When He entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to Him while He was teaching, and said, “By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?” (Matthew 21:23)
The church is filled with good Pharisees. Just as in Jesus’ day, there are people who infiltrate the religious institutions of our day and choke the life out of the church. I’ve encountered them all my life.
Real Pharisees are not true believers. This was evident in Jesus day but is often camouflaged by Christian wording and activity now. They are “tares sown among the wheat” planted by the Enemy to wreck havoc and impede progress. They look religious, sound religious, are usually busy at religious activity, but devoid of the life of Christ and there’s a reason. Control.
The Pharisees hated Jesus. In fact, it was their hand that eventually brought Him to death. There was one primary reason why they despised this Carpenter from Galilee—He challenged their authority. They had been in charge. There were recognized as the clear leaders of the religious establishment. They were looked up to and feared. Their words were binding. What they said was the law. They were the heads of every committee. They set the agenda. They had power. They ran the religious institutions and liked it that way.
And then came Jesus. Simple, pure, filled with God, He would not defer to their silly regulations, legalistic jargon, and false religion. He was connected to the Father. He listened to God and did what He said. He outed the Pharisees and the bondage of their empty religion. His life had the precious fragrance of a relationship with the Father and the contrast made people realize the Pharisees’ empty rituals smelled like death.
The real issue was control. “Who gave You this authority?” was their harsh question of Jesus. A person who had humbly bowed to God’s control would have recognized Christ and rejoiced in His authority over the world, the flesh, and the devil. But Christ’s authority usurped theirs and infuriated them. THEY wanted to be in charge. They were unwilling to give lordship to another. This is always the issue with religious unbelievers. They may loudly proclaim their loyalty to Christ, but anyone who has not surrendered to Christ’s lordship (which is evidenced by their continued surrender, although imperfect), is not a true follower of Christ.
The parables that followed illustrated this further. Jesus told of two brothers charged by their father to work in the fields. One said he wouldn’t, but did; another said he would, but didn’t (verses 28-32). Jesus’ evaluation of true Christianity is found in a simple question: “Who did the will of the father?” Modern day Pharisees boast of their spirituality, but when a real moment of doing God’s will is called for, they are not there. A prayer meeting, a worship service, a moment of decision making or humble service where God descends is an uncomfortable place for a Pharisee because Someone else has taken over.
Business meetings are never missed, but God meetings are avoided. When these moments occur, look up and you’ll find the Pharisees have left the building. Generally, they have banded together outside and trumped up some silly reason to marginalize or usurp those who are leading. They may couch this is spiritual words (“I don’t know what it is, but the pastor is just not feeding us anymore” or “we’ve never really done it this way before” or “all he does is just preach about reaching the lost—what about us?”). Don’t be fooled. It is a nothing less than a vicious, deadly play for continued control. Their real statement, heard loudly by Christ and discerning leaders is “I AM LOSING CONTROL AND I WON’T STAND FOR IT!”
Jesus final parable in this chapter illustrates the depth of their convictions. The parable of the vineyard owner who sent his slaves and then his son to collect the profit of the vineyard was clearly stated to expose the Pharisees’ motivation and determination. They beat the slaves and killed the Son—prophetic of what these very Pharisees would do to Jesus in just a few days. Why? Control. They wanted to run the vineyard and enjoy the proceeds while never bending to the owner’s authority. They felt the sheer amount of their time in the fields had granted them rights to the fields.
I’ve seen a lot of pastors and Christian leaders killed by Pharisees. I’m not justifying stupid decisions or impure motivations by pastors (we have our share of sins), but I have witnessed the crucifixion of too many good, godly pastors. How many churches have been choked to death by the unwillingness of a few strong opposing leaders? How much kingdom work has been strangled by their legalism? How many people have never heard the gospel because a church’s voice was stifled by some dead, controlling church members? How many God-initiated plans have been thwarted by the strong hand of Pharisaical domination? You can see why Jesus spoke so loudly and often about this danger. He knew we needed to understand what was really happening and the church-killing danger of deferring to a Pharisee.
Jesus wouldn’t put up with it. He confronted them, exposed them before His disciples, and refused to yield to their control. No fear of man would stop Him from doing His Father’s will. He never sought peace with these men. If God told him to eat with tax gatherers and sinners, redeem prostitutes, and heal men on the Sabbath, He relentlessly obeyed with no thought of the consequences.
Godly men must do the same. It will cause confrontation because you are never more dangerous to a Pharisee than when you challenge his authority. But you must not surrender control to unsurrendered men. Do not confuse the issue. “They’re not going to like this and it will cause trouble” never affected Christ. The trouble caused by bending to Pharisees and suffocating kingdom work is a fate worse than Pharisaical conflict. If you defer to them, they are leading the church whether you realize it or not.
It may cost you personally. You may be crucified, but like Christ, you will rise. In fact, Jesus’ prediction about Pharisees in the last words of this chapter always come true:
“Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people, producing the fruit of it. And he who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust.” (Matthew 21:43-44)
True fruit-producing followers of Christ, made so by their voluntary surrender to Christ’s control will inherit the kingdom. They will receive opportunity and authority in the end for their Father trusts them to lead under His direction. Controllers will always be broken beyond remedy. Like dead trees, their limbs are rigid and fragile, hollow and fruitless. They will degenerate into dust. A tragic end to an unbended life.
(copyright, Bill Elliff)
2ProphetU is an online magazine/website, started by Warren Wiersbe and Michael Catt, to build up the church, seek revival, and encourage pastors.