T he Pharisees and the Sadducees were appalled by the ministry of Jesus Christ; His whole style was a shameful and dreadful scandal to them.
How so and why?
Well, for a people who had been immersed in the approach that salvation was only for the Israelites, and that that nation alone were the sole recipients of divine blessings, the message of our Lord seemed a confusion. For these stern religionists, the identity of those who might aspire to be the true people of God was already a decided matter - nothing left for further debate or discussion! Moreover, they believed that not even many of the Israelites could finally be saved, rather, only Israelites of very high moral character who were exemplary in religious observance and performance could ever expect to enter the kingdom of God. The modern 'NPP' movement might challenge this view of New Testament religious Jewry, but for the keen student of the New Testament, there really is no other conclusion to draw; indeed the evidence is nothing short of substantial, where one is determined to be faithful to the biblical approach alone (rather than the post-holocaust Jewish rehabilitation sensibilities coupled with the pro-Catholic sensibilities of the NPP people). This is not to say that every Pharisee and Sadducee of the time of Jesus was a hateful religious bigot filled with arrogance, pride and hypocrisy, but it was undeniably a strong tone among those of such groups who would interact with and - at the last - conspire against Jesus.
So for those officiating religionists, the ministry of Jesus was seen as humiliating and an open and painful sore. The whole concept of One who was plainly well-versed in the received Hebrew Scriptures, to be able to competently interpret those words differently to them, was contemptible in their sight. Didn't this upstart from Nazareth know that the interpretation of Scripture was solely the domain of the Pharisees?
Who Were the Pharisees?
But who were the Pharisees? Are we sure that we correctly understand just who they were?
The exact definition of this group varies according to the period of time in which one might consider them: The Pharisees were - at various times - a political party, a religious sect, certainly always a socio-religious movement, and a philosophical school of thought which flourished among Jews during the Second Temple period (536 BC–70 AD). Following the destruction of the Second Temple, Pharisaism necessarily started to change, becoming re-established as Rabbinic Judaism — which ultimately produced the later normative traditional Judaism, finally evolving into the foundation for all modern religious Judaism. However, we need to understand that these people were largely self-appointed; Jesus did recognise that the Pharisees pointed to the Scriptures as the best way and pattern of life, therefore occupying 'the seat of Moses' (Matthew 23:1-3), but He never recognised their authority beyond that. However, some have claimed that the term "seat of Moses" was used somewhat sarcastically by Jesus referring to a common Pharisee boast.
Some Christians persist in mistakenly believing that these people were originally appointed by God, but had started becoming a little extreme and legalistic shortly before the time of Jesus, but this is an erroneous view. While certain of these people could certainly trace lineage to the Levites (the priestly tribe), they were largely a self-appointed body. The Pharisees existed for a few hundred years even while the Temple stood, but when the Second Temple was destroyed in AD70, religious Pharisaism plainly had to quickly adapt to a new situation or disappear from history. For this momentous event plainly brought a conclusion to the divinely-appointed Levitical Priesthood (since under the divine prescriptions and ordinances, no worship was possible without the presence of a temple, whether portable or permanent). Later Pharisaism well understood this point and understood that the later representatives of their group represented a compromise. Restricted in what they could preach and observe, especially under Roman occupation, they would focus on national Israel as the 'chosen ones' of the Lord and the recipients of the Old Covenant Mosaic revelation. 'The Law, Prophets and Writings' (our Old Testament) was, and remained, their primary focus; to this they had already added voluminous interpretative writings even well before the time of Jesus. This whole body of interpretation, including the Tanakh (The Hebrew Bible), was usually referred to as the Midrash. This approach, at length, led to extra-biblical teachings being placed in almost equal authority with Holy Scripture.
Despite the modern claims of the NPP people (the so-called 'New Perspective on Paul'), there can be no doubt that Jewish separationism, elitism and legalism strongly flavoured the general approach even from an early point in their history. It has become a little unfashionable to so clearly state this, yet we should continue to do so since it is where the evidence clearly points.
So the religionists that Jesus encountered clearly represented a closed, exclusivist and works-based approach to the knowledge and worship of God; indeed, the New Testament (a point already alluded to in passing), provides more than ample examples of this approach; we find within its pages numerous instances of the Pharisees seeking reasons to exclude people seen as unworthy of the revelation to Moses, and - very soon - the primary person they wished to exclude was our Lord Jesus Himself! Therefore it would be no exaggeration to say that the Gospels picture the Jewish religious authorities continually looking for reasons to exclude people from the kingdom of God, even while they portray a Jesus of Nazareth who was far more interested in generously including people in the scope of His kingdom. This is not subtle - it is huge in both scope and theological implication.
