Read Mark 2:18-22.
“And John’s Disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and they come
and say to him, Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but thy disciples fast not?” (Mark 2:18).
When Jesus appeared among the Israelites the religious people were divided into four groups. From the New Testament we know these as the disciples of the Sadducees, Pharisees, John the Baptist, and Jesus.
We shall not deal with the Sadducees in this chapter; we shall center
our discussion on the other three.
* * *
All three of these spiritual trends have many things in common. They all stress faith in God, life after death, punishment and reward, salvation and judgment. They disagree on the means and methods by which a man may find God and be saved.
Jesus and the Pharisees were diametrically opposed to each other on this question, so much so that Jesus warned His disciples above all things to be on their guard against the leaven of the Pharisees. The followers of John were much closer to Jesus on this score, though the Pharisees were successful in drawing them into a debate on fasting.
A disciple of John should naturally develop in the direction of Jesus. John was called to direct people to Jesus; this was the sole purpose of his life. His teaching was of such a nature that his followers would either have to find Jesus or give up all hope of salvation. Christ’s first disciples had been followers of John.
Remarkably enough, John rejoiced when his best disciples left him to follow Jesus. The world has not seen many such leaders, either in the political or in the religious field, who have rejoiced when the people left them for other leaders. When John heard the complaint that Jesus had begun to baptize and that the people were flocking to Him, he replied with the meek and significant words, “He that bath the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, that standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. This my joy therefore is made full.” (John 3:29).
The basic trends in Christ’s day are represented among spiritually interested people today also. We have reason to believe that in every larger group of religious people there are adherents of the Pharisees, of John, and of Jesus. Usually the group following Christ is the smallest; John and the Pharisees are more popular.
On earth there is a little flock,
Whose treasure is the solid rock,
The Word, which saints love dearly;
But ‘mong this group until today,
A few alone there find we may,
Who worship God sincerely.
What is it in the doctrine of the Pharisees which is so contrary to true Christianity? What does a Pharisee think and believe?
Many are of the opinion that a Pharisee is a hideous and shockingly bad person. Nothing can be farther from the truth; a Pharisee is a good person. He is a man who has a reputation for piety and good works. Luther speaks thus of the Pharisees: “They were the pride and adornment of their people, and shone as the sun. No group was so highly praised as they were. He who wanted to name a holy man would have to name a Pharisee.”
The Pharisee lived a godly life according to the prevailing views of his time and the interpretation of the Scriptures made by the Scribes. He did what was right and tried to keep the law. It was against the background of such a life and viewpoint that the rich young ruler replied to Christ’s question of keeping the law, “All these things have I kept from my youth up.”
A Pharisee shuns every form of outward sin with all his might. That which clearly is evil, and which in the public opinion is held to be sinful, he will flee from as from a pestilence. He reads the Word of God and listens diligently to sermons. He is found at the Lord’s Table. Under no circumstances will he break with tradition. He may even be zealous for missions and ready to help the poor and needy. Most of all, however, does he cleave to that which is customary; traditions are the apple of his eye.
Jesus said of the Pharisees that they discarded the Commandments of God in favor of the commandments of men.
When the Pharisee then has done everything that he can — according to his own opinion — he is satisfied to let the matter rest. If there is still something incomplete about his salvation he will leave that to a gracious God. The Lord certainly cannot be so strict as to condemn a person who has done his very best. If God is so severe, who can then be saved?
These are characteristic words of a Pharisee. There are many today who believe and live thus; what is worse, they believe they are good Christians.
If you ask a Pharisee if he thinks he will be saved, he will reply, “I hope so.” But if you ask him if he is saved, he will answer with manifest displeasure, “What do you mean by that? Are you trying to condemn me? You had better tend to your own affairs; I shall take care of myself.”
No one must touch the heart of a Pharisee; he cannot stand that. His godliness is a mere form devoid of power. He is a whited sepulcher which outwardly may be beautiful, but inwardly is full of dead bones. This is Christ’s stern judgment over such people.
You poor, blind Pharisee! None other is so hopelessly lost as you are. A drunkard, thief, or adulterer knows that there is something wrong with him. But you think that everything is in order with you, because you cannot see beyond the whited grave of your exterior life.
