Jesus and the Pharisees

As we continue in our study of the gospel of Mark, I want to talk with you this morning about a movement that began a number of years ago.  This movement became necessary because, despite the fact that God has set forth certain guidelines in his word, over the years, people became unfaithful and weren’t doing what God had commanded. 

            So, there were a number of men who started what you might call a “restoration movement.”  They began this movement with the idea of restoring God’s pattern.  They emphasized going back to the scriptures and using the scriptures only as a guide.  They spent a lot of time studying and teaching from God’s Word.  They truly believed that God’s Word should not only be studied but should also be applied to all of life’s activities.

            Now, you might be thinking that this restoration movement that I’m describing began in the 1800’s.  But, no, the movement that I have in mind began hundreds of years before the time of Christ.  And the result of that restoration movement was a group of people we read about in the New Testament called the Pharisees.

            Now I don’t know how that makes you feel, but to me it seems absolutely incredible that a group of people who started out with such noble aspirations ended up being the group for which Jesus had his harshest words of condemnation.  And I think it’s also a bit frightening because we real­ize that the roots of our own restoration movement are very similar to that of the Pharisees.

            I think it’s important for us to recognize that we are like the Pharisees in a lot of ways.  Like the Pharisees, we are conservative in our doctrine.  Like the Pharisees, we place a lot of emphasis on studying God’s Word.  And like the Pharisees, we stress obedience to God’s Word.  So, when we read in the gospels that Jesus had serious conflict with the Pharisees, then I think we need to pay attention.

            Now I want to say from the outset that it’s not my intention to label any person or group of people today as “Pharisees”.  But I do think that all of us — and I include myself in that number – all of us have some Pharisaic tendencies.  And the irony of the situation is that the stronger our desire is to please God, the greater our tendency is to act like Pharisees.  So, it’s very important that we understand where the Pharisees went wrong, so that we can be careful not to make the same mistakes.

            Last week, we studied from Mark chapter 2.  I told you that this was part of a section that contains five conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees.  We looked at three of those conflicts last week.  This morning, I want us to look at the last two conflicts that Mark mentions.  These two stories have something in common — both of them have to do with the Jewish observance of the Sabbath.

            But, before we get to the text, I want to do a little bit of study into the background of the Pharisees.  Because I want us to try to get a better understanding of who they were, how they came about as a group, why they did some of the things that they did, and how they changed from men with noble aspirations to the men we consider to be the greatest enemies of Jesus Christ.  Then I think we’ll be in a better position to understand what happens in Mark’s gospel.

I.          Who Were the Pharisees?

            If we go back to the origin of this group, we find that no one is able to pinpoint the exact time that the Pharisees offi­cially began.  It wasn’t like a group of men got together for dinner one evening and said, “Hey!  Why don’t we start a new group?  Let’s call it the Pharisees!”  Rather, it was something that came about over a period of time.  But the roots of the Pharisees go all the way back to the time of the Babylonian captivity.

            Around 600 years before Christ, the Babylonians conquered the nation of Judah.  Almost all of the Jews were carried away into captivity.  This was a very difficult time for the Jews.  They couldn’t gather at the temple to worship.  They couldn’t offer their sacrifices.  They didn’t have any political leaders or priests leading them in the right direction. 

            But, during the 70 years of captivity, there was a small group of men who tried to keep the Jews on track.  They wanted to lead the people back to following God’s Word.  These were the scribes.  They devoted their time to teaching and studying the scriptures.  And they encouraged others to study God’s Word.    

            For example, in Nehemiah 8, Ezra and the other scribes, “They read from the Book of the Law of God and clearly explained the meaning of what was being read, helping the people understand each passage.” (Nehemiah 8:8, NLT)

            Notice what they did.  They read the word of God and then they explained to the people what it meant.  And there’s nothing wrong with that; that’s basically what preaching is all about.

            But, as time went by, the Jews had a lot of questions.  The Jewish way of life had changed dramatically from what it used to be.  The Jewish people had always been a separated and isolated people.  That made it a lot easier to know what you should do.  You just do the same thing your parents did, and your grandparents, and your great-grandparents. 

