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Initial Observations: How the Gospel Challenged the Pharisees

By Mark Horne

Copyright © 2001
In another paper, I argued that the “Law-Gospel” hermeneutic, as applied to Luke 10.25-37; 18.18-30, resulted in a fundamental misreading of the text. Thinking of the context of those passages in Luke’s Gospel has given me some further reflections on how that Gospel portrays the situation in first-century Palestine. Specifically, I think the way we think of Jesus’ ministry, especially as it placed him in conflict with the Pharisees, may possibly be seriously misleading. We are taught to think that Jesus came to a people confident that they would be saved from the wrath to come by their own good works. There is evidence to suggest, however, that Jesus came to a people so confident in their own adoption by God that they refused to consider the possibility that their generation would soon be judged by God, or that they would not be among those who would be vindicated in such a judgment.

1. The Prophetic Message of John the Baptist According to Luke

Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip was tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness. And he came into all the district around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins; as it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet,

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness,

‘Make ready the way of the Lord,

Make His paths straight.

Every ravine shall be filled up,

And every mountain and hill shall be brought low;

And the crooked shall become straight,

And the rough roads smooth;

And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'” [Isaiah 40.3, 4]

He therefore began saying to the multitudes who were going out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bring forth fruits in keeping with repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for I say to you that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. And also the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the multitudes were questioning him, saying, “Then what shall we do?” And he would answer and say to them, “Let the man who has two tunics share with him who has none; and let him who has food do likewise.” And some tax-gatherers also came to be baptized, and they said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.” And some soldiers were questioning him, saying, “And what about us, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.”

Now while the people were in a state of expectation and all were wondering in their hearts about John, as to whether he might be the Christ, John answered and said to them all, “As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. And His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

So with many other exhortations also he preached the gospel to the people [Luke 3.1-18].

The last verse of this lengthy passage mentions the term “gospel,” yet the idea has been present from the beginning of Luke’s description of John the Baptist’s message. Luke tells us that John’s work is found prophesied in Isaiah 40.3, 4, a passage which goes on to say:

Get yourself up on a high mountain,

O Zion, bearer of the gospel,

Lift up your voice mightily,

O Jerusalem, bearer of gospel;

Lift it up, do not fear.

Say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” [Isaiah 40.9]

The above translation is from the NASB but with “gospel” used instead of “good news.” We know Luke reads Isaiah in this way because he quotes Jesus’ reading of Isaiah 61.1 in which Jesus uses the word “gospel” for Isaiah’s “good news” (Luke 4.18).

Having established that Luke is begins his description of John’s ministry with a Scriptural allusion to the Gospel, and ends it with an explicit mention of the Gospel, we are in a better position to note some features of the Gospel of John the Baptist and the context in which it was proclaimed.

The Gospel of John the Baptist is a declaration that God is drawing near. Therefore, the Israelites need to repent of their sins. Various people ask John what it is they must do and he gives them rather specific instructions. Obviously, repentance is a central feature of John’s Gospel.

Furthermore, John is ready to motivate those who hesitate to change their behavior in the way that he suggests. Apparently, a significant number in Israel might think they do not need to repent because they are descended from Abraham. John’s reply is that descent from Abraham is worthless apart from the fruits of repentance. Matthew’s Gospel tells us the same thing in regard to the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 3.7, 8).

What Luke and Matthew seem to be saying is that some Israelites (especially the Pharisees and Sadducees) were prone to think of themselves as favored by God simply because of the promises made to Abraham, apart from any good works on their part, or any lack thereof.

2. Sonship & John’s Gospel

Jesus therefore was saying to those Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, then you are truly disciples of mine; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

They answered him, “We are Abraham’s offspring, and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that you say, ‘You shall become free’?”

Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. And the slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. If therefore the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed. I know that you are Abraham’s offspring; yet you seek to kill me, because my word has no place in you. I speak the things which I have seen with my Father; therefore you also do the things which you heard from your father.”

They answered and said to him, “Abraham is our father.”

Jesus said to them, “If you are Abraham’s children, do the deeds of Abraham. But as it is, you are seeking to kill me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God; this Abraham did not do. You are doing the deeds of your father.

They said to him, “We were not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God.”

Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me; for I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on my own initiative, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature; for he is a liar, and the father of lies. But because I speak the truth, you do not believe me. Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I speak truth, why do you not believe me? He who is of God hears the words of God; for this reason you do not hear them, because you are not of God.”

The Jews answered and said to him, “Do we not say rightly that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” (John 8.21-48).

This dispute over paternity shows that some Israelites among Jesus’ contemporaries not only presumed to be favored by God as descendents of Abraham, but also rejected Jesus on the grounds that they were God’s children. Their confidence in their own standing as members of God’s family led them to accuse Jesus of being both a bastard and a half-breed who was not truly descended from Abraham (that is, a Samaritan).

