"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Religious Culture of the Pharisees

I read this and wondered how often we put our religion and doing extra things "for God" over God Himself and what He truly wants from us.  How often do we focus on external things and appearances of religiosity rather than the things that truly matter to God? 

To the eye of a superficial observer, the religious culture the Pharisees had cultivated in first-century Israel might have appeared to represent a kind of golden age for Jewish law. It was certainly not the same variety of overtly false religion we read about so frequently in the Old Testament -- those repeated epochs of backsliding and idolatry with golden calves, Asherah worship, and worse.
No one could accuse a Pharisee of any overtolerance for pagan beliefs, right?  They were, after all, strongly opposed to every expression of idolatry and totally committed even to the incidental minutiae of Jewish law.  Plus, for safety's sake they had added many surplus rituals of their own making, as extra shields against accidental defilement.  If biblical law demanded ceremonial washings for priests offering sacrifices, why not add extra washings for everyone, and make them an essential part of common daily routines?  That is precisely what they did.
From a human perspective, these things all had the appearance of profound devotion to God. Looked at in that way, the Pharisees might have been thought the least likely men of their generations to become Messiah's worst enemies.  They were profoundly religious, not careless or profane.  They certainly weren't avowed atheists openly undermining people's faith in God's Word.  They promoted piety, not licentiousness. They advocated zeal, rigor and abstinence - not worldliness and indifference to spiritual things.  They championed Judaism, not the sort of pagan syncreticism their Samaritan neighbors and so many earlier generations of Israelites had dabbled in.  Their religion was their whole life.
It even took precedence over God Himself.
And therein lay the problem. The Pharisees had devised a slick disguise, concealing their self-righteousness and hypocrisy under a veneer of religious zeal. They were careful to maintain the appearance of - but not the reality of - sincere devotion to God.  (pg. 9,10*)

Isaiah 1

11 “The multitude of your sacrifices—
   what are they to me?” says the LORD.
“I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
   of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
   in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
12 When you come to appear before me,
   who has asked this of you,
   this trampling of my courts?
13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
   Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
   I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
14 Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
   I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me;
   I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you spread out your hands in prayer,
   I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
   I am not listening.    Your hands are full of blood!

"But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."  ~ Jesus  (Mt. 9:13)

*The Jesus You Can't Ignore by John MacArthur


Lat said...

Very interesting! Right now i'm reading When Christians were Jews(that is Now).It's pretty interesting too.Have you read it?

I'll comment on this post later,ok? It's my bedtime.lol

sanil said...

MacArthur frustrates me. So I'm going to get my short ranty thing out of the way first and then comment, and hope that doesn't offend you. I definitely don't agree that "they" placed their religion ahead of God or that it was a disguise. Did that happen in some cases? Yeah, of course, but it's not "the Pharisees" as a whole and I think that their extra laws and appearance of devotion don't make a lot of sense if they weren't actually trying to serve God. Why make life inconvenient for yourself for the sake of looking devout towards a god only your people believe in anyway, if you don't take him seriously either?

MacArthur is very anti-legalist, which isn't a problem in itself. But he comes across as condemning and de-valuing those he considers legalistic, and that bothers me. When I was considering Judaism, I got a lot out of that "legalism." I mean, coming from a believer's perspective, I don't understand how anyone could be so anti-Law. It's pretty simple. I believed in God. God said to follow these rules. I followed these rules. And my home church threw a fit, because that's legalism.

Sorry. I do understand that's not what you're doing, and not the point. Just uncomfortable memories. But anyway. *coughs* I think that there should be a balance. Following rules and having a defined moral and religious guideline isn't at all anti-faith or designed to be a show. It can be used that way, the same way people can use an anti-legalist attitude to justify not living by any morals and simply claiming that their faith makes everything they do purified. People do it, but we understand it's not the original intent and not what most do with it.

People might lean towards one or the other, but we can understand and not dismiss each other, and try to understand the value in each side. MacArthur seems determined to see everything the Pharisees do in a negative light, instead of assuming that most people have sincere intentions and trying to look at it from their eyes. Maybe if he could stop seeing them as the villains in the story, he'd learn some valuable things from them, see that Jesus shared a lot of their viewpoints and there's something to be gained there. I see you and others in this little blogging community doing that all the time, I've been inspired by it and try to do the same, and I think we've all learned and grown a lot because of it.

Amber said...

Dittos sanil and runs off. :D

Susanne said...

Lat, no I've not read it, but I can't wait to read your notes! Sounds interesting. :) Sleep well, my friend! :)

Susanne said...

Sanil, I appreciated your heart-felt rant. See, even when you rant, I find you polite about it. :) This whole book was basically Jesus confronting people with Truth. He's giving a side of Jesus that is not the meek and mild side where truth is watered down so, yeah, the point of the whole book is almost anti-Pharisees and religious rulers since Jesus mostly had words with them.

Where I am from people have been legalistic Baptists for a long time and many are thinking this is erroneous and recognizing themselves as those who condemn the sinners and praying "I'm glad I'm not like that tax collector over there" and tooting our own horns. So that's why it was an OK reminder FOR ME.

But I'm happy to read another perspective so thank you for taking time to share. I always enjoy your feedback and had been missing you.

So good to see you come back with such gusto! :D

Susanne said...

Amber, :-D

sanil said...

That is an interesting point. Thanks for explaining the way you read it...It's so weird, because the Baptists I've known have been anti-legalism my whole life. I hadn't considered that MacArthur might also be criticizing a tendency he has himself, and doesn't intend it to actually be anti-Pharisee but rather a warning against his own problems.

I'll be sort of in and out. Three weeks left in the semester plus I'll probably have to take an incomplete and get an extension in one class. So I'm here when I really need a homework break and can afford to take one. Then Summer! Yay!

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