Andrew McFarland Campbell  

Christ and the Pharisees

These exhortations were given by me between 1999 and 2005. That was a long time ago, and I have grown a lot since then. They may not reflect my current beliefs.

For I say unto you, [said Christ in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:20] That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.

Harsh words, if you were a first century scribe or Pharisee.

But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! [he said a few days before his arrest, Matthew 23:13-15] for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.

Christ made it abundantly clear to the scribes and Pharisees that they were totally wrong. Their whole attitude, their whole approach, to the word of God was distorted and twisted. There is no particular record of him sugaring the pill. He never seems to reach out to them.

On the other hand, he was continually reaching out to the average first century Jew. “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” “Go and sin no more.” “Take up your bed and walk.”

Does that seem strange? Christ’s life was probably the most profound religious event ever to happen. You would have thought the people who would have responded best would have been the religious leaders, the people that knew the sceptre had passed from Judah, the people who must have been seeking Shiloh.

It has even been suggested that Christ should have preached in a more positive way to the scribes and Pharisees. He should have gone to them in gentleness in the same way that he went, for example, to the woman of Samaria. Could it almost be that Christ didn’t want the scribes and Pharisees to be saved?

That, of course, is nonsense.

The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.(2 Peter 3:9)

Why then didn’t Christ preach to the scribes and Pharisees instead of just condemning them? The answer of course is that Christ did preach to the scribes and Pharisees. Many, perhaps even most, of them did not respond, but some did.

Preaching comes in all sorts of forms. There is more to preaching than giving a formal talk or lecture. I’ve found that discussion is probably the best way to preach. People respond better when they are in conversation with you, rather than when you are talking to them.

How old was Christ at the time of his first recorded preaching effort, and who was that preaching directed at?

Luke Chapter 2, verses 40 to 52:

And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him. Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast. And when they had fulfilled the days, as they returned, the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem; and Joseph and his mother knew not of it. But they, supposing him to have been in the company, went a day’s journey; and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintance. And when they found him not, they turned back again to Jerusalem, seeking him. And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions. And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers. And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing. And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business? And they understood not the saying which he spake unto them. And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them: but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.

The first record time Christ preached, he was 12 years old, and he preached to the doctors in the temple. Surely that included the scribes and Pharisees. Christ didn’t neglect the scribes and Pharisees.

During his formal ministry Christ preached in various locations. He preached to crowds, he preached to individuals. He preached in the synagogues, he preached in the Temple. Suppose you had an important message, and you wanted everyone to hear it. You can’t be everywhere, so you go to the best places for spreading that message. Christ preached in the synagogues and the Temple at least partly because that is where people would have been in a religious frame of mind. They went to those places to think about the things of God. Where do you think the scribes and Pharisees spent their time? The average scribe or Pharisee probably spent more time in the synagogues and Temple than the average fisherman or tax collector. Far from being neglected in Christ’s ministry, the scribes and Pharisees were probably exposed to more of him than the average resident of first century Israel.

We also know of at least two Pharisees who responded to Christ’s preaching.

There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.( John 3:1-2)

Nicodemus was a Pharisee, Nicodemus responded to Christ’s preaching, and Nicodemus came to Christ, and Christ reached out to him as surely as he reached out to anyone that approached him with sincerity. There must have been others as well. “Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God”. Not “Rabbi, I know”, but “Rabbi we know”. I wonder how many other Pharisees knew Christ was from God?

Luke 7:36 to 40:

And one of the Pharisees desired him that he would eat with him. And he went into the Pharisee’s house, and sat down to meat. And, behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster box of ointment, And stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee which had bidden him saw it, he spake within himself, saying, This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner. And Jesus answering said unto him, Simon, I have somewhat to say unto thee. And he saith, Master, say on.

Here we have Simon the Pharisee. He’s responded to Christ’s preaching. Maybe not with the full conviction of Nicodemus, but he has responded enough to invite Christ into his home, and he listens to him. Christ reaches out to Simon, just as we would expect him to. He doesn’t reject Simon because he is a Pharisee.

Lets go back to Nicodemus. “Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.”