One of the primary reasons for the jealousy, contempt, and finally, just plain hatred which the religionists held for Jesus was because of His effective tearing down of the exalted pedestals which these people had placed themselves upon before the people. They also feared for their position under the Romans; the Roman governors had given great authority to the Jewish religious authorities, seeing them as helpful for holding the people in submission; this is something they certainly did not want to see challenged or undermined from within their own community.
Jesus Makes Clear His Desire to Include...
Let us now consider two points which will serve to illustrate some examples of Jesus' refusal to allow His divine message to be restricted and exclusive - something which would have certainly been more pleasing to the Pharisees:
1. The authorities complained that Jesus consorted with people who drank rather too much alcohol, and who were employed in professions seen as shameful, tax-collecting, for example (Luke 7:34). Even the disciples were astonished that Jesus was prepared to open a conversation with a Samaritan woman (John 4:7-9) - certainly the religionists - and most other Jews - refused all social contact with these people, and to address a Samaritan woman probably appeared especially shocking; actually, the Jews never initiated a public conversation with any unrelated woman in the normal course of events. Thus - right from the beginning - Jesus made it plain that His ministry would not be stern, restrictivist, nor bedecked with separationist religious trappings; He plainly held no desire to form an elitist 'ivory tower' movement which sought to deny any place for ordinary people.
2. In His ministry of healing, Jesus showed exceptional compassion and empathy with and toward those who were suffering, plainly having no regard as to the sufferer's general background, previous religious behaviour, nor social standing: Harlots, Roman soldiers, the wealthy and the desperately poor were all the same to Jesus who refused to discriminate in such matters. Indeed, the New Testament presents us with strong evidence that the healing ministry of Jesus only increased the religious authorities opposition to Him, this gathered pace, of course, when He healed on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6). Jesus healed people who were not recognised socially by these authorities, who would normally shun all contact with them, therefore those authorities increasingly felt hostile to Him and very soon sought for an early conclusion to His ministry; Jesus' action of healing on the Sabbath accelerated this opposition.
We must also note that the Pharisaic movement of this period held rather a strong flavour that the sick deserved to be sick, at least in the great majority of cases; certainly such people should not detain nor hinder the strong necessity of ongoing religious duty, separation and observance. When Jesus chose to go out of His way to heal the sick, even entering the homes of the socially despised, the religionists could only view His conduct as a very bad example.
So we may observe that even in His social interactions and behaviour Jesus did not show any support for Jewish elitism or exclusivism, save that He obviously did recognise that 'salvation is of the Jews' (John 4:22), referring to the Divine Revelation within the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament). So Jesus supported the revelation within Holy Scripture, and agreed that the Pharisees did expound those Scriptures, but he did not support the way those Scriptures were often being interpreted by these people in His own day (Matthew 23).
Inclusion: Organisationally and Theologically
We now need to move on and to consider certain comments of Jesus which reveal His inclusivity more organisationally and theologically. Typically of Jesus, these points are seemingly just mentioned in passing, yet they reveal a theological scope which must have been stunning at the time and, even today, is frequently not truly appreciated.
1. Mark 9:38-40 and Luke 9:49-50.
This comment of Jesus as noted in both Mark 9:38-40 and Luke 9:49-50 reveals a point too often carelessly overlooked!
Vs. 38. John said unto him, Teacher, we saw one casting out demons in thy name; and we forbade him, because he followed not us.
Vs. 39. But Jesus said, Forbid him not: for there is no man who shall do a mighty work in my name, and be able quickly to speak evil of me.
Vs. 40. For he that is not against us is for us. (Mark 9:38-40. ASV).
So the disciples had tried to stop another man, who was unknown to them, from carrying the message of Jesus to others. In His quick retort to them, Jesus effectively told the disciples that they themselves would have no private ownership of the Gospel, nor exclusive rights to its message, but - rather - that it would be open and accessible to all. This one Scripture strongly challenges the hierarchical approach towards church government; it perhaps does not finally demolish the schema of 'apostolic succession' lock, stock and barrel but it surely places it under very considerable stress! John, and maybe the other apostles, had possibly somehow carelessly assumed one future body or institution representative of Christianity (that is, if they had given it any thought at all), but the retort of Jesus started to reveal that things would not be panning out in quite that manner.
