You, Me, and Easter Pharisees

Daniel Darling
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On Easter, we see two diametrically opposed groups of religious leaders find common cause in opposing Jesus; Sadducees because they saw Jesus’ claims of deity, His talk of resurrection and kingdom, and His dismissing of the temple as a threat to their hold on power; and Pharisees because they saw Jesus as a threat to God’s coming kingdom reign, an assault on their desire for spiritual renewal. And His declarations of who He was, not just God’s representative but the very Son of God, one with the Father, were blasphemy in their ears. It was primarily the Sadducees who moved the levers of power to convince Pilate and the government to crucify Jesus, but it was the Pharisees who were among the crowd shouting for His execution.

Would We Have Acted Differently?

The mistake would be to read the gospels and look askance at these Jewish sects, sure we would be among the small group of people who heard and believed Jesus’ words. Too many, in fact, have read the Bible throughout Christian history and have come away with this conclusion, even leading to anti-Semitism. But the Christian gospel tells a different story. New Testament scholar Tom Schreiner writes, “The very point of the story is that if the leaders of God’s people, who knew the OT promises of salvation from reading the Scriptures, executed Jesus, then there is no people group anywhere at any time that would have done otherwise.”[1]

Who Really Put Jesus on the Cross?

Truthfully, nobody put Jesus on the cross. Jesus went willingly, accepting the cup of God’s wrath, standing down the armies of heaven, refusing to defend Himself for one purpose: to lay down His life for the sins of His people. More importantly, He died for you and He died for me. Jesus’ unjust trial and crucifixion is the fulfillment of God’s promise given well before the formation of the Jewish nation in the Garden of Eden, that out of Eve would come a redeemer who would crush the head of the serpent (Gen. 3:15). And it’s a former Pharisee, Paul, who would write that the entire world, every ethnic group, stands condemned before God because of sin (Rom. 1). And yet the good news, that Christ has paid for this sin and offers reconciliation with God, is available to all peoples (Matt. 28:19–20).

In a sense, we all put Jesus on the cross, because each of us, across every ethnic group and social class, stands condemned before a holy God.

In a sense, we all put Jesus on the cross, because each of us, across every ethnic group and social class, stands condemned before a holy God. Nobody has clean hands at Easter. Jesus has a word for you, whether you feel good or bad at Easter, whether you consider yourself a saint or a sinner, a pagan or a preacher. Most of us probably have a bit of Sadducee and Pharisee in us. We carry some bit of embarrassment about the claims and demands of that first-century Galilean and a healthy sense of our own moral rightness. Today it’s even possible to be a Pharisee about not being one of those Pharisees. But the good news is that Jesus has a message for all of us who just maybe exhibit a tiny bit of self-righteousness from time to time: Come to the Father.

Come to the Father

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, told to a crowd of Pharisees, Jesus invited the religious to find redemption. He told a story of a prodigal, the kind of moral reprobate the Pharisees knew would be far from God’s kingdom. But He also told the story of another kind of prodigal, one who was striving to do all the right things to please the Father but whose heart was also on a far journey. To the listeners of His day, it would be scandalous for God to offer forgiveness and grace to a son who had so dishonored the Father; and yet to us it might seem scandalous that God would offer that same grace to those who don’t think they need it. But this is what Jesus is doing.

Tim Keller says this of Jesus: “He is not a Pharisee about Pharisees; he is not self-righteous about self-righteousness. Nor should we be. He not only loves the wild-living, free-spirited people, but also hardened religious people.”6[2]

What marvelous good news this Easter! Jesus went to the cross for the very Pharisees who didn’t think they needed salvation. He died for the skeptics and Sadducees, both ancient and modern. He conquered sin and death so that those who believe could experience the kingdom of God and personal spiritual renewal. And His resurrection means that both skeptics and saints, Sadducees and Pharisees, can find salvation and become part of a new family made up of the formerly self-righteous from every nation, tribe, and tongue. It means that we—recovering Pharisees—find grace.

[1] Thomas R. Schreiner, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 515.

[2] Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith, reprint ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 2011), 75.

For Further Reading:

The Characters of Easter

by Daniel Darling

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book cover for The Characters of Easter