The Pharisees were the self-appointed guardians of the Judaic religion. They were highly concerned about the moral state of Israel. The Pharisees looked around and said, “There are lots of people in this country who have degenerate moral values. In order for us to put a stop to it, we’ll have nothing to do with such people. We will not eat at table with them. We will not talk to them. We will ostracize them completely. In this way, we will faithfully uphold the highest possible moral values.”
This outlook spilled over to the Jewish chief priests of the first century. The priests even possessed a private bridge linking their homes to the temple so they wouldn’t have to mingle with the common people.
The Pharisees’ attempt to promote high moral values was based on the knowledge of good and evil. For this reason, the Lord Jesus—who had a bad reputation of being a “friend of sinners”—constantly collided with the leaven-dispensing Pharisees.
Jesus pushed the boundaries of religion to their limits. He was also a fierce critic of the priestly temple system of His day, decrying its wrongs.
If you examine Jesus’ exchanges with the Pharisees, you’ll discover a common thread. The Pharisees would ask a question on one level, and Jesus would answer it on a completely different level. The contrast was sometimes so stark that it would appear that Jesus was answering a different question.
Why is this? It’s because the Pharisees’ questions were coming from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And Jesus’ response was coming from the tree of life—the life of God. Jesus went to the people who were shunned by the temple priests: the lame, the blind, the infirm, the lepers, the prostitutes, and even the tax collectors—all of whom were notorious outcasts of society. (The common view of that day was that if you were sick, you deserved it.) Jesus quickly became the champion of the poor, the ostracized, the oppressed and dispossessed. He ministered to those who were marginalized by society, those regarded as valueless.
By doing so, the Lord upstaged the temple system, shaking all of its cages. He rattled the Pharisees by overturning their social customs, norms, and structures. He outraged the priests by claiming to speak for God. He broke down many of the barriers that separated people. And in the process, He was put to death by their collapse.
Regrettably, there is a great deal of pharisaism in the Christian family today.
The Bible teaches the highest possible moral values. But the Bible is fundamentally not about morality. Following the Lord Jesus Christ involves living out the highest moral values. But following Jesus is fundamentally not about morality.
Conversion to Christ involves a moral transformation of life. But conversion is not fundamentally about morality either. The most moral unsaved person on the planet needs Christ just as much as the most immoral one. It is Christ, not religion, that saves us. Christianity, therefore, is not fundamentally about morality. And it has nothing to do with the tree of knowledge of good and evil. When we attempt to turn our spirituality into a matter of morality, we have begun to eat from the wrong tree. The result is the same as what we see with the Pharisees.
An Example of Modern Pharisaism
Case in point: During the 1980s, many Christians retreated to the suburbs and created for themselves a ring of safe suburban churches. Occasionally they would toss out small patches of money to support tiny inner-city missions, but they stayed away from all the people with whom they disapproved. In fact, many of them became preoccupied with promoting movements that were centered around condemning the bad behavior they observed in the culture around them.
These Christians were not mistaken in condemning immoral behavior. But they were profoundly mistaken in their approach to those who were practicing immorality. They were wrong to think that the proper reaction should be to run as fast as they can in the opposite direction lest they become morally polluted.
That is pharisaism, plain and simple. And it’s the exact mindset that your Lord opposed and taught against. Yet this mind-set took over a large segment of the Christian population in the 1980s, and it’s still with us today.
There’s a fundamental flaw in the agenda that says that Christians must deal with the world by keeping it at arm’s length. This agenda fleshes itself out when believers toss condemnations against the world from a distance. It fleshes itself out in the unholy sentiment that leads us to picking up the nearest doctrinal and moral ball bat and hitting the world over the head with it as hard as possible—and feeling justified with such brutality.
Living by the tree of life is the antidote for this.
Those who live by the life of Christ do not act as though they are morally superior to others. While they stand separate from the defilements of sin and the world, they embrace those who are wounded, hurt, confused, and defiled by them. So on the one hand, believers are “set apart from sinners,” but on the other hand, they are the friends of sinners.
Such a high priest meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners. . . . The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” But wisdom is justified by her [actions].
It was Christ’s compassion for the brokenhearted and rejected that drew women and men to Him. And He is the same today as He was then.
Herein lies the missing keynote in the church’s approach to the world. If our faith is based on partaking of the wrong tree, we will act like modern Pharisees. If we partake of the tree of life, we will be empowered to go into a godless world as servants of its unacknowledged Lord.
It is critical for us, then, to learn that the life of Christ is within us. And by following that life and yielding to it, we can display the same Jesus who shook the world, conquered sin and death, set the captives free, and lives forevermore.
Right now, countless nonbelievers view Christians as hypocritical, judgmental, irrelevant, boring, and self-righteous. This is because so many Christians have never learned what it means to eat from the tree of life. Instead, they have been given a steady diet of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
To be perfectly candid, there are few things that are as dull and boring in life as Christianity without the living, breathing, radiant, triumphant Christ. It’s a first-degree snoozer. If you could bottle it, you would have the cure for insomnia.
But there is nothing in life that is more fascinating than Christ. He is the most exciting person in the universe, bar none. But we are speaking about the real Christ, not the shallow, anemic, insipid “Jesus” that’s so often promoted today.
Consequently, when God’s people begin living by an indwelling Lord, the world begins to get a glimpse of the real Jesus. The result? All of their negative experiences about religion, Christianity, and moral condemnation are overcome by the steady, regular, persistent, and stubborn extension of God’s imponderable love in Christ for them.
When you enter into a dark place, it’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness. So this is the Lord’s challenge for our day: to move beyond the religious knowledge of good and evil and into a full yieldedness to the life of Christ that beats within every child of God. Human energy in the work of God won’t cut it. It’s one thing to work for God. It is another to work with God. And it’s yet another to have God work through you. The work of God is God Himself at work.
But the latter only happens when we are living by the tree of life and Christ becomes the motivation and the source of our service. In this way, we discover what it means to serve in the Lord’s energy rather than our own.
Artist and photographer Jeremy Cowart takes us on an amazing creative journey to see the face of Christ.