            But the Babylonian captivity changed all that.  Suddenly, the Jews were forced to intermingle with other cultures — first the Babylonians, then the Persians, then the Greeks, then the Ro­mans.  That meant they were faced with decisions they had never been faced with before.  There were new moral dilemmas, new ethical questions, and they found that the Law of Moses didn’t always specifically address their particular situation.

            And so, when the Pharisees got started, they had two major goals.  First of all, they wanted to put more focus on the Word of God.  And then secondly, they wanted to make God’s Word relevant to the problems and situations of daily life. 

            And there was nothing wrong with that.  In fact, I hope we all want the same thing.  Both of those are things that I am deeply committed to as a preacher.  I want us to put more focus on God’s Word.  And I want us to use God’s Word to help us figure out what kind of decisions we should be making as we face all of the different choices in our lives.

            And so, it’s important for us to see that the Pharisees did not begin as an attempt to bypass or minimize the teachings of God’s Word.  Sometimes we may get the impression that the Pharisees had no respect for the scriptures, and that’s not the case at all.  In fact, just the opposite is true.  The Pharisees got started in order to put more focus on God’s Word.

            In fact, the Pharisees had so much respect for the scriptures and valued them so much that they started making their own laws.  Now, that probably doesn’t make much sense, so let me explain.

            As the scribes and the Pharisees tried to keep people close to God’s Word, they ran into a problem.  Sometimes – in fact, many times — the scriptures are not very specific.  For example, consider what the Law of Moses said about the Sabbath.  God said in Exodus 20, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.  On it you shall not do any work…” (Exodus 20:8-10a). 

            There are several other scriptures that repeat this command, but there’s not much elaboration on it except to say that “Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death.” (Exodus 31:15b).

            In the early years of the Israelite nation, this commandment was taken very seriously.  In Numbers 15, a man was found “gathering sticks on the Sabbath day” (Numbers 15:32), and the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” (Numbers 15:35).

            But when the Jews studied this passage hundreds of years later, they were bothered by the fact that God didn’t go into much detail.  They wanted to know, what exactly constitutes work in the eyes of God? 

            And the truth is that the Law of Moses didn’t answer that question very well.  God did say, “…in plowing time and in harvest you shall rest.”  (Exodus 34:21).  God said, “You shall kindle no fire in all your dwelling places on the Sabbath day.” (Exodus 35:3).  So, the Jews knew that working in the field and gathering sticks for a fire was considered to be work.  But that’s pretty much it.  Those are the only things God specifically mentioned.  And that left a whole lot of areas that God said nothing about.

            And so, they wondered — If I pick my child up and carry him around the house, is that work?  If I sit down to read a book, is that work?  Is sewing considered to be work?  Could a Jew do cross stitch on the Sabbath?  Could a Jew go hunting or fishing?  Is it work to prepare a meal?  Can you boil an egg?  Can you pour a bowl of cereal?  If you hurt yourself, can you go to the doctor?  These were important questions.

            And for people like the Pharisees who desperately wanted to make sure they didn’t break God’s commandments, it was essential that those questions be answered very specifically.  And so, with the very best of intentions, the Pharisees set about to try to figure out exactly what God meant when he said not to work on the Sabbath.

Over a period of years, the Pharisees came up with 39 guidelines that told them what sorts of things they couldn’t do on the Sabbath.  But even with that, there were still some other gray areas.  Walking a long distance is obviously work, so long walks were forbidden on the Sabbath.  But how far could you walk before it became work?   After much thought, the Pharisees decided that the limit was 2000 cubits, a little less than 2/3 of a mile.  You could walk that far, but no further.

And obviously carrying a heavy load on the Sabbath is work.  But how heavy does something need to be before it’s a burden?  After much thought, the Pharisees decided that anything that weighed more than a dried fig was work.  So, you couldn’t pick up anything heavier than a fig. 

They said you couldn’t tie or untie a knot on the Sabbath.  Women weren’t allowed to look in a mirror on the Sabbath because she might see a gray hair and be tempted to pull it out.  A tailor couldn’t carry a needle because he might be tempted to start using it.

