“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
An Example of Humility
In the early 16th century, there was a reformer named John Bradford who taught at the university of Cambridge. His companions called him “Holy Bradford” – not because he was a sanctimonious jerk, but because he genuinely wanted to think, act, talk, and feel the way that Jesus does. In our day and age, we normally associate the idea of holiness with judgement, with isolation from or elevation above the world. But Bradford’s friends record a much different reaction from him:
“When he saw any drunk, or heard any swear, would railingly complain, ‘Lord, I have a drunken head; Lord, I have a drunken heart.’” He said, “By the sight of other’s sin, men may learn to bewail their own sinfulness.”
There is, in Bradford’s prayer, the opposite of the Pharisee’s prayer: where the Pharisee says “Oh Lord, thank you that you have not made me like other men,” Bradford prays “Oh Lord, forgive me, for I am just like other men.”
Bradford is repeating in his life what Paul tells us in Romans 2:1 – “Therefore you have no excuse, o man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.” Paul is not saying we shouldn’t decide what is right and wrong – he is telling us that every time we look at something and say, “This is wrong,” we actually end up indicting ourselves. Nobody can live up to even their own standards.
John Bradford recognized what it meant to have a gospel understanding of the sin around him: their sin reveals our sin and demands we fly back to the cross.
Not Just “Their Problem”
What do we normally think about when we hear the word “Pharisee”? The word has become a synonym for “hypocrite”, a “holier-than-thou” bible-thumper who cares far more about his traditions and rules than loving people or Jesus. We may remember them as the most aggressive of Christ’s enemies during his earthly ministry, the ones he called a “brood of vipers,” “whitewashed tombs,” and “sons of the devil”. We think the Pharisees were petty, pedantic, power-hungry, prideful people.
You know, not like us.
After all, we would never look down our noses at people who didn’t live up to our standards. We wouldn’t use our religious involvement for social gain, or get upset when someone calls us out on our sin. And we would never, ever think that we had a better standing with God than anyone else because of our doctrine or mercy work – not like those Pharisees did.
But who were the Pharisees really? They were a religiously conservative movement in Judaism. Israel had, by and far, lost its understanding and love for the Scriptures, and the Pharisees were dedicated to bringing it back. They were generous – they tithed everything that came into their hands. They knew the old testament texts backward and forward. They were zealous evangelists, willing to go “across sea and land to make one proselyte.” They were dedicated to pursuing righteousness – the word Pharisee means “set apart one”. You might translate that “holy one.” And you’ll remember that the apostle Peter commands us to “be holy, even as your Heavenly Father is holy.”
In other words, the Pharisees behaved outwardly far more like God’s people than we usually do.
“Ah,” you will say, “but inwardly they were nothing like us – they judged people for not being able to live up to their laws and traditions, and I would never do that!”
But, you see, you just have. When we look down our noses at the Pharisees for looking down their noses at sinners, we commit the same crime that they did: we are claiming to be righteous in our own right. Because we “don’t judge”, we have judged ourselves to be better than them. We have become Pharisees about being Pharisees. We have created our own new laws and traditions and standards, and we smirk at everyone else who is not as gracious or welcoming or relaxed as we are.
We are calling others “guilty” while we believe we are innocent of their guilt.
We are hypocrites.
We are Pharisees.
A Merciful Warning
If you grew up in the Bible Belt, chances are you and your family went to church fairly regularly. Many of us were “youth group superstars” – we were the ones who there every time the doors were open, who always won the sword drills, who were called on to pray, who never missed a missions trip. And, if you were like me, that was where you found your identity.
Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing bad about those things. But for me, faith didn’t go any deeper than that. I didn’t know anything about repentance or love for Christ or longing to see the face of the Father or to experience the presence of the Spirit – I did things at church because, when I did, people loved me. I did everything to please men, not God.
