Pharisees and Scribes

Then spake Jesus to the multitudes and to his disciples, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses seat: all things therefore whatsoever they bid you, these do and observe: but do not ye after their works; for they say, and do not. Yea, they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger” (Matthew 23:1-4).

The Evangelists consistently speak of mutual antagonism between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees. From their presentation alone one might imagine that Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees are miles apart in their understanding of God and Judaism. And yet, of all the various sects of Second Temple Judaism, Jesus has the most in common with the Pharisees. The Sadducees accepted only the Torah as legitimate ground of authority and denied the existence of angels, the soul, and the resurrection (Matthew 22:23, Acts 23:8). The Herodians, by virtue of supporting Herod and his government, would have no love for a rival King of the Jews (Matthew 22:16). One might think that Jesus and the Essenes would have much in common; while they shared an apocalyptic worldview and some “ascetic” practices, the Essenes rejected the present Temple and its authorities as illegitimate and looked forward to the day when the Sons of Light would restore the Temple and its proper service and who withdrew from life in the greater Jewish community. Jesus did not look forward to establishment of a restored Temple in Jerusalem, nor did He withdraw from life among the people of God (Matthew 24:1-36). Meanwhile, Jesus and the Pharisees agreed about the inspiration and authority of the prophets and the writings, angels, the soul, the resurrection, and the hope of Israel in the Messiah. This leaves us with a major challenge: if Jesus and the Pharisees share so many similarities in outlook, why are the Pharisees and the scribes singled out for such strong condemnation by the Evangelists? If Jesus and the Pharisees agree on so much, why are the Pharisees portrayed in such consistently negative ways in the Gospels?

Few places express Jesus’ difficulties with the scribes and Pharisees with as much rhetorical force and denunciation as in the series of woes Jesus sets forth in Matthew 23:1-35. Jesus begins His litany of invective against the scribes and Pharisees by denouncing a form of their hypocrisy in Matthew 23:1-4.

Brooklyn Museum - Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees (Malheur à vous, scribes et pharisiens) - James Tissot

Jesus begins with the recognition that the scribes and Pharisees maintain a pride of place in Second Temple Judaism: they “sit on Moses’ seat” (Matthew 23:2). No actual chair is envisioned; Jesus gives recognition to their claims of serving as the interpreters of the Law of Moses on behalf of the people. For this reason Jesus tells the people to do what the scribes and Pharisees bid them to do (Matthew 23:3a). Some interpreters of this passage suggest that Jesus is being sarcastic and does not actually expect His audience to live according to what the Pharisees teach; such an interpretation is possible but not necessarily warranted. We do well to remember that even though Jewish people put great emphasis on literacy and would have maintained higher literacy rates than seen among the Gentiles, plenty of Jewish people could still not read or write, and even then, scrolls of the Law, Prophets, and Writings were copied by hand on expensive papyrus and parchment and would have been reserved for use in the synagogues and those like the scribes and Pharisees who were trained in the Law (Luke 4:17-20). Previously Ezra and his associates had read the Law and gave an understanding of its meaning (Nehemiah 8:1-8); many Jewish people in the first century looked to the scribes and Pharisees for the same reason, and for the time being, Jesus recognizes their role.

In Matthew 23:1-4 the problem is less with the specific interpretations and explanations given by the scribes and Pharisees and much more their unwillingness to do them (Matthew 23:3b-4)! They say the things faithful Jewish people should do, but they themselves do not do them. They expect Jewish people to adhere to all sorts of laws according to what is written and the traditions of the fathers, denounce as sinners those unwilling to bear them (John 9:16, 24), but provide no assistance to others, show no mercy, and themselves frequently (and flagrantly) violate them. In short, it may be good to do what they say, but do not do as they do.

To say one thing but do another is the essence of hypocrisy. The scribes and Pharisees were respected for their knowledge; no doubt many “average” Israelites looked up to them as holy people because of it. Yet, in practice, they were not very holy. They were just as guilty of violating the Law as other Israelites (Acts 13:39, Romans 3:13-21). Yet such totality begs the question: were not all the Israelites, save the Lord Jesus, hypocrites to some degree? Why are the scribes and Pharisees being singled out for this condemnation?

It is one thing to try and fall short; it is quite another to not even try. It is one thing to teach a given path, try to live it, and stumble at times; we humans are imperfect. It is quite another to act as if one is all holy and righteous, presume to be holier and more righteous than others, and yet substantively are little better than those whom they denounce. Such were the scribes and Pharisees: they acted as if knowing and teaching the Law brought forth its own special kind of holiness. Jesus makes it clear that it does not.

We do well to remember that the scribes and Pharisees were part of the people of God, and of all the people of God at the time, were considered to be the most holy and righteous. Their denunciation by all the Evangelists is, in its own way, a warning for believers: do not be like the Pharisees. The way of Jesus and the way of the Pharisees are quite divergent, yet throughout time Christians, however well-meaning, have fallen prey to the ways of the Pharisees!

