Our lesson addresses two issues: fear of persecution, and the danger of the teachings of the Pharisees. At first glance these topics might not seem related. Understanding the Jewish leaders will shed light on our study of the fears held by Jesus’ disciples. It will help us understand the fear that affects us all, and show us the need for a message that will deliver us from those fears so we can truly live by faith.
The disciples had left all—their work, their families, the security of anonymity—and followed Jesus. Given all that they were privy to—His teachings, miracles, and everything that comprised His ministry—we would think that the disciples would be mature in the faith by these experiences. But they were fearful. Whether it was the storm on the sea, or a demoniac, or the pressure to conform to the Pharisee’s authority—these situations reveal that the disciples were not settled in the faith. Their experience is reminiscent of ancient Israel during the Exodus. They had experienced so much, but remained hard-headed and insensitive to God’s leading, Why?
When Jesus gave His final instructions to His disciples (John 13-16), the questions He was forced to address summarize the disciples’ lack of mature faith. Look at the questions asked by Peter (John 13:36-14:4), Thomas, (14:5-7), Phillip (14:8-21), and Judas, not Iscariot (14:22-31). They expose a lack of clear knowledge about Jesus and His mission. If the disciples had spent so much time with Jesus, why did they exhibit so little spiritual knowledge and confidence?
There are four areas in which the disciples were spiritually ignorant. (1) Forethought: Even though Jesus had warned them of what was to come, they never seemed to think it would happen; (2) A clear perception of the truth: Their idea of the Messiah and His mission was clouded by their own expectations (like the Pharisees); they kept looking for a Messiah that had never been promised; (3) Knowledge of their true selves: Although not all were as vocal as Peter, they showed ignorance of what they were in character; (4) Discipline of experience: Yes, they had responded to Jesus’ call, they had sacrificed many things, and they had seen and participated in many events of saving grace, yet they lacked the faith to endure when faced with opposition. Notice the pattern: the disciples were committed to the Man, but struggled with their expectations and personal agendas, which were out of sync with Jesus’ words.
Consider the Pharisees. They began as a group during the Maccabean Wars when foreign oppression of Hellenistic and pagan Roman culture attempted to overpower the truth that had been entrusted to . Because they stood for the truth as found in the , the group became known as the “pious ones” (Pharisees in English). They dedicated themselves to God and assumed the responsibility of leading back to Him. Their teachings were calculated to exalt the Law and fulfill the mission that God had wanted to achieve. Many of their beliefs were in common with Jesus’ teachings. They taught that God loved His people and expected them to live a life of obedience. Everyone had the power to choose good or evil and the (the Bible) must be their guide.
Why then would the Pharisees be so opposed to Jesus? The short answer is that Jesus was not keeping the law as they understood it. They were so caught up in the details (legalism) that they failed to see the bigger issues of faith. They saw obedience to the law as a person’s duty in fulfilling the covenant between God and . Simply put, they had never gotten past the Old Covenant. Because of this, the Pharisees perceived that Jesus was destroying everything they had worked to uphold, and was undermining their “calling” to guide the people to the “truth” of righteousness through works.
The connection between the fears of the disciples and the leaven of the Pharisees can now be seen. Both groups were restricted by their previous learning. Their expectations kept them from seeing reality as Jesus was presenting it. Preconceived ideas were blinding them to the truth that would change their lives. The difference between the disciples and the Pharisees was only in how they saw themselves in relation to Jesus, as friend or foe.
The disciples were drawn to Jesus because they were hungering for righteousness. Their fears began when they became unable to interconnect what they thought they knew with what they were observing and experiencing in Christ’s presence, especially when it involved teaching about His rejection and death. This led to an unsettling of their lives, but though confused, they stayed because there was no place to go. They had tasted truth and nothing could take its place. The same was experienced by the Millerites at the Great Disappointment.
The Pharisees responded differently to Jesus with their preconceived ideas because, at least in part, they feared possible loss of honor and authority before the people. How could they give up this power? Jesus must be rejected because He threatened to destroy everything the Pharisees believed. Jesus pointed out the mistaken course of their “mission” to make obedient to the law of God through old covenantism, but they refused to see it. This was the experience of more than a few of us when the beginning of the Loud Cry and Latter Rain began in 1888.
The Pharisees wouldn’t allow themselves to submit to Jesus. As Caiaphas put it: “It is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not” (John 11:49, 50). If the people believed Jesus, the Pharisees thought that they would lose their authority and ultimately their nation. The “promised land” had become their purpose for living. The God of promise who led them and sustained them was forgotten, rejected, and then crucified. Thus, if allowed to influence them, the leaven of the Pharisees would have blinded the disciples to the one thing that would give their hopes true fulfillment.
It is most interesting that on the eve of His crucifixion Jesus spoke clearly to His disciples of believing, but not so much of “doing.” The “right doing” would come as a result of believing. Jesus kept His disciples focused on believing Him, not just believing facts about Him, but believing HIM, as a person they could have confidence in. Even in their confusion there was the overwhelming knowledge that they had never seen or heard anything like Jesus. They were eye-witnesses to His life and ministry. Those were real facts! It took the shattering of the disciple’s false hopes and dreams of their Messiah to develop faith and confidence in Him as a person. Then, nothing would stop them, because love casts out fear (1 John 4:18).
—Robert Van Ornam
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