The Pharisees Aren’t the Bad Guys & the Disciples Aren’t the Good Guys

Pharisees, scribes, chief priests–these are the bad guys in the story of Jesus’s life and death. And the disciples, who followed Jesus throughout His ministry, are the good guys. Hmm…is that true? I wonder if we are drastically oversimplifying both the gospel and human nature by viewing these characters in a black-and-white manner. Today’s post explores the nuance in the Pharisees, the disciples, and people in general.

Antagonists: religious officials (?)

Repeatedly throughout all four gospels, Jesus expresses disdain for the Jewish religious officials of the time. He is grieved and repulsed by their cold-heartedness and hypocrisy, which He boldly calls out and condemns. They care more about their social status than their neighbor; they cling to the letter of the law (Law of Moses) while disregarding the spirit of the law. Back before the Babylonian Exile (long before Jesus is born), God speaks through the major prophets of the Old Testament, insisting that burnt offerings mean nothing if people’s hearts are far from His.

The Pharisees Question Jesus by James Tissot, late 1800’s

Scribes knew the law well enough to contract legal documents (marriage, loan, inheritance, etc.). Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes, formed after the Exile referenced above and the later return to Jerusalem, were comprised of men who wanted to “return to the law.” This goal is noble in light of the idolatry and injustice that had incurred God’s wrath. Essentially, they wanted to repent, be reconciled with God, and follow Him.

Had they followed the spirit of the law as well as the letter (boils down to being just and loving with everyone, especially the poor and needy), the religious officials SHOULD & WOULD have served as great allies in the gospels. They were more committed to God and His ways than anyone in society…”on paper,” as they say. However, those serving these roles succumbed to corrupt motives and bankrupt morals. A very gradual perversion must’ve happened over the course of generations, as memories of the Exile faded into the past. [Reminiscent of what kept happening with the Hebrews through the entire OT, eh? I wonder if the whole “gradual perversion” concept applies to American politicians…ahem…back to the topic at hand.] By the time Jesus came, religious officials had risen to a great position in society with much privilege, power, and glory.

Christ Accused by the Pharisees by Duccio di Buoninsegna, early 1300’s

I think we should approach our understanding of the religious officials with nuance. Yes, they are generally antagonistic in the gospels…but we should acknowledge that, at least theoretically, they are very knowledgeable of and loyal to God. And, as much as I’ve used the pronoun “they,” I hope there were outliers–people who worked for/in the temple because they genuinely loved God. As I read Mark 12 the other day, I looked on a certain exchange with new eyes. A scribe asks Jesus, “What is the greatest commandment?” Jesus tells him to love God and his neighbor. The scribe replies, “These commandments are greater than all the law put together.” Jesus proclaims, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

Protagonists: disciples (?)

The disciples are Jesus’s most faithful followers during His life. Giving credit where credit is due, it’s amazing how they drop what they’re doing and go when He calls them. [Irony: the religious officials reject Jesus, yet uneducated working-class people follow Him.] Up to the crucifixion, they stick with Jesus through all His travels and teachings–even that one time in John 6 when He tells people to drink His blood and eat His flesh to receive eternal life (spoiler alert: it wasn’t a popular statement). πŸ˜‰

I can’t categorize the disciples as “the good guys,” though. Through much of the gospels, their heads are thicker than molasses. They don’t intuitively understand Jesus’s mysterious, holy words and actions; they need parables explained to them, they illustrate lack of faith several times, and they cannot comprehend His foreshadowings of the future. Those shortcomings could all be chocked up to their lack of education, but there’s more…

Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet by Ford Madox Brown, mid-1800’s

Amazingly, the disciples actually have something in common with the religious officials: vanity. After the disciples witness so much of Jesus’s miracles and teachings, in which He helps helpless people and preaches humility and generosity, the disciples have the AUDACITY to argue with each other about who is the greatest among them…after Jesus outright says/demonstrates, multiple times, that the first will be last. Seriously?! As most of us know, one of the disciples, Judas, lights the match that starts the ticking time bomb to Jesus’s death. Peter, the rock of the early church in Acts, denies Jesus three times as He’s on His way to be tortured. Gah! It’s borderline comical how seemingly unworthy the disciples are. But Jesus chooses these hard-headed, flawed men to be the apostles. [What do you think that says of God’s ability to use each of us? And don’t even get me started on every other character in the Bible.]

Take-aways

The religious officials are flawed men, and so are the disciples. The religious officials are supposed to follow God but fall prey to pride and greed. The disciples are supposed to follow Jesus but can’t wrap their minds around His purpose and message. God/Jesus/the Holy Spirit are the good guys; Satan/death/sin are the bad guys. And the others in the story, just like us today, are just guys–with potential to be good, bad, and usually some of both.

As we appreciate the shades of grey in the gospels, may we acknowledge the shades of grey in ourselves and others. Maybe we view ourselves as good–but no one is perfect. Maybe another person did something bad–but they can still repent and change. And, as the featured image depicts, we can all be pig’s butts sometimes (extra grace required).

Thanks for reading! What’s your two cents? Have you learned something or seen something in a different light after reading this? Do you appreciate the ridiculously flimsy connection between the post and the featured image? Let me know in the comments. πŸ™‚

P.S. It’s hard to buy into notions that the Bible was “made up” because, if it were only written as “a tool to control people” or something similar, why in God’s name would someone write the story and the characters to be so morally complex? Ha! Really, though.