If a person only had the power of opening the grave of your heart so that you might see the depth of sin that is in you! Then there would be hope for you also. You would then become a sinner before God, and for such there is grace.
* * *
But the disciples of John — what is their view of life and of themselves?
Their deep desire is to be saved. But despite this sincere desire, it seems so hopeless for them to be saved. They have gone to John by the river to be baptized into a new life; but they have not found this life. They set very high standards for themselves, especially spiritual standards for their inward life. For them the whited sepulcher has been opened, and they see an unsaved and sinful life.
This is the difference between a Pharisee and a disciple of John. The Pharisee passes lightly over his sins in thoughts, desires, and emotions. John opens the door to this side of our life, and his disciples demand of themselves clean hearts. But the person who makes such stringent demands upon himself will never be satisfied with himself. Quite on the contrary, he enters into a hopeless battle with himself. The more earnest and serious he is, the more dark and hopeless his outlook becomes.
This is the old battle that is renewed in every generation. Every one who has been awakened to the demands of God’s law must enter into this battle. All of us who have gone through this process remember so well the many defeats we suffered and the disappointments that were ours until we saw the Lamb of God.
That I must suffer, fight, and do battle,
All this I knew so clearly must be;
But my attempts to better my life,
Ended in death and dark misery.
A disciple of John understands these words so well. It is no easy task to go on living when that which we want most of all in life becomes ever more difficult to obtain. Then it is easy to think that it is of no use to continue; the door is closed, the heart is hardened, and God has withdrawn from us.
Shall no comfort be mine ever?
Is there none to rescue me?
Shall my tears avail me never?
Is my prayer mere quackery?
If no helper aid me render,
To the waves I me surrender;
I shall sink in sorrow’s sea.
Only so far can John bring his people — to the portals of God’s Kingdom. He leaves us there to battle, to pray, to weep, to long for peace with God. He gives neither peace with
God nor peace in the world.
There are many people about us who suffer and struggle along in this manner. They are secluded within themselves, having a stern God and a closed heaven; they toil through life with heavy hearts.
God grant that you who struggle thus may soon see Jesus, the Lamb of God that took our sins upon Himself.
* * *
What is it that makes a disciple of Jesus more blessed than other people? Has he found something that gives joy and peace?
That to which a Pharisee hopes to attain after he is dead, and that which the followers of John see they need here — and seek both earnestly and unsuccessfully — that a disciple of Jesus has attained in Christ. Here lies the difference.
In Christ we have peace with God and have been delivered from guilt, judgment, and accusing conscience. All that which the disciples of John seek after the followers of Jesus has attained in Christ. Our holy God, who is accountable to no one, has in Christ opened both His heart and heaven for a sinner.
God gives grace to the humble, not because they are better than other people, but because they believe in the Savior. He gives Himself with all that He is and has to all who believe in Him. The benefits that accrue from His death become the possession of those who are His. This is the great boon of all God’s people.
Then it was revealed to me that I His child might be,
For God in Christ became my loving Father.
And I who mourned for sin this wonder failed to see,
That God has spared me from the judgment’s terror.
I, who labored long and sought relief in many ways,
But found no peace, for I was lost in error’s maze,
I am through Christ already saved forever.
This is not a new patch on an old garment, or new wine in old wine-sacks. It is a new life in God’s new Kingdom. It is righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. It is a sinner who has been saved by the intervention of a sinless person. The sinner has been liberated in Christ; the Christian is the heir of God and the bride of Christ.
The fairest on earth is He of all,
An image of God here below;
And still a brother He deigns me call,
Though a sinner I am, I know.
“He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not also with him freely give us all things?” (Rom. 8: 32).
Disciples of John, you who unsuccessfully struggle and strive to become Christians! Listen: Cease from everything that is your own. Turn your eyes away from your hideous and sinful heart. Look at Him who was made sin for us. He it is who trod the winepress alone and fought your battles for you.
See! This, fainting soul, is what you may believe!
Then doubt it no more, but be sure.
This alone is the balm that can sinners relieve,
This alone can healing insure.
Though sinful and poor and of misery full,
Though lifeless and cold you appear, and so dull, Believe God’s grace!
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