Holiness: Beating the Pharisees at their own game

What is holiness?

Like so many Christian concepts, holiness remains widely misunderstood. To some , it relates to the character of ‘saints’ like Mother Theresa, those super-stars who pursue a noble life beyond the realm of ordinary people, and for others on the other end of the scale, holiness represents ‘simply’ living like Jesus. But, perhaps, the most common caricature of holiness is negative, as represented by the false piety evidenced in Jesus’ religious opponents, the Pharisees.

The Pharisees’ were a sect of Judaism, a group whose name means ‘one who is separated’ or ‘holy’. In contrast to the more elite Sadducees, the Pharisees extended the notion of religious piety beyond the temple walls into every day life, much like the Methodists did in the 18th century. As such, they were zealous for piety at a grass-roots level, developing and practicing rituals that every-day Jews could use as a moral guide. Alongside the practical piety, they also focused on rigorous study of scripture and its laws. By the first century, they were generally perceived as being the most God-devoted group within Judaism.

In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees ruled the roost in the holiness stakes. But, Jesus, perceiving their ‘real’ moral status, wanted to publicly set the record straight. So, in his landmark teaching on kingdom righteousness, The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus establishes his ‘new’ kingdom morality, over and against contemporary perceptions of holiness–gained mostly from the Pharisees.

Jesus opens this sermon with the beatitudes, presenting a ‘new form’ of practical piety for the Jewish people, with radical expressions like, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ Matt 5:3.

However, the nature of his teaching gave the impression that he was dismissing God’s law in favor of a new liberal form of religious devotion to God; a piety that abandoned God’s Law in favor of grace. So, in order to clarify any potential misunderstandings, Jesus boldly lays out the kind of ‘righteousness’ God requires over the course of three crucial chapters in Matthew’s gospel (Ch’s 5-7).

From the outset, Jesus states that God’s law will remain valid and in force until everything has been accomplished ( let the reader understand that some of that law was fulfilled by his death and resurrection ). He then adds, that if anyone breaks the least of ‘these’ commands ( namely the commands of the law, reinterpreted through his teaching on the sermon on the mount) he will be called least in the kingdom. But, whoever practices these commands and teaches others to do the same will be greatly esteemed in the kingdom. No doubt, then, a life of moral conformity to God, is greatly encouraged by Jesus.

But his most shocking statement comes at the end of this section, when he asserts, ‘For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.’ (Matt 5:20)

It would seem, then , that Jesus is not promoting an easy religion at all, but a life of moral rectitude that appears to suggest rigorous devotion well beyond any righteousness the Pharisees might practice. In fact, if a person’s righteousness does not surpass that of the Pharisees, they will not just be called least in the kingdom, they won’t even get into it!

At first glance, this seems an impossible ask, and many have dismissed this as Jesus implying that the righteousness in question is actually his imputed righteousness gained by saving faith, thus negating the need for human righteous striving. But, if this were the case, why then would Jesus then go on with a long section on moral teaching aimed at obeying the law in a profoundly deep manner? No, Jesus actually meant what he said.

But before we can make sense of the righteousness that surpasses that of the Pharisees, we must understand the nature of Pharisaical righteous, as Jesus saw it.

On the surface Pharisaical righteousness represented consistent adherence to God’s law, in fact not only God’s law, but many additional laws to help augment God’s law. That’s on the surface! But, beneath the surface it was a very different story, and I advance four attributes about their inner morality that suggest their righteousness was really sub par in Jesus eyes.

Firstly, they were proud. Jesus tells the story of two men who went up to the temple to pray–a tax collector and a Pharisee. The Pharisee stood up and boasted of his righteousness, how he was unlike most immoral people and performed regular religious activities. All this in contrast to the tax collector, who stood off at a distance and cried out to mercy for God, because he was a sinner. Jesus then says, ‘ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.'(Luke 18:14). In proudly comparing himself to others, the Pharisee had fallen headlong into self-righteousness. The penitent tax collector, on the other hand, broken-hearted before God , cried out appealing only to God’s mercy; of the two, only he was justified–deemed righteous before God.

