Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Sympathy for the Pharisees

If you don't feel even just a little bit sorry for the Pharisees, then I wonder how much you can actually understand God's grace.

I became used and accustomed to the idea that the Pharisees are the "bad guys" of the four gospels, and indeed they are. They're proud, legalistic, confident of their own righteousness based on their obedience to the law and ignorant of their desperate need of a Saviour who would die for their sins. In fact, they're so ignorant that they end up murdering him.

But, really, do you think that the Pharisees actually deliberately and self-consciously intended to be all of those things? Did Rabbi Bar-Smith get out of bed on Monday morning and say "I have no need of grace - I am righteousness personified!" His heart might have subtlely suggested it to him 100 times before the morning was over, but I really doubt that he actually self-consciously articulated a thought anything like that.

No, what his (tragically deluded) thoughts about himself were were surely much more like this:
  • God has favoured me by giving me his law.
  • I am also favoured by being helped by and large to keep that law. In fact, I'm very serious about it, as I ought to be because he is a holy and righteous God.
  • God is not pleased by all the sin and wickedness he sees running amok in our society, and wants me to be separate from it. He is a holy God who is separate from evil, and I must be like him.
  • I know though that I'm not perfect. I thank God that I have all the services and ceremonies of the law to bring me the cleanliness I need.
  • ... and so on.
Give it a little nuance and tweak here and there, and I hope you think that sounds quite reasonable. If you don't, as I say I fear for you. Possibly you're one of those people who confuses grace with license and think that God's love for sinners means he doesn't really mind their continual sinning - maybe you're one of those people who thinks the Bible actually encourages us to think of God as being our big chum in the sky. I tremble for you as I type those words for the horrific awakening you're going to have when this life ends if you don't have it sooner.

Maybe you're so spiritually alert that the above points as a summary of a God-pleasing life would never ever seem reasonable to you. Maybe you're so alert to the glory and grace of Christ, the true depravities of your heart, the inward spirituality of God's law, the intention of all the Old Testament to point us away from a self-generated righteousness to that of the Saviour and so on, that the Pharasaical religion would never have any attraction to you. If so, then you'll know too that that's all thanks to the grace of Christ and not to anything in yourself. Without this life-giving grace of Christ, I know what I and surely the vast bulk of serious-minded people would chose to be in the days of the Pharisees - one of them.

On the other hand, maybe today you read your New Testament and shook your head in wonder at the evils of the Pharisees, and never realised that in reality you are still one of them?

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