It was “certain of the sect of the Pharisees, which believed” who had caused all the trouble in the churches in Galatia, and called forth a letter to the Galatians. It was these also who had troubled the brethren at Antioch, and raised there the controversy abroad on the council Jerusalem. It was these who, even after the council, had caused Peter to swerve, at Antioch, from the truth of the Gospel, which, in turn, forced Paul to withstand him to the face. It was these of the sect of the Pharisees who spread a false gospel against the true, and subverted souls who were even already saved—as at Antioch and in Galatia. In a study of the Book of Galatians, it is, therefore, essential to know just what the sect of the Pharisees did hold.
When Jesus would give an illustration of “certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others,” he chose “a Pharisee.” And this Pharisee, even in praying, first thanked God that he was not like other men; and then presented himself to the Lord for approval upon what he had done. (Luke 18:9-12). It is therefore perfectly plain that the one great peculiarity of the sect of the Pharisees was self-righteousness—claiming righteousness upon what they have done.
Consequently everything that a Pharisee did was done that he might obtain righteousness by the doing. And if there was anything that he was not inclined to do, he must force himself to do it, by a direct vow, and then still claim the merit of righteousness in the doing.
And it was the very righteousness of God that was claimed as the merit and the result of the doing; because it was the word of God that was followed, it was the command of the Lord that was obeyed, in the doing.
The word “Pharisee” is from “parash,” which signifies “separated or set apart.” The Pharisees were those who were separated, set apart, from the rest of the people by their superior righteousness, which was because they had done more than any others; and they were separated, set apart, unto God because it was in the doing of the law of God that their righteousness consisted. Everything that God had commanded, required, or directed, must be done in order that righteousness may be obtained in the doing. And to be perfectly certain that they could rightfully claim the righteousness when the thing was done, it was essential that every obligation must be performed so exactly right that there could be no question. And in order that this might be so, every requirement in the word of God was drawn out in divisions and subdivisions to the smallest minutiae, even to each particular letter of each word, each one to be scrupulously and ceremoniously performed. “The very raison d’etre of the Pharisees was to create ‘hedges’ of oral tradition about the law” (Farrar’s “Life of Christ,” Excursus 9, par. 1). These “hedges” were of course to protect the law from violation. They were assurances to the doer of them that in the doing of them he was preserved from violating the law and that so he was a doer of the law.
This led to an utter perversion not only of every commandment and ordinance of the Lord, but of the very idea of every commandment and ordinance.
God had given the Ten Commandments, not as a means of obtaining righteousness by the doing of them, but (1) to give the true knowledge of sin, that forgiveness and salvation might be found by faith; and (2) to witness to the righteousness obtained by faith.
This was shown (a) in the service that was commanded, and (b) in the very terms used in speaking of the tables of the law. (a) In the service commanded it was plainly said that when they had done anything against the commandments of the Lord concerning things which ought not to be done, and were guilty, they were to bring a sacrifice of a young bullock, and confess the sin, and with the blood the priest should make atonement for them, and it should be forgiven them. (Lev. 4:13-21). Here were the Ten Commandments to give the knowledge of sin, and of the guilt; here was forgiveness and at-one-ment with God without the doing of the law, but solely through faith. (b) The term used in speaking of the tables of the law; was “the tables of the testimony”; the ark, in which was the law, was called the “ark of the testament”; and the tabernacle, in which was the ark, was called the “tabernacle of the testimony.” Now testimony is the evidence borne by a witness; and that this is the meaning of the word here is certain by the fact that the tabernacle was plainly called “the tabernacle of witness” (Num. 17:7, 8; 18:2; 2 Chron. 24:6). The tables of the testimony were the tables of witness, which in itself testified that the law was intended, not to be a means of the righteousness of God obtained by it, but to be witness to the righteousness of God obtained without it.
God had given the ordinances of sacrifice and offering and burnt offering and offering for sin, not as a means of obtaining righteousness by them, but as expressions of the faith that obtained the righteousness of God without them—faith that obtained the righteousness of God through a sacrifice and offering already made by God, and promised to be sent in due time.
God had given circumcision, not as a means of obtaining righteousness by it, but as a sign of the righteousness of God obtained by faith and held by faith before circumcision was performed.
Thus the Pharisees perverted into works and righteousness by works, all that God had given to be of faith. All that God had given to be a blessing and a delight they turned into a burden and a yoke of bondage. And when it did not give peace to the straining and toiling workers, as it could not, to the many fine-spun distinctions drawn upon the plain word of God they yet further added a multitude of exactions of their own. To the Sabbath commandment alone there were added four hundred and one requirements. A whole treatise was devoted to hand-washings (Mark 7:1-5); another whole treatise was occupied with the proper method of killing a fowl. “The letter of the law thus lost its comparative simplicity in boundless complications, until the Talmud tells us how Akibba was seen in a vision by the astonished Moses, drawing from every horn of every letter whole bushels of decisions” (Farrar).
