Wolves love to tell you that the Pharisees “forced” people to keep the “Old Testament” rules and regulations, but that Jesus “freed” people from these “oppressive” rules by “nailing them to the cross”. Now, as discussed in The Sabbath and Legalism, the Pharisees actually taught their own, human traditions while it was actually Jesus that taught the Law as he said he would in Matthew 5:17 (to “destroy the Law” is an idiom meaning to weaken, nullify, or teach incorrectly and to “fulfill the Law” is an idiom meaning to strengthen or teach correctly). Today, we’re going to take a look at what the Pharisees actually did when they were not on Moses’ seat teaching the Law verbatim. We’re also going to be taking a look at all the things Jesus said concerning the Law.
Before we start, I would highly recommend reading Matthew 5 with the knowledge you now have about what Jesus really meant when he said he did not come to destroy the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them. Actually, why not just go ahead and read the entire Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Keep in mind that the Pharisees called their traditions the “oral torah” (torah meaning “instruction” or “Law”) and the five books of Moses the “written torah”, with both being referred to simply as “the Law”. The “oral torah” is a collection of their own human traditions that they credit to Moses as commands from God that were not written down, yet were to be kept.
One more thing we need to be clear on before we start are the definitions. The Bible defines righteousness as obedience to the Law [Romans 2:13]. Sin is defined as the opposite: Disobedience to the Law [1 John 3:4]. And the righteousness by faith that Paul talks about in Romans 3:21-26 is therefore obedience to the Law by faith. By the way, Romans 3:31 removes any attempt to claim that we don’t need the Law anymore.
Let’s start with swearing oaths. Starting in Matthew 5:33-34, Jesus said “you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all.” The greek indicates that the “do not swear at all” is qualified. It can either be qualified as “do not swear falsely at all” or “do not swear by anything at all”. The former meaning that you are always bound by your oaths and the latter meaning you are to swear only by the name of Yahweh. Jesus is not nullifying the Law concerning oaths. And Matthew 5:37 therefore does not confirm the non-existent nullification of the Law concerning oaths, rather it is saying that you should mean what you say. What does this have to do with what the Pharisees taught?
We get our answer in Matthew 23:16-22 where we learn that the Pharisees were nullifying God’s Law by redefining which oaths people were bound by and which oaths people to make falsely. According to the teachings of the Pharisees, if you swore by the temple or the altar, it would be acceptable not to carry out what you said you would do. Remember, Jesus said “let your yes mean ‘yes’ and your no mean ‘no’, anything else is from the evil one [Matthew 5:37].” The Pharisees were allowing people to let their yes mean ‘no’ and their no mean ‘yes’. In other words, they were allowing people to lie about what they were going to do. Lying is also forbidden by the Law [Leviticus 19:11].
Let’s stick with Matthew 23 for a little while and see what’s going on. Remember how I mentioned that the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat? Jesus said that this is why we must do everything they say. For when they sit on Moses’ seat, they are not allowed to do anything but to teach word for word what the Law says you must or must not do. But this is overshadowed by what they taught when they were not sitting on Moses’ seat: They taught from the Law, but they did not obey it (Romans 2 has a few warnings against this). Furthermore, we read in verse 4 that they put huge loads on the people that they themselves refused to carry. In verse 5, we see that the few times that they did obey the Law were done to boast about how “righteous” they were. Think of that next time you read Matthew 5:20.
In Matthew 23:23, we learn that the Pharisees loved to give their tithe, which is a small matter of the Law, but neglect the more important matters of the Law like justice and mercy. Jesus declares that they should be doing both! In fact, later on, Jesus compared the Pharisees to whitewashed tombs and how they give the appearance of righteousness while being full of wickedness.
In Matthew 15 and the parallel Mark 7, we find that Jesus’ disciples were not going through any ceremonial hand washings before they ate and were therefore eating with “defiled” hands and “becoming defiled” by what they ate. By the way, for anyone who thinks that the Law says you can become defiled by what you eat, I challenge you to find one verse in the Law that states exactly that!
You won’t find such a verse because no such verse exists. The hand-washing ceremony that’s done before a meal is a tradition of the Pharisees, not a command of God. When the Pharisees asked why his disciples broke their traditions and ate with “defiled” hands, Jesus responded by saying “why do you break the Law of God with your traditions?” Mark 7:3-4 lists a few other traditions that the Pharisees like to keep. Jesus goes on to point-out that the Pharisees will prevent people from keeping the Law and honoring their father and mother if they dedicate something to God that they would have used to honor their parents. He also quotes Isaiah 29:13 which says “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught [NIV].”
Did you know that nearly every single church does the exact same thing that the Prophet Isaiah is condemning? Think about it: When was the last time your Church searched through Scripture to see what God’s instructions are on how we are to worship him, and then followed-through with those instructions? Chances are the answer is never, and they worship God based on the human rules and traditions that they’ve been taught through many generations.
After this, Jesus spells it out that you cannot become defiled by what you eat. The Church twists the Mark 7 passage (specifically) into a license to eat what God has said is not to be eaten, but the context (and Matthew 5:17) refutes this interpretation. Jesus is simply pointing out the fact that the Law says nothing about someone becoming defiled by what they eat.
Here’s something else concerning the Pharisees: In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus gives an example of how a Pharisee boasts about his righteousness to God himself and even thanks God that he’s not like the ‘sinners’, acting as if tithing and frequent fasting is what determines if one is righteous. Oh, and this passage is right before Jesus predicts his own death for the third time. Needless to say, the Pharisees aren’t too happy with him.
If you want to learn more about what the Pharisees taught, then I recommend watching Nehemia Gordon’s video The Hebrew Yeshua vs. the Greek Jesus, which goes into great detail about what the Pharisees were teaching and what Jesus was complaining about. Nehemia Gordon, by the way, is an ex-Pharisee.
On a final note, some use mental gymnastics to try to justify how Jesus “fulfilling the Law so we don’t have to” is somehow different from abolishing/destroying the Law. Don’t be mislead by them and their ignorance of the Hebrew language. Fulfilling the Law is an idiom meaning to strengthen, teach correctly, and bring to full measure. And don’t be mislead by the faulty reasoning that Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law’s requirements was so that we can ignore the Law. For if this was the case, then he would still have abolished it. And don’t be mislead by those who assume that specific verses are open-and-shut cases about not needing to obey God’s Law, for the evidence shows that all of the “New Testament” authors taught obedience to God’s Law.