Monday, May 07, 2012

New Wineskins – the Pharisees compared to the Restoration Era

Recently I was teaching on the life of Christ, and while doing so I considered the Pharisees and the specific emphasis they placed on certain practices. As I was coincidently reading Nehemiah at the same time, it became apparent that in many ways they were following in the steps of Nehemiah, only more so. Like all sects that live in the past, they did not hang on to what Nehemiah and the others of the restoration era had, but rather distorted it, placing undue proportion on certain parts and totally missing others. I’d like to look at some of the similarities and differences here in this post and see if there are lessons we can learn from this. Tithing and the yearly Temple tax With the rebuilding of the temple came the expense for its offerings and maintenance. Nehemiah instituted an oath for like-minded people who out of love for God covenanted to pay their tithes and first fruits to support the temple so that the priests and Levites would be able to minister (Neh. 10:32-39). They also instituted a yearly one third of a shekel temple tax which in the time of Christ was raised to a half shekel. At the time these reforms were very necessary as without regular tithing and support it would be impossible to get the temple up and running again. We see in the book of Nehemiah that even with this oath he had to specifically intervene to ensure that the Levites were able to minister and not obliged to quit and work in their fields (Neh. 13:10-13). The problem in the time of Christ was that these things had become the major part of religion to the exclusion of other things. So instead of looking at the other aspects of God’s law it was assumed that as long as a person tithed and gave to God they were in a good standing with Him. The Sabbath The second area that the Pharisees emphasized was the keeping of the Sabbath day. In this it can be seen they were like Nehemiah only more extreme. Nehemiah, as governor, had insisted that the gates be guarded to keep merchants out on the Sabbath. He also had to rebuke the people who were treating it as an ordinary work day (Neh. 13:15-22). The oath he and others took in Nehemiah chapter 10 also stated that they would refrain from purchasing things on the Sabbath. Thus again we see that Nehemiah set a precedent for the later Pharisees in Sabbath day observance. There was, however, a difference in the stringency of the observance. The things that Nehemiah rebuked were clearly work, and not a work of necessity either, and clearly were not keeping the Sabbath holy. The Pharisees by the time of Christ had introduced many rules with exceptions to those rules and exceptions for those exceptions, and thus made the Sabbath more burdensome than God had ever intended or Nehemiah had ever enforced. Marriage Issues In the time of Nehemiah there were many Jewish men who had married foreign women, many of them had divorced their Jewish wives to do this, and the children of these unions could not even speak Hebrew and were thus not being taught the law of God and were outside of the covenant (Neh. 13:23-31, Mal. 2:11-16). It should be noted here that the marriages were not forbidden based on ethnicity but because of religion, indeed when women joined themselves to the God of Israel they were accepted no matter what their ethnicity as the cases of Rahab and Ruth show. In the time of Christ the nationalistic part of this reform was zealously enforced, and there was little intermarriage between Jews and other nationalities, but the other issue addressed concerning being faithful to the marriage covenant also contained in Mal. 2:11-16, was ignored. Conclusion Clearly the Pharisees thought they were walking in the footsteps of Nehemiah and the previous move of God in the Water Gate revival, and yet like all movements that cling to the past, they had drifted from it. Just as present day Calvinism is more Calvinistic than Calvin was, and Lutheranism became very Luther-like in some respects while ignoring certain aspects of his theology altogether, and various forms of Methodism took certain aspects of John Wesley’s teaching and emphasized them in varying degrees to the exclusion of others, all showing that it is impossible to live in the past, either we progress or we take things that were taught us and blow them further out of proportion. The circumstances of the time have a degree of influence over our actions that cannot be ignored. For Daniel to open hos windows and pray in public in spite of the king’s decree risking death was a noble thing, as were similar deeds during the time of Antiochus IV when Judaism was illegal and under persecution. However, a Pharisee praying publicly with no danger to himself, to gain credit for holiness from men is an entirely different matter. In the same way just because we are doing what our godly forefathers have done is no guarantee that what we are doing is right. May God grant that we are never satisfied until we truly walk with Him and be where He is now (John 12:26). Amen.