That the Pharisees hated Jesus is a given. They were the driving force behind his capture, illegal trial, and push for his death by crucifixion. Peter pointed his accusing fingers at them in his first sermon (Acts 2:23), and Paul wrote about their heinous actions as accepted fact (1 Thessalonians 2:15).
So, why did the Pharisees hate Jesus so much? Of course, the answer is found in the Gospels. In the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the Pharisees gathered around Jesus as observers. Some were sent by the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem to report back on the commotion happening in Galilee. Nicodemus approached Jesus directly at night (John 3), Simon the Pharisee invited Jesus over for a meal (Luke 7:36f), and others observed them from amongst the crowd. And they listened to Jesus’ teaching. And they observed Jesus’ actions. And while they could not deny his miracles, they kept their distance. Perhaps it was because they thought they had cornered God for themselves and Jesus was outside their religious circle. But it was more than that. Jesus claimed to be from God, but his actions conflicted with their own practice of holiness. Jesus allowed all types of people to gather around him, and he ate and drank with them. And he listened to their stories and touched them. His compassionate engagement butted heads with the Pharisaic practice of separation.
The religious Jews learned much from their history. They studied the prophets that spoke of God’s displeasure that resulted in the exile and great suffering. Book of Ezra taught them that worship was all important. Building the Temple was more important than building their homes, and keeping the Sabbath in worship was foundational to God’s will. And further, one must work on personal holiness as a way to please God. Reject relationships with gentiles and even Samaritans. Keep away from sin and sinners and those cursed by God.
But here was Jesus, willing to break the Sabbath restrictions to heal the sick. Jesus emphasized compassion. Jesus taught people to open up to others and share, get down and dirty with the needy. And Jesus pointed to the errors of the priests and the Levites for rejecting compassion for the sake of personal holiness (Parable of the Good Samaritan). But the Pharisees would also walk on the other side. In the end, the Pharisees labeled Jesus a servant of Satan – tempting people with love and miracles, but leading them to the gates of hell.
The tragedy of the Pharisees is this. They meant well. They were pursuing God as their life’s passion. And the Pharisees got it mostly right – it is about holiness, as God declared it, “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44-45). But their definition of holiness was in error. They didn’t know what true holiness meant. That was their problem.
Jesus defined holiness to them. All though the Bible, the holy God came down to interact with sinful people. God’s holiness rubbed with human depravity. God sent his prophets who were arrested and killed but God kept on sending them. It was love. And it was holiness. God’s holiness didn’t separate him from us. God’s holiness reached out to the unholy and gave them grace and mercy. God is holy, and God is love. They are one and the same.
And that’s what Jesus did. In his holiness, he shared of himself. He loved. He got dirty. He touched sinners. He ate with them and died for them. And he was holy. His life was a definition of holiness. The Pharisees missed it completely.
And it’s a lesson for us today. The American church has been called Pharisaic by many, that we lack love. And before we fight back like the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, we should take a step back and ask Jesus if that’s true. What would Jesus do?