It is interesting indeed that just reading that comment of Jesus, one would now expect to see many Christian organisations - and that is exactly what we now find, of course.
But again, the point is made that Jesus was Inclusivist in general approach. The Pharisees sought to quickly persecute and exclude any religious rivals, but this was not to be the approach of true Christianity; as long as the genuine Gospel of Jesus Christ was - and is - being preached, then rejoice! That would be (or, should be) the approach of Christianity. Of course, many other New Testament Scriptures make it absolutely plain that heresy was not to be tolerated, just read the entirety of Galatians, Matthew 7:21-23; 15:9, 1 John 2:18-19. for example. Yet, otherwise, as long as the true Gospel is being authentically preached, don't persecute and don't exclude is what Jesus is surely saying. How different this was to the strictly authoritarian, elitist and regimented approach of the Pharisees!
Do we not immediately have to seriously ask ourselves whether the much later formal, separate and authoritarian ecclesiastical systems of Catholicism and Orthodoxy could be pleasing to God?
So this comment of Jesus alone makes one suspect that God would prefer many Christian enterprises. Unsurprisingly, Paul the Apostle later confirms this approach. Carefully note the entirety of 1 Corinthians 12, but especially verses 12-27. Multiplicity without spiritual division is the approach and pattern which can be quickly perceived in these verses. Paul underlines this approach again in Ephesians 4:1-16; unity is emphasised, but in an atmosphere of a multiplicity of service, with verses 12-16 revealing that this would be the best way for Christians to spiritually grow.
Foolish therefore for Baptists to oppose Presbyterians, or for Methodists to oppose Anglicans, as long as, within organisational differences, the true Gospel is preached. But none of this gives support to Liberalism which - make no mistake - is a different message and must be concluded (along with things like the 'prosperity gospel') as plain heresy.
So we see that Jesus was not only 'inclusive' in all social aspects of His behaviour, but clearly indicated an inclusive 'road ahead' for His ministry. One is obviously bound to feel that this general approach should continue to be practiced by the Church which He built.
2. The Parables of Jesus.
Depending on exactly how they are counted, there are between 30 and 50 New Testament parables, Here are just some of these:
a. Drawing in the Net, Matthew 13:47–50.
b. Laborers in the Vineyard, Matthew 20:1–16.
c. Lost Money, Luke 15:8–10.
d. The Faithful Servant, Luke 12:35–48.
e. The Good Samaritan, Luke 10:30–37.
f. The Seed Growing Secretly, Mark 4:26–29.
g. The Lost Sheep, Matthew 18:12–14, Luke 15:1–7.
h. The Mustard Seed, Matthew 13:31–32 Mark 4:30–32 Luke 13:18–19.
i. The Pearl, Matthew 13:45–46.
j. The Prodigal Son, Luke 15:11–32.
k. The Sower (The Four Soils), Matthew 13:3–23 Mark 4:1–20 Luke 8:5–15.
l. The Wedding Feast, Matthew 22:1–14, Luke 14:16–24.
m. The Pharisee and the Publican, Luke 18:9–14.
n. Ten Talents, Matthew 25:14–30, Luke 19:11–27.
o. The Budding Fig Tree, Matt 24:32–36, Mark 13:28–32, Luke 21:29–33.
p. The Friend at Night, Luke 11:5–8.
q. The Hidden Treasure, Matthew 13:44.
r. The Importunate Widow, Luke 18:1–8.
s. The Leaven, Matthew 13:33, Luke 13:20–21.
t. The Master and Servant, Luke 17:7–10.
u. The Rich Fool, Luke 12:16–21.
v. The Rich Man and the Beggar Lazarus, Luke 16:19–31.
w. The Guests, Luke 14:7-15.
Again, this is not all of the parables, just a few of them.
First of all, we should not abuse the parables as some have done. The parables normally have one central point to get across, although there could also be subsidiary ones, but the concept that every single point is 'interpretable' at every stage has led some into serious confusion - we must avoid that. Nevertheless, the parables were used by Jesus to teach, therefore any article such as this, must give some serious consideration to their approach. The interesting thing about the parables is that they are overwhelmingly inclusivist in general approach; the concept that only the Jews are the true people of God is often attacked, assumed privilege is often attacked, the great and priceless value of the Gospel message is always upheld (often in contrast to the unreliability of worldly wealth), the responsibility of being steadfast and being prepared to grow in the Christian life also often comes out. But certain parables are exceptionally inclusivist in general tone and teaching, in total contrast to the Pharisees often stern elitism, restrictivism and separationism. Such parables include, 'the labourers in the vineyard,' 'the lost money,' 'the good samaritan,' 'the lost sheep,' 'the prodigal son,' 'the wedding feast,' 'the Pharisee and the publican,' 'the guests,' and several others too.
