There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.(John 3:1-2)
John 3 is one of those bible chapters which in my view are of an essential nature to all who are seeking God, and in need of the salvation God offers. Jesus himself is the instructor, the pupil, (standing on this passage as representative for all seekers of God) is a Senator of Israel and a Pharisee, named Nicodemus. The subject is the new birth.
But first a word about Pharisees. Who were the Pharisees?
Over the years, there has developed a serious misconstruction about who these people were and how we are to view them. Modern readers of the Bible often see the Pharisees as real “bad guys”, hypocritical to the core and vicious enemies of the Lord. The last thing anyone would want to be considered in modern evangelical christianity, would be to be called a Pharisee.
The Pharisees that Jesus rebuked, exposed, and vehemently denounced in scripture seem to the modern Bible reader as an almost alien species. This is because we have developed caricatures of Pharisaism, which allow us to mentally distance ourselves from any identity with them.We may be a lot of things but we are certainly not greedy, hypocritical, murderous Pharisees!
But the Pharisees, and Jesus’ encounter with them are meant to serve as a warning to us, for they apply particularly to we who are evangelicals . How could that be ? The Pharisees were the back to the Bible movement of the inter testamental period! They sought to resist the worldliness which was sweeping away the majority of their countrymen in the ancient world.
That virulent species of worldliness was called “Hellenism”, ie the acceptance of greek culture, and the repudiation of Judaism. How bad did it get? Hellenism was imposed by force, in the days of Antiochus Epiphanes, the brutal anti-christ precursor, but many Jews willingly accommodated to it , some going as far as submitting to “reverse circumcisions”!
At one point the High Prest of Israel took on a greek name, and a gymnasium was built in Jerusalem. We are not talking about todays gyms for physical fitness. A “gymnasium” was a greek school for the whole man. Athletic activities were done in the nude, greek philosophy, and the worship of the physical body were involved, and homosexuality was rampant.
Pharisaism emerged out of a godly resistance to all of that. The Pharisee attempted to take on his shoulders all of the 613 commands of the Law of God , making it his life’s goal to keep them! He believed that by doing so, the Kingdom of God would come again to Israel.
The word Pharisee means “separated one”. This was a serious reform movement, within Judaism.
By no means am I saying I agree with what the Pharisees would end up as, nor do I deny that the Pharisees were the hypocrites Jesus exposed them to be. My purpose is to remove the caricature of them, so that we can realize that God is not describing some openly hateful, alien cult to us, but rather people very much like the modern “back to the Bible ” movement, concerned about worldliness and seeking to separate ourselves from it by turning to God and the Bible.
Actually, the Pharisees were theologically closest of all of the contemporary sects to Jesus. Unlike the ruling Sadducees, the Pharisees believed in death, resurrection, angels, demons, the afterlife, heaven and hell. The Pharisees were right on board with John the Baptist and Jesus at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Because they were closest to him, Jesus critiqued them more than any other sect.
The many warnings to the Pharisees are meant as a message to all of us. Warnings against mere externalism, innovation, substitution of man-made precepts for the word of God, eye service, self-seeking, and self-serving religion, misplaced emphasis, proof-texting, “using scripture” rather than truly seeking God apply to every spiritual reform movement. The Pharisees were evangelical, crossing “land and sea” to make one convert!
This particular Pharisee served in the Sanhedrin, the senate of Israel. He was a “chief ruler”, and was called “The Teacher of Israel”. His subject was the Kingdom of God and entry into it. everyone esteemed Him as a Spiritual giant, and as a teacher of the nation.
But something about Jesus penetrated his heart, so the “teacher of Israel” went to meet him one evening.
to be continued…