The Pharisees…. What was eating those guys? Rewind to the period between the Old and New Testaments—Alexander the Great brings many nations, including Israel, under Greek rule. His vision was to make all peoples culturally Greek. He was so successful that Greek culture persisted even after the rise of the Roman empire. In the time of Jesus, Greek was still the common language, and the New Testament itself was penned in Greek.
The Pharisees trace their roots to this period when the Greeks were pressing their cultural offensive. In Jerusalem, a handful of God’s people violently resisted Greek forces after one of their generals ordered that a pig be sacrificed in the temple. The Israelites routed Greek control of Jerusalem. In so doing they preserved their religious and ethnic heritage. Out of these military defenders of the faith, a priestly group emerged. These continued to resist Greek culture and to protect the faith of their fathers, though not through military means. This group evolved into the Pharisees, which means “separate.” Their zeal for Hebrew tradition and separateness from gentile cultures made them a social and religious force to be reckoned with.
The downside was that the posture of the Pharisees was defensive. They lost touch with God’s mission to draw all nations, not into Jewish culture, but into His kingdom. Instead of advancing the kingdom of God, the Pharisees were caught up in a culture-war. Ironically, their fight to preserve what was godly brought them into conflict with God, and they murdered His Son.
This fact should give us pause. As western culture becomes increasingly less Christian, many of us are guilty of reducing the mission of Christ to a culture-war. Does a culturally defensive posture help God? Does God need our help? Does protesting the removal of the 10 Commandments from a courthouse or picketing certain movies advance God’s kingdom? Jesus did not defend Himself against the Pharisees, against Herod, against Pilate. Does He now need us to defend Him?
Paul can teach us much in this regard. We don’t see him getting into cultural squabbles as he shares Christ. In Athens, he referenced Greek poetry and an altar to an unknown god while discussing the resurrection (Acts 17:23, 28). Though fully understanding that Christ was the end of the law, Paul submitted to a Jewish purification rite in the interest of reaching out to Jews (Acts 21:24-26). As he told the Corinthians, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22).
One final consideration: Christianity dominated western culture for centuries, from 312 when Constantine made Christianity the state religion to modern times. Even when Christianity enjoyed the cultural ascendancy many are fighting for, western culture was not the kingdom of God. Instead, culturally-dominant Christianity was more like the beast in John’s vision: it looked like a lamb but spoke like a dragon (Rev. 13:11). Human culture is human culture, however much we may dress it up in Christianity. Scripture and history show us that a dragon in lamb’s clothing is the best we will come up with if we resort to culture wars. The alternative is to follow the true Lamb wherever He goes (Rev. 14:4).