The Apostle Paul declares that knowledge puffs up while love builds up (1 Corinthians 8:1); it is very easy to obtain knowledge of God and His ways and thus presume one’s holiness based upon one’s superior knowledge. That is the way of the Pharisee and the Gnostic; it is not the way of Jesus or those who truly follow Him (1 Timothy 6:20-21)! We are not made holy by our knowledge; we are not better than others simply because we have come to a better understanding of the will of God than they have. Such is why the first and foremost aspect of the Gospel is our own sinfulness and our inability to solve our sin problem through our own efforts (Ephesians 2:1-3, Titus 3:3). We are entirely dependent upon God in Christ for the hope of salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9); our obedient response in faith, while necessary, does not earn us or merit our salvation!

Every Christian, to some degree or another, is a hypocrite; we proclaim the way of God in Christ but fall short at times (Romans 3:23, 1 John 1:8). But we must walk the walk of Christ; we must do the commandments (1 John 2:3-6). In seeking to do them we will learn humility, faith, and obedience. We would never imagine to lay heavy burdens on others and let ourselves go free; quite the contrary (Galatians 6:2)!

In Matthew 23:1-4 Jesus begins to set forth the contrast between the condemned ways of the scribes and Pharisees and the righteous way of God in Christ. The way of the Pharisees is always tempting for the people of God; we must resist it, remaining humble and dependent upon God in Christ, seeking to do the will of the Lord in all respects, bearing one another’s burdens and not attempting to make them heavier! Let us serve the Lord Jesus in humble faith!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Exceeding the Righteousness of the Pharisees

Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, that except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:19-20).

Yet another sacred cow slaughtered.

To “slaughter the sacred cow” is an American idiom, most likely a reference to Hindu culture in India in which cows are venerated and to slaughter a cow was therefore a desecrating action, a violation of propriety and custom. Therefore, “to slaughter a sacred cow” is to challenge a matter generally considered as sacred, especially those things normally held as self-evident or in some other way immune from questioning or challenging.

Everyone has their own versions of the “sacred cow”: everyone holds certain concepts to be true, and if anyone dare question or challenge those concepts, it is considered as improper, a desecration, a violation of social norms or customs. And so it was among the Israelites in the first century CE: many of their traditions and customs were held as sacred and were not up for being challenged. The Israelites are the people of YHWH, descendants of Abraham, and YHWH will protect them. YHWH will protect His Temple in Jerusalem. YHWH provides blessings to those who are righteous and punishes those who are unrighteous. The Pharisees and scribes are holy people, skilled in the Law, and righteous.

Throughout what is popularly called the “Sermon on the Mount”, Jesus teaches His disciples and the multitudes who have come out to hear Him, and many of those teachings challenge some of these propositions. In the “Beatitudes” Jesus pronounces blessings on those who are normally considered cursed (Matthew 5:3-12). Now Jesus not so subtly challenges the position of the Pharisees and scribes in the sight of the people (Matthew 5:17-20).

Jesus presents this challenge on the basis of adherence to the Law itself. He declares that He did not come to destroy the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill them; not one detail will be changed in them until all is fulfilled (Matthew 5:17-18). Since the Law stands, the Law is to be followed; therefore, Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:19 follows: anyone who breaks the least of the commandments and teaches others to do so shall be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven, but the one who does and teaches them shall be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven. If we isolated this verse from its context, particularly what will follow, we might get the idea that one’s standing in God’s Kingdom is based upon how effectively one performs the Law of Moses and how they teach it to others. Exactitude seems to be greatly praised here.

We should resist drawing such conclusions. Paul will make it very clear that no one is justified before God by works of the Law, since all have transgressed and have fallen short (Romans 3:20, 23). Jesus will later associate “greatness” in the Kingdom with humility and service, and, in so doing, will show that worldly concepts of “greatness” themselves fall short in terms of His Kingdom (Matthew 20:25-28).

Instead, Jesus is continuing to lay the groundwork for His powerful statement in Matthew 5:20. He is speaking about present reality, and His audience will agree with Him to this point: if the Law is still in force, then yes, whoever does and teaches the commandments of God will be considered great in the rule of God. If one breaks the least of the commandments, and teaches others to do so as well, they are least in the reign of God, and if this is the fate of the one who breaks one of the least of the commandments and teaches others to do the same, what will be the fate of those who break more weighty commandments?

So what is Jesus talking about? His conclusion is found in Matthew 5:20: He says to them that unless their righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, they will not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.

We can only imagine what the Israelites thought of this statement. If they were convinced that the Pharisees and scribes were the righteous people in their communities, then Jesus’ statement is quite shocking. If your righteousness does not exceed the righteousness of those whom you think are righteous, then what possible hope do you have of reaching the Kingdom of Heaven? Not much at all!