But the following is, perhaps, one of the most striking examples of Jesus' clear inclusivity. It occurs from Luke 14:16. This is the parable in which certain ones received invitations to a feast but then made excuses as to why they could not attend:
Luke 14:21: ...And the master of the house, being angry, said to his servant, Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city and bring in here the poor and the maimed, and the lame and the blind.
22. And the servant said, Lord, it is done as you have commanded, and still there is room.
23. And the lord said to the servant, Go out into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in, so that my house may be filled.
24. For I say to you that none of these men who were invited shall taste of my supper. (Luke 14:21-24, MKJV).
3. Exclusivity in Jesus?
But we must now consider two Scriptures which might initially appear as though Jesus is teaching 'exclusivity.'
3a. Matthew 19: 23-26.
Why is it that when enquirers ask about this Scripture, they only recall the part about the impossibility of a camel being able to pass through 'the eye of a needle'? They never seem aware of the context, nor of Jesus' response!
The context was when a wealthy young man enquired about Eternal Life (Matthew 19:16). This young man revealed that he had been obedient to the commandments, but Jesus made it plain that this was not enough and He invited the young man to give all his possessions to the poor and to join Him in His ministry right there and then (Matthew 19:21). This was a rare and priceless opportunity indeed! This, by the way, was not just some reckless gesture, it is how the early Church operated! All funds and possessions went into a pool and this helped support the poor in the Church and also financed the spreading of the Gospel (please consult Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-35, and note the 'A Better Way' section of our tithing article. Tithing, by the way, should not be practiced by Christians in our day).
So here we have the context in which Jesus made His famous 'eye of a needle' comment. He was referring to the wealthy who trust in their wealth, which this young man did, and He was considering the difficulty of these people coming to Christ during this present age; that is the context.
Secondly, we must look at Jesus' response to the disciple's despondency regarding the numbers who could be saved (19:25). The disciple's first response seems a little strange to us today - they almost seemed to assume that most people in the world were wealthy! Again, let us remind ourselves that Jesus was discussing the wealthy who find it especially hard to trust in God; even today, very few wealthy people become converted. This is because they tend to trust the power of wealth itself. In response to the disciple's despondent feelings regarding the numbers who would be finally saved, Jesus said this,
But Jesus looked on them and said to them, With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. (Matthew 19:26).
Jesus understood that if one considers the state of the world and the behaviour of men and women in their current state of 'falleness,' one might indeed be pessimistic, but His answer was, 'With God all things are possible.' In other words, this whole matter is not just about men and women but about the plan of God and the glorious gift of redemption in Christ. Of course, the disciples were still learning at that point. Eventually they would come to understand that Christ is 'The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world' (John 1:29), that 'God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved' (John 3:17), and that Jesus gave His very flesh, 'for the life of the world' (John 6:51). Eventually the disciples would come to understand, how disappointing then that even today many modern Christians with easy access to the entire wealth of Scripture still often seem unsure on this point. But it is important to note that Jesus did not accept the humanly logical feeling that few could be saved, rather, He reminded His hearers that these matters are in the hands of God who may set His hand to save wherever He wills.
Therefore, when properly understood, Jesus was not uttering any elitist nor exclusivist sensibilities regarding the scope of the Gospel in this Scripture; on the contrary, He quickly challenged that impression. He was considering the wealthy who tend to overly trust in that wealth; it was the disciples who jumped to a conclusion, a conclusion which Jesus promptly rejected.
3b. Matthew 7:13-14.
This is an especially important text to consider because it has, frankly, been so theologically abused, one has to say, especially by certain sections of Calvinism; yet the abuse is widespread. Let us consider it:
Vs. 13. Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.
Vs. 14. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. (Matthew 7:13-14, NIV).
