I HAVE A not-so-private confession.
I don’t know that I’ve ever said a good thing about the Pharisees.
Pharisees have always been easy prey. From my rather one-sided perspective, they–in totality–were the religious bottom-feeders of ancient Jewish sects. They were constantly peering over Jesus’ shoulder trying to find fault with His teachings and practices.
They claimed Jesus ate with the wrong people (Matthew 9:11); that His power could be attributed to demonic forces (9:34;12:24); that His disciples, and He by extension, were guilty of breaking sacred tradition (15:2); that He endorsed withholding income taxes from the Roman IRS (Luke 23:2); that He violated the Sabbath (John 9:16); and that, perhaps worst of all, He was not from God.
Jesus, the most loving man who ever walked the earth, called them “hypocrites,” “blind guides,” “white-washed tombs,” and “serpents” (cf. Matthew 23).
If He could denounce them with such bold and unpalatable metaphors, then surely I could do the same in my sermons and Bible classes. And so I admit it, Pharisees have always been my first choice as go-to verbal punching bags.
The problem is–not all Pharisee’s were the wicked men I’ve always portrayed them to be.
Despite my enthusiastic willingness to stereotype all Pharisees as religious charlatans, not all of them could or should be so characterized.
Take the curious example of Nicodemus:
- John 3 records a very respectful home Bible study between our Lord and a notable Pharisee (John 3:1ff). There was no acidic rancor, no deceptive or misleading questions, and no obvious condescension–in fact, quite the opposite. Nicodemus began his lesson with the Lord in a very respectful, honorable fashion. He said, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him” (John 3:2). Don’t miss that–Nicodemus admitted, at the very least, that Jesus’ power came from above. Granted, he didn’t fully recognize the Lord’s identity, nor did he initially catch on to what was being said about the new birth, but his questions (John 3:4, 9) didn’t bear the obvious marks of Pharisaic hostility.
- John 7 chronicles how the Pharisees at large sought to arrest Jesus because of His Messianic claims and the fact that many had believed on him (John 7:10ff). On this occasion, Nicodemus not only intervened on the Lord’s behalf, but he pointed out that his peers were about to break the very Law which they claimed to uphold. John writes in John 7:50, “Nicodemus (he who came to Jesus by night, being one of them) said to them, ‘Does our law judge a man before it hears him and knows what he is doing?’” While Nicodemus may have displayed a certain caution on this occasion, the fact remains that he did defend Jesus.
- John 19 recounts how two men were involved in preparing Jesus’ dead body for burial (John 19:38ff; cf. Acts 9:37; Mark 15:46; John 20:7). One of those men, not surprisingly, was Nicodemus. Unlike the twelve who ran for their lives when the events of the crucifixion began to unfold (Matthew 26:56), this once seemingly discreet Pharisee came right out into the open and took part in this benevolent endeavor.
It’s a safe interpretation to say that many, perhaps even the majority of Pharisees, were closed-minded about the Lord. But it is not accurate to say that all Pharisees were so inclined. Nicodemus was a precious exception.