The Pharisees didn’t always agree with each other, so they would argue about things like, can you eat an egg that a hen laid on the Sabbath?  Some of them said, you can, but only after you kill the hen for breaking the Sabbath because laying that egg was work.  Could a crippled man walk around with a wooden leg, or was that heavy enough to be considered a burden?  They said you could spit on a rock on the Sabbath, but you couldn’t spit on the ground, because that made mud and mud was mortar, and that was work.  And the list goes on and on and on.

The result of all this was that, by the time Jesus came along, most Jews had absolutely no concept of the original purpose of the Sabbath or how God intended for it to be honored.  Instead of a day of rest, it had become a day of incredible burden.  Because of the thousands of man-made regulations regarding it, keeping the Sabbath was more tiring than the six days they spent at work. 

            Someone has suggested that the biggest problem with the Pharisees was that they were afraid of God.  And I think that’s true.  The Pharisees were so afraid of God that they were scared to death that they might slip up and break one of the laws of God.  And so, they came up with a system that would keep them from even coming close to making God angry. 

            And so, if God said not to work on the Sabbath, then don’t even pick grain to eat — just to play it safe.  Don’t heal anybody on the Sabbath because that might be a borderline case, and you don’t want to take a chance on making God mad.  But soon, it became apparent that all of these “guidelines” were not optional.  They became rules that were every bit as important as the laws of scripture and in some cases even more important.

            And if you dared to criticize them, the Pharisees would have said, “Don’t you think it’s important to keep God’s law?  And God’s law said, ‘Don’t work on the Sabbath day.'”  And they were right about two things:  (1) God did say that; and (2) since it was a command of God, it was a command that needed to be taken very seriously.  But what they failed to see was the distinction between what God said and what they interpreted God to mean.

            Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees centered around the fact that their opinions about scripture had become inseparable from God’s law, and Jesus considered that confusion to be inexcusable.  If they wanted to, let them list all their regulations and label them, “The Pharisees’ Fifty Favorite Guidelines”.  More power to them.  But don’t publish them as the voice of God or bind them on everyone else.

Now, with all that in mind, let’s take a look at our text this morning. 

A.        Eating on the Sabbath

            “One Sabbath [Jesus] was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees were saying to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?’”  (Mark 2:23-24)

            Jesus and his disciples were walking along a road that passed through a grainfield.  When they got hungry, there wasn’t exactly a “golden arches” on every corner, if you can imagine.  And the Law of Moses said in Deuteronomy that a Jew was allowed to eat from another Jew’s field (Deut. 23:24-25).  So, what Jesus and his disciples did here was not all that unusual.

The Pharisees objected, not because Jesus’ disciples took somebody’s else grain, but because they did it on the Sabbath.  They saw this as a violation of the Sabbath law.  After all, gathering a harvest on the Sabbath was specifically forbidden (Exod. 34:21).  Now, you and I know that pulling a few grains of wheat off a stalk is not the same as gathering a harvest and it’s certainly not work, but the Pharisees said that it was.  They also said rubbing grain together in the hands was a form of threshing; and blowing away the chaff was a form of winnowing.

The Pharisees said that what Jesus and his disciples were doing was “not lawful.”  And they held Jesus responsible.  “Why are you letting your disciples do what is not allowed?”

In his response, Jesus insisted that the Sabbath was never intended to take precedence over legitimate needs.  He looked back to the example of David who also did something “improper” when he ate the showbread in the temple while he and his companions were trying to get away from King Saul.

Then Jesus laid down two important principles that we need to keep in mind.  In verse 27, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27).  In other words, the Sabbath was given to the Jews so that a person could rest from his labors and give full attention to the worship of God.  The Sabbath was intended to help people, not make their life more difficult.   When the Sabbath day no longer refreshed people, when worship of God became less important than keeping a long list of rules, the focus was in the wrong place.  

And secondly, in verse 28, “the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28).   Because Jesus was God, he had the authority to define what proper Sabbath observance is all about.  He wrote that law.  It’s like the discussion we looked at last week.  Who can forgive sins?  Only God.  But Jesus is God!  Who can determine what’s right and what’s wrong on the Sabbath?  Only God can!  But Jesus is God!

B.        Healing on the Sabbath

“Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand, ‘Come here.’ And he said to them, ‘Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?’  But they were silent.  And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’  He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.”  (Mark 3:1-5).

