Pharisees, Nicodemus, and Us

February 8, 2009

Joh 3:1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council.
Joh 3:2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Nicodemus was a prominent, powerful man in first century Jerusalem. His status as a Pharisee placed him in rare company as devout worshipper of God, having pledged himself to take extraordinary measures to obey the Law of Moses, including all of the minutae derived from that Law by the scribes. And his position as a member of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, meant that he held power and influence throughout Judea. It was no small matter that such a man chose to come to Jesus with a statement such as the one recorded in the third chapter of the gospel of John.

We hear of Nicodemus two other times (John 7:50, John 19:39). In both cases Nicodemus put his own reputation at risk due to his faith in Jesus. He was a man who thought for himself, and was willing to take personal risk in order to do what is right.

Let’s take a look at the world in which Nicodemus lived. In his commentary on John 3, William Barclay says:

To the Jew the Law was the most sacred thing in all the world. The Law was the first five books of the Old Testament. They believed it to be the perfect word of God. To add one word to it or to take one word away from it was a deadly sin. Now if the Law is the perfect and complete word of God, that must mean that it contained everything a man need know for the living of a good life, if not explicitly, then implicitly. If it was not there in so many words, it must be possible to deduce it. The Law as it stood consisted of great, wide, noble principles which a man had to work out for himself. But for the later Jews that was not enough. They said: “The Law is complete; it contains everything necessary for the living of a good life; therefore in the Law there must be a regulation to govern every possible incident in every possible moment for every possible man.” So they set out to extract from the great principles of the law an infinite number of rules and regulations to govern every conceivable situation in life. In other words they changed the law of the great principles into the legalism of by-laws and regulations.

The best example of what they did is to be seen in the Sabbath law. In the Bible itself we are simply told that we must remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy and that on that day no work must be done, either by a man or by his servants or his animals. Not content with that, the later Jews spent hour after hour and generation after generation defining what work is and listing the things that may and may not be done on the Sabbath day. The Mishnah is the codified scribal law. The scribes spent their lives working out these rules and regulations. In the Mishnah the section on the Sabbath extends to no fewer than twenty-four chapters. The Talmud is the explanatory commentary on the Mishnah, and in the Jerusalem Talmud the section explaining the Sabbath law runs to sixty-four and a half columns; and in the Babylonian Talmud it runs to one hundred and fifty-six double folio pages. And we are told about a rabbi who spent two and a half years in studying one of the twenty-four chapters of the Mishnah.

The kind of thing they did was this. To tie a knot on the Sabbath was to work; but a knot had to be defined. “The following are the knots the making of which renders a man guilty; the knot of camel drivers and that of sailors; and as one is guilty by reason of tying them, so also of untying them.” On the other hand knots which could be tied or untied with one hand were quite legal. Further, “a woman may tie up a slit in her shift and the strings of her cap and those of her girdle, the straps of shoes or sandals, of skins of wine and oil.” Now see what happened. Suppose a man wished to let down a bucket into a well to draw water on the Sabbath day. He could not tie a rope to it, for a knot on a rope was illegal on the Sabbath; but he could tie it to a woman’s girdle and let it down, for a knot in a girdle was quite legal. That was the kind of thing which to the scribes and Pharisees was a matter of life and death; that was religion; that to them was pleasing and serving God.

Take the case of journeying on the Sabbath. Exo 16:29 says: “Remain every man of you in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.” A Sabbath day’s journey was therefore limited to two thousand cubits, that is, one thousand yards. But, if a rope was tied across the end of a street, the whole street became one house and a man could go a thousand yards beyond the end of the street. Or, if a man deposited enough food for one meal on Friday evening at any given place, that place technically became his house and he could go a thousand yards beyond it on the Sabbath day. The rules and regulations and the evasions piled up by the hundred and the thousand.

Take the case of carrying a burden. Jer 17:21-24 said: “Take heed for the sake of your lives and do not bear a burden on the Sabbath day.” So a burden had to be defined. It was defined as “food equal in weight to a dried fig, enough wine for mixing in a goblet, milk enough for one swallow, honey enough to put upon a wound, oil enough to anoint a small member, water enough to moisten an eye-salve,” and so on and on. It had then to be settled whether or not on the Sabbath a woman could wear a brooch, a man could wear a wooden leg or dentures; or would it be carrying a burden to do so? Could a chair or even a child be lifted? And so on and on the discussions and the regulations went.

It was the scribes who worked out these regulations; it was the Pharisees who dedicated their lives to keeping them. Obviously, however misguided a man might be, he must be desperately in earnest if he proposed to undertake obedience to every one of the thousands of rules. That is precisely what the Pharisees did. The name Pharisee means the Separated One; and the Pharisees were those who had separated themselves from all ordinary life in order to keep every detail of the law of the scribes.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and it is astonishing that a man who regarded goodness in that light and who had given himself to that kind of life in the conviction that he was pleasing God should wish to talk to Jesus at all.

Thus was the setting in which Nicodemus lived.

The notion of deriving commands from scripture through inference was not invented by the Protestant Reformation, nor by the Restoration Movement of the 19th century. As Barclay points out, they were convinced that “if it was not there in so many words, it must be possible to deduce it.” Though that comment was made about the Pharisees, it could as easily have been made about the churches of Christ. And that should scare us just a bit.

