I’ve been working through Greek here at Asbury Theological Seminary, and I have loved every minute of it. It has not been exceptionally easy, but it has been very rewarding indeed!

Today, we talked about the Pharisees. They are so often cast in such a negative light, because they had numerous encounters with Jesus where their ethic was simply lacking the foundation Jesus taught. However, I think it is important to note the historical context in which they functioned.

There were four major sects of Judaism in the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry: the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Zealots, and the Essenes. Generally speaking, they each took a different approach to interaction with the culture in which they existed. The Sadducees chose to comply with the Roman authorities and were typically quite comfortable with compromising convictions in order to facilitate good relationships with the dominant society. The Essenes chose to separate themselves from the culture, forming reclusive ascetic monastic communities. The Zealots chose to fight the dominant culture in an attempt to regain political autonomy through militant resistance. The Pharisees, on the other  hand, were the only ones who took a truly biblical approach toward their cultural context: they recognized that God demanded transformation of character in obedience to Him. This meant a pursuit of holiness, of righteousness. In fact, I would argue that the Pharisees were very close to being Christian. One thing they lacked (and why they came into conflict with Jesus so often): their ethic was one of works and adherence to the law, while the gospel of Jesus based holiness and righteousness on love for God and love for others.

For Jesus, it was not enough to be right. No, indeed! The Pharisees were certainly right. Jesus demanded that his followers be right for the right reason. Matt. 5:20 sheds some light on this. Jesus obviously considered the Pharisees to be, as a whole group, extremely righteous -even commendably righteous! But he states explicitly that if one’s righteousness does not exceed even this extremely high level of righteousness, one will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Jesus’ point is that the Pharisees were more righteous than anyone else, generally speaking, but that they were not righteous for the right reason -love was not the foundation of their ethic. Pharisees were not true Jews in Jesus’ mind. Almost Jews, but they fell just short. For the same reason, many Christians are merely “almost Christians”, as John Wesley coined the phrase in one of his famous sermons.

Wesley rightly responds to this problem with the admonition that we need “altogether Christians”, Christians who are righteous for the right reason. If you can read his sermon without feeling heart-wrenching pain, I would like to meet  you, because you’re obviously quite an extraordinary person. When I read this sermon, I can’t help but cry out to God to shape me and mold me in His image. I desperately yearn to be renewed and reformed, to have the evil, vile, selfish, wicked, idolatrous, rebellious, sinister aspects of who I am as a free moral agent, choosing all these ugly things for myself… to have these ripped away from me, to exist free from the bondage of self-love and self-serving.

This is what makes an altogether-Christian: a disposition of true humility before God. Until we make the intentional decision and act on that decision to make the intentional choice to recognize our standing before the righteous and sovereign God, we cannot be altogether-Christians. Today, what pride do you see in your life? What have you done recently that is a violation of what you know you should be in light of a humble disposition of your heart before God? What selfishness have you displayed in the past 24 hours that has placed your desires or needs -yourself, in any way- above that of another? When have you acted out of pride or sloth? When have you simply been unmindful of the presence of God in every moment of the day?

If you can think of a single instance from any of the questions posed above, even if you only violated one or more of them in thought though not in action, you have violated the law of love, the heart of the Christian ethic. This calls us to repent, to submit ourselves once again to the law of love in order to have true freedom.

The Pharisees came so close, but they missed the point: their righteousness was insufficient because it lacked the ethical foundation of love. Let us be mindful to pray each and every day:

“Lord, today, let me do nothing out of selfishness or empty conceit. Grant me humility of mind to recognize that I am not more important than anyone else and that to act out of selfish motivations puts others in bondage, enslaving them to my will. Help me to be wary, on the lookout for the interests of others so that I am not so consumed with my own selfish interests that I miss the opportunity to lovingly serve others, which will instead liberate them from bondage to my will. This is the incarnation of the mind of Christ in me as a Christ-one, so conform my mind to that of Jesus through the power of Your Holy Spirit. Amen”