Encounters With Jesus: The Pharisees

Good morning and welcome to Journey Church.  My name is Phil Human and as one of the pastors here, it’s my pleasure to worship with you and talk with you for a bit about God and what he is like.  Of course, the best way to learn about God is to study the life of Jesus.  That’s because Jesus is God in the flesh.  So when we see what Jesus cares about we see what God cares about.  Everything that is true about Jesus is also true of God.

And that’s good, right?  Because most people like Jesus.  They like what they read about him.  And most people liked Jesus – we read reports of thousands of people crowding around him to listen to him or to get near the guy. 

Who is the most famous person you’ve ever had a chance to meet or be near?  Tell your neighbor – you have 10 seconds – turn to your neighbor and tell them about a time you were near someone famous. 

Many of us have been in the same area as someone famous at one time or another.  One time I was this close to Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, and Spud Webb – it was this deal in Georgia called the Kenny Rogers Classic – made for tv special.  And let’s just say it was some terrible basketball, but I was in a room with many two hundred people watching Kenny Rogers play basketball against Charles Barkley.  Kenny Rogers kept shooting and we were like, Pass the ball to Jordan, you fool!  Kenny Rogers was the biggest ball hog!  No one came to watch kenny Rogers shoot a basketball.  What’s next, Larry Bird singing the Gambler at halftime?

Anyway, the one thing I can say without a doubt – my life was not changed by that event.  It wasn’t changed.  And my guess is that your life wasn’t changed by meeting the famous person you met.

Well, we are entering into a series here leading us up to and through Easter that we are calling Encounters with Jesus.  And what we will discover is that time and time again, normal people encounter Jesus and leave with their life completely and utterly changed.  Completely different. 

Maybe you are one of them.  You have encountered Jesus along the way and your life was changed.  As a matter of fact – let me as this question – maybe you have had an encounter with Jesus and your life is changed – I’d love to hear about it.  Maybe even mark it on your communication card – how was your life changed when you decided to follow Jesus?  I bet there are some inspirational stories out there.  And I’d like to talk with you about it if you do.  Perhaps you would be willing to share your encounter with Jesus?  Live up here or maybe, less frighteningly on video that we can share? 

Although the gospels – the first four books of the new testament – are filled with stories about people lives being changed after encountering Jesus, this morning we are going to start with one group of people who spent much time with Jesus and yet were left mostly unchanged. 

Did you know that there were some who spent considerable time with Jesus and yet remained unchanged?  For instance – Judas spent three years with Jesus and yet was unchanged.  Do you know why?  It was, I would suggest, because of Judas’ great love of money.  We learn from John in John 11 that Judas was stealing money from the treasury.   

Money, or more precisely, the love of money, is a powerful anchor that keeps people from moving into the Kingdom of Heaven.  There is another story of a rich man who walked away from Jesus unchanged because of he held onto his money so tightly, there was no room left to embrace God.  This is why Jesus warns us to be careful about money.  People who love their money often don’t find room for the kingdom of God.

But this morning we are going to look at another culprit that keeps us from encountering Christ.  This culprit appears to be well intentioned on the outside, even holy and righteous, but it actually acts as cement to the soul.  That hardens and heart and deadens a person’s ability to respond to the gentle leading of the God’s spirit.

That culprit is religion. 

Time after time, there is one group of people who consistently walk away from an encounter with Christ unchanged, unchallenged, unmoved.  And these people were the Pharisees, the Scribes, the teachers of the law. 

What happened to these people that made them Jesus’ fiercest opponents?  One would think that one trained in theology would be the most open to a work of God. 

But no – because these pharisees were infected with a disease that goes by the name – legalism.

People entrenched in legalism – in all forms – were consistent opponents of Jesus.  And before we read about specific situations, let me first address what I mean by legalism.

What is legalism?  Legalism is what’s left when you try to take God and boils him down to a list of rules.  You become afraid of doing something to get God upset with you, so you obsess over the rules and what happens is you lose sight of God himself.

The Pharisees were devout.  They were zealous.  But they were zealous for he wrong thing.  They lost sight of God because all they could see were the rules and regulations.  The do’s and don’t. 

So you take God out of the picture – you take the dynamics of a relationship out of the stew – you boil and you boil the law until all you have are rules.


Then, you take that gewy, sticky mess, and you season it with man made rules -man made regulations – in an attempt to clarify the other rules.   

So what you have left then is contractual obligations on both sides.  I promise to do a,b an c.  God, if I do A then you mist do B.  That’s the deal. 

Legalism focuses almost entirely on sin and the avoidance of it.  So when we read about people being an expert in the law – it means that they have become an expert in the fine print of the supposed contract with God. 

Faith is not a contract.  Faith is an invitation from God to walk with him on a daily basis.  Where he guides and leads and provides and protects out of love, not duty.

But this is lost on the religionists – the pharisees.

And so – for instance – and we’ll use this example because we’re going to read Jesus dealing with this issue shortly – let’s use as an example – the commandment to honor the sabbath day.

God said, in Exodus 20,  as one of the ten commandments – “Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God. 