God had not instructed the scribes and the Pharisees to build this complex set of regulations around the Law. And he did not approve of the fact that they did so. Instead, Jesus often delivered sobering rebukes to the scribes and the Pharisees:

Mat 23:13 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

Mat 23:24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

Mat 16:6 Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

In one particular encounter, Jesus got more specific in his rebuke of the scribes and the Pharisees:

Mar 7:5 So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean’ hands?”
Mar 7:6 He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
” ‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
Mar 7:7 They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.’
Mar 7:8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”
Mar 7:9 And he said to them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!
Mar 7:10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,'[4] and, ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’
Mar 7:11 But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban’ (that is, a gift devoted to God),
Mar 7:12 then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother.
Mar 7:13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”

In the parallel passage recorded in Matthew, Jesus specifically warned his disciples about the scribes and the Pharisees:

Mat 15:12 Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?”
Mat 15:13 He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots.
Mat 15:14 Leave them; they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”

Churches of Christ would do well to consider whether we have done the same things that the Pharisees did, and therefore have fallen under the same rebukes. Like the Pharisees, our forefathers in churches of Christ have diligently sought to extract inferences from scripture to regulate many aspects of our Christian lives. These inferences have given us division over musical instruments, missionary societies, orphanages, kitchens, Sunday school classes, choirs, communion cups, and a litany of other topics on which no explicit teaching is found in scripture. By teaching and enforcing these inferred rules, we have nullified the explicit biblical commands for unity and against factions. We have chosen to divide over our inferred rules rather than to accept one another in the interest of unity.

Nicodemus had heard some of what Jesus was teaching. He had heard of the miracles. He knew Jesus came from God, because of the miracles. And so he made a choice to question the status quo of the first century Jewish leadership, and to learn and to follow the teachings of Jesus. He had spent long enough straining out gnats and swallowing camels.

Maybe that could be said of us as well.


  1. Thank you for this article, Pharisees,Nicodemu & Us. I thouroughly enjoyed it.

    I was under the impression that Nicodemus was ultimately “Lost!” Even though Nicodemus knew in his heart, that Jesus “came from God;” had seen, with his own eyes, the miracles performed by Jesus, (these being tangible “evidences” too) i felt that Nicodemus had not “accepted” Jesus as his saviour, nor that he had accepted to be “reborn.”

    However, I do have the faith (hope) that Nicodemus, before he died did not fall into what Mar 7:7 states: “They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.” Also, that Nicodemus, either privately or publicly, recognized Jesus as “his Saviour” through Christ’s death on the cross, for the forgiveness of his sins and for everlasting life with Him after he rendered his life here on earth.

    I believe that we, today’s Church, are caught up precisely in those “teachings”, and those “rules,” which have been made up by man and not God; and, which divide instead of unify His body. Yet, we continue to see them as “worshiping and honoring” God.

  2. The scriptures don’t say whether Nicodemus ultimately became a follower of Jesus or not. But what we do know of Nicodemus leads me to the opinion that he probably did so.

    Influences from Jewish and Catholic worship have affected modern Christian concepts such as worship. Worship is not something primarily done in a church building. It is not made up of “acts of worship” on a checklist. And it is not done to appease God. Worship is for our good. It is the act of recognizing a profound reality.

  3. Alan Rousse-
    this can go either way. Christ gave us a prayer to remember- the Lord’s prayer and he asked us to have a passover meal in his remembrance. In this way, the Christian Church has helpful traditions.

    But it’s good to pray to God sometimes by yourself as you need too. This is as important a tradition, if not more.

    All the best.

    • Jesus identified the Scribes and Pharisees as hypocrites. He quotes from Isaiah but the same message about mouth religion is in Ezekiel 33.

      There, Christ the Spirit, named entertaining speakers, singers and instrument players.

      Hypocrite in the Greek literature points first to rhetoricians and including CANTUS or the musical performers.

      A Pharisee is also one who added their own opinions and taught them as doctrine. From Isaiah 55 they knew about the “free water of the Word” but missed Isaiah 58 which outlaws seeking our own pleasure or speaking out own words. The Pharisees knew that they could not eat up the widows homes unless they fabricated some good songs and sermons (no singing in the synagogue)

      You will remember that at the Jerusalem Council, the fact that both Jew and Gentile was prepared for the kingdom is that they had attended synagogue where the Word of God was PREACHED by being READ. The “overseer” made sure that the reader did not add anyy opines.

  4. Ken,

    When scriptures were READ they were also explained. See Nehemiah 8:8.

    The Greek word hypocrites in Mark 7:6
    From G5271; an actor under an assumed character (stage player), that is, (figuratively) a dissembler (“hypocrite”): – hypocrite.

    So Jesus was accusing them of being actors — pretenders. They pretended to be diligently obedient but yet they made rules that nullified God’s law.

    There is nothing in the context of Mark 7 about singing or instruments. So if you apply the passage to instrumental music, you would be doing the very thing you condemn. Pretty much the same thing the Pharisees were doing.

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