We like to knock on the Pharisees. They were arrogant, prejudice and closed-minded. They dressed funny. They smelled like a petting zoo. And they didn’t like Jesus.
But in some ways they should be our heroes.
The Pharisees memorized more of the Bible than most Christians read in a year. They followed the Law of Moses to a fault, even adding their own laws so they wouldn’t come close to sinning against it. They didn’t isolate themselves in the desert, like the people who copied the Dead Sea Scrolls, but stayed in the city to set an example, hoping their efforts would serve to lay down the red carpet for their Messiah and the kingdom of God.
They deeply respected their Scriptures. This is how Josephus, a notable first-century Pharisee, described it:
We have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another, as the Greeks have, but only twenty-two books, which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine . . . how firmly we have given credit to these books of our own nation is evident by what we do; for during so many ages as have already passed, no one has been so bold as either to add anything to them, to take anything from them, or to make any change in them; but it is become natural to all Jews immediately, and from their very birth, to esteem these books to contain Divine doctrines, and to persist in them, and, if occasion be willingly to die for them.
If only we were so bold. If only we cared so much about Scripture, righteous living and the second coming of our Messiah.
But Jesus didn’t applaud these people. In John 5, he claimed that these experts in the Word of God had never once heard God’s voice. The book that was meant to connect them with the living God had become a stand-in for Him. They had, in a sense, deified their holy book, and when God actually appeared in the flesh, they killed Him as a blasphemer.
Should they have studied less? Should they have taken the Bible less seriously? Shouldn’t a genuine respect and study of Scripture inspire a closer walk with God?
The problem is not with Scripture. The problem is with us—our limited brains, our human tendencies. That’s why Jesus sent us a person and not a book when he left. The Bible can’t always address the issues of the twenty-first century. The Holy Spirit can. The Bible doesn’t always make sense, but the Holy Spirit can help us with all the slinky-snarls of a very old, very human book. Especially since the Holy Spirit is the one who inspired it.
What do we mean by that?
If we think that the Bible is “God-breathed” in the sense that every word is somehow written by Him, we are faced with the difficult task of defending a perfect God that seems to have trouble staying consistent with himself and keeping his book from spelling and grammatical errors over the centuries. But if we excuse these inconsistencies as human error, how can we ever claim that such a book is inspired? Because the book says so?
The key is look at the Bible the way Jesus looked at it. Not the way Josephus looked at it.
Jesus claimed that he didn’t come to do away with the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them. That makes sense when it comes to prophecy. There were plenty of moments where his actions directly fulfilled the prophecies of men like David, Isaiah and Daniel. But what about the Law?
In John 5:46, Jesus claimed that Moses spoke of him. When? Which book? He also claimed that he didn’t come to do away with the Mosaic Law but to fulfill it. If he didn’t do away with the Law we should still be doing sacrifices, letting our sideburns grow, and avoiding bacon, right?
The Pharisees saw the Law as a set of rules, resulting in blessings or curses. But Jesus, reading through a spiritual lens, saw a deeper message, one that revealed the mind and heart of God.
Think about the story of Joseph: He was the beloved son of his father, hated without cause, prophesied to rule, sent for the welfare of his brothers, went willingly, was rejected and condemned to die, stripped of his clothing, sold for silver, thrown into a pit, then raised again. In Egypt Joseph became a servant, resisted temptation, was falsely accused, was numbered with two criminals (one condemned, one saved), went into prison, was raised from prison to the right hand of the highest power, was given a new name, authority over all, and used it to save people from every land until ultimately he owned everything in the known world.
What if I told you that there were some spelling errors in that story? What if I told you that some scribe had skipped a line while copying a part of it? What if I told you that one ancient Hebrew manuscript has Joseph being sold for 20 pieces of silver, and another for 25?
Really, who cares? Once the inspiration of a story comes to light, all the human fingerprints lose their significance. We are anxious to look deeper, scouring other stories for fresh insights, trusting that God has worked with his people throughout history in similar ways, making them a spiritual advertisement of the truth, even if it’s not obvious on the surface.
This must have been what Jesus showed the two men on the road of Emmaus when he opened up the Scriptures to them and their hearts burned within them. It was definitely what he showed Phillip when he claimed to be Jacob’s stairway connecting heaven and earth. And Nicodemus when he claimed to be the bronze serpent that would be raised for the salvation of men. And when he claimed to be the true manna in the wilderness when he fed the hungry crowds outside Jerusalem.
Jesus told the scribes and Pharisees that the sign of Jonah was enough to condemn them. The sign of Jonah, not the story. This was a man who descended into the depths, spent three days and nights in a fish, and was spit up on the shore—death, burial and resurrection.
Did Jesus really expect the Pharisees to see more than just a story about a man who was disobedient and redirected? Apparently so. This is not about intelligence. This is about revelation.
Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do. Matt. 11:25-26
Think about Paul. He started out just like Josephus—diligent, passionate, intelligent, trained by the best. His extensive knowledge of the Scriptures led him to determine that Jesus was absolutely not the Messiah. He saw the Christian movement as such a serious threat to the truth that he was willing to take violent action to try to stop it.
Yet after seeing the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul’s perspective on the Scriptures takes a turn. In Galatians he claims that he didn’t consult with any human being after his conversion, not even the apostles. He went out to the desert to be trained by the Holy Spirit.
Look at Paul’s teaching—it is full of symbols and types. His knowledge of Scripture was given a spiritual dimension, allowing him to see beyond the do’s and don’ts to the true inspiration behind it. The same Christ that opened up the Scriptures to those two men on the road to Emmaus opened it up to Paul by the Spirit, showing him a spiritual underlay of inspiration.
Look at our current Church: Do we see arrogance? Prejudice? Close-mindedness? A lack of love? A lack of insight? By all indications, we have made the same mistake as those diligent, devoted Pharisees of the first century, confusing the written Word for the living and active Word, the risen Christ, who is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of our heart.
How can we avoid making these mistakes? We need to take our cue from Paul, allowing our inner eyes to be opened to the astounding mysteries of the Scriptures, mysteries that extend beyond the page, alive and active, still inspiring believers today.