It is very sad, but simply seeing miracles does not make a person a faithful child of God. Think of Pharaoh, taking his army through the Red sea, it’s waters parted for the Hebrews. Think of the unfaithful Children of Israel in their indestructible clothing, fed by the manna as they walked through the wilderness.

Christ could have performed many more miracles than he did. His life could have been much more spectacular. Suppose he had died on the Cross, and had risen from the dead immediately, his skin shining, perhaps surrounded by legions of angels, who could have doubted his claims then? Why didn’t that happen? Because it wouldn’t have changed people in any fundamental way. They would have believed he was the son of God, but that would have been the only change. They would still have been reckless, disobedient. The pearls of Christ’s resurrection would have been cast before swine.

Look at how the religious establishment reacted to the healing of the man born blind. “This man is not of God,” said some of the Pharisees “because he keepeth not the sabbath day.”(John 9:16) Look at how they reacted to the healing at the pool of Bethsesda. Instead of being amazed that the man was healed, they were shocked that he was carrying his bed on the Sabbath. They were outraged that Christ had performed a miracle on the Sabbath, rather than being overawed that he had performed a miracle. Have you ever noticed that the didn’t doubt that the man was healed? They knew it was a miracle and they didn’t like it.

Christ knew what they were like, and how they would react. It was the opposite of preaching to the converted: he was not preaching to the unconvertible.

Matthew 12:38-40:

Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from thee. But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas: For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

Christ knew that performing a miracle to show the scribes and Pharisees he was the son of God would not work. He could do anything for them, and they still wouldn’t believe, just as Pharaoh’s army went through the parted Red Sea, just as the Children of Israel disobeyed in the wilderness.

The whole situation is summed up in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.

Then [the Rich Man] said [to Abraham], I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father’s house: For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment. Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.(Luke 16:31)

If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead. If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, even if they see the sign of the prophet Jonah. They will not be persuaded, end of story.

Christ didn’t neglect the scribes and Pharisees in his preaching. He gave them at least as much opportunity to listen as he gave anyone. He dealt with them as individuals using the same love and compassion that he used with anyone. Some of the scribes and Pharisees didn’t listen, they refused to listen.

This is exhortation, not exposition. It would be wrong for me to stop here, with only the image of the latter day Pharaohs in our minds. It is important that we do remember them. They were sufficiently stubborn that even when they witnessed miracles, or witnessed the effects of miracles, they did not believe that Jesus was Christ.

Sometimes we wonder why we are being given a particular hardship, why our lives are being taken in a particular direction. The scribes and Pharisees are an example of why. Sometimes human beings are just too pig headed. We just can’t take a hint.

Other times human beings are quite different. Mark 9, verses 17-27:

And one of the multitude answered and said, Master, I have brought unto thee my son, which hath a dumb spirit; And wheresoever he taketh him, he teareth him: and he foameth, and gnasheth with his teeth, and pineth away: and I spake to thy disciples that they should cast him out; and they could not. He answereth him, and saith, O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you? bring him unto me. And they brought him unto him: and when he saw him, straightway the spirit tare him; and he fell on the ground, and wallowed foaming. And he asked his father, How long is it ago since this came unto him? And he said, Of a child. And ofttimes it hath cast him into the fire, and into the waters, to destroy him: but if thou canst do any thing, have compassion on us, and help us. Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth. And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief. When Jesus saw that the people came running together, he rebuked the foul spirit, saying unto him, Thou dumb and deaf spirit, I charge thee, come out of him, and enter no more into him. And the spirit cried, and rent him sore, and came out of him: and he was as one dead; insomuch that many said, He is dead. But Jesus took him by the hand, and lifted him up; and he arose.

Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.

I suggest that that sentence summarises the difference between that man, and the scribes and Pharisees. “I believe, help my unbelief” is receptive to being helped. “If you are the son of God show us a sign” will never be satisfied.

“I believe, help my unbelief” should be our attitude. That should be the thought as we share the bread and the wine.

And we should rejoice because Christ had the compassion to reach out to everyone, to preach to everyone, even those he knew would not respond.

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