At this point some perhaps would write Jesus off as crazy, ridiculous, or excessively demanding. And perhaps Jesus us being excessively demanding in order to make His point: if one’s standard of righteousness is based on following the Law of Moses, seeking justification by works of the Law, as it seems many of the Pharisees and scribes imagined, then yes, it would require even greater righteousness than theirs in order to obtain the Kingdom, since the scribes and Pharisees do not fully measure up to the standard of the Law. Yet, then again, neither did anyone else but Jesus (Hebrews 4:15, 5:7-8); this is why it is only Jesus who can fulfill the Law and accomplish all things within it. No one will able to be saved by the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees; yet through Jesus’ righteousness the opportunity for salvation will be granted to all men (cf. Philippians 3:8-11).

Yet Jesus is concerned about not just one’s own deeds and standing before God, but one’s teaching as well. Matthew 5:19-20 does not stand on its own; it concludes and provides the rhetorical punch for Matthew 5:17-18 while introducing the theme which will carry through Matthew 5:21-48. Throughout Matthew 5:21-48 Jesus will highlight common understanding and practice of the Law and contrast it with God’s full expectations and intentions. Jesus will make it clear that God is interested in far more than just exterior conduct and nominal fidelity to the letter of the law; He is just as concerned about one’s thoughts and feelings and expects obedience to flow from faithfulness, love, and trust.

This is why the “righteousness” of the Pharisees and scribes is lacking: it proves to be superficial, obsessed with details to the neglect of the weightier provisions of the law, not properly discerning God’s focus and priorities, as will be made clear in Matthew 23:1-36. The “righteousness” of the Pharisees and scribes is shallow, hypocritical, and does not please God. If anyone maintains that form of “righteousness,” they will not enter the rule of God. In order to obtain the rule of God, one’s righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees and scribes: it must be based in the mind and heart and flow through deeds, motivated by faith, love, and trust in God in Christ (Romans 5:6-11, 6:1-23).

Sometimes the sacred cow must be slaughtered in order to shake people out of their present habits and mentalities and force them to reconsider. So it is with Jesus in Matthew 5:19-20: whoever defines “righteousness” in terms of the conduct and teachings of the Pharisees and scribes is not going to make it. “Righteousness” is not about the obsession over a particular set of details to the neglect of the weightier concerns of the Law. “Righteousness” is not about saying one thing and doing another. “Righteousness” is not about finding ways of making yourself seem great and holy while looking down upon others and treating them presumptuously.

Instead, true righteousness is seen in Jesus. True righteousness is rooted not in oneself but in God and the pursuit of seeking His will and good pleasure. True righteousness involves proper priority, respecting the least as well as the great, both in terms of commandments and people. True righteousness cannot be hypocritical or two-faced; it flows from the mind and heart through the hands and feet. True righteousness seeks the best interest of others above oneself.

Salvation is not found in the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees; therefore, we should not follow their example. Salvation does come through Jesus, and we do well to follow after Him and pursue righteousness as He decreed through His example, seeking the will of God to do His good pleasure, concerned with the interest of others before our own, trusting not in ourselves but in God at all times. Let us exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees and scribes and so enter into the Kingdom of God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Fulfillment

“Think not that I came to destroy the law or the prophets: I came not to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass away from the law, till all things be accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18).

There is much more riding on this declaration by Jesus in Matthew 5:17-18 than perhaps meets the eye.

One can learn a lot about the way people understand the Bible and the relationship between the Old and New Testaments by their understanding of the emphasis of these verses. Many focus on the notion that not one bit of the law will pass away until heaven and earth pass away, and therefore suggest the Law is a binding force until this very day. Jesus said, after all, that He did not come to destroy the Law.

Yet such a view intentionally leaves out Jesus’ contrast: He did not just say that the Law would not pass away until heaven and earth pass away: He said that not one detail of the Law would pass away until all things are accomplished. While He did say that He was not coming to destroy the Law, He did say He came to fulfill it. This provides an entirely different emphasis, focusing on fulfillment and accomplishment, leading into a new covenant (cf. Hebrews 7:1-9:27).

It is easy to pit each emphasis against each other; nevertheless, each emphasis has legitimacy in its proper place. Jesus’ declaration involves both a commentary on the present as well as a key by which we can understand His entire life and ministry.

Jesus emphasizes the fixed nature of the Law for good reason. Deuteronomy 4:2 declares that Israel is not to add or diminish at all from the word which God commanded them. In context, Matthew 5:17-18 begin a new section of what is popularly known as the “Sermon on the Mount”; He has previously presented the beatitudes, finding blessings in the most difficult of situations (Matthew 5:3-12), and established the role and work of the disciple in the world (Matthew 5:13-16). Jesus’ thought in Matthew 5:17-18 continues at least through Matthew 5:19-20 and provides a framework for understanding Matthew 5:21-48. Jesus is both defending Himself against upcoming criticism about the relationship between His work and common perceptions regarding the Law while posing a devastating critique of the supposed “lawful” conduct of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:17-20). Jesus confirms His purpose: He is not coming to destroy the Law or what God has been doing. He affirms powerfully that until everything is accomplished, not one jot or tittle of the Law will change: “until heaven and earth pass away” is a confirmation of the strength of that declaration. Jesus is not imagining that the heavens and the earth will pass away, nor is He suggesting at this point that it will do so anytime soon. Instead, He is affirming that the Law represents God’s Word for Israel. God is the Creator; the heavens and earth can only pass away by His will and word. That Law, at the time of Jesus’ dictate, is as fixed as the heavens and the earth. The conclusion of this reality is found in Matthew 5:19: the one who adds to or diminishes from this Law, in teaching or practice, is the least; the one that does them and teaches them is greatest. Therefore, Jesus affirms the Law; He has not come to destroy it.

