Introduction to John 9 – Jesus’ war on the Pharisees

(These notes were prepared for a series of studies on John’s gospel given in Pretoria during 2008 & 2009.)

All life exists by the word of God. God spoke the creation into existence and since that time ‘sustains all things by his powerful word’ (Heb. 1:3).

The Law is not only the word of God, but was also God’s covenant with Israel. It offered life through obedience, but also condemned sinners and would thus lead Israel to the source of Life, which is Jesus Messiah (see Gal. 3:19,24).

God’s life-giving word is contrasted in scripture with ‘ways that seem right to men but lead to death’ (Prov. 14:12), and the ‘hollow and deceptive philosophies of this age’ (Col. 2:8) which are born out of human reason and that propensity inherent to man from the time of Adam’s fall – namely to make his own judgments over good and evil. In light of this, the Law contains a strict prohibition against tampering at the hands of men: ‘Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the LORD your God that I give you’ (Deut 4:2). The Torah prohibition against ‘mixtures’ (Deut. 22:9,11) was a further indicator that God does not permit human embellishments to his pure word.

It was this prohibition that the Pharisees transgressed and in doing so, that they ‘nullified the word of God by their traditions’ (Mark 7:13). Not only would they not enter the kingdom of God, but – in exercising authority as custodians of the Law – neither would they permit others to do so (Mat. 23:13).

The Pharisaic approach to the Law had a long history. By the time of the prophet Isaiah, God had already warned Israel:

The Lord says: “These people come near to me with their mouth
and honour me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship of me
is made up only of rules taught by men.
Therefore once more I will astound these people
with wonder upon wonder;
the wisdom of the wise will perish,
the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish.”
Woe to those who go to great depths
to hide their plans from the LORD,
who do their work in darkness and think,
“Who sees us? Who will know?”
You turn things upside down,
as if the potter were thought to be like the clay!
Shall what is formed say to him who formed it,
“He did not make me”?
Can the pot say of the potter,
“He knows nothing”?

(Isaiah 29:13-16)

The reduction of Israel’s religion from that of a living relationship with a living God, to a profusion of rules and regulations was pronounced on it as an act of judgment:

“Who is it he is trying to teach?
To whom is he explaining his message?
To children weaned from their milk,
to those just taken from the breast?
For it is: Do and do, do and do,
rule on rule, rule on rule;
a little here, a little there.”
Very well then, with foreign lips and strange tongues
God will speak to this people,
to whom he said,
“This is the resting place, let the weary rest”;
and, “This is the place of repose” –
but they would not listen.
So then, the word of the LORD to them will become:
Do and do, do and do, rule on rule, rule on rule;
a little here, a little there –
so that they will go and fall backward,
be injured and snared and captured.
Therefore hear the word of the LORD, you scoffers
who rule this people in Jerusalem.
You boast, “We have entered into a covenant with death,
with the grave we have made an agreement.
When an overwhelming scourge sweeps by,
it cannot touch us,
for we have made a lie our refuge
and falsehood our hiding place.”
So this is what the Sovereign LORD says:
“See, I lay a stone in Zion,
a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation;
the one who trusts will never be dismayed.
I will make justice the measuring line
and righteousness the plumb line;
hail will sweep away your refuge, the lie,
and water will overflow your hiding place.
Your covenant with death will be annulled;
your agreement with the grave will not stand.
When the overwhelming scourge sweeps by,
you will be beaten down by it.
As often as it comes it will carry you away;
Morning after morning, by day and by night,
it will sweep through.”
The understanding of this message will bring sheer terror.

(Isaiah 28: 9-16)

Shortly after this, Jeremiah prophesied:

The priests did not ask,
`Where is the LORD?’
Those who deal with the Law did not know me;
the leaders rebelled against me …
(Jeremiah 2:8).

“My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me,
the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
broken cisterns that cannot hold water”

(Jeremiah 2:13).

It was disobedience to the Law that led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple at the time of Nebuchadnezzar. Beginning from this time the Scribes began the process of building a ‘hedge’ around the Law. This hedge was comprised of many lesser rules, or sub-rules designed to keep Israel from breaking an actual commandment of the Law. This formed the beginnings of the what is now called ‘the Oral Law’. The Scribal rules were originally subordinate to the books of Moses. However, in their later development the Scribal and Pharisaic laws were held to be of equal authority to the word of God – on the fiction that they too were given to Moses at Mount Sinai (from whence they were handed down orally through the generations – as stated in the Talmudic tractate Avot10.1) These Pharisaic laws thus became ‘binding’ on the children of Israel. (In the final stage of apostasy, these rules were eventually held to be of greater authority even than the word of God – as stated in tractates Berachot 3:2 and Sanhedren 11:3, among others: ‘It is more punishable to act against the words of the Scribes than those of the Scriptures’.)

