Monday, November 12, 2007

Christ and the Pharisees

Mark has chronicled in the first seventeen verses of his second chapter Christ forgiving the sins of the paralytic (and His friends) as well as His dismissal of the publican's sins. The individuals in both cases were aware of their sinful conditions, aware of their need of a Savior, and all recognized that Jesus was the Savior. Christ's dealing with the paralytic and publican did not happen in secret. While Christ interacted with both the paralytic and the publican, there was a group of men in the background who were less enthused with Jesus as were the penitent. These men were the scribes and Pharisees; the pious, religious, moral majority of their day. These men were unwilling to recognize and admit their own sinfulness, and unwilling to recognize that Jesus was the One to whom they should repent. Therefore they murmured more than marveled at the words and works of Jesus.

Their disdain bubbled to the surface while at Levi the tax collector's feast. First they questioned the disciples: "How is it that he eateth and drinketh with publicans and sinners?" Christ answered for His disciples, and the answer was the quintessential statement of Christianity: "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." That is the core message of the Gospel. The Gospel is good news, but good news is only really good when you understand the bad news. The bad news is that all men are sinners incapable of saving themselves. The bad news is that sin pays wages, and the wages of sin is death.

The good news is that Jesus came to save sinners! That is terrific news because only Jesus can save sinners. He is the way the truth and the life, no man comes to the Father except through Jesus. Jesus referred to Himself as the Bread and Water of life. He said that whoever came to Him would not hunger, and whoever believed in Him would never thirst. Only a sinner will come to eat the Bread of life and drink the Water of life. The self-righteous will not, because the self-righteous refuse to recognize that their bread and water does not and cannot satisfy the soul. The self-righteous person trusts not in the Savior but in self…in religion…in tradition…in morally upright behavior…in anything/anyone but the Savior.

In verses 18-22 of Mark's second chapter the scribes and Pharisees are no longer content to murmur about Jesus within themselves or to His disciples. They take their criticisms straight to the source. We are told…

And the disciples of John and of the Pharisees used to fast: and they come and say unto him, "Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but thy disciples fast not?" And Jesus said unto them, "Can the children of the bridechamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days. No man also seweth a piece of new cloth on an old garment: else the new piece that filled it up taketh away from the old, and the rent is made worse. And no man putteth new wine into old bottles: else the new wine doth burst the bottles, and the wine is spilled, and the bottles will be marred: but new wine must be put into new bottles."

That is an interesting passage which can create many questions in one's mind. Let me put your mind to ease. The focus of this passage is not sewing or social drinking. The focus of this passage, which the two metaphors ingeniously illustrate, is the gospel's exclusivity. The gospel of Jesus Christ (Paul also refers to it as "the gospel of the grace of God"Acts 20:24) is absolutely unique; it is incompatible with any and all other belief systems. The Gospel may not be mixed with any "ism", "osophy", "ology", or religion.

The Gospel stands alone. The gospel is entirely exclusive; it does not mingle, mix, or accommodate other religions In fact, the Gospel replaces all other religions. This must be especially understood in our time; an era that has denied absolute truth and redefined tolerance of religion to mean "all religions are equally true". The prevailing thought of our day is that we're all headed for the same destination; we're just going to arrive from different starting points.

In Mark 2:18-22 Jesus said otherwise.

The Pharisees were unhappy with Jesus because He said to the paralytic "Thy sins be forgiven thee." They rightly believed that only God can forgive sins, but they wrongly decided that He was a blasphemer for claiming such authority. Jesus proved that He had the authority to forgive the man's sins by demonstrating the power to heal the man's body. His reputation was further damaged with the Pharisees when He called a publican to be His follower, and then feasted with the publican and all his immoral friends.

In a late night conversation with Jesus, the respected Pharisee Nicodemus said, "We know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him." Yet Christ ignored the rituals, ceremonies, and traditions of the Pharisees. He associated with tax gatherers and prostitutes. He never observed their religious traditions. This confused and annoyed the Pharisees. So it was that either during the feast at Levi's house, or directing following it, Jesus was approached by these people, along with the disciples of John, and asked a question.

Why were some of John's disciples connected with the Pharisees? When you read "disciples of John" you probably think of the good guys, but in this case they seem to be siding with the Pharisees. John the Baptist had faithfully declared that Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. John understood that his ministry was one of preparation, and once Jesus' ministry began his would fade away. "He must increase, but I must decrease" he said in John 3:30. Some of John's disciples became Jesus' disciples (John 1:40); which was the point of John's ministry in the first place. There remained, however, men who called themselves John's disciples, but who were not followers of Christ. These men were not saved. Years later the apostle Paul encountered twelve men in Ephesus who considered themselves disciples of John but who were unsaved (Acts 19:1-7). Don't be confused by the fact that the Pharisees and the disciples of John are linked together in this passage.

