The New Pharisaism

One of the most beautiful passages in Scripture is the apostle Paul’s discourse on love in 1 Corinthians 13

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

As I heard these words read in church a couple of weeks back, for the first time it struck me just how remarkable it is that they come from the pen of Paul. A former Pharisee of Pharisees, he had once made purity the centre of his living. He and his colleagues had learned the lesson from Israel’s history that neglect of the law of God incurred the judgement of God. With an admirable zeal they sought to understand the law, agonised over its application to every conceivable situation in life, and gave themselves over to observing it. It is almost unthinkable that Paul could have penned the chapter on love while he was a Pharisee. He would rather have spoken of the importance of holiness, obedience, and separation from all that is impure.

His encounter with the risen Christ led to a dramatic transformation in his view of godliness. No longer was it to be conformed to the dictates of the Mosaic law. Rather it was to be conformed to the character of Jesus. It is difficult to underestimate just how dramatic this shift was. The law, he says in Galatians, was but a temporary measure to guide behaviour until the arrival of Christ. “Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.” (Galatians 3:25). Rather, “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6). I find it impossible to imagine a more complete and decisive break with his Pharisaism!

How ironic then that modern evangelicalism is so often characterised by a return to Pharisaism. We treat the New Testament documents as though they are a new law; we look for rules to govern every conceivable ethical dilemma; and we give ourselves over to obeying the set of rules we manage to extract from the New Testament documents. We love the apostle Paul but spectacularly fail to understand his ethical system.

We will do greater honour to the revelation of God in Christ if we stop trying to be the new Pharisees and instead set about cultivating Jesus shaped love, grace and goodness in our lives and our communities.

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8 years ago

Thanks for posting. Totally agree with your thoughts. Steve McAlpine posted this on his Facebook page and I’m now reading Kingdom Conspiracy which explores similar themes.
“The Pharisees taught love of the Torah, and were good at it, but Jesus taught a Torah of love, and he was good at it.”

Scott McKnight’s quote from Kingdom Conspiracy is the bomb!

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