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Good Guys, Bad Guys, or Us Guys?

Getting to know the Pharisees
This sermon is part of the sermon series "Adventures in Missing the Point". See series.


Anybody here grow up in a legalistic, fundamentalist type of church? The emphasis in those kinds of churches is on keeping the rules, lots and lots of rules. The preaching is always about those rules, and who in the church was breaking the rules. Only they weren't just the rules in the Bible. The thing that kept me off balance was the rules that no one had told me about. The unwritten rules.

As I grew older, I came to see that those rules usually influenced just the public behavior of people. They seldom influenced their private behavior. Those rules also influenced the biblical interpretations and theology in those kinds of churches.

For example, I grew up believing that when Jesus turned the water into wine, it was really Welch's Grape Juice. And that when King David grew so excited about bringing home the ark of the covenant that he danced before the Lord in his boxer shorts—he was really not dancing. See, if you understand the Greek, it says he was really just nodding his head and tapping his toes—fully dressed.

In fact, I'll bet you didn't know that, in spite of being born to a Jewish mother and growing up in Palestine, Jesus was a Caucasian—blond haired and blue eyed. He wore a military haircut and had no facial hair. He went with his cousin John to church every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and to prayer meeting on Wednesdays. He spoke in 16th century English and, if the pictures of him in our Sunday school curriculum were accurate, he always had an expression on his face like he had an upset stomach or someone in the band had stinky feet.

I was in seventh grade when our church had a youth lock-in. This was a little church, maybe a dozen kids. We were having a big time—drinking cokes, eating snacks, and playing Monopoly. Out of nowhere came Pastor Bob. Big man, always scowling, with pointy black cowboy boots and a King James Bible the size of a suitcase.

Just as I rolled the dice and was hoping to make it past go and collect my $200, Pastor Bob began to scream at us. It was amazing, really. His face turned so red I feared he would hemorrhage. As he began to roar, the pitch and volume went so high I really couldn't understand his words, but it had something to do with rolling dice in the house of the Lord. That was just before he kicked the table over and sent the Monopoly board, drinks, snacks and 11-year-old Grace Griffin sailing across the fellowship hall. Then, when he saw the Uno cards sitting there, ready to lead us further down the path of perdition, he gathered up all our games and threw them out the door into the snow.

Boy, I wish someone had told me that Monopoly was going to lead to a life of debauchery because, man, I would have passed on those cheap houses and held out for Boardwalk and Park Place. I mean, if you're going to hell anyway, you might as well live in the nice part of town.

My parents weren't really in the know on these kinds of rules, either, and were always being chastised for failing to raise their four sons in the ways of the Lord. They let us go to dances, play cards, and generally live lives full of evil, so it wasn't long before our whole family was pushed out of that church. (Not long after that, Pastor Bob beat his wife so badly she had to be hospitalized. They left town in the middle of the night, stealing a car that one of the deacons had loaned him.)

It took over a decade, from age 13 to 23, before I was desperate enough in my sin to try church again.

I could go on for hours. The more I saw of the church, the more I saw legalism, self-righteousness, and hypocrisy all around me. But you know what was the worst thing I dealt with? The more I learned about myself, the more I could see that same legalism, self-righteousness, and hypocrisy in my own life.

Oh, I wasn't like those Pharisees I saw so frequently in the church. But I had my own set of rules. My own set of criteria. And when people didn't act according to the rules I had set, I felt superior, smug, and secure in knowing that, because I could spot the sin of others, I was closer to God than they were.

We often compare ourselves to people from the pages of Scripture. We easily relate to Peter's impulsiveness, Martha's busyness, or Job's struggles during difficult circumstances. But there are some people in the Bible to whom we never want to be connected. No one wants to be compared to Eve or Adam or Jezebel or Nebuchadnezzar or Pharaoh or fallen angels.

And no one—I mean no one!—wants to be compared to the Pharisees. Why? Because no one felt the anger of Jesus more than they did. He challenged them every time they met. He called them names. He reserved his harshest condemnation for them. He never missed an opportunity to point out their adventures in missing the point.

For the next several weeks we are going to look throughout the four Gospels at the interaction Jesus had with this group of 1st century Jewish religious leaders. Along the way, you may sense that a comment I make or a verse of Scripture hits particularly close to home. You may ask yourself, Hey, I wonder if he's talking about me? When that question comes to your mind, you may rest assured that I am indeed talking about you. And, more than likely, I'm talking about myself.