Well and good; Jesus did not come to destroy the Law. Yet Jesus does not stop there; He establishes why He has come. He has come to fulfill (Matthew 5:17). Yes, until heaven and earth pass away, not one jot or tittle shall pass from the law, but that is so only until all things are accomplished. Jesus speaks to a major interpretive issue for every disciple: the Bible establishes that the Law could not added to or taken away from, but the beliefs and practices of early Christians were not exact copies of what the Law established. There are significant changes between what we see in the life of Jesus in the Gospels and the message and exhortations of early Christianity after His death and resurrection. Many passages make it clear that Jesus’ death and resurrection meant an end to the Law as a barrier between Jew and Gentile, asserting that the Law was a physical shadow of the spiritual reality which exists in Jesus (Ephesians 2:11-18, Colossians 2:14-17). The whole purpose of the author of the letter to the Hebrews is to demonstrate the existence of a new covenant between God and man through Jesus, its differentiation from the covenant which existed before, and its superiority to the covenant between God and Israel legislated by the Law of Moses. Therefore, it is quite evident that the early Christians perceived the fulfillment of all things regarding the Law through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, something He himself proclaims in Luke 24:25, 44-47 and John 19:30.

It is therefore easy to place emphasis on the distinctions and differences between the old covenant between God and Israel and the new covenant between God and all mankind in Jesus, but we must take care. Jesus did not say He came to abolish or remove; He said that He came to fulfill. Yes, as He says Himself, Jesus fulfills all of the specific prophecies regarding the Messiah as found in the Old Testament (Luke 24:25-27, 44-48). Yet Jesus does not just fulfill specific prophecies; He fulfills God’s intentions for Israel by embodying, within Himself, the story of Israel. As Israel was born in Canaan but was exiled to Egypt, so Jesus was born in Bethlehem and spent time in exile in Egypt (Matthew 2:1-15). As Israel was rescued from Egypt through water and endured temptation in the Wilderness, so Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River and was tempted in the Wilderness (Matthew 3:13-4:11). Israel lived and worked in its land, as did Jesus (Matthew 4:12-25, etc.). As Israel experienced exile from its land, so Jesus experienced death and time in the tomb (Matthew 27:45-66). As Israel returned to the land, so Jesus was raised from the dead (Matthew 28:1-17). Where Israel had been unfaithful, Jesus had proven faithful. Jesus is able to embody everything God intended for His people Israel!

But Jesus’ experience does not end at His resurrection; He ascends to the Father and rules over His Kingdom and will do so until the final day (Matthew 28:18-20, Philippians 2:5-11). All of this was predicted in the prophets: God would restore the fortunes of Israel, and through Israel, be a blessing to other nations and see the ingathering of nations to the God of Jacob. This goal for Israel is found through Jesus; little wonder, then, that Paul finds a way to express his faith and trust in Jesus in terms of the story of Israel and God’s promises to Israel (cf. Acts 26:1-23). Israel’s story does not end with their exile in their own land as they endured it for 500 years: Israel’s story finds its fulfillment in Jesus of Nazareth, and the Israel of God will continue on in His Kingdom, making primary the shared faith in God as demonstrated by all of God’s people from Abraham until this very day.

This is why it is good to keep both emphases of Jesus in mind: there is both continuity and discontinuity on the basis of His life, death, and resurrection. The Law has been established, and will remain firm until it has been fulfilled. Through its fulfillment all men will be freed from its yoke; yet, at the same time, its fulfillment represents the manifestation, and thus the continuation, of the promises God made to Israel, now embodied in the Kingdom of Jesus. Let us thank God for the fulfillment of the hope of Israel in Jesus, and let us take our place in the Israel of God by putting our trust in Jesus and participating in His Kingdom!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The New Old Treasure

“Have ye understood all these things?”
[The disciples] say unto [Jesus], “Yea.”
And he said unto them, “Therefore every scribe who hath been made a disciple to the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is a householder, who bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old (Matthew 13:51-52).

This episode of teaching was over. Now was the time to receive the feedback, something with which we are familiar. Jesus had spoken many parables, and most likely had explained them (cf. Matthew 13:1-50, Mark 4:34). Did the disciples understand them? And do the disciples understand their importance?

