The Pharisees were the ultimate religious people among the Jews during Christ’s life on earth. Determined not to break any of God’s laws, they had, over time, devised an intricate system of oral tradition to keep them from breaking the Mosaic law. One would think with such a desire to obey God that they would have recognized the perfect obedience of Jesus and affirmed and followed Him. And yet, as demonstrated by the events recorded in Matthew 12:1–37, they were His most bitter and implacable opponents. Why was this so?
The essential problem lay in their different understanding of the nature of God. For the Pharisees, God is primarily one who makes demands. For them, the Scriptures of the Old Testament were a set of rules that must be kept at all costs. For Jesus, as well as the Old Testament believers, God is primarily “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps. 145:8).
Also for the Pharisees, God looked only at their external compliance with the law of God. For Jesus, God looks at the heart (1 Sam. 16:7). That is why, for example, Jesus would equate the lustful look, which actually expresses the desire of the heart, with the actual committing of adultery (Matt. 5:27–28).
The most proximate cause of the Pharisees’ antagonism toward Jesus, however, lay in His ignoring of their hundreds of elaborate but petty rules that they had devised for interpreting the law of God. Not only did they devise these hundreds of man-made rules, but they had also elevated them to the level of Scripture, so that to break one of their rules was to violate the law of God itself. And yet these rules not only obscured the true intent of God’s law, but also, in some cases, actually violated it (see Mark 7:9–13).
What really got the Pharisees upset with Jesus was the way He ignored their trivial and burdensome rules for keeping the Sabbath. In Matthew 12 verses 1–8, the Pharisees objected to the disciples of Jesus plucking and eating heads of grain as they walked through the grain fields on a Sabbath. According to their oral tradition, plucking the heads of grain and eating them was work — a violation of the Sabbath.
Almost immediately afterward, on that same Sabbath day, Jesus entered their synagogue where there was a man with a withered hand. Now, eager to again accuse Jesus of breaking the Sabbath, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” (vv. 9–14). Before healing the man, Jesus answers their question by asking which of them, if his sheep falls into a pit on the Sabbath, would not lift it out. If, then, it is lawful to relieve the misery of a sheep on the Sabbath, how much more is it lawful to relieve the misery of a fellow human being who is more valuable than a sheep?
In both instances — that of the disciples eating the grain and of Jesus healing the man’s withered hand — the scriptural principle that Jesus applies is God’s Word that “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (v. 7).
Apparently, not long after the Sabbath episodes, Jesus healed a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute (Matt. 12:22). Not having a Sabbath violation charge to bring against Jesus, the Pharisees now resorted to the slanderous charge that Jesus cast out demons by Beelzebub, the prince of demons (that is, Satan himself). Since Jesus cast out demons by the power of the Holy Spirit (v. 28), their slanderous charge was actually blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, a sin that Jesus said would never be forgiven. Commentators differ on exactly what this sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is. As a result, some people have become afraid that they have committed “the unpardonable sin.” However, it is safe to say that no one who is afraid that he or she has committed that sin has, in fact, committed it. The evidence from the text itself indicates that this blasphemy committed by the Pharisees can only come from a heart that is totally and implacably hardened against God. Obviously, a person with a sensitive heart could not commit that sin.
Since all Scripture is profitable for us, there is a present-day lesson for us to learn from Jesus’ clash with the Pharisees. We need to be careful that we do not add our own man-made rules to the Scriptures. Some convictions that we hold dearly may be derived more from our particular Christian culture than derived from Scripture, and we need to learn to discern the differences. It is okay to have cultural convictions, but we should be careful that we do not elevate them to the same authority as Scripture. So much judgmentalism among Christians today occurs because we do this. But that is basically what the Pharisees were doing. So, let’s be careful that we are not modern-day Pharisees.