The Examination - v. 18

Jesus was asked: "Why do John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?" He is really being asked, "How come your religion is so different than ours?" The Pharisaic traditions of Jesus' time held to three major expressions: fasting, almsgiving, and prayers. For each expression there was a certain routine and schedule to follow, and the major goal for this routine was not to draw closer to God but to appear righteous before men. These external, lifeless rituals were the substance of their religion, and they wanted to know why Jesus' approach was so different?"

I refer to these practices as Pharisaic traditions because the OT commanded that the people fast only once a year, and that was on the Day of Atonement; a day of national repentance and forgiveness (Leviticus 16:29-31). No other fasts were required. Of course, there were occasions in the Old Testament when the Jews fasted because of some serious situation which they faced. When Haman's genocidal plot was made known the Jews fasted (Esther 4:15-17). When David's illegitimate son was stricken by God as punishment for David's adultery and murder; David fasted (2 Samuel 12:15-16). There were fasts in the Old Testament other than the required Day of Atonement fast, but they were always associated with grief and mourning over some serious issue. They were not required. They were voluntarily observed.

Judaism had decided that fasting looked spiritual, and since they wanted to be really spiritual they could not only fast once a year. Two days a week were set apart for fasts: Monday and Thursday, and these fasts were observed just so people could observe them being "spiritual". You see, they don't see religion as a matter of humility, sinfulness, repentance, and followership. They saw religion as a matter of ceremony and ritual.

"How come your practice is so different from ours? Why don't you do what we do?" The answer is because Jesus was no hypocrite. The Pharisees were, and that is not just my opinion; that is the assessment of Christ.

  • Matthew 6:2 – "Therefore when thou doest [thine] alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward."
  • Matthew 6:5 – "And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites [are]: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward."
  • Matthew 6:16 – "Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward."

These men observed heartless habits instead of robust routines. They gave alms, recited prayers, and regularly fasted; all done with an ostentatious flair so as to be seen by all. Paul called it a "desire to make a fair show in the flesh" (Galatians 6:12). Jesus said that such men, then and now have their reward. It is not a reward that one takes into eternity.

The Explanation - vv. 19-20

Jesus could not have been clearer about why He had come. He came to convert sinners, not to complement the self-righteous – "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." He now explains that He came to bring gladness not sadness. The extra-Biblical traditions of the Pharisees had turned the OT law into a dour faced, burdensome, oppressive religion that weighed down the people with rules and regulations that were impossible and unnecessary to obey. Jesus flatly condemned that legalistic expression of faith in Matthew 23:4-5a, 25-28:

For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay [them] on men's shoulders; but they [themselves] will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do for to be seen of men…Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. [Thou] blind Pharisee, cleanse first that [which is] within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead [men's] bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.
These blind guides of Israel had made religious life comparable to a funeral dirge. Christ said that life is to be likened to a wedding! A wedding is a time of joy and celebration. R. Kent Hughes' writes in his commentary (in this section Hughes quotes from William Barclay's The Gospel of Mark):

After an ancient Jewish wedding, the couple did not honeymoon, but stayed at home for a week of open house in which there was continual feasting and celebration. For the hardworking, this was traditionally considered to be the happiest week in their lives. The bride and groom were treated like a king and queen that week (sometimes they even wore crowns). They were attended by chosen friends known as 'guests of the bridegroom', which means literally, 'children of the bride chamber.' Their guests were exempted from all fasting through a rabbinical ruling which said, 'All in attendance on the bridegroom are relieved of all religious observances which would lessen their joy.'

This is simply obvious. You don't fast at a wedding, because a wedding is a celebration. I suppose a father could say, "Well I am so upset that my daughter is marrying this guy that there will be no cake, there will be no refreshments, there will be no punch and there will be no food, we will be fasting." I suppose that could happen. But that's not normally the case. Jesus said, "As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast." To put it another way, Christ said to them, "Your ritual is out of sync with reality." Disregarding what God was doing in their midst, these guys continued to crank out their heartless habits, and had disconnected reality from the ritual.

Their system was only external, disconnected from reality. If you go through any religious exercise apart from an honest, heart attitude; it is ritual only and nothing more. If fast just to fast, if you pray just to pray, if you go to church just to go to church, if you read the Bible just to read the Bible, if you sing a song just to sing a song, then you've missed it.

…to be continued

1 comment:

Jesieblogjourney said...

When I was a young Christian, I was filled with activities but missed the point too. As I mature in my walk with the Lord, I can't imagine my life without Him!

The Pharisees were out to test and corner Jesus. They're hypocrites who thought so highly of themselves. Unfortunately, we have many people who are like the Pharisees living among our midst today.