(Maurycy Gottlieb, Jesus Before His Judges, ca. 1877)
One of the best things about N.T. Wright’s work on the New Testament is the convincing picture he paints of the Pharisees. On the one hand, he tears down the Old Perspective’s view of the Pharisees as proto-Pelagian merit legalists. This makes some people nervous because they know of no other way to interpret Paul’s words against the “works of the Law”. I have been in a church where the pastor made the ridiculous claim that all sin is, au fond, merit legalism. (Such a sweeping generalization is a sure way to miss many sins that do not fit that pattern.)
Instead, NT Wright makes clear that Jesus’ critique of Pharisaism is an Israeological critique. We could use the word “ecclesiological”, but I think that would be to short-circuit the Bible’s way of approaching the matter. Jesus is concerned with the nature and purpose of the nation of Israel: Why did God choose Israel? Unto what end? It is only through questions about Israel that the NT arrives at answers to questions about the Church. The problem with the Pharisees is that they “have rejected the purpose of God for themselves” (Lk. 7:30). They are condemned because the covenantal telos of Israel — the purpose for which God called Israel out from among the nations — is at odds with their way of being Israel:
“The antitheses [of the Sermon on the Mount] do not, then, focus on the contrast between ‘outward’ and ‘inward’ keepings of the law. They are not retrojections into the first century of a nineteenth-century Romantic ideal of religion in which outward things are bad and inward things good. They emphasize, rather, the way in which the renewal which Jesus sought to engender would produce a radically different way of being Israel in real-life Palestinian situations. There, the ruling interpretation of Torah would lead to being Israel in the wrong way, the way that would lead to destruction; the way of life he was urging would suggest a totally different approach and result.” (Jesus and the Victory of God, ch. 7.4.3.c)
Wright suggests that this divide between Jesus’ Israelology and that of the Pharisees’ contributed to His death:
“ Jesus’ contemporaries, however, could not but regard someone doing and saying these things as a deceiver. His agenda clashed at every point with theirs. In symbol, as in praxis and story, his way of being Israel, his way of loyalty to Israel’s god, was radically different from theirs.” (Jesus and the Victory of God, ch. 9.5, “Leading the People Astray”)
Once we realize this, the implications are tremendous. Pharisaism as an error of Israelology is basically a missiological error. The Pharisees were in one sense avid missionaries: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.” (Mt. 23:15) They are very devoted to winning converts to their own way of thinking. But in a deeper sense, Pharisaism is not a missionary faith at all: for the goal of a missionary is to help others know the God of Israel, and the Pharisees do not do that: “you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.” (Mt. 23:13) This is why Paul says to the Thessalonians:
“You also suffered the same things from your own countrymen, just as [the Jerusalem Christians] did from the Jews (Judeans), who killed both the Lord Jesus and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they do not please God and are contrary to all men (πᾶσιν ἀνθρώποις ἐναντίων), forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they may be saved, so as always to fill up their sins; but wrath has come upon them to the uttermost.” (1 Thessalonians 2:15-16)
This is one of the harshest condemnations of Judaism, a passage that has been labeled anti-Semitic by many. But what Paul means is this: by denying that Gentiles can belong to the covenant people without becoming Jewish, unbelieving Judaism (and modern ethnic/rabbinic Judaism) is “contrary to all men”. That is, it stands against them, it opposes them. How? By preventing them from knowing YHWH. It does this rather than fulfilling the priestly calling of Israel to make Him known among the Gentiles. Pharisaism is Israel curved in on itself rather than Israel for the sake of the world.
This is also why churches cannot survive as places where we “keep Christians separate from the world and teach them to be good”. Such churches are Pharisaical in the Biblical sense of the word. They always end by having their lampstands extinguished.