Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: pharisees

Jesus as agent provocateur

Doesn’t it appear that Jesus deliberately did things that he knew would provoke the Pharisees to reveal their lack of compassion?

Jesus healed many people of their blindness; in some cases he touched their eyes, in other cases there was no physical contact, he simply declared them healed and they were. Why then did he make such a production out of healing the blind man in the incident recorded in the ninth chapter of the gospel of John? He spat on the ground, made mud and spread it on the man’s eyes and told him to go wash in the Pool of Siloam. What was the point of that?

Well, it was the Sabbath. The work of making mud and spreading it on the eyes of the blind man was a violation of the Sabbath, at least in the eyes of the Pharisees.

Jesus went on his way and left the man to face the outrage of the Pharisees. It was not slow in coming: “This man is not of God, because he keepeth not the sabbath day;” “We know this man is a sinner.” When the formerly blind man did not agree with that judgment, they excommunicated him from the synagogue. (“cast him out” verse 34).

Towards the end of the chapter, Jesus returns to talk with the formerly blind man, who now acknowledges him to be the Son of God. By this time he had seen what the Pharisees were really like, no doubt so had many of the bystanders.

“Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:10).

The Pharisees were exceedingly zealous for the law, but could not get their heads around the idea that love had any place in fulfilling the law. They were sure that they had caught Jesus in flagrant violation of the law. In reality, He had snared them into revealing their lack of love.

In the end the Pharisees were so outraged by Jesus’ continual challenges to their authority that they raised a mob to demand that He be crucified. The crucifixion, rather than being the triumph of the Pharisees and the forces of darkness, was where they were defeated. “Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross; and having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it” (Colossians 2:14-15).

Love is always subversive of the forces of evil.

What is “the world”?

In 1 John 2:15-17, the apostle delivers a clear warning to Christians about loving the world and the things of the world: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.  For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.  And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.”

This makes it very tempting for well-meaning believers to compile a list of things that are “worldly” and to exercise great care to avoid such things. Much like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. And just like the Pharisees we can scrupulously avoid things and still be motivated by lust and pride. We may be able to hide that from ourselves, but not from others.

The many repetitions of “world” in the above passage all translate the Greek word “kosmos”, which refers to the physical world and the physical things in it. There are many other passages in the New Testament that speak of the “world” where the Greek word is “aion.” This word has a wide range of meaning, but when it is translated “world” it refers not to physical things, but to spirits and attitudes that prevail at a certain era and place. French Bibles usually use a word that means “age” or “this present age”.

This brings us much closer to the root of what we call worldliness. There is no inherent evil in a physical object, but many of the ideas that seem to be in the air we breathe convey attitudes that are directly contrary to the way of Christ.

Romans 12:2 is an example of such Scripture passages and the inference to our way of thinking is often missed.  “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” “This world” is translated “the present age” in French Bibles. Even in English, the meaning should be clear if we would stop and consider the whole verse. We are not to pattern our way of thinking after the prevailing ideas of the age we live in, but allow the Holy Spirit to renew our minds to know what is truly meaningful and important.

There are many other verses where aion is translated world in English and age or present age in French. Here are a few: Matthew 13:22  – “He also that received seed among the thorns is he that heareth the word; and the care of this world  and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful.” 1 Corinthians 2:6 – “Howbeit we speak wisdom among them that are perfect: yet not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world, that come to nought.” 2 Corinthians 4:4 – “In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them.” Galatians 1:4 – “Who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father.”

I think zeitgeist might be better understood than world in these passages.” Zeitgeist: a pattern of thought or feeling characteristic of a particular period of time.” It comes from German words meaning spirit of the times. This is the “world” that is most dangerous and deceptive for one who wants to follow Christ.

They’ll know we are Christians by our ______

I was walking through the upper shopping level of Midtown Plaza on Wednesday and noticed an elderly Sikh couple standing at the top of an escalator. The man made a few false starts, then grasped the moving handrail and stepped firmly on to the joint between two treads. He almost lost his balance as the front tread dropped away from under his feet, but found his footing and rode safely down. His wife watched, then put her foot forward and quickly pulled it back. She was almost blocking access to the escalator as she repeated this manoeuvre several times. None of those waiting seemed impatient, all tried in some way to be helpful. Finally a man stepped on in front of her and motioned her to follow. He kept an eye on her all the way down to see that she didn’t lose her balance, then went his way. I was touched by the patience and kindness shown by busy people to this old couple who were obviously new to this part of the world.

