Grace for the Pharisee

The term “Pharisee” is one that carries exclusively negative connotations. Akin to the labels “hypocrite” and “legalist,” there isn’t much worse in the way of Christian insults.

For a lot of us, the term is also an escape hatch. When a fellow Christian behaves in a way that is antithetical to the grace of Christ, we can distance ourselves from their hypocrisy with this very simple label. With one verbal blow, we can both condemn their duplicity and disassociate ourselves from the offender.

I’ve certainly done it myself, but today I want to think seriously about how we engage the Pharisees in our church communities. Although Jesus clearly had harsh words for the Pharisees of his day, they were not outside the scope of his grace. As a sinner with pharisaical leanings myself, that truth is not only important but it is good news!

To help us imagine what godly engagement with religious legalists looks like, consider the one Pharisee who was transformed by his encounter with Christ: Nicodemus.

John 3 tells us that Nicodemus was both a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish ruling council. He is the man who famously misunderstood the term “born-again,” the man to whom Jesus explained, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.”

However, Jesus’ description of salvation was not sufficient for Nicodemus to convert…at least, not at first. Following Jesus’ correction of Nicodemus’ thinking, the scene abruptly ends. As far as we know, Nicodemus rejected Jesus’ words, end of story.

But it wasn’t. In John 7 Nicodemus reappears. This time he is accompanied by Pharisees who are worried and angry about Jesus’ growing influence. Though his peers wish to condemn Jesus, Nicodemus chimes in with a voice of reason: “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?”

Strange behavior for a Pharisee. But once again the scene ends, and that is all we know of Nicodemus.

Until John 19:38. At this point in the Gospel account, Jesus has died and nearly all of his disciples have abandoned him in fear. Except for two men. Risking their lives, two lone men brought spices to anoint Jesus and give him a proper burial, and their names were Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus.

We don’t know how Nicodemus ended up there. We are never privy to the details of his conversion. We never witness his dramatic reversal from Pharisee to follower of Christ. His conversion was quiet and it was slow, but apparently it was powerful and it was real.

I think this story is important for Christians who would never cast a stone at a fallen woman, but are quick to launch heaps onto a Pharisee. Yes, Jesus condemned the behavior of the Pharisees and the spiritual bankruptcy of their religion. But I can’t help but wonder if his words were more of a warning than a pronouncement of damnation. Did their hard hearts warrant Jesus’ tone? Was he hoping to get through to them one last time?

I don’t know, but I do know that Jesus’ grace is radical. Both Christians and non-Christians alike can spot a Pharisee, so what distinguishes us from the world is not the naming of hypocrisy but the ability to still show grace in the face of it. Even when a heart is mangled by blind self-righteousness, the Christian still has hope in the power of God’s mercy.

Knowing this, Jesus’ harsh words don’t give us a free pass to start casting out “Woes” the second we encounter legalism. To truly model Christ, we always begin with grace and then prayerfully seek out the best way to communicate that grace. Sometimes it will come in a gentle word and other times a stern one, but what we are ultimately after is gospel redemption and reconciliation, not distancing ourselves from the religious sins we most detest.