The Danger that Good, Upstanding, Religious People Face Today

Who are the Pharisees of today and their religious followers?

From the sermon I heard today, I have come away with a couple of things that I am meditating on. One is personal – my need to get over myself. The need to crush the pride in me that wants to appear respectable. The desire to be liked and honored by people.

I believe God is speaking these things to me, and I need to listen and respond. I can’t be afraid to speak the truth because of fear that some people will think me a fool. I need to be willing to appear foolish for the sake of the Gospel. I confess these things today (and ask you to pray for me if you feel so compelled).

The other thing is something God has been laying on my heart over many years now. A more prophetic message for the church, the body of Christ. It goes all the way back to my earliest reading of Scripture when I noticed that the focus of the harshest words Jesus spoke was directed at the Pharisees – the religious leaders (and presumably the people who followed them).

The year 2020 will be remembered as a year of hardship and difficulty, but the ways in which people reacted to those hardships may be longer lasting than those difficulties themselves. I am thinking specifically of the religious people in the United States when I say this.

The sermon today was about the story of Zacchaeus, the wealthy tax collector who was short in stature. A more despised person one might not be able to imagine.

Tax collectors were sellouts to the Roman occupiers for personal gain. They not only collected the taxes imposed by Roman rulers; they used their position and authority to collect more than was required to line their own pockets.

Tax collectors took advantage of the Roman occupation to gain wealth for themselves at the expense of their own people. They turned their backs on fellow Hebrews and were, therefore, despised by them (and likely by the Romans as well for the same reason).

We might have a modicum of compassion and understanding for a prostitute washing the feet of Jesus with her tears, or the adulterous, Samaritan woman at the well, or the woman caught in the very act of adultery who was brought to Jesus to be stoned. Zacchaeus, though, was a man people could love to hate.

He was an outcast of a different kind. He was an outcast by choice. He wasn’t a victim of his own weakness. He exploited the weakness of his own people to benefit himself. He was alone because he chose exploitation as a way of life over family, friendship, compassion, faith and doing what was right.  

It’s no wonder that, when Jesus called Zacchaeus down from the tree and invited himself to his house for a meal and fellowship, the crowd was indignant.

Of all the people Jesus could have chosen, why in the world did Jesus choose this guy? Didn’t he know who he was and what he did for a living?

Nothing would likely have stirred the indignation of moralistic, self-righteous, religious people then this!

Many of the reputable, religious people were not fans of Jesus to begin with. They had already judged who Jesus was. He came from Nazareth, a small town of little influence and lesser reputation. Does anything good come out of Nazareth.[1] (John 1:46)

Many more “common” people were saying Jesus was a prophet, and even the Messiah. Jesus seemed to encourage them. He didn’t say he wasn’t, but the Messiah was supposed to come from the line of David, the seed of Jesse, from Bethlehem, the City of David, the place where David was born.[2]

The religious people knew their Scripture.

They knew their Scripture, but they jumped to conclusions about Jesus that were incorrect. Though Jesus was from Nazareth, he was also born in Bethlehem like David was, and his parents were from the line of David.

The Pharisees applied their undeniable scriptural knowledge, but they judged by appearances, rather than giving more careful consideration to the matter. Once they came to a conclusion about Jesus, they were unwilling to consider alternative possibilities.

The crowd present when Jesus invited himself into the home of Zacchaeus included Pharisees and moralistic, self-righteous, religious followers of the Pharisees (the blind leading the blind, as Jesus called them), who criticized Jesus for associating with tax collectors (and other sinners). Some of these people were very likely in the crowd that would demand that Pontius Pilate “crucify him”!

Does anyone doubt that Jesus would be just as critical of the moralistic, self-righteous, religious people today if he lived among us?

Have people changed in the last 20 centuries? The writer of Ecclesiastes suggests the answer when he said, “There is nothing new under the sun”, centuries before Jesus.

Who are the Pharisees of today and their religious followers?

We struggle with the same issues and the same tendency for sinfulness. Jesus came to his very own! The Hebrews, of all the people on earth who should have recognized him and received him, but they didn’t recognize him. They rejected him.

They knew the Scriptures. They could recite Scripture by heart. They studied to show themselves approved. They knew right doctrine. They were proud of their religious heritage. They were pious, moral, upstanding, devoted, reputable people who had not sold out their birthright for personal profit.

But they were dead wrong about Jesus.

These are words of warning to us today. Perhaps, we should not to be so quick with our judgments or so slow to consider other alternatives.