The news media had been carrying stories for several days about five young teens who had ventured out on a lake in northern Saskatchewan and disappeared. They had been found the previous day on an island, where they had broken into a wilderness resort for shelter and food. On Wednesday it was reported that there appeared to be a lot more damage to the resort lodge than would have been necessary for mere survival.

An hour after witnessing the scene at the Midtown, I was sipping a coffee in a Christian book store. Not far from me, two elderly couples were discussing the news of the lost teens and the damage to the lodge. “They ought to be horsewhipped!” one man said.

As Christians we endeavour to inculcate principles of good behaviour and respect for the property of others. This is as it should be. Does this then give us authority to judge others for every deviation from our standard? The contrast between the two scenes was stark: patient compassion on one hand and impatient condemnation on the other.

The man went on to explain himself. I didn’t hear nearly all of what he said, but it seemed that in his own eyes he was being completely fair and reasonable. But the news reports haven’t even revealed what kind of damage was done, and it’s not an established fact that these young people were responsible for all the damage. It could be that they broke into a liquor cabinet and had a wild party. But we don’t know that.

What would an unbeliever have concluded if he had been able to observe both scenes? That non-Christians are kind, caring and compassionate and Christians are not? That surely is not the impression we want to give.

“To day if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts” (Hebrews 3:15).

“For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:29). We should never take this to mean that we must be more self-righteous than the scribes and Pharisees.

The world turned upside down

The scribes and Pharisees came to Jesus with a woman who had been caught in adultery, reminded Him that the law required that such a person be stoned, and asked what He had to say. Jesus only answer was to stoop down and write on the ground. One by one the accusers left.

The story is familiar, but gives rise to the question of what Jesus wrote on the ground. Evidently it was not aimless doodling. There was a purpose to His action and it made the accusers feel that they were better off elsewhere. But why? That has been fodder for many an interesting discussion where various speculations were shared and we came no closer to understanding just what had taken place.

Several weeks ago I had coffee with an acquaintance who has given much time to studying Scripture and history. He mentioned that he had purchased a commentary on the New Testament written by a Jew. This commentator said that the scribes and Pharisees, being very well versed in Scripture, would have immediately associated Jesus’ actions with Jeremiah 17:13:

“O LORD, the hope of Israel, all that forsake thee shall be ashamed, and they that depart from me shall be written in the earth, because they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living waters.”

Now, I cannot say for certain that this was the case, but it is really the most plausible explanation that I have heard. The AV translation says “in the earth” in Jeremiah and “on the ground” in the Gospel of John. The Louis Segond French translation says “sur la terre” in both places.

The implication would be that the scribes and Pharisees, who were so well versed in the law, and so scrupulous and righteous in obeying the law, had their names written in the earth. Then, when Jesus told the sinful woman “neither do I condemn thee,” the inference was that her name was now written in heaven.

This is the world turned upside down; and that is what Jesus came to do. We need to be reminded often that Jesus did not come for the righteous, but to call sinners to repentance.

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild

GENTLE Jesus, meek and mild,
Look upon a little child,
Pity my simplicity,
Suffer me to come to Thee:

Fain I would to Thee be brought,
Dearest God, forbid it not:
Give me, dearest God, a place,
In the kingdom of thy grace.

-Charles Wesley

The words of the song give us an appealing description of our Lord and Saviour. There is a snare in the way, however, if the way we define gentle, meek and mild comes to resemble wimpiness. If we think that we are following “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” when we shrink back from openly confessing our faith in Him, we have fallen into the snare.

What picture do the gospels give of this gentle and meek Jesus? It is recorded in John chapter eight that the Pharisees brought a woman to Jesus who had been captured in the very act of adultery and told Him that the law of Moses said she should be stoned. Jesus did not argue, He simply said “Very well then, whichever of you has no sin may cast the first stone.” Then He stooped down and wrote in the dust. We may safely assume that He was not playing tic-tac-toe or drawing funny faces. It appears that He wrote things that made each of them feel very uncomfortable and they decided one by one that they had urgent business elsewhere.

In chapter nine Jesus encounters a man who was born blind. In other instances He simply spoke a word to heal the blind or raise the dead. Here He spits on the ground, takes the mud, smears it on the man’s eyes and tells him to go wash in the pool of Siloam. Why such an elaborate procedure in this one instance? The Bible does not say, but from the context it appears that Jesus considered this a teachable moment, an opportunity to reveal the hardness of the Pharisee’s hearts. It was the Sabbath day and Jesus’ method of healing on this occasion involved work on His part and on the part of the man healed. The blind man appears to have had his eyes opened in more ways than one. He was excommunicated from the synagogue for working on the Sabbath and was not greatly troubled by it, because he had found the Son of God.