Secondly, the Pharisees were pretentious. As the former story hinted at, they came to believe that righteousness before God, was a matter of looking good; if you looked good enough or were a good enough pretender, you could actually be righteous. But Jesus saw through this falsehood, ‘ Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.’ (Matt 23:27-28) In Jesus opinion outward appearances counted for little if a person’s heart was not right with God.

Thirdly, these religious zealots were overly pedantic. The Pharisees thought that God valued rigorous adherence to every little particular. But they didn’t realize that God was far more interested in the moral principles lying behind them, Jesus again: ‘For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!’ (Matt 23:23-24) For Jesus, true righteousness looks for the God-principle behind the particular religious practice.

Finally, the Pharisees were people pleasers. Again, Jesus said of them, ‘ They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.’ (Matt23:5-7) Once a person begins the righteousness process by comparing themselves with others, they will invariably live to please others, craving praise and honor in order to exalt themselves. In fact, so people-oriented is this kind of righteousness, that it is effectively a religion that does not even need God!

In summing up then, Pharisaical righteousness/holiness was little more than a superficial life of religious good works, lived out before people in order to please people. It looked righteous enough on the surface, but when carefully scrutinized, proved nothing more than a sham.

So, when Jesus indicates that the kind of righteousness/holiness required by a person seeking to enter into and remain in God’s Kingdom must surpass that of the Pharisees, he is not simply suggesting more rigorous religious activity, but a religion with more stringent heart convictions–not only taking into account good works, but good motives and good thoughts as well.

By way of example, consider his teaching on adultery…

‘You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.’ Matt 5:27-30

For Jesus, not only the act of adultery is sinful, but the very thought of it. In Jesus’ estimation lustful intent was just as immoral as lustful actions. In moving into the realm of motive, Jesus is now advancing a form of holiness/righteousness that surpasses that of the Pharisees’. But, he doesn’t stop there. He then proceeds to intimate that if any aspect of your life (represented as a right eye or right hand) causes you to sin ( even a sin in your mind), then you should be prepared to radically remove it. For it is better to deliberately disable a vital part of your life, and live out that life in an limited manner, than to allow that malignant thing to cause you to be thrown into hell, on account of falling away. Now that is extreme!

So it would seem that the righteousness/holiness that Jesus demands of Kingdom members surpasses Pharisaical righteousness, not only in depth of application, but in radicalness of execution. Moreover, all this is to be done with utmost secrecy, to avoid drawing attention to yourself, and with the express aim of pleasing ‘only’ God…

‘Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.’ (Matt 6:1)

But you may ask, ‘Why would Jesus take such an extreme approach to holiness?’

Perhaps the best way to answer that is to draw on the analogy of an elite Olympic athlete. Why would an Olympic athlete expose themselves to such a rigorous life of long hard hours of repetitive training, in all conditions? Because the goal of winning that Olympic gold medal seems worth it.

Jesus is offering his would-be followers far more than an Olympic gold medal. He is offering them eternal life in God’s glorious kingdom, with majesty, honor, and blessing, the like of which, this world could only imagine. Little wonder he would exhort his followers with these words, ‘Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.’ (Luke 13:24)

Yes, the road to life is narrow, hard, and there are few that find it. But thankfully it is not human generated striving that will ultimately enable the disciple of Christ to prevail. Rather, as the apostle Paul, helpfully adds, ‘ For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.’ (Eph 2:8-9)

So what is holiness? A lifestyle of living and loving modelled on God’s character, motivated by God’s heart, and lived for God’s glory. A life of radical heart-generated devotion to God’s Kingdom, taught and encouraged by Jesus. Although austere in appearance, it is ,actually. something to be willingly embraced; and is so, by those eagerly seeking entry into God’s great and glorious kingdom.

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