3. The Epistle of James

James, in his controversial argument that faith without works is dead, says,

You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” [Genesis 15.6], and he was called the friend of God. (2.19-23)

Some Protestants assume that James is written later than Paul to those who have turned the doctrine of justification of justification by faith alone into a license to sin. However, if we take into account the Hebrew background to the belief that “God is one” we find that James makes much more sense as a relatively early exhortation for God’s people to follow his commands.

“Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!” (Deuteronomy 6.4). This confession was a basic badge of Israel’s identity that differentiated it from the polytheistic nations around them. James is telling his audience, “the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad” (James 1.1), that their monotheistic faith does not exempt them from the judgment of God. They need to be showing their faith by their deeds (James 2.18).

Understood this way, we see that James’ message is quite similar to that of John the Baptist. Both exhort their audience not to rely on the surface features of covenant membership (descent from Abraham or a monotheistic confession of faith) but rather to show fruits of repentance through a change in behavior. In fact, James exhortation that his readers follow the example of Abraham corresponds rather fittingly with John the Baptist’s warning that mere physical descent from Abraham will not count for much. It also fits well with Jesus appeal to Abraham’s behavior in order to argue that his opponents are not true children of Abraham.

4. Sons of the Kingdom in Matthew’s Gospel

And when He had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, entreating Him, and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering great pain.”

And He said to him, “I will come and heal him.”

But the centurion answered and said, “Lord, I am not worthy for You to come under my roof, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I, too, am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this!’ and he does it.”

Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled, and said to those who were following, “Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel. And I say to you, that many shall come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven; but the sons of the kingdom shall be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And Jesus said to the centurion, “Go your way; let it be done to you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed that very hour (Matthew 8.5-13).

Elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus uses the term, “sons of the kingdom,” to denote those who will escape the wrath of God and be vindicated by his grace (13.38). Yet here he refers to the Israelites who do not believe. He as much as says in this passage that the Gentiles with faith are the true sons of Abraham who will be publicly acknowledged as one family with him (c.f. Galatians 3.7, 23-29; Romans 4.11).

Why would Jesus need to say such things to his Israelite contemporaries? The most available explanation is in Matthew 3.7-10, the parallel to Luke 3.1-18 above:

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. And the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3.7-10).

Jesus is repeating John’s theme. Israel’s covenantal privileges as the sons of the kingdom, and even the sons of God (Deuteronomy 14.1a), are only going to lead to their condemnation unless they repent and believe.

5. Provisional Conclusions

The above observations are not sufficient for any firm conclusions, but they do indicate that further investigation is warranted. I had always thought and been taught that the Israelites in Jesus’ day all thought that they had to strive to be “good enough to go to heaven.” But the message of John the Baptist and Jesus in John’s Gospel seems to indicate a different situation. It seems from what we’ve seen above that some Israelites were presuming they were immune to judgment due to their membership in God’s covenant. John the Baptist told them that what they had wasn’t enough. They needed to repent and show fruits of repentance if they wished to escape the wrath to come. The Israelites resisted Jesus’ warning of judgment because they were certain of their status of God’s sons.

Provisionally then, the Gospel as Luke understands it to begin with John’s ministry, is a call to repentance in the face of an impending visitation by God-a repentance that is defined in terms of concrete behaviors. As this visitation takes place, we see the content of the Gospel message adjusted according to what has already happened and what is left to yet take place.

A call to repentance in the face of God’s visitation, it should go without saying (!?), means a call to believe and trust in the God who is promising his visitation. One must first and foremost repent of unbelief and one never responds to a message from a person unless one believes the message and trusts the person. Perhaps the data above will help us feel more comfortable with the fact that the first sermon of the Church does not even bother to mention faith or believing, but simply exhorts those who want to be delivered from God’s wrath to repent and be baptized.

Copyright © 2001

1 Comment »

  1. Your site is very appreciated. I have a statement – not a question. The Gospel of Yeshua/Jesus, the Christ and John, The Baptist is the same and in perfect agreement with James and Timothy and yet it is largely ignored in favor of the gospel according to Paul which he later recanted. Never-the-less Paul’s gospel was adopted at the conference of Nicea. Paul’s original treatment of the gospel was to assuage his tremendous guilt complex for his part in the murder of Jesus on the cross,i.e., Paul said “I did the right thing because God meant it to happen so I’m not such a bad guy after call.” This gross blasphemy eased the guilt and added to he comfort of the Pharisees and the Sadducees because it continued the main principle of Pagan religion – SACRIFICE – which God removed centuries before.
    So every time you mention Paul’s gospel you celebrate the murder of Jesus on the cross. I choose to celebrate the life of Jesus by loving him and keeping his commandments. By the way , I have it on good authority that he won’t come back as long as we celebrate his murder. James and Timothy agree with me.
    Blessings and love, M. Wayne Deardorf

    Comment by M. Wayne Deardorf — February 22, 2010 @ 10:08 am

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