They answer affirmatively. One might wonder if the answer is sincere– do they really think they understand the parables, or are they questioning inside and do not want to bring those questions to the surface? Since Jesus does not seem to question their response, and since Mark 4:34 gives us the impression that He explained the parables, we are justified in taking the disciples’ answer at face value. It will be made evident that they do not yet really understand what the Kingdom is all about, and how the Kingdom of God in Christ is far different from their expectations, but they probably do get the basic message of the parables.

Jesus then provides this cryptic parable of sorts as a conclusion to the matter. Those who are “scribes made disciples to the Kingdom,” or “scribes trained for the Kingdom,” are compared to a homeowner who brings new and old things out of his treasure.

The force of this statement is in its imagery: the master of a house bringing out old and new, not just one or the other. The reference to “scribes” makes Jesus’ referent clear– He speaks of the Scriptures. Jesus, after all, came to fulfill the old (Matthew 5:17-18), and in so doing, inaugurate the new (Hebrews 9:15). And while there is a definitive break in covenant– as Deuteronomy 4:2 says, one cannot amend a covenant, and those who are part of the new covenant are not bound to the old according to Hebrews 7-9– it is not as if there is complete discontinuity between the two. Jesus’ words resonate with the Old Testament– One Creator God Who is just but merciful, ruling over His Kingdom. Jesus Himself, in many ways, represents the ultimate goal of that which had been written. But Jesus is not just repeating the way things always had been; the Sermon on the Mount made that clear enough (Matthew 5-7). These teachings in the parables are the same– they continue with many of the themes of the old yet point to a new reality.

The direction and force of the parable, therefore, are clear enough, but who is the referent? We are told that “every scribe made a disciple to/trained for the Kingdom of Heaven” are those who are like this master of the house. Yet who are they?

That “they” are somehow followers of Jesus is evident; “they” are “made disciples” or “trained” in the direction of the Kingdom. Whether or not they become disciples because of their training– they know the old message, and then saw Jesus and how He conformed to the old and points in a new direction– is possible, as in the scribe whom Jesus commends in Mark 12:28-34. It is also quite possible that they are disciples of Christ trained for a scribal role who do such things.

This would not be of such note had Jesus just referred to them as “disciples,” as He so often does. He instead speaks of “scribes,” something He otherwise does for followers of His only in Matthew 23:34. There are plenty of references to scribes in the New Testament, but normally it speaks of the professional class of Jews who were responsible for knowing the Old Testament Scriptures, for transcribing and copying those Scriptures, and to provide instruction to the rest of the people who otherwise would not have access to said Law. Their great affection for the Law led them to be hostile toward Jesus and His claims; they, with the Pharisees, are condemned as hypocrites throughout Matthew 23, and they are part of the group conspiring against Him (Mark 14:1).

In context, the “scribes” are either all of the disciples or at least some of the disciples. They are the ones whom He is training– of whom He makes disciples– for the Kingdom. They will be given roles of teaching, instructing people in the ways of Christ (Matthew 18:18, Acts 2:42). Perhaps this is a way Matthew is referring to himself– he is a disciple, he will be one of those Apostles, and here he is writing a Gospel, a scribe writing out the story, connecting the old and the new.

The application, however, is relevant for all of those who teach in the Kingdom, and in many ways for everyone who participates in God’s Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is not new; it has its roots in God’s revelation of Himself in the creation, to the Patriarchs, and to Israel. Nevertheless, the Kingdom of God is not exactly like what has come before. It functions quite differently than the nation of Israel did.

Thus Jesus emphasizes the power and importance of the parables. Notice that this statement of Jesus is the conclusion to the matter of these parables. The disciples understand the parables; they are told, therefore, that scribes made disciples/trained in the Kingdom will bring out the old and the new. To know and understand the parables is to be trained in the Kingdom. One might say truly that there is more to the Kingdom than what can be divined in the parables; but one certainly cannot understand the Kingdom if one does not understand the parables concerning it which Jesus spoke!

The Kingdom has old and new elements as illustrated in the parables. We do well to be made disciples and trained in the Kingdom, being the scribes of God’s intention and desire, properly instructing and encouraging others in the truths of the Kingdom and the faith. Let us serve the Lord and understand His will!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Sinners and Hypocrites

But when [Jesus] saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion for them, because they were distressed and scattered, as sheep not having a shepherd (Matthew 9:36).

“Ye serpents, ye offspring of vipers, how shall [the Pharisees and scribes] escape the judgment of hell?” (Matthew 23:33)

Much is made of how Jesus responds and reacts to people. It is interesting to see how people will go out and treat people in entirely different ways and base it all upon Jesus!

We have all seen the stereotypical “street preacher.” He has taken it upon himself to let everyone in his community know that they are sinning and sinful people. He is often found on street corners or in public places on university campuses and in similar places, and he does well at yelling at people about fornication, drunkenness, worldliness, perhaps consumerism and materialism, and so on and so forth. No one really listens, of course, but the street preacher goes home, justified in his own mind. He told those nasty sinners about their sin, just as Jesus condemned sin– or so he thinks.