This might seem as though, after having initially experimented with it, Jesus decided to abandon His approach of inclusivity of access to God, just like a politician might decide to abandon a previously preferred policy, if it was just not working out! This, of course, is obviously nonsense. Yet this text has been lifted from Matthew and made to 'force-fit' into areas with which it was never concerned. It has been made to 'force-fit' the schema that God has pre-ordained a huge majority of Mankind for Hell, with a tiny elite group being pre-ordained to be saved. The monstrous teaching never actually occurs anywhere in the Bible and comes straight from fatalistic Manichaeism; it is the result of mishandling the biblical doctrines of election and predestination (turning the latter into "double predestination"). If this were true, it would portray a Jesus who used the exclusionary and exclusivity tactics of the worst of the Pharisees, however, it is not a correct teaching. But since we have articles which explain those areas in some detail elsewhere within UK Apologetics we must not allow that point to detain us here.
Once again, we must start off with getting the correct context in which Jesus used the comment. It occurs within the 'sermon on the mount' in which Jesus was giving some concentrated spiritual teaching to the disciples in a somewhat early stage of His ministry. The disciples will undoubtedly already have noted that the incumbent religious authorities were not exactly enthusiastic about this new ministry and many questions will already have come up. These words from Matthew, chapters 5 to 7, have been referred to as the 'Terms of the New Covenant' - here is where Jesus starts to make it clear how dramatically different His ministry of reconciliation between God and Man would be to anything previously available.
The more immediate context here (the beginning of Matthew 7), concerns having faith in God, and the need to refrain from judging wherever possible - in stark contrast to the high judgmentalism of the Pharisees! Jesus wished to prepare the disciples for the fact that most would reject their message, maybe they had been too enthusiastic on this point. Today most still reject the message of Christianity; for many years western culture had given huge respect to Christianity and it was always granted a place and position of respect - that is now almost completely gone. But - in this present world and during this age of the Church - most reject the gospel and just a few come to Christ; that is all this text is saying. Jesus was considering the intense philosophical/religious world which the Apostles would necessarily soon enter; He was preparing them, and He prepares every modern Christian too, that rejection should be the commonly expected response. However, He is not saying anything more than that at this point. Since He mentions a 'broad road' leading to 'destruction' is this not saying that God wills the majority to go on that road and never wants them to have the opportunity to understand spiritual truth? Absolutely not! Even we Christians are described by Paul the Apostle as being "without hope" before we came to Christ - that only concerned the situation which we were then in - it was obviously not a comment about our eternal salvific status if we later came to Christ; to put it another way: it was an epistemological comment - not an ontological comment! See Ephesians 2:12. In like manner, people who reject the Gospel are indeed 'heading for destruction' as things currently stand (epistemologically). Make no mistake: some of these people - if they fully understand the message of the Gospel, yet willingly reject it - will not inherit Eternal Life, yet many of them probably have never yet fully understood and may yet accept Christ, even on their deathbeds. Yet it remains the case that the majority of the human race have lived and died without ever even hearing the name of Christ - these people are not condemned.
So we need to ensure that we do not pull this Scripture out of context and make it 'force-fit' into Fatalism (a doctrine of the pagans), as, to be frank, the hyper-Calvinists have done. Neal Punt has made an especially helpful comment upon this Scripture:
'The "small gate," "narrow road," and "few" finding convey the intrinsic value of salvation, not the extent of it's availability. These expressions have the same meaning as finding the "hidden treasure" and selling everything else in order to purchase the "pearl of great value." These figures of speech are intended to teach us to covet salvation as a rare discovery and an invaluable treasure.' (chapter 22, page 219, 'A Theology of Inclusivism' - 2008. Northland Books paperback).
The New Testament overflows with evidence that the ministry of the Lord Jesus and the entire approach of the New Covenant is Inclusive. Just as the Pharisees sought to exclude, Jesus sought to include. Indeed, Jesus is the 'good shepherd' who never gives up on a straying sheep (Matthew 18:12).
' For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.' (Luke 19:10, NIV).
'My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one can snatch them out of my hand.' (John 10:27-28, NIV).
' For God did not send His Son in to the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.' (John 3:17, NIV).
We may perceive, then, a difference: the Pharisees indeed wanted to exclude and to condemn, but the Lord Jesus wants to include, and to save!
If perhaps, we have tended to accept a brand of theology which is closer to the Pharasaic model, it is never too late for a readjustment.
Let us rejoice, then, at the inclusive, loving ministry of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. We have a Saviour who is not prepared to despise those whom others have despised but continually reaches out to the lost, the dispossessed and the broken of society.
Robin A. Brace, October, 2008.