In His visit with the Samaritan woman in John chapter four, Jesus flouts the rules of proper Jewish etiquette. It was not considered proper to visit alone with a woman, nor to ask a woman for a drink. The fault was compounded by the fact that Samaritans were considered to be unclean from birth. Yet Jesus sat there at the well engaging in a banter with this woman that gently led into the revelation of the woman’s marital status. We are tempted to pause here and pass a moral judgement on this woman. Remember, though, that the Samaritans had the Pentateuch and the law of Moses, which made no provision for a woman to divorce her husband. We are not told what fault, or whim, caused her to be rejected and divorced by five men. Nor do we need to know, it was a common practice, both among the Jews and the Samaritans. Jesus’ statement that “he whom thou now hast is not thy husband” is somewhat enigmatic. It may mean nothing more than that she was espoused to a sixth man, but not yet married.

The disciples were astonished to find Jesus sitting and visiting with this Samaritan woman. No doubt they were even more ill at ease when Jesus decided to enter this Samaritan town, accept the hospitality of Samaritans, eat Samaritan food and teach the way of salvation to Samaritans. These were the “fields white unto harvest” that the disciples were unable to see at first, due to their Jewish prejudices.

In all these examples we see Jesus as genuinely meek and mild, yet His conduct can in no way be described as wimpy. In other circumstances, we observe that Jesus was nowhere near so gentle with those he saw to be hypocrites. Even in those circumstances, he did not fly into fits of rage, or make baseless accusations. He just bluntly spoke the truth.

All these examples lead me to conclude that if it is my custom as a professing believer to go to great pains to avoid any danger of confrontation for what I believe, I cannot truly claim to be a follower of Jesus.

All things to all men

Saul of Tarsus grew up in a box; a box labelled PHARISEE.  His father was a Pharisee and no doubt taught Saul the rules of the box from infancy.  In his youth, he studied under Gamaliel in Jerusalem.  Saul was intimately acquainted with every corner of the Pharisee box and believed that God only loved those who dwelt in that box.

After Saul of Tarsus met Jesus on the road to Damascus and became Paul the apostle, he was finished with boxes.  Nevertheless, he still understood those who lived in boxes and could not see over the top of their own box.  This is the meaning of his famous statement in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23:

For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more.  And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; to them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law.  To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.  And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you.”

I don’t think Paul was saying he had become a chameleon who could blend into a box of any size and shape, with any shade of meaning.  I believe he meant that he could relate to the people dwelling in all those boxes, the way they saw the world and their fears of stepping out of their own little boxes.  His goal was to help them see that they were prisoners in their boxes and to bring news of salvation in a way that answered their fears.

We have all been raised in a box of some kind.  Some have religious labels, some have labels that claim to be nonreligious or even antireligious.  Nevertheless, every box has a fixed system of beliefs, a way of seeing the world and a doctrine of what makes life meaningful.  Anarchists, radical environmentalists, street gangs, young people hooked on social media, all are in boxes, none of them feel free to walk away from their box and the other people in it.

When someone in one of those boxes meets Jesus and is set free from the box he or she has been living in, that person usually has a good idea of how to reach out to others in the box that he came from.  But where are the people like Paul who can reach out to people in any kind of box?

This is a problem among evangelical Christians today.  Most of them have grown up in a box labelled EVANGELICAL CHRISTIAN and find it very difficult to find words to relate to people who have come from other boxes.  They try to welcome such people with a seeker friendly worship style and an accommodation to almost any kind of lifestyle.  Yet many of these people never feel like they really belong in the Evangelical box.

I’m afraid that too often we forget that before speaking seeker-friendly words, we need to open our hearts to understand what people are going through in their life, what they are feeling, what is causing them pain.  If others feel from us that we can understand, at least in part, their pain, they are more likely to believe we can help them find relief for that pain.

There is only one source for that relief, Jesus Christ, only one way to find it, and that way is narrow.  Those who choose that way must renounce everything that will hinder them on that way and seek to live in the very centre of the will of God the Father.  That is the way of a blessed and fulfilling life, but we cannot convince anyone of that with glib answers.  If we sound like a telemarketer who has to read her whole script, despite the objections raised or questions asked, most people will just hang up on us.