He spends four verses telling us to take one day off. For heaven’s sake – take a rest day!  It’s interesting to me that he can cover murder in four words – Thou shalt not murder –  but he needs to spend four verses trying to help us understand how important it is to take the day off.  It’s like God understands that while we might not murder someone, we sure need convincing to rest. 

Jesus is the one who tells us, by the way, that the Sabbath was made for man.  Not man for the sabbath.  God’s directive to take a day off was for our benefit.  Not His. 

But that understanding was lost to the legalists.  What does a legalist do?  We don’t want to be the ones to break the contract, so let’s clarify the fine print… 

Focusing on sin – the legalist says, okay – working on the sabbath is a sin.  Okay!  Check. Let me ask you this –

  • Question: What time does Sabbath start and end?  Is it when sun goes down.  All the way down?  Am I allowed to work during twilight?  The sun has set there’s still light out!  Sinner!  When is it over? 
  • Question:  Sabbath is on Saturday – does it matter if it’s a Saturday or Sunday?  Can a Tuesday be a Sabbath day?
  • Question:  What is work, exactly?  I mean, if I’m a farmer and a sheep falls in a hole, am I allowed to get it out of the hole?  That is technically work, sinner!  How many steps may I walk.  How many letters – individual letters, may I write?  May I light a candle at night? or turn on the lights?

So the Sabbath becomes a Lawyers dream!  Pages and pages of fine print.  Rules and regulations – a thick handbook of explanations all meant to clarify – honor the sabbath.

And you know – as crazy as it sounds – there is something comforting about legalism.  There is something comforting about the idea that – okay – I understand all the rules.  I know the expectations.  I can do this.  I can do all these laws if I really set my mind to it.

I can do it – and God will not be able to keep me out of heaven.  I can do all these things and I will have God under my thumb.  I’ll bring the contract with me. 

And – better yet, I can do these things without actually having to be a loving person. (Most legalists aren’t)

And so the pharisees were the best at remembering and keeping all the rules and regulations.  They kept their head down studying these man made regulations, and meanwhile God is literally walking in their midst and they completely miss him.

Their devotion to keeping the rules blinded them to God himself. 

And I’m not sure if its the cause of legalism or the result of it – either way it results in or comes from a wrong view of God.  We have reduced God to a police officer who loves to write citations.  He just delights in watching you foul up so he can bust you. 

Be honest with yourself.  Is that your view of God this morning?  Do you think that God is sitting there with baited breath for you to make a mistake?  Are you trying your best to avoid sin so that you can appear before God and he has to say, well, as much as I hate to do this, I guess I have to let you in.

Jesus came to rid us of our sin – NOT because God fundamentally hates sin.  Of course he does.  Sin is a big deal.  Jesus came to remove it from us as far as the east is from the west. 

God hates sin – but not for sins sake.  What God really hates is what sin has done to us – his creation – his dearly loved children.  And what it has done to us and Him.  It’s caused this separation that God couldn’t bear to see anymore so he sent Jesus to die as the perfect sacrifice for our sins. 

And so for Jesus to go through all he went through in order to walk with us on a daily basis in a living breathing dynamic relationship – oh how it must pain him to see us turn and embrace lifeless legalism!

Legalism has infected the Pharisees to the point where they could encounter Jesus and walk away unchanged.  Let’s turn to these passages in Luke and read about Jesus’ interactions with thee Pharisees – who encounter Jesus and leave unchanged.

Luke 5:

27 Later, as Jesus left the town, he saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at his tax collector’s booth. “Follow me and be my disciple,” Jesus said to him. 28 So Levi got up, left everything, and followed him.

29 Later, Levi held a banquet in his home with Jesus as the guest of honor. Many of Levi’s fellow tax collectors and other guests also ate with them. 30 But the Pharisees and their teachers of religious law complained bitterly to Jesus’ disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with such scum?”

Here’s Jesus – God himself, bringing back to himself people who have wondered far from God.  And yet the legalists don’t see that as a good thing.  And they bitterly complain.  These guys aren’t following the rules, why does Jesus hang out with them? But that’s what legalism does.

Legalism turns you into a bitter complainer.  What exactly where these legalists bitterly complaining about?  Ultimately, they complained about the generosity of God.  They complained about the tolerance and openness of Jesus to befriend notorious sinners like Levi.  Who becomes Matthew, by the way.  The writer of the first book of the New Testament – written by the artist formerly known as scum.

Legalism turns you into a bitter complainer anytime you feel God is being too gracious to people beneath your station.  After all, you are the good boy.  You are the good girl.  You deserve to receive the applause of heaven.  Certainly we can agree that scum is scum and deserved to be treated as such!

But let me say this loud and clear – we are his children, not scum.  God never treats us like scum.  He is abounding in love towards us.  He genuinely likes you. 

Legalism doesn’t allow you to treat people with dignity.  You are either a low life, or you are one of us.  (But just so you know, even when you are one of us, we have micro-sorting techniques that will establish the pecking order in a fair and equitable manner, and coincidentally I am better than you.)  That’s legalism.  It’s the culprit that keeps us from encountering Christ. 

What else does Legalism do to you?

Luke 6

On another Sabbath day, a man with a deformed right hand was in the synagogue while Jesus was teaching. The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees watched Jesus closely. If he healed the man’s hand, they planned to accuse him of working on the Sabbath.

Legalism makes you critical.  They were watching Jesus closely, looking for a reason to accuse him.

This is almost hard to believe, isn’t it?  Zero concern for this man with a deformed hand.  No regard whatsoever.  And that’s because a legalists belief system doesn’t require compassion for another.  Instead legalism – the spirit of religiosity  – is always searching searching searching for sin.  What did you do that is wrong!

But our hero Jesus – he is undeterred.  He is a champion for humanity…

But Jesus knew their thoughts. He said to the man with the deformed hand, “Come and stand in front of everyone.”  Love it!  So Bold!  Remember the scene in Goodwill Hunting when Matt Damon asks that frat boy, “You like Apples?  How you like them apples!” 

So the man came forward. Then Jesus said to his critics, “I have a question for you. Does the law permit good deeds on the Sabbath, or is it a day for doing evil? Is this a day to save life or to destroy it?”

10 He looked around at them one by one and then said to the man, “Hold out your hand.” So the man held out his hand, and it was restored! 

Hey Pharisees, you like apples?  But the answer is no they don’t – notice how they respond…

Legalism turns you into bitter complainers.

Legalism makes you critical and accusatory.

Lastly, notice the contemp that surfaces for both Jesus and people when they find what they think they were looking for.

The Pharisees were waiting for Jesus to heal on the Sabbath – he does – and what happens?

11 At this, the enemies of Jesus were wild with rage and began to discuss what to do with him.

The Pharisees and legalists have gone from curiosity about Jesus, to contempt for him and his ministry.  Why?  He’s not following their rules. 

Legalism – religion in general cannot handle grace.  It doesn’t know what to do.  So it just reacts with bitter complaining, accusations and rage.  It turns you into a contemptuous person.

If you are familiar with the story of the prodigal son, found in luke 15, you will read about two sons.  The scum and the legalist.  The one who runs with notorious sinners and the one who does all the right things. 

Yet when grace is displayed to the prodigal, it’s the good boy who is standing outside the party.  It’s the good boy who is estranged from his father.  It’s the legalistic, rules following older brother.  The “Good boy” by all outward appearances – and yet inwardly is filled with anger, rage and contempt.

It’s what legalism does to you.  It makes you the kind of person who, on the inside, wishes harm upon someone that you have decided is not worthy of life itself. 

You might have enough social dictates prohibit you from verbalizing your hatred for – well, you know who.  So the words don’t ever find the air, because good legalists wouldn’t do such a sinful thing. 

But inside, where no one is looking, hatred runs amok.  And you, like the Pharisees, hold internal meetings where you daydream about all the ways you wish harm upon that person who has offended you so terribly.

IN the end, legalism makes us small people.  Critical, contemptuous, complainers.

It does the world no earthly good.  And in fact, does great harm to your heart.  The end result?  Check out Luke 7:29,30.  Jesus is preaching to the crowds – check out how Luke summarizes what’s going on in the crowd…

29 When they heard this, all the people—even the tax collectors—agreed that God’s way was right… 30 But the Pharisees and experts in religious law rejected God’s plan for them…

And now we see the end product of the corruption of legalism – it turns us into the kind of people who would rather reject Jesus and God’s plan for us in order to hang tightly to the supposed comforts of religion.

Religion is deadly.  Legalism corrupts our souls.  And this is why Jesus is careful to talk about the yeast of the Pharisees to his disciples later in Luke 12, when he says… Jesus turned first to his disciples and warned them, “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees—their hypocrisy.

Now it feels like a bummer to start a series called Encounters with Jesus by talking abot a group of people who encountered Jesus and left unchanged.

So let me close by talking about one Pharisee who did believe.  His name was Nicodemus.  We read about him beginning in John chapter 3, where Nicodemus shows up after dark one night in order to be able to ask Jesus some questions when no other pharisee was around.  On the down low – see.

And Nicodemus begins to ask Jesus to explain – not in a trapping way – but genuine questions.  He was willing to allow his religious framework to be challenged by Jesus.  He was willing to be found to be wrong.

If you are an atheist or a skeptic here today, can I encourage you to give yourself permission to have your doctrine challenged?

Well what about you, Phil!  Do you give yourself room to be wrong?  Of course!  It’s why I think doubts are good – doubts force us to find the truth. 

And Jesus says he is the truth.  And that the truth will set us free.  So as Christians, a fundamental tenet of our faith it to question and seek answers. 

Nicodemus was one of those rare people who thought they were right – but allowed room in their life to find out more.  They gave themselves permission to be movable.  Changeable.

In most of the other encounters with Jesus we will read about, there was crisis going on.  There was an obvious thirst and need for God.

But the Pharisees thought they had it all figured out – and since they didn’t allow themselves the room to be wrong, they missed God at work right in front of their eyes.

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