There is also the universalist or the politically correct “tolerant” person of our day. If there is condemnation for anyone, it is because they are intolerant. Most everything and anything is acceptable, unless it harms another person, but then again, those who harm others were probably harmed somehow themselves, and so even then God will understand. This person also feels justified, for after all, Jesus Himself had compassion on people– or so he thinks.

These are both extreme positions– and they are extremely misguided. Nevertheless, we can discern from Jesus’ ministry a way forward when it comes to working with different people in our midst.

The first thing we should notice is that sinners sin. This statement should not be too terribly surprising or earth-shattering, since everyone is sinful (Romans 3:23), and sinners are known to sin, but it has been forgotten by many who profess Jesus. Too many have bought into the idea that America is somehow like a “new Israel,” and therefore we need to have “prophets” running around condemning the people for their sins. The New Testament teaches that the church is the new Israel (Galatians 6:16, Philippians 3:3, 1 Peter 2:4-9). There are times when someone does need to take up a “prophetic” style role and warn Christians about complacency and sin (2 Timothy 4:2), but we do not see Jesus or the Apostles out castigating worldly people for their sin in their faces. Quite the contrary– Jesus has compassion toward the multitude of people, those worldly, nasty sinners, even those among God’s chosen people, Israel (Matthew 9:36)! He was lectured by the religious authorities because of His association with the “sinful” of society (Matthew 9:9-13). Jesus our High Priest associated with the sinful!

While this might seem scandalous, we must understand what Jesus is attempting to do. He does not associate with the sinful to promote or justify sin. Even though He does not condemn the woman caught in adultery, He does send her off with the warning to “sin no more” (John 8:11). We never see Him participating in sin or approving of sin (Hebrews 4:15, 5:7-9). Instead, Jesus knows that the sinners know that they have sinned and are sinning, and they know that they need redemption (Matthew 21:28-32). They follow Jesus en masse because He is willing to sympathize with them and point the way out of their sinful misery. This is the message of the gospel that leads to the redemption of sinners to this very day (Romans 1:16)!

Therefore, we should not be surprised when sinners sin. While Christians are to abhor sin (Romans 12:9), they are not to abhor sinners, for they themselves have sinned but have been redeemed (cf. Titus 3:3-8, etc.). Pointing fingers at sinners and declaring to them what they already know is counterproductive: it pushes the sinner away and leaves a very bad taste in his mouth. It makes it that much more difficult to show such a one the way of Christ.

The real challenge came less from those who knew that they were sinful and more from those who thought that they were not. The religious authorities of Jesus’ day thought that they were holy and blameless, and sought to be separate from the “sinners” of the land (cf. John 9:34). They would bring down pronouncements to the dirty masses, but refused to get dirty themselves (Matthew 23:1-4). For such people, Jesus’ message was completely offensive: all of their great pretenses of holiness and sanctity were in vain, their great knowledge and study was being debased, and their authority was being completely undermined. They already had everything figured out; since Jesus’ message did not fit what they already knew, He was the blasphemer (cf. John 7:45-52, 9:24-29). Jesus spoke of them rightly: they were already “healthy.” They had no need of a physician in their haughtiness (cf. Matthew 9:12-13). They were righteous– just ask them (Luke 18:9-14)!

Such people received little compassion from Jesus’ words. His strongest denunciations– even a declaration of condemnation– were poured out against these religious authorities (cf. Matthew 23:1-36). Jesus treated them this way not out of hate or envy but out of love and a desire for them to wake up regarding their true spiritual condition. Jesus did make prophetic denunciations, but it was not to the worldly sinners of His day, but to the religious professionals who had compromised God’s purposes in order to advance themselves and their own agendas!

While many such people exist in churches today, there are some in the world who justify themselves and their conduct. Notice how Jesus did not comfort such people in such delusions. Such attitudes must be rebuked out of loving concern for the soul of someone who thinks they are healthy when they are not, righteous when they are sinful, sanctimonious as opposed to humble (cf. Galatians 6:1-2, 1 Peter 3:15-16).

Jesus’ interaction with people in His own day should be our model for how we work with people today (cf. 1 John 2:6). Yet let us notice how Jesus treated sinners one way and hypocrites in quite a different way. Woe to us if we treat the “sinners” like the “hypocrites,” and the “hypocrites” like the “sinners”! Instead, let us recognize that sinners sin, and we need to help show them that the way of Christ is life and the way of sin is death with all compassion and mercy (Romans 6:23, Titus 3:3-8). Nevertheless, we must oppose those who would justify themselves in their sins or sanctimoniously declare their righteousness apart from the truth of the gospel of Christ. Let us strive to conform to the image of Jesus the Son and point people to Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Rendering to Caesar and God

And they send unto him certain of the Pharisees and of the Herodians, that they might catch him in talk.
And when they were come, they say unto him, “Teacher, we know that thou art true, and carest not for any one; for thou regardest not the person of men, but of a truth teachest the way of God: Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not? Shall we give, or shall we not give?”
But he, knowing their hypocrisy, said unto them, “Why make ye trial of me? Bring me a denarius, that I may see it.”
And they brought it.
And he saith unto them, “Whose is this image and superscription?”
And they said unto him, “Caesar’s.”
And Jesus said unto them, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”
And they marvelled greatly at him (Mark 12:13-17).

