Today the Pharisees are victimized by our ignorance and prejudice. Not every Pharisee was "a bad person." Nicodemus was a Pharisee (John 3:1). Not all Pharisees shared the same convictions and perspectives. The school of Hillel taught divorce could occur for virtually any reason. The school of Shammai taught divorce could occur only if there was unchastity.
The Pharisees' roots reached back to a time long before Jesus' birth. Their roots were in a movement that challenged Israel to return to the "old paths" [their term]. This movement powerfully resisted the cultural transitions that began [socially and religiously] in the period between the Old and New Testaments. These people were grieved because Israel's cultural and religious identity were redefined by the changes occurring during that four hundred year period.
The Pharisees believed scripture was God's inspired word. To them, divine authority existed in two forms. The first was the written word Christians commonly refer to as the Old Testament. The second they called "the oral law." The oral law [in theory] was handed down from Israel's ancient past. Religious leaders of one generation communicated the oral law to the religious leaders of the next generation. The purpose of the oral law was to apply written scripture to circumstances and situations not specifically addressed by Old Testament scripture. To the Pharisees, scripture was God's living word. It addressed all situations in every age.
Consider an example of the intended relationship between written scripture and the oral law. Written scripture declared Israel was to keep the Sabbath (Saturday) holy by not working (Exodus 20:8-11). To obey that written law, "work" must be defined. The oral law defined work. It divided work into categories and provided regulations within each category. The oral law did not intend to change the written law. If the written law and the oral law conflicted, the written law should be obeyed.
Matthew [the gospel written to Jewish readers] stressed Jesus' use of written scripture in his discussions with Pharisees. Most disagreements between Jesus and the Pharisees did not concern written scripture. Most concerned the emphasis in or the applications of the oral law.
The Pharisees intended to keep the Jews close to written scripture. Their purpose was to lead Israel back to scripture. Their mission was to declare and protect the meaning of the law.
The gospels declare many Pharisees opposed Jesus. Some Pharisees followed Jesus and the twelve in an attempt to catch them breaking the law (Matthew 12:1,2). Some verbally attacked Jesus and the twelve for violating established Jewish tradition (Matthew 15:1,2). Some accused Jesus of violating the Sabbath by working (Matthew 12:9-14). Some declared Jesus obtained his power from Satan (Matthew 12:24). Some tried to trap Jesus in his teachings (Matthew 22:15). Some supported the plan to kill Jesus "for the good of the nation" (John 11:46-50).
Carefully consider. This group held a deep faith in God. They believed written scripture was the inspired, living word of God. They believed scripture addressed every situation in every age. They were committed to challenging Israel to return to "the old paths." They demanded obedience to God's will. Jewish society recognized them as the interpreters of God's word.
How could those things be true, and they be in conflict with Jesus? What in their religious focus did Jesus oppose?
Also read Matthew 15:7-9 and 22:15-22. Be very careful. Our common concept and definition of hypocrisy do not address the Pharisees' problem. They were devout. They "practiced what they preached" in standards of ceremonial purity, dietary laws, and Sabbath day regulations. In many matters they lived by their convictions. Their hypocrisy was not a shallow pretense of religious conviction practiced to deceive other people. Their hypocrisy presented, upheld, and defended distorted perspectives of scripture that perverted godly values. Their hypocrisy misrepresented God. They claimed to represent God and His will better than anyone else. But the truth was that they blinded people to God. A person converted by the typical Pharisee was in worse spiritual condition after his or her conversion.
Jesus also said:
Representatives of the Pharisees listened to Jesus teach and witnessed his miracles frequently. Few people had more opportunity to see the evidences of God's work in Jesus' life than did they. Yet, what most of them "heard" was considered lies, not God's teachings. What most of them "saw" was Satan's power, not God's power. Most of them "saw" the evidences of evil, not the evidences of godliness.
A few Pharisees recognized Jesus as a man from God, but most did not. Pharisees, by choice, were present in most audiences who heard Jesus and witnessed his miracles.
Link to Teacher's Guide Quarter 1, Lesson 3
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