Just like today, Judaism at the time of Jesus was not one unified religion but contained many different sects. The Pharisaic sect was just one of them but it was, by far, the largest. In fact, most Jews of that day belonged to it and it was the religion of the common people. Hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus it was the Pharisees who created the concept of synagogues which were places where people could come to be taught and instructed in the law of Moses by trained teachers. The term used for these Pharisaic teachers was "Rabbi" but they were also known as "teachers of the law" and were also referred to as "master."
The Pharisees were very strict in observing the laws of God. To them, religion wasn't some ritual to be engaged in only on the Sabbath day but was something that was to be part of a person's everyday life, from the time they awoke in the morning until they went to sleep at night. It was something they took very seriously and felt that anyone who didn't live as they did were doomed to hell.
However, it was not so much the followers of this sect that Jesus had trouble with as it was with its leaders and, generally speaking, when we see the word "Pharisee" in the scriptures it is usually referring to the leaders of that sect rather than the average member. These leaders had become puffed up in pride, thinking that because they kept the law of Moses more fully than the common man and knew the scriptures better than the average person that that made them more righteous and therefore more loved by God than other people.
Although Saul was a tent maker by trade, he was a Pharisee at heart. His father had been a Pharisee and he proudly followed his family's tradition. That meant he was more than just a church going Pharisee. He practiced his religious belief with a passion. He studied the scriptures diligently and knew them intimately having studied them at the feet of one of the great Rabbi's of his day, Gamaliel. And it was because of his zeal for God that he is known as a Pharisee's Pharisee.
His Pharisaic upbringing taught him to believe that God hated evil and loved only those who loved Him with all their heart. Because of this, Saul strove to live God's law as fully as he could so that he might be found pleasing before the Lord. He faithfully kept every ordinance, observed every practice, and strove to live every law to the letter. As such, Saul loved what God loved and hated what God hated.
What God hated most were blasphemers - people who mocked or made fun of God. There weren't many Jews who behaved this way and those who were accused of such behavior were often not guilty of such a crime but were falsely accused out of spite or revenge. However, there was one man who truly did blaspheme God, and that man's name was Joshua Ben Joseph - Jesus, the son of Joseph of Nazareth.
At first, this man Jesus, who grew up as a Pharisee, attending the synagogue every Sabbath day, taught a strict observance of the scriptures and this caught the attention of the Rabbis. But, over time, instead of rigorously following the teachings of the Pharisees, He began to deviate from their ways. At first, He seemed like a wise and learned teacher whom the Rabbi's could have an intellectual debate with over the finer points of God's law, but this man Jesus increasingly contradicted and humiliated the prestigious leaders of His religious faith with His answers to their question. More than that, He challenged some of their most prized beliefs and confounded them with their own logic.
As though this wasn't bad enough, to the shock and alarm of the prominent Rabbis, more and more people began not only to listen to the teachings of this renegade Rabbi but it seemed that every day He gathered a larger following of devoted disciples. To make things worse, He picked twelve men, whom He called apostles, and sent them out into the countryside to preach a new brand of religion. It soon became apparent that Jesus was intent on setting up His own sect of Judaism in opposition to that of the Pharisees. What made this so frightening was that His message was attracting the common man, the very people whom the Pharisees claimed as their own. Now they no longer viewed Jesus as a teacher of the law but rather as a threat to their power and someone who had to be stopped from perverting the ways of God.
Now, instead of wanting to have a discussion about rabbinic law with him they plotted how to destroy His popularity. They reasoned that if they could embarrass Him in front of His followers by asking tricky questions, people would become disillusioned with Him as a teacher and no longer listen to Him. Yet, time after time it was they who were embarrassed in front of the very people they were trying to sway away from Jesus. And the more times they failed in their efforts to stop this new preacher, the more they became filled with anger and rage which increasingly drove them to take more drastic measures.
But then one day Jesus did the unthinkable. It was one thing for the Pharisees to think more highly of themselves than they should but never did they think they were equal with God. However, one day Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath and the Jews accused Him of violating God's law by doing work on that holy day. "But Jesus answered them, My Father worketh hitherto, and I work. For the Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Sonů That all men should honour the Son, even as they honour the Father. He that honoureth not the Son honoureth not the Father which hath sent him" (John 5:17,23). What Jesus was clearly saying was that he was God's divine Son and if that was true then He was equal to God Himself. As far as the Pharisees were concerned, that was a truly blasphemous statement.
On another occasion Jesus told them "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad. Then said the Jews unto him, Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham? Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am. Then took they up stones to cast at him: (John 8:56-29). The reason they stoned Him was because Jesus said He was the God who spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai (see Exodus 3:14).
