The Following thought for the day was written by Brother Richard Morgan and provides insight and encouragement for those seeking to serve the God of Israel.

What happened to the Pharisees? When they initially formed, they had the best of intentions. They wanted to live according to godly principles, separating themselves from the wickedness of the world. There’s everything right with that. So what went so wrong that Jesus could say to them, quoting Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” (Mark. 7:6-7)?

What seems to have happened is what also occurred way back in the beginning when Adam and Eve tried to deal with keeping the commandment to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When Eve spoke to the serpent, she said, “God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” (Gen. 2:3).

We know that Eve was misquoting God. While He did say, “You shall not eat of the fruit,” He did not say, “neither shall you touch it.” The inference is that Adam and Eve added that as a further safeguard against eating the fruit. It didn’t work, though, and when temptation arose, they still broke the commandment. Their addition to the law was useless.

The Pharisees never learned that lesson, probably because it seems so sensible. If you want to live a holy life, then surely making additional rules like that makes sense. The fruit is forbidden, so don’t even touch it. The Bible also seems to say as much – “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (Rom. 13:14).

But the problem with this kind of religion is two-fold. First, it betrays our lack of trust in God. If He thought adding the command, “neither shall you touch it,” would help then He would have added it Himself. But He didn’t; the initial command was sufficient. Second, by leaving the commandment of God and holding to the tradition of men (Mark 7:8), we focus on the wrong thing. What would have prevented Adam and Eve from eating the fruit? Their addition to the commandment didn’t work, so what would have prevented them from giving in to temptation?

The Pharisees thought that by adding more and more rules, they would move the temptation farther and farther away and, as a result of living a sinless life, become holy. But the rules became their religion and, as Jesus said, “their heart is far from me.” Where your heart is, is ultimately the key to obeying God’s commands. We have to want to obey because our hearts are close to God. What Adam and Eve failed to do was develop the faith, trust, and love for God, which would mean they didn’t even want to eat the fruit. Let’s imagine they didn’t just add the rule but built a fence around the tree. Would that have worked? Well, maybe, but if all that’s keeping us from disobeying God are our man-made fences, then what does that say about our relationship with Him? You can chain up an angry dog so it won’t bite, but it remains an angry dog.

God isn’t looking for people who can keep rules and thereby look as if they’re holy. He wants people of character, people who are part of His family, and who He can invite into His house. The problem is, if we’re like Adam and Eve or the Pharisees, we tend to worry that the house is going to fall down. So we build scaffolding around it to make sure it’s more sturdy. Before long, there’s so much scaffolding that it obscures the house, and we’ve lost sight of the truth. Our focus is on preserving the scaffolding, and if anyone objects and tries to tear it down to see the truth, as Jesus did with the Pharisees, we’ve become so embroiled and attached to the traditions that we defend those with more vigor than we do the true principles of God.

The Pharisees aren’t some outlier, an oddity that we can observe two thousand years later. There’s a reason why there’s so much interaction recorded between them and Jesus in the gospel records. The Pharisees are us. Their spirit was a continuation of the mindset that existed since the days of Adam and Eve, and, being children of Adam, we are no different.

No amount of man-made rules and traditions that tend to accumulate in our ecclesial environments can help produce holiness in us. God didn’t accidentally miss something out and forget to tell us what to wear on Sunday morning, what Bible version to use, or to use seventeenth-century English in our prayers. When things like that become more than just the quaint things we do – when they become our religion, when we turn our outward practices into scaffolding obscuring the truth or a fence to prevent us from giving in to the flesh, then we are no better than the Pharisees. We can be as committed as possible, religiously attending all services, doing our readings, saying our prayers, keeping the standards of the truth, defending them with all our energy. But we will be worshiping God in vain.

What we need to focus on is making sure our heart is close to God. That we are trying to develop the character behind the principles and ultimately putting our faith, trust, and love in Him.  That we do not depend on scaffolding to make us feel holy or keep us from giving in to temptation. God wants people who love Him in his family, not people who are forcing themselves to obey an ever-expanding set of traditions and restrictions.

Richard Morgan,
Simi Hills, CA

View all the thoughts in this series here…