The Rise of the Pharisees and the Beginning of Legalism in the Church

In my post Women’s Ministry: Planning the Upcoming Year, I talked about the vision I had for our 2019 Women’s Ministry Year. I also outlined steps for planning the upcoming year with a 20/20 vision. While planning our previous year I had the opportunity to study and create teachings surrounding our topic.

Legalism has effected my view of the church since early childhood. I grew up in a very legalistic church. But it came to my attention that the Pharisees, often the ‘villains’ of the new testament, began just like the rest of us. They wanted to love God and follow his laws. So what happened? Here was my first teaching at our Women’s renewal.

Imagine with me…

The year is 971 B.C. (before Christ was even born) This was the year of King Solomon. Imagine living as an Israelite under the rule of the richest, most prosperous country the world had ever seen. God was in control – and the people knew it. The law of Moses had been handed down. The people meditated on it day and night. People came to the temple to offer sacrifices and high priest would offer them up to God so the people’s sins would be covered. Everyone looked to your nation – Kings and Queens came from far and wide, not only to see the King you served, but to find out about the God you worshiped. The God you honored. Your God was the one true God and now the nations knew it. 

Sure, your ancestors screwed up and wandered the desert for 40 years because of their disobedience…but you really don’t talk about that. Saul became the King…but you really don’t talk about that either. You heard stories of David, Solomon’s daddy. Now David was as brave as they come. He faced the giant – Goliath. He fought wars and battles, and the Lord was with him. All the blood shed, so that you could live in a time of peace. The temple was finally being built. A permanent place for God to dwell among the people. This is the life! 

But near the end of Solomon’s reign, things began to change. Solomon brought in foreign wives and with those foreign wives came foreign gods. Sometime after Solomon, this nation that was so united, suddenly splits. No longer agreeing on a king…or a god. 

The Years Pass…

Now, the year is 571 B.C. You only hear stories about the powerful reign of a king named Solomon that happened so long ago. You are living in Babylon. In exile. You are struggling to survive. A kingdom so prosperous, so powerful – seems like a legend more than a history. 

Your father honors the God of David. The God of Father Abraham, of  Isaac, and Jacob. Your father, just like his father before him, still believes in the one true God of Israel. He reads to you from the Torah every night. Your family is dedicated to keeping the law of Moses.Your mamma tells you stories of Moses crossing the Red Sea and Joshua and entering the promised land. 

However, you try and comforter her when she begins to cry. You see, the temple that once held a permanent dwelling place for God had been destroyed a few short years ago. Where was God now? In the middle of Babalyonian exile where everyday is a struggle to stay alive? 

Possible Hope?

The year is now 165 B.C. You’ve heard the stories of your people. From their exile in Babylon where all hope seemed lost, to the fall of the Babaloyian Empire to the Persians. A glimmer of hope was raised when King Cyrus allowed some of your people to begin to return home. The Temple had been rebuilt and the people were turning back to God. Your heart leaps as the thought of a possible return to a nation that is united back to its former glory – of that when King Solomon reigned. 

But that never happened. Yes, the temple had been rebuilt; however, it was smaller and was never restored to its former glory. The Jews had returned to Palestine; but they never ruled as their own. There was no king of Israel. It was simply a puppet nation to be used by the Persians for their benefit. 

Possibly, the only glimmer of hope was that the Aaronic priests were still worshiping and carrying on the sacred rites as they had been ordered to do by the law of Moses. At least some of the Jews were honoring the God of their ancestors. You are one of them. Even when God had seemed distant and silent, you still obeyed the law. And now it was time to do something about it. 

You are tired of seeing king after king come in and conquer your nation. Each brings a different god or gods with them everytime and you see your people slipping from the faith they once held. From the Persians, to Alexander the Great, from being conquered by the Greeks, and now Syria – it is time to retake your temple. Your people. Your God. 

The Maccabean Revolt

So, you gather with fellow Israelits who are on fire for God and want to keep his law pure and you revolt. You’ve seen the foreign gods and religious practices that have been intermingling with your Bible and you are sick of it! You want to preserve the law of Moses and turn the hearts of the people back to the one true God. 

This is your Bible, you want to protect it! You want to ensure your people’s salvation. Nothing can make it unclean – you’ve witnessed false prophets, corrupt priests, and people claiming to be the one Messiah…all of who have turned out to be liars. 

So, you separate the truth from the lies. You go even further – you add more rules and regulations to show how much your are devoted to Allah. And in order to protect the laws of God – you lock them away. Nothing will be able to make God’s word unclean. You would even kill to keep it pure. 

My friends, that was the rise of the Pharisees. With all good intentions. They wanted to turn the hearts of the people back towards God. 

So What Happened?

By the time Jesus came onto the scene, the Pharisees became so legalistic in their view of the law of Moses that it became almost like a competition. Not only to preserve it, but who could do it the best. “I can keep this law better than you and this is how.” 

Because they wanted to set themselves apart for God – to not get caught up in all the other religious groups and other gods that foreign countries brought in every time they were conquered by someone else – they kept adding more ‘laws’ to keep themselves pure.

Here is just one example. Moses wrote in 

“Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work. It is a Sabbath to the Lord in all your dwelling places.”

Leviticus 23:3

The problem…what constitutes as ‘work?’ There was debate, so they had to make a law. According to the Pharisees, ‘work’ meant that you are not to lift anything that is burdensome. Great! 

But, what was burdensome? Another law had to be established to explain this. ‘Burdensome’ was defined as food in weight equal to a dry fig; wine enough for a mixing goblet; milk enough for one swallow; or ink enough to write 2 letters of the alphabet.

Okay. 
But how big of a mixing goblet? Who determines how much a ‘swallow is?’

These rules, beget more rules, that beget more rules; suddenly people would be shamed for carrying 2 glasses of milk or lifting up their children; you were cut off from God for lifting up a handful of dried figs.

The law of Moses had 613 laws. The Pharisees had added over 5000 oral traditions, or rules, that they expected people to follow to show they believed in the one true God. I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time remembering the 10 commandments. Imagine how hard it would be to follow God if you had to observe and obey over 5000 rules. And breaking just one – caring for the sick on the sabbath, picking up your child -would shame you and ostracized you from the temple…from God. 

You see, the Pharisees wanted to live for God so badly that they put their own rules and regulations on top of the law. 

Me Too…

Sometimes, I, as Christian living in American in 2019, can relate to the Pharisees. They are often vilified, when the only thing that set out to do was keep the word of God pure. 

Don’t we do the same thing today? Haven’t we ‘Personalized the Bible’ to fit our own cultural or personal beliefs? 

We learn about God in 3 ways. 

1) We Read what the Bible says about Him. 

2) We hear what other people believe about Him. 

3) We experience Him through our own lives in prayer and worship. 

And sometimes, we can put more weight onto what other people say about God, or what we think about him, rather than what the Bible has to say. 

How do we overcome legalism? I’ll give you some examples in my next blog post! Subscribe to make sure you get notified for each new posting!

Can’t wait to read what’s next? You can watch the entire teaching in the video below. This post covers the first part of it!

Questions? Comments? Leave me a note in the comment section below. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

One thought on “The Rise of the Pharisees and the Beginning of Legalism in the Church

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.