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Avoiding the Religion of the Pharisees

Category Articles
Date July 22, 2008

At the annual assembly of the Associating Evangelical Churches of Wales in Newtown, Peter Milsom spoke on the deficiencies of the Pharisees from Matthew 23.

They began well concerned for the purity of God’s people but by Jesus’ time this had declined into a legalistic joyless form of religion without power, opposed to the gospel of grace. They had lost contact with people and were not engaging with the lost, merely condemning their sins. They became an irrelevance. They are a warning to us, for our own internal agendas can totally absorb us and leave the evangelical church failing to engage with the world. It is a solemn warning too against hypocrisy.

  1. They didn’t practice what they preached. Do we live out the faith?
  2. They laid down legalistic rules without any compassion for people – v.4. They didn’t help people keep them.
  3. They sought the praise of man, by a visual faith made of tassels and prayers on street corners. How do I live when no-one sees me?
  4. They tried to win people to their own sect (vv.13-15). There was no liberty but a codifying of laws powerless to save. We too can want people to become our own kind of Christians, meeting in ever-decreasing circles by a legalistic emphasis on trivial matters that don’t change hearts.
  5. They were taken up with a concern for minutiae. They neglected the larger issues of faith, righteousness, mercy, and truth. There was an emphasis on the externals of religion and a neglect of inner purity.
  6. They repeated the sins of the past. They had lost connection with God. Note the strong words of verse 33.

According to them, Jesus forged the wrong connections. We are not immune to this. We seek out people who tick our own boxes, not notorious sinners like the tax collectors and people with big houses. Jesus didn’t keep their rules. Instead of seeking a healed man, the Pharisees see what laws aren’t being kept, e.g. Sabbath rules. The problem is the mindset – a mindset that justifies the plot to kill Jesus. They see the bed and the day, not the glory of the healing. And if you’re connected with the man you are involved, and so they accuse his parents. The pressure to keep the rules gets greater.

Jesus loves the people they loathed. How do we respond to general people issues? He was popular – they weren’t. So they said he was compromising things to do this, whilst they felt they stood for the truth.

How can we be more like Jesus?

  1. Keep focussed on the big issues. We must distinguish between traditions and truth. We often separate not over principles but practice. Guard against distinctives that are secondary.
  2. A greater reality is needed in church and in our Christian lives. The danger of formalism is ever near. The older brother in the parable of Luke 15 was joyless and complaining to the father – there was service but no love to the Father. Is our worship a token gesture to God, or do we meet with him in it? Is there true engagement and love to Christ or a guilt-induced legalism? Younger people look for reality and a Pharisaic agenda fails to draw them.
  3. Avoid the abuse of power in the church. In John 9 a congenital blindness is healed. The Pharisees’ ‘investigation’ chills the air as they interrogate his parents on such a happy day. The parents know the score. Truth and reality is on the blind man’s side, but power belongs to the Pharisees, and the parents know the score.
  4. Actively break down barriers. Have our limits become confined? Are we truly welcoming to outsiders? Not ‘how many years have you been a Christian?’ How long is it since a young man became a significant person in your church?
  5. What ‘distinguishes’ your church? Is it an ethos of grace? Or are we like the church that advertised their ‘non-use of microphones’ alongside their use of Bible versions in services?
  6. Lifestyle. How do we live? Discipleship challenges our comfort and materialism. Is there a desire to share what we have with others? Are we marked out by practical kindness and sacrifice and mercy?

We mustn’t avoid the last verses of Matthew 23 – how Jesus longed for these lost Pharisees! He wanted to draw them in. Christ’s call is gracious, his yoke is easy and his burden light. People matter.

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