On yet another occasion, as Jesus was walking in the temple, "Then came the Jews round about him, and said unto him, How long dost thou make us to doubt? If thou be the Christ, tell us plainly. Jesus answered themů. I and my Father are one. Then the Jews took up stones again to stone him. Jesus answered them, Many good works have I shewed you from my Father; for which of those works do ye stone me? The Jews answered him, saying, For a good work we stone thee not; but for blasphemy; and because that thou, being a man, makest thyself God" (John 10:24,25,30,32,33).
This was the final indignity! Now the Pharisees hated Jesus, not just because He was a threat to them but because He was an unholy mocker of God. And, as good, devoted followers of God's law, the Pharisees felt it was their God-given duty to prevent this teacher of false doctrine from spreading His damnable lies and leading people away from the true God of their fathers.
But, surprisingly, His popularity continued to spread even after He had died. In His place twelve other men began to boldly declare the message that the criminal Jesus was God's Son and that He now sat exalted at the right hand of God Himself! Worse yet, flocks of people were not only accepting this blasphemous lie but were proclaiming their allegiance to Him, even to taking upon themselves His name by being called Christians.
A man named Stephen was one such follower. There were certain Jews who, when they heard Stephen preach about Jesus, tried to contend against him but "they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake." Therefore, they told the Pharisees, "We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God. And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribe and came upon him and caught him and brought him to the council. And set up false witnesses" (Acts 6: 10-13).
But Stephen vigorously defended his beliefs and confounded the wisdom of his accusers, using the scriptures to show that it was they who were the true defilers of God's law. So outraged by what Stephen said, "When they heard these things they were cut to the heart and they gnashed on him with their teeth" (Acts 7:54). Then, "they cast him out of the city and stoned him." (Acts7:58).
In attendance at this stoning was a young man named Saul. Since he was a righteous Pharisee and Stephen was not only a teacher of lies but had insulted and humiliated the council of Pharisees, Saul fully agreed with their decision that he deserved to die.
In all likelihood, it was that event that caused a stir in Saul's heart to do his part in helping rid the world of this blasphemous religious sect called Christianity. Filled with righteous anger, he embarked on a personal crusade to see to it that every person who believed in Jesus, whether they were a man or woman, was put to death for their crime against God.
Starting in Jerusalem, he went to the chief priests, seeking a letter of authority to physically apprehend and take into custody anyone he found who called themselves a Christian. The chief priest gladly gave him this authority and he went throughout the city taking every Christian he could find and having them thrown into prison. When they failed to renounce their beliefs, Saul agreed that they should be put to death (see Acts 26:9,10).
He later told King Agrippa, "I punished them often in every synagogue and compelled them to blaspheme and, being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange cities" (Acts 26:11). By his own admission, Saul had become "exceedingly mad" in his hatred for Christians and nothing he did to them seemed out of harmony with God's law. He even goaded them and compelled them to make blasphemous statements just so he could have an excuse to physically harm them.
And when he had done all he could in Jerusalem, he asked for letters of recommendation to show to the chief priests in other cities so they would grant him the same authority to round up and destroy every man or woman in their town who dared profess a belief in Jesus as the Christ. This was Saul's intent as he headed for Damascus.
"And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks" (Acts 9:3-5).
Saul considered himself to be a devoted follower of God but suddenly he learned that the very person he sought to destroy was the same being he professed to love. Struck blind, Saul had to be lead into the city of Damascus where he was housed. For three days he was unable to see with his natural eyes but during that time he "neither did eat nor drink." Since he was fully capable of eating and drinking, it seems certain that Saul was fasting and the Lord later told Ananias that Saul was also praying.
Saul thought that God had been pleased by his actions against the Christians but now he knew that God was not only angry with him but had cursed him with blindness for what he had done. Because he had a desire to do what was right before the Lord Saul now poured out his soul in repentance to know what God would have him do. In answer to that prayer Saul was able to momentarily see again but not with his natural eyes. He saw "in a vision a man named Ananias coming in, and putting his hand on him, that he might receive his sight." Shortly after seeing that vision a Christian by the name of Ananias did indeed come and restored Saul sight by the laying on of his hands.
Although Saul now knew that Jesus was the God he professed to love, he didn't know anything about what the followers of Jesus believed about Him. Therefore, Saul spent "certain days with the disciples which were at Damascus" learning and studying what it was that Jesus taught. Because of his great knowledge of the scriptures he soon came to discover how Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the ancient prophets, which convinced him even more that Jesus was who He said He was.
