As I have been preparing messages over the past few weeks as I am moving through John chapters 5 - 9 I have been struck by the opposition Jesus faced from the religious. As I study the text and the background to it I am constantly challenged by the reactions of the Pharisees in particular. If one spends any amount of time reading through the Gospels you will see being labelled as"Pharisee" as bad. The thing is the Pharisees were very zealous for holding to the Law. It is likely that their movement is at least partly rooted in the reforms of Nehemiah who was disgusted with how far those who had returned from the Babylonian exile had back-slid. Judaism was in an interesting place by the time we come to Christ's ministry on earth. Israel was under foreign rule, pagan Greek & Roman religion was clearly present and the Jewish people had had to figure out how to live in the midst of all this.
Another group we encounter in the Gospels is the Sadducees. This group's way of dealing with the prevailing culture was to figure out how much of their faith could be boiled down to the basics so they could fit in. They held that only the first five books of the Bible, the books of Moses, were actually scripture. They also were quite accommodating to the ruling powers. When the Romans invaded to put down rebellion in AD 70 this group disappeared through being viewed as sell-outs by their own people or simply walking away from what part of the faith they kept.
The Pharisees on the other hand held to the whole of the First Testament. They were so concerned with keeping the law that they created their own set of laws to build a fence around the Law. They viewed the Law as a kind of cliff that you didn't want to dance on the edge of so they built fences to keep you away from the edge. They used these rules to clearly determine who was in and who was out. Transgressing their law meant you weren't holy enough or faithful enough, you didn't care enough about God's law to keep a safe distance from breaking it. You had to do the right things at the right times and in the right way. You also had to not do certain things, or go certain places or interact with people that weren't part of the religious "in" group.
It breaks my heart to be able to recognize booth of these groups in the church modern church. There are those who will boil our faith down to bare essentials, systematically taking away piece after piece until there is nothing left. There are those who set up rules, to help determine whose in and who is not.
I'm preaching from John 7 tomorrow and I was challenged by Gary Burge's comment on the chapter in his commentary on John. He says that there are two ways to approach this passage. The first, and most common is as encouragement to those who are also facing persecution. The second he says "Can Christians become religious debaters? Can they ever oppose a new thing God may be doing? Are they genuinely affected by the sinful impulses that permeate the audiences of John 7? John understands that even those who claim to believe in Jesus sometimes choose to reject his word and deny his way (6:66). As an interpretor bringing this passage to my generation, I have to wrestle with the sobering truth of this possibility and its implications" (p.233)
Jesus challenged the religious norms of the day. He challenges us today. What will we do with that challenge?