Another evil was wrapped up in this: The facility of interpretation that was developed in drawing out the infinite variety of distinctions in sentences, in words, and even in letters, in order to discover the exact degree of obedience required to attain to righteousness, was readily employed in evading any obligation of the law of God that the covetous heart might desire. (Mark 7:9-13; Matt. 23:14-28). “We know the minute and intense scrupulosity of Sabbath observance wasting itself in all those abhoth and toldoth, —those primary and derivative rules and prohibitions, and inferences from rules and prohibitions, and combinations of inferences from rules and prohibitions, and cases of casuistry and conscience arising out of the infinite possible variety of circumstances to which those combinations of inference might apply, —which had degraded the Sabbath from ‘a delight, holy of the Lord, honorable,’ partly into an anxious and pitiless burden, and partly into a network of contrivances hypocritically designed, as it were, in the lowest spirit of heathenism, to cheat the Deity with the mere semblance of accurate observance. . . .
“Teachers who were on the high road to a casuistry which could construct ‘rules’ out of every superfluous particle, had found it easy to win credit for ingenuity by elaborating prescriptions, to which Moses would have listened in mute astonishment. If there be one thing more definitely laid down in the law than another, it is the uncleanness of creeping things; yet the Talmud assures us that ‘no one is appointed and member of the Sanhedrin who does not possess sufficient ingenuity to prove from the written law that a creeping thing is ceremonially cleaned,’ and that there is an unimpeachable disciple, at Jabne, who could produce one hundred and fifty arguments in favor of the ceremonial cleanness of creeping things. Sophistry like this was at work even in the days when the young student at Tarsus set at the feet of Gamaliel” (Ib., “Life and Work of Paul,” chap. 4, par. 2-6).
Thus the Pharisees in their exactions and ceremonialism had developed to perfection the self-love of self-righteousness in the merit of their own doings. A perfect illustration is found in what Rabbi Simeon, the son of Jochai, said: “If there were only thirty righteous persons in the world, I and my son should make two of them; and if there were but twenty, I and my son would be of the number; and if there were but ten, and I and my son would be of the number; and if there were but five, and I and my son would be of the five; and if there were but two, I and my son would be those two; and if there were but one, MYSELF should be that one” (Emphatic Diaglott, at Luke 18:11).
“They had received unsanctified and confused interpretations of the law given them by Moses: they had added tradition to tradition; they had restricted freedom of thought and action until the commandments, ordinances, and services of God were lost in a ceaseless round of meaning less rights and ceremonies. Their religion was a yoke of bondage.” “The views of the people were so narrow that they had become slaves to their own useless regulations.” “This confidence in themselves and their own regulations, with its attendant prejudices against all other nations, caused them to resist the Spirit of God, which would have corrected their errors.” “Thus, in their earthliness, separated from God in Spirit, while professedly serving him, they were doing just the work that Satan wanted them to do—taking a course to impeach the character of God, and cause the people to view him as a tyrant. In presenting their sacrificial offerings in the temple, they were as actors in a play. The rabbis, the priests and rulers, had ceased to look beyond the symbol of the truth that was signified by their outward ceremonies.” They expected to derive righteousness acceptable to God from the performance of the ceremony of offering a symbol, which to them was meaningless for any other purpose than as a means of gaining righteousness in the performance of the ceremony. The beginning and end, the all in all of the religion of the Pharisees, whether it related to the moral law, to the God-given ceremonial law, or to their own traditions, was ceremonialism, and ceremonialism alone. And Paul had been one of these Pharisees, of “the most strictest sect.”
And this is what those “certain of the sect of the Pharisees, which believed” thought to drag over and fasten upon Christianity. They wished to force even the divine faith of Christ into their low, narrow human ceremonialism. Oh, yes! It is well enough to believe in Jesus; but that is not enough: “except ye be circumcised and keep the law [their whole boneless system of interpretations of the law, moral and ceremonial, there whole mass of ceremonialism], ye cannot be saved.” And that even when they had done all that the system of the Pharisees supply and demand it, they could not be saved, was confessed in the despairing cry of the rabbis: “If but one person could only for one day keep whole law, and not offended one point, —nay, if but one person could but keep that one point of the law which affects the due observance of the Sabbath, —then the troubles of Israel would be ended, and the Messiah at last would come.” (Id., par. 3). And from every really conscientious heart it forced that other despairing cry, “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7:24).
But in his great mercy and his divine goodness, without requiring all the burdens and toil of the Pharisaic ceremonialism, and in answer to the longing cry of every burdened heart, the Messiah came, and brought to all men the free gift of the righteousness of God, and of his full salvation. This righteousness and this full salvation, Saul the Pharisee found, and it made him forever Paul the Christian, nevermore to desire the “righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.” And then, having in Christ perfect righteousness, full salvation, and the power of an endless life; having found in Christ the living gospel instead of the dead form of law; because he would never more admit the multitudinous exactions, the vain strivings, the hollow self-righteousness, and the false gospel of the Pharisees, he was persecuted, and his work in the gospel of Christ was opposed, till the day of his death, by “the Pharisees, which believed,” as well as by all the Jews, who did not believe, by false brethren as well as by open enemies.
And this it was that called forth the book of Galatians.
[Advent Review and Sabbath Herald | September 12, 1899]