How can we become like Paul, “all things to all men?”  It starts when we realize that growing up in a certain box did not make us better people than those in other boxes.  There would have been no need for Jesus to come if salvation were possible through living in a certain box.

Paul makes a remarkable statement in Philippians 3:8, where he compares the advantages of the box he used to live in to a pile of manure.  Once he saw that, it was not a stumbling block to him to approach the manure piles where others were living.

Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand – conclusion

True prophets of God have always told people the things they needed to hear, not what they wanted and expected to hear.  John the Baptist taught that being a natural descendant of Abraham did not qualify one to belong to the kingdom of God, only repentance that brought forth good fruit would do.  The Pharisees were held in high regard among the people for the sanctity of their lives.  They taught that a meticulous observation of every tenet of the law was necessary for salvation.  They believed they were producing good fruit in abundance and had no need of repentance.  John, in calling them vipers, implied that there was a deadly poison in their teaching.

However, many in the crowd of common people who heard John’s message asked anxiously: “What shall we do then?”.  What kind of fruit will be evidence of true repentance?  In brief, John’s response to them was to be charitable and merciful, to be mindful of the needs of others.

The publicans (tax collectors) asked the same question.  Their position afforded many opportunities to enrich themselves at the expense of others.  Yet taxes, and therefore tax collectors, are necessary for the orderly functioning of society.  John did not tell the Publicans that they were in the wrong line of work, he instructed them to be scrupulously honest.

Even some soldiers asked: “And what shall we do?”  John’s answers apply to working people everywhere.  Do not seek to intimidate others (this is the meaning of the word translated “do violence”), don’t gossip or spread false stories about others, be content with what you are paid.

John told people they needed to be baptized.  He meant something more than water baptism, for he said: “I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire” (Luke 3:16).  It is this Holy Ghost baptism that produces “fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8).

Jesus attested to the validity of John’s baptism by requesting to be baptized by him, “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15).  John’s baptism was a forerunner of Christian baptism, as it looked forward to the baptism of the Holy Spirit.  The baptism instituted on the day of Pentecost, and  practised by the Church of God since then, goes a step further.  It is a witness that the person baptized has already repented and received the baptism of the Holy Spirit and it is the way of entrance into the fellowship of true believers in the church.

John taught that self-righteousness was not what God was looking for.  His answers to the people, the publicans and the soldiers teach that repentance will bridge the barrier between God and men and between people from all levels of society.

What kind of people do we think we are?

An encounter between Jesus and a group of Pharisees is recorded in the 18th chapter of the gospel of Luke.  The Pharisees are described as “certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.”  Jesus then told a parable of a pharisee and a publican (usually considered by the Jews to be unethical in the way they collected taxes) who went to the temple to pray.  In the parable, the Pharisee says: “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.”  One gets the impression from Luke’s history that the Pharisees would not have disagreed with this description of their self-esteem.

That’s disgusting!  Who did these guys think they were anyway?

Umm….   Wait a minute.  Is it possible that Jesus told that parable for my benefit?  Have I never had thoughts that sounded pretty much like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable?  If I start to think that I am better than that Pharisee, could it be that I have begun to think just like he did?

Ouch!  That really hurts.

It hurt even more the first time.  That was back in 1970.  I was young, not sure if I really believed in God or if I could believe the Bible, but I was beginning to consider it.  I thought that if there was a God, He would surely see that I was doing the best I could under the circumstances.  Things were not going well for me, but all the things that were going wrong were the fault of other people.

One afternoon, I opened the Bible at random and read the first verse that my eyes lit on.  That verse told me “So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:16).  I had an instant picture of someone who had taken a sip of something disgusting and wanted to get that awful taste out of his mouth.  That was what I was to God.  All of a sudden, I knew that I could blame no one but myself for the problems in my life and that I needed help.

I really had no idea what I was getting into when I asked God for that help, but that was the major turning point in my life.  It seems that I still need periodic reminders that on my own, without God, I am “wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” (verse 17).

After one has been a Christian for a number of years, there is a temptation to feel that now I have got it all together, I understand what it takes to lead a devout and holy life, and thus I am a better person than all those other people who do not have this understanding.

That is Pharisaism, and Jesus constantly warned about it.  The Pharisees complained that Jesus kept company with sinners and Jesus upbraided them for the hardness of their hearts.  “ Jesus saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you” (Matthew 21:31).

What kind of people do we think we are?

%d bloggers like this: