The Difference Between a Disciple and a Pharisee

In John 2 and 3, during the first week of the public ministry of Jesus Christ, we see the accounts of his first miracle (turning water into wine), his cleansing of the temple, and the encounter with Nicodemus that culminates in the most famous verse in the Bible. While these events themselves are fascinating and critical to our understanding of Jesus and the Gospel, there is also a very subtle comparison here that is critical to our reading and interpretation of Scripture.

Let’s first look at Nicodemus. This guy is not just a Pharisee, but a member of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin. He would have devoted his entire life to the study of the Hebrew Scriptures — our Old Testament. He was not only a teacher of the Law, but a devout keeper of it. As a Pharisee, Nicodemus’ entire life was devoted to ushering in the Kingdom of God and the coming of the promised Messiah through observance of the rules and rites laid down by Moses and centuries of Jewish tradition.

If anyone should have recognized the Messiah when he came, it would have been Nicodemus. Yet when Jesus explains to him that he must be “born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5), Nicodemus marvels at this strange teaching. The Lord asks him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:10) What is it exactly that Nicodemus is to have understood?

When God made a covenant with Israel through Moses, He gave them the Ten Commandments, along with an extensive list of rules that they must obey to keep their end of the covenant. This was summarized by the command to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5). He promised blessings if they kept His commandments… but no one was able to do so (John 7:19). They needed a new, better covenant (Hebews 8:6).

Near the end of the Torah, we encounter one of the greatest promises of the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 30:6 says, “And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.” Did we catch what God is promising here? God’s people will obey the “greatest commandment” (see Matthew 22:36-38) when GOD circumcises their hearts, something they had previously been told to do themselves (Deuteronomy 10:16).

This promise is repeated many generations later through the prophet Jeremiah:

Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people… For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” ~ Jeremiah 31:31-34

Wow! Though the people of Israel broke their covenant and were deserving of punishment, God promised that one day He would make a new covenant, and would remember their sin no more! We learn from the book of Hebrews that this promise, quoted in Hebrews 8, applies to all Christians, who are the real children of the promise (see Romans 9:6-8 and Galatians 4:28-31).

The prophet Ezekiel prophesied even further how God will do this.

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” ~ Ezekiel 36:25-27

Now we see that the only way God’s covenant with man can be fulfilled is for Him to do ALL the work. No longer must man wash himself to be made clean (the Pharisees enforced strict policies of ceremonial washing; see Mark 7:3-4). When God sprinkles water on us, we are cleansed of ALL our uncleannesses. No longer must man strive to uphold the Law by his own power, for this is impossible. It is God’s Spirit that He puts within us that causes us to walk in obedience to Him.

So when Jesus mentioned “water and the Spirit”, Nicodemus should have recognized that He was making a connection to these promises. After all, these are the promises for which the Pharisees have been waiting for so long! Nicodemus knew — and even taught — these promises, but he never understood their purpose.

Contrast that with the disciples in John 2. These men were commoners, untrained in the Law and the Prophets. Yet when Jesus cleansed the temple, driving out the moneylenders, it was these common disciples (who had only known Jesus for a few days) who remembered that it was written (in Psalm 69:9) “Zeal for your house will consume me“, applying this to the Lord as they immediately recognized that it had been written about Him.

Only a few verses later, Jesus says something quite shocking: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). NOBODY had a clue what he meant at the time, but later, “when he was raised from the dead” (John 2:22), his disciples remembered what Jesus had said, and finally understood what it had meant.

So what does this mean for us today?

  1. We can believe that God’s Word is true, even when we don’t understand exactly what it means
  2. The specific meaning of prophecy is often (always?) clear only after its fulfillment
  3. We are held accountable to know and believe the Word, and to understand that it is all about Jesus
  4. We are NOT required to know in advance how prophecy will be fulfilled, but we are expected to recognize it when it is fulfilled

Many people debate things like the timing and manner of Jesus’ second coming, but the important object of our focus is that He IS coming back. There are obviously things about that coming that are unclear, but I believe that when He comes back every eye will see Him (Revelation 1:7), and for those who know the Word and the promises regarding His return, all of the things we argue about now will be clear.

So the most important thing is not whether I believe Jesus is coming back before or after some “great tribulation”. It is whether I believe that God’s Word is true, and that His promises will never fail. If I am so attached to my particular interpretation of prophecy that it blinds me to the Truth — even when it is standing right in front of me — then I am following in the footsteps of the Pharisees.

May each of us empowered by God’s Spirit choose instead the way of the disciples!

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