How Were the Pharisees Supposed to Know Jesus Was the Messiah?
I have always been kind of sympathetic with the Pharisees. Nicodemus, who seems like he is genuinely seeking, gets told “what do you mean you don’t know that you need a spiritual birth?! You’re Israel’s teacher and you don’t know this stuff??” I read the Old Testament and I do not see any references to a spiritual birth, so I sympathize with Nicodemus; I would have failed the test, too. Likewise, Jesus gets upset at the Pharisees for not recognizing him, and blasts them for being able to interpret the weather but not the signs of the times. But when I read the Old Testament, Jesus does not look like the Messiah I would expect after reading the descriptions, and the prophetic passages only seem to be recognizable as a Messianic prophecy after the fact. Like the virgin birth: the text sure looks like it is talking about a virgin (possibly Isaiah’s wife) giving birth in the usual fashion, and connected to an event in Isaiah’s time. It is only after the you find out from Joseph and Mary what happened that you say, “oh, that was also a prophecy about Jesus.” So why was it that Jesus expected them to recognize that he was the Messiah?
Jesus tells them one reason, namely that even if they did not believe his words, they should believe the miracles. The people understood this—the man born blind that Jesus heals in John 9 tells the Pharisees that “nobody has ever heard of healing a man born blind; if Jesus were not from God, he could do nothing.” Unfortunately, they could not believe the miracles, because they had already decided that Jesus was not from God because he did not keep the Law the way they did.
Even apart from the miracles, though, I think the Pharisees could have recognized Jesus. Moses tells the people that God will send “a prophet like me” and that they should listen to him. I always wondered what that meant. Finally, I noticed that the Gospels mention that everyone was surprised that Jesus taught with authority—unlike their teachers of the Law. If you read the writings of the rabbis, you notice that it is very much an argument by textual analysis. “This verse says this, but that verse says something else, which means that we need to live like so.” So if Jesus is like Moses, that means that Moses taught with authority, too. Obviously he did, because he gave the Law. I think the Pharisees could have recognized Jesus because he was the only person in Jewish history besides Moses that rewrote the Law. In fact, the Sermon on the Mount seems to parallel Moses giving the Law, as Jesus reinterprets the Mosaic Law and ups the stadard.
Very recently I came across another reason the Pharisees should have recognized Jesus. In Daniel 9, Daniel saw that the seventy years Jeremiah prophesied for the destruction of Jerusalem were up, and so he asked God about it. The response was a timeline for when the Messiah would come: 69 or 70 “weeks” after the decree to rebuild Jerusalem. Almost everyone thinks that each metaphorical day is a year, so depending on whether “the anointed one” was “cut off” at the 69th “week,” you get either 69x7 = 483 years or 70x7 = 490 years. There was a decree to Ezra in 457 B.C., and a decree to Nehemiah in 444 B.C. Regardless of which date you pick and how long the period is, you get a time-frame around Jesus time. So they should have been expecting the Messiah coming, and so when they saw someone doing miracles and teaching with authority, they should have recognized him.
The fact that the Pharisees did not recognize Jesus disturbs me. We know that when Jesus comes back it will be obvious, but the Bible never says that God will not come back a different way before then. No one expected the incarnation, either. If God comes back, who will He be hanging around with? Sinners, just like the last time. I expect that God would spend a lot of time hanging out with homosexuals, people living together without being married, politicians who are in it for themselves, and the like. What really disturbs me is that when I look around to see who the modern-day Pharisees are, it is us, the American Church.
I hope we have better hearts, but the parallels to the Pharisees are troubling. Like them, we have an emphasis on holy living, and there is this feeling that you have to have your stuff together to be an upstanding Christian. As a Church, we tell homosexuals, etc. that they are sinners, but offer no grace. Would most congregations be okay if a bunch of homosexuals started coming to church, seriously seeking God but not out of the lifestyle yet? Like the Pharisees, we know how church is done, and we have all kinds of great programs. But, despite having the Spirit of the Living God dwelling inside of us, over the past sixty years the Church has presided over a decline in Christian values in the nation. Many non-Christians are wary of the Church and view us as hypocrites.
Now unless God has another Incarnation up His sleeve, He probably is not coming in the flesh before Jesus’ return. I think His coming is by the Holy Spirit, and I do not want to miss the next revival. What is troubling is that the previous revivals have been kind of off-putting. The Jesus People movement saw thousands of hippies coming to Christ, hundreds a week. Problem was, they did not bathe and smelled bad. A Calvary Chapel church pastor where Lonnie Frisbee, who started the Jesus People movement, spoke in the evenings, was approached by some of the church members complaining that the hippies’ bare feet were ruining the carpet. The pastor is reported to have said, “well take out the carpet, then!” More recently, the Toronto Airport Fellowship had an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, but all I heard about it was that people barked like animals, which did not really sound like the Holy Spirit. I did not investigate it, but Billy Graham apparently did, saying it was a genuine move of God. But everyone I knew was concerned about the barking. From the stories I’ve heard, when the Holy Spirit hits a church, usually about half the people leave. Moves of God seem to have this offense about them.
So how can we recognize the signs of the times? God has not given us a timeline of revival, but Jesus did tell us we could tell a tree by its fruit, and Paul gave us a list of Holy Spirit fruit. There will probably be a lot of messes in the next move of God. Despite starting the Jesus People movement, Lonnie Frisbee may have struggled with homosexuality (history is somewhat unclear). If we look judge by what we think is “Christian,” we will miss it like the Pharisees, unless it looks like what we already have. (And judging by the effect, or lack thereof, the Church has had on society, God is not using much of what we already have.) If the move of God is bringing genuine salvations, transformation of people’s lives, if it is bringing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control over the long-term, it is a move of God.
Jonathan Edwards, who was instrumental in the First Great Awakening in 1735 and the 1740s, wrote "Distinguishing Marks of a Move of God,” which in his thorough way, goes through a list of things that do not disqualify a move of God, and then things that qualify a move of God. Among the things which do not disqualify a move of God is weird stuff happening that seems like it might not be God, because if God is moving, the devil is sure to show up to try to oppose it. Things which mark a move of God are love, a greater regard for Jesus, a greater regard for the Bible, and a working against Satan’s kingdom, which is trying to establish sin.
The next move of God may not be comfortable. It will certainly involve change. But if we are familiar with what God’s Presence feels like, and we want Him more than we want to do things the way they are “supposed” to be done, we can avoid being like the Pharisees. I am eagerly looking forward to the next move of God!