But the warning the Pharisees have for us is that external holiness is not internal holiness; we may, in fact, be whitewashed tombs, outwardly beautiful and inwardly dead. Do we attend church services? Do we give tithes? Do we dedicate our time and energy to the spread of the kingdom? Do we pray? Good! So did the Pharisees – and to them Christ says “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?” (Matt. 23:33)
We must examine ourselves. The Apostle Peter calls us to make our calling and election sure, to carefully examine our hearts. Are we working to please God, or man? Do we know of the depth of our sin, and our need for a savior? Have we any love for Christ? Are we trusting in his death and resurrection alone for our salvation? Or have we put the question to rest because we are relying on our performance and our attendance to earn us the name “Christian”? Terrifying as it is, we must grapple with the fact that Jesus himself tells us that in the day of his coming there will be those who call him “Lord, Lord,” and he will say “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”
A Beautiful Hope
All throughout the Scriptures, we see one pattern repeated over and over: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” As we begin to examine our lives, we are sure to find that radical Phariseeism is characteristic of much of what we thought was good about us – that even our prayers, at their most pious, are laced with selfishness and sin. We will find not one work fully righteous, not one merit to put to our name, and under the crushing weight of our sin we cry out “Wretched men that we are! Who will save us from these bodies of death?”
But the beautiful truth of the gospel is that Christ came to save those who were publicly sinful and those who were secretly sinful; among the Apostles was both a tax collector and a Pharisee. On the cross, Christ took both our obvious sinfulness and the ways that we try and twist our religion to hide from our need of him. His work alone transforms the stench of the idolatry-riddled prayers in Isaiah 1 into the sweet incense of Revelation 5.
Have you cast all your hope on Christ? Perhaps you have sat in corporate worship every Sunday of your life, heard the gospel preached a thousand times, yet you are still confident your performance is what gives you a standing in God’s sight. All your righteousness is filthy rags! It is not too late – you may still fly to the cross, abandoning all self-hope and leaning on him alone. If you hear his voice today, do not harden your heart – throw away all confidence in what you have done, and say with the Apostle Paul “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord!”
Do you know him already as the lover of your soul? Then remember that our work of repenting will not be done until glory, that your confidence cannot rest in the good things you have done since the Holy Spirit came to you any more than it could have before He brought you from death to life. Be constantly on guard! The temptation to pride, to plunder God of his praise, does not pass with conversion. Beg the Spirit to continue the work of changing your heart, to make flesh out of stone.
Do you find yourself crushed under the weight of your sin? Do you look out and see nothing but darkness in everything that you do? Do you feel like a hypocrite, do you fear that you will meet the same fate as the Pharisees? Know this: if you have come to Christ humbly repentant and acknowledging your sin, truly believing that He has given himself for you, it is not because you realized that – it is because the Holy Spirit has begun a good work in you. He will bring it to completion. He will never cast you away. Paul promises that nothing can separate us from the love of God to us in Christ Jesus – no, not even your own sin, for Christ has already drank the full cup of the Father’s wrath against you. You have been united with Christ; your hypocrisy, your lack of heart-love and heart-faith – they have been nailed to the cross with him, and his genuineness and perfect love are now your own.
There is no more condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. The stain has been purged from us – where once our righteousness was besotted rags, now it is a pleasing aroma to our Father. He delights in you, and he will never stop delighting in you. Look up from your sin, and see the face of your Savior! He has washed you clean; he has made you pure.
He takes hypocrites and makes them holy.
Prayer update: Second semester here at Arkansas has been crazy busy! We’ve already had Winter Conference, our bible studies have started back in full force, and things seem to keep speeding up. Pray for me and Mike as we seek to love these kids and faithfully show them Jesus. Pray for me also as I’m preaching for the first time ever in two weeks! Pray also that I’d be growing in my genuine love for Jesus. Also this fall we’re getting a girl intern as well! Her name is Lizzie Williams – please pray for her (emotionally, personally, spiritually, fundraising-ly) as she moves all the way from Athens, Georgia to join our team.
Fundraising update: As many of you know, all RUF staff fundraise 100% of their salaries each year. Assuming that my monthly donors are all able to continue with me, I’m about $9,250 away from being fully funded for year 2. If you’re able/interested in becoming part of my team, please let me know! (And another huge thank you to all of you who already support me, I literally cannot articulate how thankful I am for you!!)