31 comments

  1. We like to simplify things so they fit into neat little boxes, which is fine, but as you’ve pointed out here “disciples = good, religious leaders = bad” is a terribly misleading classification. One that I must admit I’ve slipped into throughout the years.

    All people have a common problem…sin. God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit do their work to save us. So really there is faith and unbelief. Forgiven and condemned. That line was crossed by Nicodemus, who was a religious leader, when believed and helped bury Christ after the crucifixion. Thought provoking post Lily!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Good comparison. We each have moments of good or bad behavior but the only real goodness any of us possess is Christ in us (Galatians 2:20). Jesus made it perfectly clear to the rich young ruler none is good save God alone.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. American politicians comment LOLπŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚
    Love your point in your post and it just goes to show no matter how we label others WE ARE ALL FALLIBLE!!

    Awesome what you closed with here:

    β€˜God/Jesus/the Holy Spirit are the good guys; Satan/death/sin are the bad guys’

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you for your encouragement, Alicia! πŸ™‚ β™₯β™₯ And the politicians comparison just popped into my head while I was writing about the religious officials, haha! I was like, “Wait a second, this seems familiar…” πŸ˜‰

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow, now this is a totally different perspective. Indeed, we don’t have to put all the blame to the pharisees because the disciples themselves fall prey to sin as well. After all, Jesus is the only faultless one.

    Your ideas were laid out perfectly in this article. Kuddos and looking forward to read more from your blog! 😁

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Good points, Lily. It is more nuanced that we tend to generalize. The term “Pharisee” has become a generally pejorative term to denote the ungracious and legalistic aspects of the Pharisees Jesus had to deal with. Just like we use “religion” in a negative sense when talking about people who put ritual and tradition over relationship with Jesus. As you said it’s more of a human problem; some Pharisees hearts were more open than others. But this particular lot of Jewish leaders were, as a whole, condemned by Jesus for missing their visitation. But Jesus wasn’t condemning individuals, He was condemning a system based on laws over grace and actual relationship with God.

    Also, It’s funny, I’ve never thought of the disciples as good. I always thought of them as clueless dufuses. Which encourages me greatly! LOL! The point being, Jesus was gracious to those who’s hearts were open and were gracious themselves. The Pharisees that were condemned were so because they were neither.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Mel, I appreciate the connection you draw between condemnation of the terms “Pharisee” and “religion.” Both have come to be used as insults, implying legalism. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit I’ve given a message on “faith vs. religion,” contrasting legalism/tradition with being a follower of Jesus. But as you say, the problem is not with the idea of structure so much as with people and their humility and heart posture. One can love “religion” (the church, the Bible, traditions) and love God, too. Or one can love religion but be far from God. It all depends if we pursue that actual relationship.

      That also comforts me! If God can use them, He can use me. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  6. In reality all peoples hearts are a mix of things good, things bad, all need to be salted with salt, all need eyes opening, all need light…. this is why the Gospel is both those who are near and those who are afar off. No one, absolutely no one can be perfected by their own merits or goodness, nor condemned by their faults or badness, all are made perfect through the grace of God alone … Jesus tells us to take care when we look to judge others and that still applies today, as it did yesterday and will be how we are judged tomorrow.. God’s Shalom be with all.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Lily, Many great points throughout this post. God doesn’t see us in the “all good or all bad” way, rather he offers grace and mercy. I am so thankful that he loves me in spite of my faults and failures. We can’t be too hard on the Bible characters, for they were just like us: imperfect. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The religious leaders were certainly loyal to their own added rules and knowledge. I’ve been learning how Jesus is sometimes what some would refer to as being “sassy”. He asks, “Do you not know it is written?” Well, of course, they know what is written, they just have completely misunderstood it. I don’t know if their loyalty was truly to God or rather to the glory of men. They sought praise and clung to their status.

    The disciples didn’t have the gift of the Holy Spirit, yet. And I think that led to them not understanding a bit. There are times when they do say something that shows God revealed it to them.

    But yeah, you’re right. They weren’t perfect either. Even when they did receive the Holy Spirit, they made mistakes. Paul had to rebuke Peter. And likewise, true followers of Jesus will still make mistakes. We must seek the Lord and repent. β™₯️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fair points, T.R. Though I think the original Pharisees were committed to God, I assume motivations were corrupted with time–kinda like how the Hebrews grew apart from God every few generations throughout the Old Testament.

      Your point about the disciples not having the gift of the Spirit yet is one I had not thought about, admittedly. It makes a lot of sense, though. For instance, Peter was not the most courageous guy in the gospels yet had the boldness to preach in temples after receiving the Spirit in Acts. They don’t literally become perfect after receiving the Spirit (ex: Peter not eating with Gentiles), but they do become more courageous and seem to have a better understanding of things. Talking about this reminds me of Paul saying the gospel is foolish to nonspiritual people, but for those who are spiritual, it’s the message of salvation. [I think that’s a verse, but maybe I’m accidentally combining two, ’cause I know there’s the verse about the cross seeming foolish in 2 Corinthians and one about spiritual people vs. nonspiritual people, in Romans maybe?] Thank you for pointing this out! β™₯β™₯

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I can see your point about the Pharisees, thanks for seeing what I was saying. 😊

        Ah, you are touching on the foolishness of God in 1 Corinthians 1:23-28! These scriptures have been on my heart and mind lately so it’s neat you brought them up 😊😊

        Like

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