But please do not come up to me and tell me that your sister-in-law or your husband or your boss needs to hear a tape from one of these messages because "they are such a Pharisee." If you do that, I will point out to you that the ability to see sin in others and ignore it in your own heart is one of the distinguishing characteristics of a Pharisee, and that by calling someone else a Pharisee, you have just proved your own Pharisee-ness!

Throughout this series, I'll be relying a lot on the research in two great books on the subject: Extreme Righteousness by Tom Hovestol (1997, Moody Press) and 12 Steps for the Recovering Pharisee (Like Me) by John Fischer (2000, Bethany House). I recommend them both to you.

Who were the Pharisees?

For most of my life, whenever I have taught or been taught about the Pharisees, they've come out as a caricature, not an accurate picture. So who were they, really? Were they really good guys (they were all men) who were just misunderstood? Where they bad guys who initiated the death of Jesus out of pure malice and evil? Or were they "us guys"—people just like you and me? The way you answer that question has a profound effect on how you read the Gospels.

Let's take a look at some of the religious groups that were operating in Jesus' day. Herodians were the most liberal of these groups. They were political supporters of Herod, who sought to preserve the status quo because the country was thriving economically under Rome. Sadducees were the religious establishment—the high priests, Levites, etc. They controlled temple worship and emphasized the rituals of Judaism.

Pharisees (the name means "separated ones") controlled the synagogues and emphasized the Scriptures. They were middle class and theologically orthodox. According to Josephus, there were about 7,000 of them at the time of Jesus.

The Pharisees were of two schools. Those following Hillel were more moderate and compassionate. They permitted divorce for any reason and accommodated Rome. They would be most like today's evangelicals. Those following Shammai were conservative and focused on truth. They did not condone divorce, except for adultery, and opposed to Rome. They would be most like today's fundamentalists.

Zealots were the ultra nationalists. They were radical activists who despised Roman rule and advocated force to change the political system. Interestingly, Jesus had a disciple who was a zealot. Essenes were isolationists. They lived in closed communities, or communes, with very strict ascetic rules. The best known Essenes lived in a commune called Qumran, which was the site of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Can you see some parallels in today's religious world? Good guys, bad guys or us guys? What do you think? In The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey said, "Given the choices, I would have been a Pharisee." In several places, Jesus seems to affirm their desire for righteous living. Merril C. Tenney said, "He (Jesus) was more nearly in accord with them theologically than with any other religious sect in Judaism."

When they did evil things—like have Jesus crucified—it was out of their convictions and based on Scripture. There's a new book out called When Bad Christians Happen to Good People that is based on the same premise.

When you study the Pharisees, there are some real similarities to the Protestant Reformation and to the fundamental/evangelical movements of the 20th century. First, they were determined to get back to the Scriptures. Pharisees could be described as "people of the book." They also had an admirable social agenda. They represented the middle class—not just the religious. They were the economic and social heart of their communities. Many were business owners—honest and hard working.

They upheld traditional values. They stood against the licentious secular lifestyles of the Roman empire. They were often looked to as commendable examples. They strived to live out their faith through a righteous lifestyle. Jesus acknowledges that in Matthew 5:20: "For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven." In other words, they were the most righteous people around.

What was the big conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees?

As we'll see in detail in the weeks ahead, the Pharisees had developed a comprehensive system of how a person was to live. It stemmed from their devotion to the Law—the first five books of the Old Testament. They rightly believed it was the perfect Word of God. But things went wrong from there.

William Barclay explains the reasoning of those early Jewish leaders who became Pharisees:

Now if the Law is the perfect and complete word of God, that must mean that it contained everything a man need know for the living of life—if not explicitly, then implicitly. If it were not there in so many words, it must be possible to deduce it.
They said, "The Law is complete; it contains everything necessary for the living of a good life; therefore, in the Law, there must be a regulation to govern every possible incident in every possible moment for every possible man." So they set out to extract from the great principles of the law an infinite number of rules and regulations to govern every conceivable situation in life.
In other words, they changed the Law of the great principles into the legalism of by-laws and regulations.

The best example of this tendency is seen in the Sabbath law. Exodus 20:8-11 says: "Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy."

But people were not content with a principle, a guideline. They wanted specifics, they wanted laws and loopholes. Later generations spent centuries defining "work" and listing the things that could and could not be done on the Sabbath day. They also developed a highly defined system of ritualistic cleansing.

Do you remember how many of Jesus' conflicts with the Pharisees were over the issues of him violating the Sabbath or breaking one of their rules about cleansing? In Matthew 22, we see the kind of discussion and debate the Pharisees loved to engage in.

But when the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered themselves together. One of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, testing him, "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?" And he said to him, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.'" This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets."

