The Pharisees were the most religious people in all of Palestine. They certainly were more pious than the pagans around them from the Roman Empire. With disdain they would look at the vile brutes that trolled the streets acting out all types of thuggery. The Pharisees were certainly better than that mess of wickedness. And the Pharisees were more moral than any of the other Jews. Josephus tells us that at the time of Jesus, there were probably about 6,000 of them, all following a very strict code of conduct to make sure that they didn’t inadvertently disobey the laws of God. Centuries of theological imagination had worked out the Pharisee holiness manual, and now any good Pharisee would follow the extra laws without faltering.
All of the extra dutiful and virtuous laws of the Pharisees were designed to help them obey God’s Law more fully. The only problem was that they viewed the keeping of their own laws as on par with being obedient to God. For example, God gave the Law, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” It was understood that the Jewish people shouldn’t work on the Sabbath, so that it could be a day of rest and reverence. The Pharisees took it a step further and made several hundred “Sabbath Laws” to make sure you didn’t accidentally work on the Sabbath. My favorite of the Sabbath Laws was that on the Sabbath if you had to spit you could only spit on a rock. The reasoning behind this rule was that if you spit in the dirt, it might turn the dirt to mud, and the mud was basically mortar, and mixing mortar would be considered work, so spitting on the dirt was “working” but spitting on a rock wasn’t.
When we come to John 3, we meet Nicodemus, a ruler of the Pharisees. In verse 10 we see him called a “teacher.” He was a pretty important Pharisee. He would have been one of the ones who followed this extra pious lifestyle with its sanctimonious rules. However, after John 1 and 2 something began to happen in Nicodemus’ heart. He realized that his religion wasn’t cutting it. There had to be something more. When He shows up to talk to Jesus it was evident that he had been talking to other people about Jesus. “We know that…” Perhaps it was the water being turned to wine, and the cleansing of the temple, or the teaching of Jesus, that interested Nicodemus. Whatever it was, it drove him to come to Jesus to get more information.
Most importantly what you need to see is that Nicodemus had to get to a point that he admitted that just having religion wasn’t cutting it. He didn’t need to add the teaching of Jesus to his works. He needed set down his reliance on his works as fully satisfactory before God and come to Jesus to learn the Truth. As soon as Nicodemus spoke, Jesus came back with the Truth He knew Nicodemus needed. “You must be born again.” In effect, Jesus was saying that Nicodemus needed to have a massive transformation, not just on the outside, but most importantly, on the inside. It would take a work beyond Nicodemus’ control. It would take a work of God to transform his heart, but Jesus would be there to help.
Food For Thought: Why did the Pharisees create so many extra standards and rules? Was it bad that they did? Do you think it could be helpful for you to set extra standards and rules for yourself? Why or why not?