With the same zeal he had used to persecute the Christians, Saul now went forth to proclaim the news about Jesus. "And straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God. But all that heard him were amazed, and said; Is not this he that destroyed them which called on this name in Jerusalem, and came hither for that intent, that he might bring them bound unto the chief priests? But Saul increased the more in strength, and confounded the Jews which dwelt at Damascus, proving that this is very Christ. And after that many days were fulfilled, the Jews took counsel to kill him" (Acts 9:20-23).
Now the shoe was on the other foot. In the tradition of Stephen, Saul went into the synagogues of the Pharisees and "confounded the Jews." Instead of using force and intimidation to silence those whom he disagreed with, Saul used reason coupled with the words of God to make his case and he did it so effectively that they couldn't disagree with what he said. All they could do was get angry at him to the point where they eventually tried to kill him. Now, instead of him taking the life of those whom he disagreed with, it was his life that others sought to take away. In fact, the persecution became so bad that Saul had to be smuggled out of Damascus to keep from being murdered.
From there he went back to Jerusalem where he again mingled with the saints, eventually meeting with the apostles and learning from them (see Acts 9:26-28). As he learned more about the Christian faith the more he went forth to teach it to others. "And he spake boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus, and disputed against the Grecians: but they went about to slay him" (verse 29).
Once more, the same pattern repeated itself. Rather than resorting to his old tactics of using a force of arms to threaten and intimidate people into changing their beliefs, Saul " disputed against the Greicians." He used reason and logic to persuade others to believe as he did. But, as before, rather than listen to reason, people who disagreed with him became so "exceedingly mad" that they "went about to slay him." As before, Saul had to flee Jerusalem for his life and "they brought him down to Caesarea, and sent him forth to Tarsus" (Acts 9:30).
What makes this story so relevant is that things haven't changed much since then. There are Christian denominations today whose leaders are hostile to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly known as Mormons) because they don't believe as the Protestants do. Because of this, they accuse the LDS Church of being a cult and teaching false doctrine, claiming that they are not a Christian church because they teach a different Jesus than what is found in the Bible. What these Protestant leaders are especially upset about is the LDS claim that mortal men can someday possess all the power, glory, and divinity that God Himself has. To them, such a claim is the height of blasphemy
Because of this attitude they feel it is their God-given duty to prevent the LDS Church from leading people away from the God of the Bible. Through the use of pamphlets, books, videos, and sermons, they attack the credibility of the LDS Church, hoping to poison people's minds against even listening to what a Mormon has to say. One way they do this is by making unsubstantiated claims of wrong doing by its founder, Joseph Smith or other leaders. Another way is to take comments by Mormon leaders out of context so as to distort what Mormons truly believe. Still another way is to engage in argumentative discussions. When the Mormon Church was first established in 1830, many Protestants became "exceedingly mad" with hatred towards this new denomination and literally went about killing those who belonged to it.
This is the way Saul behaved before he became a Christian but it's interesting to note that even though Saul put forth as much zeal as a Christian as he had as a Pharisee, his approach to dealing with people he disagreed with changed. Considering his temperament, we would have expected to see him rally Christians to fight back against the Pharisee's attacks on them. It would seem logical for Saul to have led attacks on the Jews for what they believed, especially since he now thought they were the ones who were teaching false doctrine and preventing people from coming to Christ. But what we see instead is that, as a Christian, he tried to sway people to his beliefs, not through intimidation and threats but through persuasion, reason, and logic, using the scriptures to convince them of the rightness of his position.
More than that, there are no instances recorded in the Bible where Paul tried to convince Christians not to listen to the Pharisees or any other faith by preaching against them. Rather than resorting to criticizing and demeaning what others believed, Paul concentrated all of his efforts on preaching the gospel to win converts and inspire the saints to remain faithful to Christ. While it is true that he denounced false doctrine within his own church, he did so the same way he converted people to the gospel. Instead of using coercion he simply preached what he believed was the truth with passion and let the truth convince his listeners.
Where Saul sought to do physical harm to Christians, as a Christian he suffered physical harm with no thought of retaliation. In fact, he preached that we should return good for evil (Romans 12:21). He taught that if someone "be overtaken in a fault (such as believing in false doctrine), ye which are spiritual, [should] restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself lest thou also be tempted" (Galatians. 6:1). Rather than teaching hate, he taught we should have love "toward all men" (1 Thessalonians 3:12) saying that without showing charity a person is nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1-2). He further taught that the spirit of contention, arguing, and hatred is not of God (Galatians 5:19,20).
While it is understandable that people who have a firm conviction in their religious beliefs can strongly disagree with others who believe differently, the true sign of whether someone is a Christian or not is how they respond to those differences. Those who feel they must attack others, either verbally or physically, for their beliefs are not following the example that Paul set for us but instead are following the example of Saul before he became converted to Christ. And it is which one of these examples we choose to follow that determines whether we are a Pharisee or a Christian.
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