It was not every day that you saw the Pharisees and the Herodians coming together to visit someone. It is a downright strange event when the Pharisees and Herodians are being sent by the chief priests, scribes, and elders (cf. Mark 11:27)! Yet this was the power of Jesus– all the various sects of the Jews may disagree with each other, but they agree that Jesus is a threat!

In fact, Jesus was becoming intolerable. He had cleansed the Temple, striking at the heart of the power of the chief priests (Mark 11:15-18). He would not reveal the source of His authority (Mark 11:27-33), and incited the people with His parable of the Vineyard (Mark 12:1-11). They needed to dispose of Jesus– and yet they feared the crowds (Mark 12:12). They had to do something to get Jesus in trouble.

And so they hatched the perfect plan– the question that would lead to His demise. The tax question was ideal. If Jesus said that the Jews should pay the tax, then the Pharisees were right there to proclaim to the people how Jesus was a compromiser and an appeaser of the hated oppressor. If Jesus declared that the Jews did not need to pay taxes, the Herodians were there to hear it and to inform Pilate and the Roman authorities that Jesus was stirring up sedition. It was the perfect plan– or so it seemed.

Yet Jesus’ answer entirely flummoxes them. He does not align with one of the two “main” positions. Instead, He advocates a transcendental, middle-of-the-road approach.

Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. For years this has been the foundational principle of the Christian attitude toward government. Though many may seek a political message in what Jesus is saying, in reality, Jesus remains above that particular fray. Jesus’ quarrel, after all, is not with Caesar (cf. Ephesians 6:12). Earthly government has its reason for existence and such should be respected. Taxes should be paid; authorities deserve the honor due them (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:11-17).

Yet Jesus’ real point is much deeper than this. It has less to do with Caesar and much more to do with God.

The denarius that Jesus held in His hand belonged to Caesar because upon it was struck the image and inscription of Caesar. But where do we find the image and inscription of God? Jesus knew that it was written:

And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…”
And God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them (Genesis 1:26a, 27).

We humans have been made in God’s own image, after His likeness. Yes, we must render to Caesar his money– but to God we must give ourselves (cf. Romans 12:1)! All of our energy and existence must be expended toward the advancement of God’s righteousness and Kingdom (cf. Matthew 6:33).

To the earthly authorities we owe proper respect and taxes so that they may accomplish their necessary functions. Yet we do not owe ourselves to Caesar or his purposes. Instead, we owe ourselves to God, and it is right for us to render to God what is His. Let us serve God fully, truly reflecting His image!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Weightier Matters

“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye tithe mint and anise and cummin, and have left undone the weightier matters of the law, justice, and mercy, and faith: but these ye ought to have done, and not to have left the other undone” (Matthew 23:23).

Human beings have a tendency to maintain a narrow focus on various matters in life. It is easy for people to allow a select few criteria be their guide in the world: they decide to see everything through a certain set of lenses.

The Pharisees and scribes were not much different. The New Testament reveals that they were quite focused on preserving the Law of Moses and the traditions developed around that Law down to the last detail. Their hyper-vigilance about the Law led them to overemphasize the more “minor” actions while neglecting the more “significant” ones. By focusing on the “minor” actions and accomplishing them perfectly, they felt a sense of pride and accomplishment that led to a false sense of security and satisfaction, as if being vigilant in doing nothing on the Sabbath, washing of hands, and tithing down to the level of spices would be sufficient to obtain God’s commendation!

Jesus condemns this myopia. Even if they are more quantifiable and “objective,” performing these minor acts of obedience are not sufficient to obtain God’s commendation. Believers must not neglect the “weightier” matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith.

The scribes and Pharisees were certainly guilty of that. The Pharisees especially considered themselves morally superior to their fellow men, as the Pharisee’s prayer in Luke 18:11-12 and the attitudes of the Pharisees in John 9 make evident. They deemed themselves “righteous” and everyone else to be “sinners,” despite the fact that they had sinned also and were certainly not maintaining God’s sense of faith, justice, or mercy. Their condemnation was just.

Nevertheless, this passage also exposes a major fault line within the thought of many religious people. Many take the idea of the “weightier matters of the law” and run with it, coming to the conclusion that since we are under “grace,” we need to get the “big things” right, and can allow the “little things” to slide. Others protest the very idea of “weightier matters,” stressing the need to do all things as God has charged us.

The truth, as usual, is somewhere more in the middle. Jesus tells us that there are some matters that are “weightier” than others. This means that some attitudes/actions have more significance than others. In the examples given, this is rather evident: justice, faith, and mercy are of greater significance than tithing spices. “Tithing spices” is of benefit to God and His Temple, while accomplishing justice, mercy, and faith is of benefit to God, His Temple, and all men. Furthermore, faith, justice, and mercy deal with every aspect of a person: his mind, his attitude, and his actions. One cannot easily have faith or show justice and mercy while internally despising God or his fellow man. While tithing should flow from a heart full of faith, one could tithe without the proper attitudes.

