There is a great deception that is very widespread in the Church. It is that the Pharisees loved the law of God and were zealous for its enforcement. The exact opposite was true. The Pharisees hated the law of God and invented an entire system of loopholes so that they could give the appearance of godliness but violate the spirit and intent of the law. What difference does it make that most of the Church has a factual misunderstanding of this? A misunderstanding of facts leads to false doctrine. Since Christians know the condemnations Jesus gave against the Pharisees, they do not want to be guilty of being like the Pharisees. They want to avoid any trace of legalism. The problem is that many in the Church, wanting to avoid the legalism of the Pharisees are guilty of the very sin of the Pharisees (despising the law of God) because they misunderstand what the Pharisees taught.
Matthew 15:1-9 is sometimes used to show that Jesus condoned the breaking of God’s Law. Verses 1-3 begin:
Then Jesus was approached by a group of Pharisees and lawyers from Jerusalem, with a question: ‘Why do your disciples break the ancient tradition? They do not wash their hands before meals.’ He answered them: ‘And what of you? Why do you break God’s commandment in the interest of your tradition?’
The Pharisees are not accusing Jesus’ disciples of breaking God’s law, but rather of breaking the ancient tradition; sometimes referred to as, “the tradition of the elders”. This is not God’s law but, Pharisaic tradition. The Pharisees developed a system of laws and rules that were extremely complicated. Unless a person was a trained doctor of the law, the laws were almost impossible to understand. Therefore, those who were learned in the law were often able to trap people in the maze of the law, while they violated the spirit of law themselves by knowing the loop-holes. Jesus answered them beginning in verse 3:
Why do you break God’s commandment in the interest of your tradition? For God said, ‘honor your father and mother’, and ‘the man who curses his father or mother must suffer death.’ But you say, ‘If a man says to his father or mother, anything of mine which might have been used for your benefit is set apart for God, then he must not honor his father or his mother.’
God’s law is clear, a person should give respect and honor to his parents. This includes taking care of parents in their old age. The Pharisees would say that their wealth was dedicated to God, then they would live in luxury and splendor and ignore the needs of their aged parents. In Matthew 15:6 Jesus continues:
You have made God’s law null and void out of respect for your tradition. What hypocrisy! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘This people pays me lip-service, but their heart is far from me; their worship of me is vain, for they teach as doctrines the commandments of men.’
Jesus’ disciples were not disobeying the laws of God, they were disobeying the traditions of the Pharisees. Paul was a Pharisee and many times he criticizes the laws or traditions of the Pharisees. Some people do not understand this and believe that Paul is criticizing God’s law.
The true measure of a person’s love for Jesus is that persons love for God’s Law. John 14:15 says, “If you love me (Jesus) you will obey my commands.” What are Jesus’ commands? To understand this we must understand who Jesus is. Jesus is God in the flesh, therefore, the commands of God are Jesus’ commands. How do we know if a person loves Jesus? “If you love me you will obey my commands”. Jesus reemphasized this point in John 14:21: “‘The man who receives my commands and obeys them – he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my father; and I will love him and disclose myself to him.’”
What did Paul and his fellow Pharisees believe? When Israel went into the Babylonian captivity, temple worship was abandoned and the Israelites began worshiping in synagogues. The learned rabbis studied the Law of God. They were in effect lawyers and clergymen rolled into one. While in the Babylonian captivity, influenced by Babylonian culture, they began writing commentaries on God’s Law. These commentaries are referred to as the traditions of the elders, or more properly the Babylonian Talmud. These Pharisaic rabbis taught that when the dead were resurrected they could attain eternal life if they had kept the law. However, the Pharisees found that law keeping was very difficult; moreover it got in the way of many pleasurable and profitable practices. So, in their commentaries (the Talmud) they established loop holes in the law. These loopholes were a means by which a person could appear to be keeping the letter of the law while in fact, being in total violation of the spirit of the law.
A very interesting passage is found in Luke 11:52, “‘Alas for you lawyers! You have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not go in yourselves, and those who were on their way in, you stopped.’” Compare this to Matthew 23:13, “‘Alas, alas for you, lawyers and Pharisees, hypocrites that you are! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces; you do not enter yourselves, and when others are entering, you stop them.’”
These Pharisaic lawyers took away the key of knowledge that opens the door to the kingdom of heaven by teaching that salvation comes through keeping their traditions, rather than through faith. Some teachers today teach that in Old Testament times people received salvation by keeping the law, but since the death of Christ salvation comes through faith. This cannot be true. If, in Old Testament times, salvation came through keeping the law, then no one was saved before the time of Christ, because no one except Christ himself has ever been able to keep the law. To understand all of Paul’s writings, these principles must be understood. Since Paul so adamantly teaches that salvation does not come by keeping the law, some biblical scholars today have erred in teaching that the Old Testament taught that salvation came by law keeping. In fact, the Old Testament clearly teaches that salvation comes through faith. It was Paul’s own Pharisaic background that he was teaching against.
The religious guides of Christ’s day were the Pharisees. They wanted to make sure that the common people were truthful in their dealings with them, but the Pharisees had developed loopholes in the law of truth-telling that benefited them. When they took an oath they would swear by something that was sacred, but since they were the doctors of the law, they would invent loopholes in their oaths so that they could get out of their contracts. They developed an intricate system of swearing whereby some oaths were binding and others were not. The common people couldn’t figure out their system and were often tripped up in it. The Pharisees were absolute masters at inventing loopholes and traps in the law, but Jesus pointed out how their devices perverted the intent of the law. Matt 23:16-23:
16. Woe to you, blind guides, who say, `Whoever swears by the temple, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obliged to perform it.” 17. Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that sanctifies the gold? 18. And, `Whoever swears by the altar, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gift that is on it, he is obliged to perform it.” 19. Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that sanctifies the gift? 20. Therefore he who swears by the altar, swears by it and by all things on it. 21. He who swears by the temple, swears by it and by Him who dwells in it. 22. And he who swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by Him who sits on it. 23. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.
This hatred for legalism by many in the Church, should lead them to love the Law for God and hate the false teachings of the Pharisees, but because many in the Church have a factual misunderstanding of the teachings of the Pharisees it leads them to hate the law of God. Good evidence that this is the case is, that in spite of the fact that many psalms praise God’s law, you find very few contemporary songs extolling the virtues of God’s law.
Charles Fuqua is the author of God’s Law – The Only Political Solution. He is available to speak at churches and any other group setting. GodsLawForAmerica.com, CharlesRFuqua@gmail.com, 870-612-3570.