The temple was a place that was hugely important in the daily cultural and religious aspects of the Jewish people. Thus, one of the most tragic events in all of Judaism was when the temple was destroyed in roughly 586 b.C. This tragedy caused a number of shifts in how the Jews practiced their religion. One was that they no longer carried out the sacrificial system, and instead shifted their focus on studying and applying the law as best they could. Even though the temple was rebuilt in 515 b.C., there was still a gradual rise in placing more and more emphasis on the Law. According to scholar J. Julius Scott, there was an “increased focus upon the meaning of the law for daily life . . . The general term most frequently used to describe the result is ‘legalism.’ Legalism itself is a broad category, a general way of thinking, that is popularly defined as ‘strict, literal conformity to a legal or religious code.’” (from Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament) Bruce Metzger, in The New Testament: Its Background, Growth, and Content, defines legalism as “that concept of religion which makes religion consist in conformity to the Law, and promises God’s grace only to doers of the Law.” Indeed, the majority of scholars agree that during the time between the Old and New Testaments, as well as during Jesus’ day, Rabbinic Judaism was legalistic at its core, they were seeking to gain salvation by meticulous observation of the law.
Different groups within Judaism came about as people differed in their view of how exactly the law was to be interpreted and applied. We see Jesus interacting with different groups in the New Testament, some of which are:
The Scribes: professional interpreters of the law who applied the law to various legal situations in the daily affairs of the Jews.
The Pharisees: the largest religious group within Judaism. The historian Josephus wrote that the Pharisees had many additional teachings apart from the Bible. Both the scribes and pharisees were called “hypocrites” by Jesus.
The Sadducees: This group was made up of the social elite and had a major influence on the temple rituals and political affairs of the state of Israel. They adhered to a strict reading of the Jewish written law, whereas the Pharisees placed more emphasis on the oral traditions of the law.
The Essenes: This group is not mentioned in the Bible. They practiced voluntary poverty and asceticism (separating oneself from the world and seeking to avoid all forms of pleasure).
Many in these distinct groups earned their status in the community by their ability to show to what extent they were willing to obey the law. Their motives were purely out of selfishness than anything else. They cared more for the letter of the law than the heart of the law. They believed they were better than others who were not like them.
There were others who were not in any of these sects, they were affiliated to no particular “flavor” of Judaism. It is easy for us to imagine that these people would be very confused as to how exactly they should follow out the Law. They were also probably humiliated at times by those “religious” people who said they were better than the rest.
Jesus’ came to put an end to this kind of thinking and teaching. The various sects had been around long enough and had beaten people up with rules for too long. It was time for a new teaching to arrive. A teaching that would get back to the heart of the issue. Establishing a religion based on following rules was not a way to get closer to God or win his favor, on the contrary, it led people further away from him.
In the words of pastor Todd Wagner, Jesus came to remind everyone that “God’s Word is not full of God’s rules; it is full of His love and plan to rescue, redeem, and reengage with us.” (from Come and See: Everything You Ever Wanted in the One Place You Would Never Look)
Jesus was very much appalled that the so-called “religious” leaders were leading everyone astray with this religion based on rules. Indeed, his harshest words were reserved for these groups of people. In Matthew 3:7 he calls the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers.” Later in chapter 23, we see Jesus repeatedly call them hypocrites. Look at his words for them in 23:27-28 (NIV):
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.
Jesus was so upset because God is opposed to the prideful ones. We do not have anything to be prideful of when it comes to earning God’s love. We all are loved by God the same and we all do not deserve the measure to which he loves us.
The titanic crashed some 400 miles away from shore. With the icy temperatures, people died of hypothermia in just minutes of time. Imagine if you were one of the ones who did not get onto a life raft and found yourself trying to swim in freezing waters amongst the wreckage. Now imagine how silly and prideful it would be if you said to someone else who was not as great a swimmer as you were: “Ha ha! you’re never gonna make it to shore! Look at me and my swim skills! Yours are nothing compared to mine!” That is so foolish because even if you were a better swimmer, your swimming skills were not going to get you out of the situation. Perhaps you could have made it 100, 1,000, or even 10,000 feet further to shore than the others, but your fate was the same: ending up dead in the sea.
Jesus came to show that obeying rules does not work because no one is perfect. We all fall short of the glory of God. We cannot win our way to heaven by obeying rules more than someone else. He came to put an end to the thinking and teaching of the Pharisees. Unfortunately, 2,000 years later, many still think that religion is about having an outward appearance or by following certain rules.
Questions to consider:
In what ways is my thinking like that of the Pharisees?
Can I do anything to earn my way to heaven?
Am I a better person than others if I have found religion?
For further reading:
How Good is Good Enough? by Andy Stanley