Are you a rule-follower? Do you hate it when someone fudges, breaks in line, bends the rules?
The Pharisees hated rule-breaking so much they piled rules on top of
rules just to make sure no one broke the rules. The worst sin, for the
Pharisee, was rule-breaking, and they came up with lists of over 600
laws which they fastidiously kept before the people. Not only did they
keep the laws themselves but they laid their standards on the backs of
their brethren. In other words, they believed and taught salvation by
The Pharisees scoured God’s laws to figure out how to stay absolutely spotless.
God commanded priests to wash before they ministered in the tabernacle. To mirror that, the Pharisees required the washing of the hands before eating anything–and the washing of all vessels and utensils–so they wouldn’t ingest any unclean thing and thereby defile themselves. That’s why they became upset when Jesus’ disciples “broke the tradition of the elders” by eating with unwashed hands (Matt. 15.2).
God clearly required the Jews to rest on the Sabbath Day, to cease
from their daily labors. They were not allowed to build a fire or gather
firewood on the Sabbath. Taking it just a step further, the Pharisees
wrote a few extra laws (which logically flowed from God’s, right?),
which included no picking of grain (harvesting!), no rubbing grain
together in the hands (threshing!), and no chewing freshly-picked grain
(grinding!). That’s why they accused Jesus’ disciples of law-breaking
when they did all three of these things (Matt. 12.1-2).
men and women of old fasted and prayed to the Lord and gave alms to the
poor. The Pharisees then, in order to plumb the depths of righteousness
and holiness, gave to the poor (Matt. 6.1-4), prayed (Matt. 6.5-6), and
fasted (Matt. 6.16-18) to be seen by men. After all, what good were those holy activities if no one knew how incredibly holy they had become?
Much to their dismay, Jesus spoiled their scene and began to peel the
outer layers of their so-called righteousness to reveal empty, dark,
and rebellious hearts. Jesus told the Jews their righteousness had to
exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 5.20)! How
could one possibly out-righteousness a Pharisee? They were the
self-appointed keepers of the Law. They sat in the seat of Moses,
claiming to speak for God.
One of the leading Pharisees of Jesus’ day was Nicodemus, who
approached Jesus by night with great praise, calling Jesus “Rabbi” and
affirming his belief that Jesus was from God because of the signs He was
performing. Did Jesus welcome Nicodemus with open arms? To the
contrary, He answered him rather roughly, questioning the Israelite
teacher’s basic understanding of spiritual things! Don’t you know you
must be born again before you can see the kingdom of God? Why don’t you
understand these things? (John 3)
The major point was this–Nicodemus needed JESUS to reveal the
heavenly things. Nicodemus could not approach Jesus as a fellow Rabbi.
He couldn’t think of Him as simply one sent from God. He would have to accept Jesus as God.
He would have to accept his own sinfulness before the Almighty One, no
matter how carefully he had kept the Law of Moses all his life, no
matter how pure he thought his hands and feet and eyes were, no matter
how many righteousness points he felt he had racked up over the years.
In truth, unless he looked to CHRIST, Nicodemus stood no closer to God
than a tax collector or prostitute!
Can we be so in love with God’s LAW that we totally miss HIM? In reality, the Pharisees didn’t love the law in the same way they might love a person. They really loved themselves. They loved the idea of showing God how righteous they really were. They loved being more righteous than everyone else around them (Luke 18.9).
Yes, we can fall into this trap–quite easily, in fact. Have I done
this myself–thought of myself as a gatekeeper of God’s law, an
interpreter who really knows what God means about almost everything
(admitting a few nooks and crannies I haven’t totally figure out
yet…)? Is my standing before God based on how well I understand His
laws and how well I keep them? Is my standing in His kingdom based on my
outstanding performance? Is my purity some great gift I give to God,
which places me above my peers and gives me something to boast about?
If we think like that, we sit in the camp of the Pharisees. We love law, not Christ. We love ourselves, not our brethren. Examine the gospels and you’ll find the Pharisees persecuted and oppressed their own brethren because of their self-righteousness, and worst of all they rejected and slaughtered their own Messiah.
Brothers and Sisters, don’t get me wrong–we should love God’s law–but for the right reason. We should love God’s law because it’s God’s law. We should love His commandments because they come from Him and we love to obey Him. We shouldn’t love the law apart from Him. We shouldn’t look to the law to do for us what only God can.
Here’s the point: The law does not and cannot save us! Jesus saves.