If there is one thing that 21st century American culture knows today, it is that Jesus loves sinners. We go to great lengths to point out the fact that Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors. We recount the story of the woman caught in the very act of adultery and Jesus sending her accusers away by saying “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8.7).
Oh we know those stories so well.
And yet, under our guise of tolerance and acceptance,
we judge the Pharisees so quickly.
Jesus, after all, called them “a brood of vipers” (Matt 12.34). He even said that their father was the devil (John 8.44). If Jesus called them these terrible names and pointed out the error of their religious systems, then we can discern that Jesus loved the non-religious and hated the religious, right? That is our model, after all. We throw out tradition, we jazz up a select-few hymns and sing rocking new praise songs, we tattoo verses on our bodies, grow long beards and wear skinny jeans and usher the old folks into the senior’s group and tell them to be quiet, if they want to come. We want “everyone” to feel welcome, we do not judge, we look like the world in order to make the broken and wounded affirmed. But our “everyone” is not really “everyone”.
We hate the religious crowd.
Because that’s what Jesus did.
Or did he?
Let’s consider a few things. First of all, let us consider Jesus’ upbringing. We know very little in terms of details of Jesus’ childhood before His ministry began, but we do know that Jesus’ family honored the traditions of the faith, traveling to Jerusalem annually, and one time Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem to learn from the Pharisees:
“Then, after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers…And He said to them, “Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?”
– Luke 2.46-49
Secondly, let us look at the twelve disciples. Jesus called:
1. Simon, who is called Peter (a fisherman)
2. Andrew his brother (also a fisherman)
3. James the son of Zebedee (also a fisherman)
4. John his brother (also a fisherman)
5. Philip (profession unknown)
6. Bartholomew (name means “son of furrows” which implies he was a farmer)
7. Thomas (profession unknown)
8. Matthew (a tax collector)
9. James the son of Alphaeus (profession unknown)
10. Thaddaeus (aka Judas, son of James, profession unknown)
11. Simon the Zealot (profession unknown, although “Zealot” could mean he was of the religious sect Zealots, who were devoted to the Old Testament Law)
12. Judas Iscariot (profession unknown, but we do know he handled the money)
So of the twelve, we have at least four fisherman, one farmer, one “sinner” (tax collector), one “religious” (zealot), and one betrayer. Then, to take the place of the betrayer, Jesus appointed Saul – the Pharisee – to be the last apostle. Jesus chose mostly average men, but he did choose one tax collector and two religious people to be in His circle.
Thirdly, consider Jesus’ normal activities and audience: Jesus regularly went to the synagogues and temple to listen and to teach (John 18.20). It was the Pharisees and Saducees who would have been teaching. Almost every time a crowd gathered, there were Pharisees and/or Saducees listening. We know that just like He went to Zacchaeus’ house for dinner, He also went to eat at Pharisees’ houses (Luke 14.1).
Fourth, we know that some of Jesus’ most committed followers were Pharisees. Nicodemus, the Pharisee, came to Him at night to receive teaching and ask questions, and after believing he stood up for Jesus before the council (John 3; 7.51). He also brought one hundred pounds of myrrh and aloe to prepare Jesus’ body for burial while all of the disciples fled (John 19.39). Joseph of Arimathea was a member of the Sanhedrin and a follower of Jesus, and was the only one brave enough to ask Pilate for Jesus’ body after He died. He donated his own personal tomb and took care of Jesus’ body after His death (John 19.38). Gamaliel, another Pharisee, also stood up to the council for the apostles:
But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the Law, respected by all the people, stood up in the Council and gave orders to put the men outside for a short time. And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you propose to do with these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a group of about four hundred men joined up with him. But he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census and drew away some people after him; he too perished, and all those who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I say to you, stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action is of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God.”
– Acts 5.34-39
Lastly, Scripture actually tells us that the Pharisees were divided as to belief in Jesus:
Therefore some of the Pharisees were saying, “This man is not from God, because He does not keep the Sabbath.” But others were saying, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And there was a division among them.
– John 9.16
Nevertheless many even of the rulers believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they were not confessing Him, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue…
– John 12.42
What is my point? Jesus did not only choose the most vile and unexpected people to serve Him. Sometimes we over exaggerate the point that God chooses the underdog.
For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God.
– 1 Cor 1.26-29
Yes, it is true that God’s strength is perfected in our weaknesses (2 Cor 12.9). But consider the very person who made that statement. Saul. He was the most Pharisee of all the Pharisees. He was the epitome of that very person we think that Jesus hated . And yet here he is, transformed by faith, and arguably the most dynamic Christian to ever live. He wrote most of the New Testament, was the first missionary to the non-Jewish world, and started most of the early Churches. A Pharisee.
Jesus hates sin. He hates all sin. He hates adultery, lying, stealing, cheating, false religion, pride and self-sufficiency. People can, through faith, repent of all of these sins. Tax collectors (white-collar thieves) and Pharisees (religious bigots) can repent. And tax collectors and Pharisees who do not repent are left in the same state: lost and damned to Hell. Let us be careful when we consider the actions of Jesus. He ate with everyone, and condoned only faith. Sin was never excused. Jesus did not participate in tax collecting thieving, nor did he participate in religious pride and condemnation. He sat under the teaching of Pharisees and pardoned the adulteress. Jesus was uniquely separate; offering salvation from any and all sin to the penitent, and yet hated and condemned all sin of the rebellious.
Remember, Jesus died for all types of sin. If you tend towards legalism and Pharisee-like behavior, there is hope. If you fall to carnal sins, there is hope. All can be forgiven, if they are confessed and repented of. And we must all rely on the Holy Spirit to convict us of sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16.8). Be careful that you do not allow sin for the sake of welcoming people, and be careful that you do not alienate people because their sin is self-righteousness or legalism – the kind of sin that we think acceptable to hate. Jesus can redeem it all.