I think as a pastor if I met someone new who came to church who was clearly committed to both knowing the Scriptures well and obeying them, I would be pretty impressed. Recently reading in the Gospels it struck me that Jesus encountered many such people but instead of being impressed with them, he continually butted heads with many of them. Jesus reserved his most scathing criticism for them. Of course, I am talking about the Pharisees.
In so many ways Jesus and Pharisees were pretty close. Certainly, in terms of what they believed. Jesus and the Pharisees were closer in theology than Jesus was to the Sadducees. Jesus and the Pharisees were both serious about holiness. Yet Jesus had more conflict with the Pharisees than with any other group in Israel at the time. I’ve been wondering why that was?
I think maybe one of the major causes of conflict was the different focus that Jesus and the Pharisees had when it came to holiness. The Pharisees were totally committed to being holy and for them that was shown by outward conformity to the Torah, the Law. They carefully noted all the commands they found in Scripture and then created countless additional commands, all to make sure they were never in danger of disobeying Scripture. I don’t think its unfair to say their focus was on the outward and visible when it came to holiness.
Its important that we see that Jesus doesn’t say that outward and visible expressions of holiness and obedience aren’t important, far from it. In fact, Jesus actually commends the Pharisees outward expressions of holiness to his disciples as a minimum standard “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:20 Jesus was interested in us as His disciples not just doing the right thing, but doing the right for the right reasons because our hearts are right.
Jesus’ perspective on holiness was that it had to go deeper than just being seen to keep the rules. Jesus’ focus was on holiness at the heart level, on the level of being not just doing. Author Skye Jethani comments that “Jesus wasn’t interested in mere external conformity. He knows that true righteousness needs to occur at the heart level. It is an internal transformation that we require, and if the inside is right, then the external behaviors will follow.”
Now here is where I see a problem. I have discovered that in church more often than not we tend to evaluate spiritual maturity from the Pharisees perspective than from Jesus’ perspective. We tend to prioritize the external, the visible over the inner when it comes to judging spiritual maturity. So, if someone knows their bible well and is regular in attendance at services and serves in the church etc they are looked on as spiritual maturity. Yet you can’t be around churches for long without encountering people who are at every service and can quote chunks of Scripture but who lack love, who have eruptions of anger, hold on to grievances and refuse to forgive.
Here at Westlake through Vision 20/20 we are refocusing on discipleship. I find it interesting that the Rabbis of the Pharisees also had disciples and “did discipleship”. Over the last few months, I have been reading a great deal about discipleship and I have concluded that it is all too easy to reproduce Pharisaic disciples in the church today. Some of the discipleship material I have read would have produced people who would have inevitably come into conflict with Jesus because their understanding of spiritual maturity would have been more like that of the Pharisees than of Jesus. We produce pharisaical disciples when our expectations about spiritual maturity are focused on outward conformity and head knowledge rather than inward transformation through which we live out the truth we believe.
Its for that reason that as a church we are talking about spiritual formation as the means of discipleship. We want to be clear that discipleship is about more than learning stuff and turning up at events. Spiritual formation is the process through which, empowered by the Spirit, we are transformed from the inside out, to be people who are becoming more like Jesus. Spiritual formation’s goal is conformity to Jesus not conformity to outward rules.
Jesus fundamental desire for us is not to be people who appear outwardly to be good or are seen to do things are that are good but who are actually becoming people who are good. Jesus isn’t interested in discipleship that is only behaviour modification he longs to see character transformation in His disciples and so should we and not settle for anything less.