The Pharisees' study of Scripture focused strictly on matters of obedience, not on attitudes or matters of the heart. Here Jesus summarized the commandments, going to the motive behind the commands. And behind every single one, it was all about attitude, all about the heart.

Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus

Our key passage for this morning is found in John 3:1-21. We are going to meet a man who was a typical Pharisee—a good man named Nicodemus. He came with respect and admiration to talk to Jesus as one rabbi to another, one teacher to another. Perhaps he was looking to debate some fine point of the Law. But the discussion that followed not only caught him by surprise, it may have changed his life forever.

In that conversation, Jesus wanted Nicodemus to understand some key spiritual principles. He taught by contrasting the prevailing viewpoint of Nicodemus and the other Pharisees with the truth he came to teach.

First, spiritual birth is more important that physical birth. Let's look at verse 3-7:

Jesus answered him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." Nicodemus said to him, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?" Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again.'"

In other words, it is not the lineage of your mother and father that gets you into heaven. To be "born of water" is to be born physically, but to be born again means to be born of the Spirit.

Second, Jesus wanted to show Nicodemus that real life comes from the Spirit, not from the intellect or will. Verse 8 says, "The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." The wind is a common symbol for the Holy Spirit, and Jesus says no one can control or predict the wind. According to Romans 8:9, the evidence of salvation is the indwelling of God's Spirit, and the Spirit enters your life when you believe. The indwelling only comes when we submit to God and give up control.

The legalistic system of the Pharisees was designed to prevent them from giving up control. Rather, they wanted to control God. Legalism says: "If we do this, God is obligated to do that." But we cannot control God. We cannot fully know God right now. God has chosen in his sovereignty to keep some things a mystery. We Pharisees are able to speak with great confidence about things where God speaks little about, if at all.

Third, Jesus showed Nicodemus that salvation comes only from relationship, not religion. Look at verses 14-19:

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil.

Faith in Christ is the only means of salvation. God's command to Moses in Numbers 21 was not that he kill the snakes, make medicine for the wounds, or try to protect the people from being bitten. It was that he lift up the bronze serpent and tell a snake-bitten crowd to look by faith. Not to look meant death; to look up and believe meant salvation.

Finally, Jesus wanted him to see that light will expose what has been unseen in the darkness. According to verses 19-21: "And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God."

Without the light of God's redemptive plan, the Pharisees were blindly trying to create their own system of redemption. Their system was entirely based on works. No matter how well-intentioned it was, in light of Jesus, their legalism was now exposed as worthless.

Ephesians 2:5-9 says, "But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast."

At the heart of the matter was this: Nicodemus and the Pharisees desired a radical righteousness. (We'll see in a few weeks that their righteousness was to a large degree of their own design.) Jesus challenged Nicodemus to desire instead a radical relationship.

We meet Nicodemus again in John 7—where he speaks in defense of Jesus—and again in John 19:39, where we find that he helped another Pharisee, Joseph of Arimathea, to prepare Jesus for burial. While we don't know for sure if he was born again into the family of God, something must have happened to him that day when he was confronted with a radically different system of redemption than he had grown to believe in.


When the desire for righteousness exceeds the desire for a relationship with Jesus, everything that results is a counterfeit of real faith.

The first thing we need to examine within ourselves is whether we are pursuing a relationship with Jesus ahead of everything else in this world, including righteousness. How much of your religious activity is about pursuing something other than intimacy with him?

You may have grown up in the church and believe that because your parents and grandparents were Christians, that makes you a Christian as well. That's not the case. Unless you have confessed your wrongdoing to God and made a cognitive decision to transfer trust from your own abilities to his Son, one day you might be shocked to hear, "Away from me. I never knew you."

You may have come to believe that if you just learn enough about the Bible, you will, in the process, be transformed. Learning the Bible is extremely important, but salvation is not about intellectual understanding. It is a radical act of faith that leads to the very Spirit of God coming to dwell within your spirit.

You may have grown up believing that the way to heaven is to keep the rules. The more rules, the better. Not true. The way to heaven is by grace and grace alone. You may have come to believe that by creating your own system, or subscribing to someone else's system of rules, that you were honoring God. You're not. You are stumbling in the darkness.

You may have given intellectual assent to the proposition that salvation is by grace through faith, but your lifestyle says you are crippled by legalism and a self-defined righteousness. You need to find the true freedom that Jesus longs to give.

Ed Rowell is pastor of Tri-Lakes Chapel in Monument, Colorado, and author of Preaching with Spiritual Passion (Baker).

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Sermon Outline:


I. Who were the Pharisees?

II. What was the big conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees?

III. Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus