By Mark Mayberry
By the first century, religious thinking among the Jews had come to be characterized by several different outlooks. The Pharisees, the Sadducees, and Essenes each had their spheres of influence. Having staked out their doctrinal turf, they sought adherents to their particular party. Added to this mix were the distinctly political viewpoints of the Herodians and the Zealots. Thus, the marketplace of religious ideas was not merely a melting pot, it was a simmering container of confusion and counterfeit truth. Judaism of the first century had become fragmented, ritualistic, and tradition-bound. Therefore, when Jesus stepped forward and began expounding the simple gospel message, people took notice. The common people, those longing for better spiritual instruction, heard him gladly (Mark 12:35-37). He taught as one having authority, and not as the scribes (Matt. 7:28-29).
At the conclusion of the fifth chapter of Luke, Jesus makes several statements that indicate the radically different nature of Christianity (Luke 5:27-39). The newness of the gospel message stands in stark contrast with the worn out thinking of the Scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees. Some things are so flawed, so worn out, that the only thing one can do is start fresh.
To illustrate this fact, Jesus spoke the following parable: “No one tears a piece of cloth from a new garment and puts it on an old garment; otherwise he will both tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old” (Luke 5:36). No one in his right mind would rip a square from new dress slacks in order to patch an old, worn-out pair of trousers. Not only would the new garment be ruined, but also the patch would not hold on the old garment. When the unshrunk patch becomes wet and shrinks, the new piece will pull away from the old, and the tear will be made worse. The lesson is clear: Some things cannot be mixed together. Specifically, truth and error are incompatible. Human traditions and the commandments of God cannot co-exist.
In the same context, the Lord spoke of new wine and old wineskins. He said, “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled out, and the skins will be ruined. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins” (Luke 5:37-38). Old wineskins are no match for new, still fermenting, wine. Such wine would burst the skins, resulting in the loss of both skins and wine. Again, the lesson is the same: Some things cannot be recycled and reused. Some things are beyond repair. The only thing to do is throw it away and start over. This had specific application to the sectarian thinking of the first century. It has equal application to the denominational mentality of our day.
What Was Wrong With the Thinking of the Pharisees?
It de-emphasized love. The scribes and Pharisees were unloving. They cared not about lost humanity. Observing the feast that Levi gave in Jesus’ honor, they grumbled, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax-collectors and sinners?” (Luke 5:30). On a later occasion, while Jesus was dining in the home of Simon the Pharisee, a sinful woman entered the room. As she stood behind Jesus’ feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and she kept wiping them with the hair of her head, and kissing his feet and anointing them with the perfume. Beholding this, Simon sniffed, “If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner” (Luke 7:36-39). Note the absence of love, compassion, and concern for the plight of a fellow human-being.
It de-emphasized sincerity. The scribes and Pharisees were insincere (Matt. 23:28). They performed deeds of righteousness merely to be seen of men (Matt. 23:5, 14, 28). This was particularly evident with regards to fasting (Matt. 6:16-18). In this context, they criticized Jesus by saying, “The disciples of John often fast and offer prayers, the disciples of the Pharisees also do the same, but Yours eat and drink.” (Luke 5:33). At times, their self-righteous insincerity was breathtaking (Luke 18:9-14).
It de-emphasized obedience. The scribes and Pharisees were disobedient. They had bound where God had loosed, and loosed where God had bound (Mark 7:1-13). In binding their human traditions of hand-washing, they were guilty of adding to God’s law. In other areas, they subtracted from the same by refusing to obey the revealed word of God (Luke 7:29-30). Thus obedience became an optional matter: They obeyed God’s word when they felt like it. They changed God’s law with impunity. They applied it to others but not to themselves (Matt. 23:4; Luke 11:46).
What Was Right About the Thinking of Jesus?
It emphasized love. Jesus genuinely cared about people. In responding to the criticism that he ate with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus answered, “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32). Tax collectors like Levi and his companions were social outcasts, despised by “respectable” members of society, classed with harlots and the like. Jesus ate with them, not to condone their base and dishonorable conduct, but to show them a better way and to save them from their sins. The redemptive nature of his ministry is clearly seen in Jesus’ encounter with another tax collector named Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). The Son of Man came into this world of sin and sorrow to save that which was lost (Matt. 18:11-14). What an expression of divine love and compassion (John 3:16)!
It emphasized sincerity. Jesus emphasized the importance of genuine devotion. In responding to the implied criticism regarding the failure of his disciples to fast, Jesus said, “You cannot make the attendants of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? But the days will come; and when the bridegroom is taken away from them, then they will fast in those days” (Luke 5:34-35). Jesus repeatedly stressed the need for sincerity. Fasting, a private act of religious devotion, is appropriate for times of sadness and sorrow (Ps. 35:13-14), remorse and contrition (Job 2:12-13), commitment and consecration (Acts 13:1-2; 14:23). However, fasting is not suitable for times of joyful delight. Fasting certainly is not something that is done to be seen of men. Any religious service or act of devotion that is offered for the purpose of impressing men is counted as worthless in the eyes of God (Matt. 6:1-6, 16-18).
It emphasized obedience. Jesus emphasized the importance of full and complete obedience (Matt. 5:17-20). In our day and time, loose thinkers would call this legalism. Significantly, Jesus never condemned the Pharisees for their attention to divinely authorized details; rather he denounced them for their presumptuous additions and glaring omissions from the law (Matt. 23:23; Luke 11:42). To the extent that the scribes and Pharisees accurately taught God’s precepts, they performed a valuable service. When the scribes and Pharisees were seated in Moses’ chair, Jesus said, “All that they tell you, do and observe.” Unfortunately, they were not content with being mere mouthpieces, they wanted to exercise their creativity in the area of divine legislation (Matt. 23:1-4).
As we consider the issues of love, sincerity and obedience, one final point comes to mind. Ours is an age of moral and doctrinal accommodation. Many brethren argue that we have the right to fellowship those who teach and practice error. In such an atmosphere of compromise, brethren who tolerate false teaching often harshly criticize those who stand for the truth, accusing them of being unloving, insincere, and fanatically obsessed with strict obedience. In a word, they are accused of being Pharisaical. However, let us recognize the speciousness of such charges. Love demands that we expose error, even though such an approach is unpopular. Sincerity demands that we stand up for our convictions, regardless of the cost. Obedience demands that we oppose all forms of moral and doctrinal error, even if they are widely practiced. How is it that faithful brethren are so easily criticized as being devoid of love, sincerity and true obedience, while false teachers, or those who condone the same, are supposedly the paragons of these virtues? As Lewis Carroll once said in Alice of Wonderland, things are becoming “Curiouser and curiouser!”
In this context, Jesus says that we must learn to think differently. However, this does not imply a total repudiation of the past. We must not throw out things just because they are old. Our Lord concluded this discussion by saying, “And no one, after drinking old wine wishes for new; for he says, ‘The old is good enough’” (Luke 5:39). Impurities in old wine may cause it to become bitter. However, if it remains pure, it is considered better. So it is regarding religious truth. Impurities can corrupt it. However, the old paths of God are good, time-tested and true (Jer. 6:16; 18:15; Isa. 8:19-20). Therefore, as we enter a new millennium, let us lay aside all human traditions, doctrines and dogmas that are inconsistent with the word of God. Let us remain true to the old paths of God (Col. 3:16-17; 1 Pet. 4:11).
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