Therefore, there are some matters of greater significance than others. But that does not mean that we can just let matters of less significance slide and be pleasing to God. Notice that Jesus does not condemn the scribes or Pharisees for tithing the spices– in fact, He says that they should have done so! The problem was not that the scribes and Pharisees were tithing spices– the problem was that they were tithing spices while neglecting faith, justice, and mercy. It would be a gross perversion of this text to insinuate that if they had engaged in the “weightier matters” of the Law but had not tithed the spices that Jesus would have justified them. There is no basis for such a claim!

This should not be an “either/or” proposition, but a “both/and” one. The scribes and Pharisees should have accomplished both the “weightier matters of the law” and the tithing of spices. If we are serving God as we ought to serve Him, the latter flows from the former: because we are dedicated to love, humility, faith, and service, the “weightier matters” of the new covenant (cf. Romans 1:16-17, Romans 6:16-21, Romans 13:8-11, Ephesians 2:1-10, Philippians 2:1-11, Hebrews 11:1, 6, 1 Peter 1:22, 1 Peter 5:6-7), we will make sure to accomplish God’s will both in simple, quantifiable, and objective matters along with more substantive and difficult matters. We will assemble to encourage one another (1 Corinthians 14:23, Hebrews 10:25), give as we have prospered, both to the church and to those in need (1 Corinthians 16:1-3, 2 Corinthians 8:1-9:15, Galatians 2:10, 6:10), and other such things, while also loving our neighbor as ourselves and seeking his welfare (Romans 13:8-10, Philippians 2:1-4), and offering ourselves to God’s purposes as living and holy sacrifices (Romans 12:1), and the like.

Jesus’ message to the scribes and Pharisees represents a necessary warning against spiritual myopia, focusing on accomplishing certain elements of God’s purpose to the neglect of others. We cannot be justified in taking care of matters of detail and less significance while neglecting the weightier matters of God’s purposes; likewise, we cannot be justified in thinking that if we accomplish the weightier matters of God’s will that we can slide on the matters of less significance. If God has commanded it, there is value in accomplishing it! Let us seek to accomplish the whole will of God, and not neglect any aspect of it!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Older Brother

“Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called to him one of the servants, and inquired what these things might be.
And he said unto him, ‘Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound.’
But he was angry, and would not go in: and his father came out, and entreated him.
But he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years do I serve thee, and I never transgressed a commandment of thine; and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: but when this thy son came, who hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou killedst for him the fatted calf.’
And he said unto him, ‘Son, thou art ever with me, and all that is mine is thine. But it was meet to make merry and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found’ (Luke 15:25-32).

The “Parable of the Prodigal Son,” which we have discussed previously, is one of Jesus’ most well-known and beloved parables. Yet, in context, a good argument can be made that the parable is less about the prodigal son and more about another character: the older brother.

The older brother stands in contrast with the prodigal. He did not take his share of the inheritance and live riotously. He has been faithful and dependable throughout. In contrast to his brother, he has followed the will of his father.

But this does not mean that he has an excellent character. When his brother returns, his heart is not filled with joy. He, instead, is resentful. He cannot believe the largess of his father toward his brother. He feels deprived, and it stings him a bit.

This parable is one of three which Jesus spoke against the Pharisees and scribes who murmured against Him regarding His eating with sinners (Luke 15:1-2). Jesus is first and foremost attempting to show these opponents how God feels about “sinners” in these three parables; yet, here at the end of the third parable, we have a figure that represents these Pharisees and scribes in the older brother. Sure, they may have not done the things that the sinners have done. But that does not make them right!

The older brother is focused on himself despite his service to his father. He cannot stand his father’s reaction to his brother because it injures his cause. He can only think about how he has been “deprived” despite the “honor” shown to his terribly sinful brother. There is no mercy or compassion in his heart.

The older brother– and the Pharisees and scribes he represents– are to serve as warnings for those who believe and strive to be faithful servants of Jesus Christ. It is easy to develop the “older brother syndrome” when one works hard in the Lord’s vineyard and hears of the repentance of a sinner. We might have been working quite diligently toward serving God while such a one has been living a dissolute life, and now we hear that we both will share the same reward? It is easy to wonder: where is the honor for us?

Such thinking is not of God; it comes from the self. According to God, there is joy whenever anyone turns from their sin. God’s love and compassion can come to all of us, and we should be showing that love and compassion to others. In the end, it is not about us; it is about God our Father. If He rejoices when a prodigal returns, we should also. If He would show mercy toward terrible sinners, who are we to judge or condemn?

The Pharisees and scribes found themselves far from the Kingdom because of their lack of love and compassion toward their fellow man. Let us not be like them or share their fate!

Ethan R. Longhenry