The warning is all the more poignant for the religious among us. The interaction of Jesus with the Pharisees and the moralistic, self-righteous, religious people in the first century crowds is no less a warning for moral, upstanding, reputably religious people today than it was for them.

We know of only two Pharisees who were willing to be humble enough to consider carefully who Jesus was: Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. Nicodemus called for his fellow Pharisees to give Jesus a chance, but his suggestion was quickly dismissed by the group.[3]

Even so, Nicodemus did not take any action to honor Jesus until after Jesus was crucified and died. Joseph of Arimathea appears in Scripture only after Jesus died, offering his tomb and helping prepare the body for appropriate burial.

Of all the Pharisees, only Nicodemus was willing to suspend judgment about Jesus during his life. The others reached their conclusions early, and they spent their energy and focus on disproving Jesus, rather than considering all the facts and other possibilities.

They knew their Scripture, but they didn’t know all the facts. They knew their Scripture, but they completely missed the true meaning of Scripture as it related to Jesus – who was the very Messiah Scripture foretold.[4]

What do we miss in reaching our quick judgments today? What facts do we assume that are simply wrong about the issues we face today?

What do we miss as we hold tightly to our understanding of Scripture passed down to us from long years of religious heritage that is actually contrary to the true meaning of Scripture? How do religious people apply their knowledge of Scripture to the issues of the present day in error?

We dare not think we are better than the Pharisees of the First Century. Pride goes before a fall. Just when we think we have it all together is when we should suspect we don’t!

These are the dangers that face upstanding, religious people. Sinners, like Zacchaeus know they are wrong. Religious people often don’t. No different than the upstanding, religious Pharisees and their followers in Jesus’s day.

Not many years ago, a large segment of the American church justified slavery with Scripture. When British and European Christians were identifying slavery as a sin and advocating everywhere British influence reached to abolish it, the young American democracy, which preached life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all, denied it to African Americans – with the blessing of the church.  This is an example of what I am talking about.

What issues do we face today as to which good, upstanding and reputable religious people have taken a stand that is counter to the facts and contrary to the eternal Word of God?

Like Nicodemus, we should not be quick to reach our judgments or too willing to go along with the crowd – even the religious crowd – lest we reject God and His word in the process. This is the danger that good, upstanding, religious people face today – that we might reject God by judging too quickly and failing to consider all the facts and the true meaning of Scripture as it applies to them – in our religious zeal.

[1] The crowd in his hometown synagogue was “filled with wrath” when Jesus announced that the Scripture in Isaiah was being fulfilled “in your hearing” by him.

“[S]ome of the people said, ‘This really is the Prophet.’ Others said, ‘This is the Christ.’ But some said, ‘Is the Christ to come from Galilee? Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the offspring of David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?’ So there was a division among the people over him. Some of them wanted to arrest him….” (John 7:40-44)

The Pharisees, who refused to recognize Jesus as Messiah, also rejected him as a prophet because no prophet comes out of Galilee (where Nazareth was located). (John 7:52) Nazareth was a backward town off the beaten path.

[2] Micah 5:2

“But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,

Too little to be among the clans of Judah,

From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel.

His goings forth are from long ago,

From the days of eternity.” Micah 5:2

“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.” Isaiah 11:1

[3] See John 7:50-52 (“Nicodemus, who had gone to [Jesus] before, and who was one of [the Pharisees], said to them, ‘Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?’ They replied, ‘Are you from Galilee too? Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee.’”

[4] See for instance the verses on the rejection, and lowliness, and suffering the Messiah would endure recalled in the short article, The Messiah would be called a Nazarene, published by Jews For Jesus.

11 thoughts on “The Danger that Good, Upstanding, Religious People Face Today

  1. I found Jesus at age 19 in 1996, and I was a new Christian when Josh Harris and all the “Christians don’t date” crap was out there. I spent my entire 20s wishing I could just meet a nice Christian girl but living in the environment of all these people making up all these rules about what good Christian boys and girls were and weren’t allowed to do. And many of my friends who were the loudest about those rules were the ones who were living exactly the opposite of that. That’s what I always think of when I think modern-day Pharisees, although I know there are plenty of other examples.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great insights Kevin!
    I really appreciated reading this and learning how God is speaking to you…and He is speaking through you as well.
    Christmas Blessings!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great insights and connections Kevin!
    I especially like the examples of Nicodemus & Joseph of Arimathea – two men who were part of the religious establishment but were also genuine in their desire to understand the Kingdom of God.
    I really appreciated learning how God is speaking to you…and He is definitely speaking through you!
    Christmas Blessings!

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are welcomed

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

You are commenting using your 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.