I ended the chapter on “Trust” (see chapter Nine) stating that being accused of following the devil puts me in good company, as Jesus was accused of the same thing! This brings me to another thread which has become increasingly important during my spiritual travels: the New Testament picture of the Pharisees. This thread began while I was in seminary and continues to advise me to this day.
First of all, the Pharisees were not “bad guys.” They have been given very negative press because of the New Testament account of their opposition to Jesus, who he was and where he originated. But the Pharisees were the teachers of the scriptures in their day. This was the group whose main task in life was to study the Bible and to teach others to follow its direction for life. The modern-day equivalent would be we who claim to know the scriptures, who spend our lives in reading, studying, and meditating upon the scriptures. In this, there is no difference between the first-century Pharisees, and todays Evangelicals.
A brief aside here for a lesson in Greek! The English term “evangelical” is a direct transliteration of the greek word “euangelion”, also often used in verb form, “euangelizo”. This term means, most literally, “good news”, or, as it is often translated, “gospel”. The verb form, then, becomes transliterated as “evangelize”, or translated, “to proclaim good news”, or “to preach the gospel”. As it has come to be used today, then, to evangelize, or to preach the gospel, means preaching the Bible. So that the term “Evangelicals”, as applied to a certain branch of Christianity, has come to mean those who hold most closely to the Bible. That is the basis for the connection I am making between Pharisees and Evangelicals. Both groups profess to being the group who adheres most closely to the scriptures. Both groups proclaim the message of the scriptures. Both groups admonish everyone around them to live according to the scriptures.
As I write this, in early 2012, there is an election heating up in the U.S. Because I lived much of my life in the States, I pay close attention to the political scene there. This is due to personal interest, memories of politics when I was younger, and also because the U.S. is the strongest military power and the strongest economy in the world. What happens there affects all of us around the globe. This is especially true in Canada. The U.S. is our closest neighbor; we have the longest unarmed border in the world between us.
And what I am hearing is that as the Republican Party holds their primary elections, much of the rhetoric coming out of the mouths of contestants lays claim to be biblical. While I am pretty cynical about how close to actual biblical truth they are, they claim to be basing their positions on biblical truth. A large portion of the Republican Party wants to force everyone in U.S. society to live according to the scriptures, at least according to their own particular version of the scriptures. Once again, my cynicism about all of this is that they tend to take a very populist view of what the scripture actually says. None of them seem to understand the true core of the gospel truth of scripture. As is true of most of the political world, they hold their fingers up in the air to test the direction of the wind. Whatever they sense is the prevailing direction of the winds of understanding truth among voters becomes their position.
Going back to the biblical account, who did Jesus target for his most vehement words? It was the Pharisees. Did Jesus rant and rave about the oppression and injustice of the occupying Roman government? Did he rail against the cruelty of foreign military forces on their soil? Did he criticize neighboring countries for their injustice or lack of freedom? No! He criticized his own people.
The case could easily be made, and is made, by many biblical scholars that Jesus himself was a Pharisee. He certainly lived and taught in the tradition of the Pharisees. He was called “Rabbi” by his followers and by the Pharisees themselves. His position in the society of his day was that of an itinerant teacher of the Pharisees, one who studied the scripture, one who taught the scripture, one who admonished his followers to live by the scripture. So when he lashes out at the Pharisees, he is lashing out at his own. He calls them blind guides, blind fools, serpents, a brood of vipers (Matthew 23.13-36).
As I grew in my understanding of the connection between the Pharisees of the New Testament and the Evangelicals of my own day, I became more and more clear of where I stood in relation to my own group, the Evangelicals. It became more and more obvious that my trust must be in God, and God alone. I could not trust the Church to decipher just what the scriptures–which Evangelicals proclaim to be God’s Word–was saying. I must depend on God, and devote myself to hearing him clearly. I must trust him. He will not lead me astray. He will not allow me to get sucked into falsehood. He wants the absolute best for me. It is up to me to listen, to have ears to hear what he is saying.
One other aspect of this whole Pharisee/Evangelical issue, and my fellow Christians’ admonition to not get waylaid by the trickery of the enemy, is that of intellect. As I follow my path, I have come to see more and more that what I was actually doing in the past was relying on my mind. It was an intellectual exercise in reading and understanding and figuring out the Bible. So, it begins to seem to me that in Evangelical circles the one who has the clearest mind, the most articulate preacher or proclaimer, determines what is truth. The person who can argue the clearest wins the day. And those of us who just fumble along doing the best we can with what we know submit to those articulate voices among us.
Now, I don’t want to be totally negative about all this. Many of God’s preachers are gifted by him to clearly proclaim the truth. Along with the prophets of old, he gives the voice and he gives the message which is to be proclaimed. And because I believe that to be true, I still participate in the organized religion of my heritage, the Church. I still listen to my Christian brothers and sisters, taking their advice and admonitions seriously. But I also take it with a huge grain of salt. I check with Spirit which things I can hold onto as truth, and what I can allow to drop by the wayside as not helpful.
Yet another aspect of the connection I see between the Pharisees of the New Testament age and today’s Evangelicals concerns me deeply. The Pharisees were, as outlined above, the most serious holders to biblical truth in their day. They were the ones who devoted their entire lives to studying the scriptures. They had schools of thought which debated the truth of the Bible, determined to know exactly what God was saying to them through the ancient writings. They wanted to get it right. They did not want to miss anything God had for them, any truth he wanted them to know.
As an aside, it was very likely in this context that Jesus engages the leaders in the temple at age twelve in questions about scriptural truth, and astounds them with his wisdom at such a young age. Another example of Jesus engaging the Pharisees in discussion of scripture occurs in Matthew 22.34ff. Apparently the hot topic of the day was to get at the core of the Law, the heart of the scriptures. What is the central commandment of the Law? As a Rabbi, greatly respected by the people, they sought Jesus out to see how he would respond to this question. And his answer silenced them!
So, even though history has brought the Pharisees into disrepute, in their day they were the respected scholars and teachers of scriptures. From the New Testament scriptures I think it is pretty obvious that they were often quite smug in assuming they knew God’s word. They knew the scriptures.
And yet, they missed it! When God sent his Word, in the human person of Jesus, to the earth, the very ones who thought they knew God and his word, missed it, or missed him!
I find, to my dismay, elements of this same smugness in todays Evangelicals. All too often I encounter attitudes of confidence in knowing what scripture has to say. After all, we have studied the Bible for centuries. We have resources coming out of our ying-yang. There is no shortage of books, references, resources of all sorts, on the Bible. Millions of Evangelical Christians spend years, if not their entire lives, in the study and teaching of scripture.
Are we in any way in danger similar to the first century Pharisees in missing God when he appears? I truly believe this is a very real danger. The only reassurance I have is that I know God to be endlessly merciful. I do not believe that he will deliberately deceive us. He will appear to us in a way in which we are able to perceive him. In subsequent chapters I will outline more clearly my present-day understanding of God and how he is working in today’s world.
But for now, I think that we Evangelicals need to take a serious look at our way of relating to God. When he does appear on earth, we do not want to be caught sleeping.