Did you know that the people who were most opposed to Jesus in the gospels are religious people? That’s right. Out of all of the people who oppose Jesus, the Pharisees are the most consistent in their opposition to Jesus. Out of the 88 times in the gospels that the word “Pharisee” is used, 75 of those occurrences could be seen as the gospel writer highlighting the tension between Jesus and this group. It’s not wrong to be a religious person—it’s actually good! Nicodemus was a Pharisee (John 3) and, as far as we know, he chose to follow Jesus after his death and resurrection (see John 19:38–42). So, it is possible to be the right kind of Pharisee—one who has Jesus as Lord. But there is an overwhelming majority in the gospels that are the wrong kind of Pharisee—the kind who opposes Jesus. So how do we avoid being the wrong kind of Pharisee? Or, to put it another way, how do we avoid being the kind of religious person that Jesus would actually oppose? To do that, we need to look at what motivated the Pharisees in their opposition to Jesus.
A Surprising Motive
In the gospel of John, we get the chance to listen in on a secret meeting of the Pharisees right before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem: “So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, ‘What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation’” (John 11:47–48). Here’s how the Pharisees describe their problem: If Jesus goes on performing miracles, then everyone will believe in Him, and if everyone believes in Him, the Romans will come and take away the temple and the nation. The Pharisees do not want that, so they hold a secret meeting to figure out what to do with Him. So what’s the solution to their problem? Listen to what the high priest, Caiaphas, says, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish” (John 11:49b–50). We often view the Pharisees as stuck-up aristocrats that have no concern for the average person in Israel. This brings with it the temptation to make the Pharisees out to be 2-dimensional villains that are only seeking Jesus’ execution because they hate him. However, the Pharisees were the heroes of the average Jew. Please take a second to read that last sentence again. They were the guardians of the Jewish tradition—the protectors of proper practice. They were the gate for the sheep of Israel and they fiercely guarded what it meant to be Jewish in an increasingly Hellenized (Greek) world. They were beloved by the people and, to an extent, they loved their Jewish brethren. That’s why Caiaphas says that it is better for them that one man should die for the people and not that the whole nation should perish.
Two Kingdoms: One Political, One Personal
So what’s the problem? They were loving through a political lens rather than a personal lens. Loving through politics (or any ideological lens) tempts us to miss the obvious ways to love an individual and it tends also to justify our sin. It makes the otherwise 10-commandment-following Pharisees commit murder under the guise of love for others. It tells us that having a position of power and using that position for our own advantage is okay because “that’s just how the game is played.” This not only causes us to fail in loving others personally, but it also sets us up for failure in personally loving God (the Pharisees show this in that they killed God).
Jesus shows us that His kingdom is not like the kingdom that the Pharisees are trying to protect. Jesus’ kingdom is from heaven and is so deeply personal that it disrupts the politics of this world (for a great example of how the personal nature of God’s kingdom disrupted the politics of this world, check out this message on the life of William Wilberforce). Care from a position of power meant justifying murder for the Pharisees. Care from a position of power meant laying down His life for Jesus. If you want to avoid being the wrong kind of Pharisee, then choose the personal love of Jesus for others. Especially in the world we live in today, let us not allow our political lenses, our opinions, or our ideological lenses to get in the way of loving the person in front of us.