saul of Tarsus. While some people like Paul (Acts 23.6), were born into Pharisaical families, most joined the sect out of choice. It has been rightly said that the Pharisees represented "the flesh religiously cultivated to its highest perfection" (see Phil 3.5).

The Pharisees were notorious for their proselytizing zeal (Mt 23.15), and seem to have been the first who regularly organized missions for conversions. The synagogues in the various cities of the world, as well as of Judæa, were thus by the proselytizing spirit of the Pharisees imbued with a thirst for inquiry, and were prepared for the gospel ministered by Paul, "a Hebrew in race, a Pharisee by training, a Greek in language, and a Roman citizen by birth and privilege".

Almost all of Matthew 23 is given over to detailing the Lord Jesus’ criticism of the scribes and Pharisees (see also Lk 11.39-54). He said that not only would they themselves have no place in the kingdom of God, but sadly they made every effort to stop those who were seriously interested (v.13). He then pronounced various woes upon them and described them as fools and blind, blind guides, etc., warning them that because of their hypocrisy and mere pretence they "shall receive the greater damnation" (v.14). They "indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full…of all uncleanness" (v.27). What a scathing condemnation of these most religious men! The Pharisees were more concerned with clean hands than a clean heart, and "all their works they do for to be seen of men" (v.5). Things they also did to make themselves conspicuous included the wearing at prayer-time of phylacteries - short portions of Scripture contained inside small black calf-skin boxes and worn on the forehead and the left arm (facing the heart) in supposed obedience to Deuteronomy 6.8 and 11.18. These phylacteries were held in place by oversized, noticeable bindings - as well as the deliberate widening of the fringes of their outer garments (see Mt 23.5 and Num 15.38). However, God makes His own true estimate of such people and "whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted" (Mt 23.12). The Lord Jesus warned His disciples to "Beware ye of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy" (Lk 12.1), where hypocrisy comes from two Greek words meaning the "acting of a theatrical part" (Oxford Dictionary).

The Pharisees, in an unexpected coalition with the chief priests, obviously acted towards the Lord Jesus out of jealousy and fear, saying, "all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation" (Jn 11.48). Then Caiaphas the high priest unwittingly prophesied that "one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not" (v.50). The Pharisees (in general) are not mentioned in the trial of the Lord Jesus. The last thing we read about them in the Gospels is that "the chief priests and Pharisees" (Jn 18.3) arranged for Judas to lead soldiers to arrest the Lord Jesus.

To be continued.


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