            Now the Pharisees were just looking for a reason to criticize Jesus.  In fact, it’s been suggested that perhaps the religious leaders may have “planted” this crippled man in the synagogue because they knew Jesus would take pity on him.  They watched Jesus closely.  Would he be bold enough to heal on the Sabbath?  Matthew’s account tells us they even asked him the question, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” (Matthew 12:10).  There’s that word again.  Is it “lawful”?  Jesus, do you really think you’re allowed to heal this man today?

But Jesus turned the question around – he asked them, “What is it ‘lawful’ to do on the Sabbath?”  The Pharisees recognized that it was legitimate to save a person’s life on the Sabbath.  In Matthew’s account, Jesus pointed out that they would go to great lengths to keep from losing an animal, so if a sheep fell into a pit on the Sabbath, they would have pulled it out.

Even if there was a law telling them they couldn’t do that, the Pharisees would have found some way of getting around the law, finding a loophole, in order to save their animals.  You can be sure they would find a way to get their animal out of the ditch.  Jesus said, “Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep?”

Here in Mark’s account, Jesus says that saving a life is never wrong.  It would be like seeing a man drowning in a lake in a field with a “No Trespassing” sign on it.  Saving the man’s life gives you the right – even the obligation – to ignore the “No Trespassing” sign.  To Jesus, refusing to help a man in his time of need would be wrong, and that would be a real violation of the Sabbath. 

Jesus said that it is always right to do good.  Any time a conflict arises between the letter of God’s law and the pursuit of compassionate, merciful behavior, the spirit of God’s law frees us to be compassionate.  “Mercy” is higher on God’s priority list than just about anything else.

For example, if you see somebody with a flat tire or having car trouble while you’re on your way to worship, you could ignore them, saying to yourself, “God says to assemble with the saints, I’m going to assemble.  I’ve got to do what God says.”  But I hope it’s obvious that that wouldn’t be the right thing to do.  To think that God’s Word keeps us from being merciful is a perversion of God’s intentions.

I think it goes without saying that the Pharisees were not very happy with the answers Jesus gave.  In verse 6, “The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”  (Mark 3:6).   From this point on, the Pharisees are going to try to figure out a good way to put Jesus to death.

So, what are the lessons I want us to carry away from all of this?  Let me briefly suggest three things, then the lesson will be yours.

1)    There is a danger that we can shift from a focus on God’s Word to a focus on our interpretation of God’s Word (and the scary thing is that we can do it without even realizing we’re doing it).

            I’ve heard a lot of sermons on subjects that had nothing to do with what God had to say.  “Here’s something that wrong.  Why is it wrong?  Because this scripture teaches it’s wrong.  Well, this scripture doesn’t deal with it directly, but that’s what it means.  It’s always been wrong to do that.  And everybody knows it’s wrong.  Just ask any faithful brother and he’ll tell you it’s wrong!”  When we get to the point where the line between what God says and what we interpret God’s Word to mean gets blurry, then we need to be very careful.

            And as I said earlier, the irony of the situation is that the stronger our desire to please God, the greater the tendency there is not to make this distinction. 

2)    There is a danger that, like the Pharisees, we can define our Christianity by a list of things that we “do”.

            “Are you a faithful Christian?”  “Well, of course, I’m a faithful Christian – I’m at church every time the doors are opened, I give 10% of every penny I make, I don’t smoke, and I don’t drink.  Besides all that, I use one of the ‘approved’ versions of Bible.  If that doesn’t make a person a faithful Christian, I don’t know what does.” 

            “But how do you treat people?  What have you done lately to help someone out?”  “What in the world does that have to do with being a faithful Christian – everybody knows that’s not the way you measure it.”  And yet, as Jesus showed us, that is the way God measures it.

3)  There is a danger that we can become more comfortable sitting around arguing about what God’s Word means than we are with actually living it.

            We can fuss and squabble in the church over such topics as whether or not we can send money to children’s homes or whether or not we can eat in a church building or how long your hair can be or how short your dress­es can be.  And while all these things may have a place in our discussion, if we allow ourselves to be so consumed by the trivial to the point that we overlook what is truly important, then there’s a world around us that’s going to die in their sins. 


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