The end result of this process is aptly summarised in the introduction to H. Chaim Shimmel’s book on The Oral Law, which carries the endorsement of the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom:

The Jewish People are frequently called ‘the People of the Book’; yet if one were to search out a people who follow the teachings of the Written Law literally, one might be led to the Samaritans, who still practice their religion on the outskirts of Shechem, or the Karaites, who are now settled south of Tel Aviv, but never to the Jewish People. The Jewish People do not follow the literal word of the Written Law, nor have they ever done so.

(Third, revised version, Feldheim Publishers, Jersusalem / New York, 2006, p.3.)

The Rabbis ultimately assumed authority over God himself. On the pretext of Deuteronomy 30:12 – ‘[the word of God] is not in heaven … the word is near you,’ the Rabbis teach that since the Law is not in heaven, God has no further authority over it or any influence over its interpretation, but that this was the sole prerogative of the Rabbis. The Talmud records a debate among rabbis in which a Voice from Heaven ruled in favour of the dissenting member. The majority opinion then silenced the Voice by reminding Him that the Law ‘is not in Heaven’. Later Elijah was asked how God responded to this retort. He responded, ‘He laughed, saying: my sons have defeated me, my sons have defeated me’ (Baba Metsia 59b).

The Rabbis had set themselves up as the highest authority, to which even God had to bow. This, as I have suggested before, is the sin of Satan, as understood from the allegory of Isaiah 14:

How you have fallen from heaven,
O morning star, son of the dawn!
You have been cast down to the earth,
you who once laid low the nations!
You said in your heart,
“I will ascend to heaven;
I will raise my throne
above the stars of God;
I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly,
on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain.
I will ascend above the tops of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.”

(Isaiah 14:12-14)

The one who was closest to God was filled with pride and then became his arch-rival. This was the downfall of Satan and also the downfall of the religious authority of the Jews.

By contrast, Jesus ‘who was in very nature God did not consider equality with God something to be grasped … but made himself nothing’ (Phil. 2:6-7) and accepted the consequence of obedience – even to the point of death.

Jesus’ conflict with the Jewish religious establishment was not an unfortunate incident of his ministry, something that could perhaps have been avoided, so that they might have accepted him as Messiah and King. His conflict with the Pharisees (and the Sadducees before them) was deliberate, and he engaged with them in direct warfare. It goes without saying that His mode of warfare against them ‘was not carnal’ but ‘mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds’. Thus he demolished every argument and every pretence (of which Pharisaic Judaism had become the worst) that set itself up against the knowledge of God (2 Cor. 10:5).

Thus, according to Isaiah’s prophecy,

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him –
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of power,
the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD –
and he will delight in the fear of the LORD.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.

(Isaiah 11:1-4)

Jesus slew the Pharisees with the word of God. During the course of his ministry, Jesus performed every single sign that the Rabbis taught as being Messianic. These were:
• The healing of a leper (no Israelite had ever been healed of leprosy)
• The healing of a man born blind (the miracle of this chapter)
• etc.

Every time one of these signs were performed a deputation of the Pharisees was sent out to investigate (see, for example, in Mark 7:1). On every occasion the only grounds on which they could deny that Jesus was the Messiah was that he disregarded one of their Pharisaic laws – which, by what we have seen before, they had come to regard as having greater authority than the word of God. Thus were the Pharisees confounded to judgment for rejecting the source of Life in favour of their own traditions.

Jesus contest with the Rabbis was in fact a contest with Satan who was attempting through the institutions of Judaism to usurp the authority of God and own for himself the hearts and minds of God’s children. Through his contest, Jesus would save a remnant of Israel from their grasp. Again in the words of Isaiah’s prophecy:

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
(Isaiah 61:1-2)

Ironically Israel’s own religious leaders had become its captors, from whom Jesus came to bring freedom and release from darkness for the prisoners.

In the next study we consider the events of John chapter 9 in light of this introduction.