The Pharisees 1 - Who Were The Pharisees?
Chan Gin Kai
One day Jesus was teaching, and Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there. They had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem. (Luke 5:17)
Jesus’ fame as a preacher and a healer had spread far and wide, and it attracted the Pharisees and teachers of the law. There were several of them, and they had travelled far to hear him. This was Luke’s first record of their presence, and they would be present at Jesus’ preaching far more often after.
We know that the Pharisees would later persecute Jesus, and Jesus openly challenged their hypocrisy too. They eventually conspired to put Jesus to death. So it is natural that we dislike the Pharisees. And because we tend to vilify them, we seldom try to understand them. This makes it dangerous because if we do not learn from the Pharisees, then we are more likely to become like them.
A Little History
After the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem in 597 BC, many Jews were deported to Babylon. Far away from the Temple (which was destroyed anyway) in Babylon, the Jews established houses of worship (synagogues) and study so that they could carry on practicing their religion.
The Persians conquered the Babylonians in 539 BC and they allowed the Jews to return to Judea two years later. The Jews were permitted to rebuild their temple, but not restore their monarchy. The authority of the temple became greater as a result. The Sadducees, a party made up of priests and allied elites, emerged as the dominant power.
Even after the Temple was rebuilt during the time of Ezra the Scribe (from whom we got the book of Ezra in the Old Testament), the houses of study and worship remained important secondary institutions in Jewish life. While most Jews could not attend the Temple service, they could go to the synagogues for their thrice-daily prayer and the thrice-weekly reading of the Torah. So the priests controlled the rituals of the Temple, and the scribes and sages (later called rabbis) dominated the study of the Torah. The Pharisee party emerged out of this group of scribes and sages.
The leaders of the Pharisees were not determined by birth like the priests, but by scholarly achievements. They believed in a more participatory form of Judaism, extending its practice beyond the Temple (which was by an exclusive inherited priesthood only) to all adult Jews. Their belief that ordinary people could engage with the sacred through the law in their daily lives was a position that the majority of Jews found more meaningful. The Sadducees and Pharisees naturally became rival parties.
They Weren't All Bad
So the Pharisees weren’t all bad at all. They had originated from a group of people who were devoted to studying the scriptures, and dedicated to teach others as well. They were not elitists like the Sadducees, and had arguably done much more to help the common people to learn about God and obey Him. Paul was so learned in the scriptures because he was a Pharisee, and some scholars even speculate that Jesus was a Pharisee too. Even if Jesus weren’t, he had benefited a lot from their teachings from a young age.
Not all Pharisees opposed Jesus or Christianity either. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus who buried Jesus (John 19:38-42) were Pharisees and part of the Ruling Council (the Sanhedrin). Gamaliel was one of the most eminent Pharisees and the president of the Sanhedrin. He stood up to defend Peter and the other apostles when the Sanhedrin wanted to put them to death (Act 5:33-39). Gamaliel was also Paul’s teacher, in his training to be a Pharisee.
The Dangers We Face
Why did so many Pharisees become Jesus' mortal enemies? The simple answer is PRIDE. It is a sin that everyone is tempted by, but especially alluring to those in positions of leadership. We're starting a series on the Pharisees, but let's end today's study on them with the following question to ponder:
If the Pharisees, a group of people who were passionate about God’s word and dedicated to helping people follow God could go astray, what kinds of danger do we face?
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Chan Gin Kai
Gin Kai is a film producer who believes in the power of media to inspire positive changes. He has spearheaded disaster relief and capacity building projects in impoverished communities across Asia. In church, he serves as a mentor to young professionals in the EDGE Ministry. He describes himself as "just a sinner who wants to get right with God".