Jesus Confronted the Religious Leaders

January 17, 2016 No Comments »
Jesus Confronted the Religious Leaders

By H. Lynn Gardner

Why would Jesus who taught “turn the other cheek” engage in controversy? The simple answer is that both truth and people mattered. 

Our culture seems to believe that no absolute truth exists regarding morality, religion, and values. We are told we must approve anything someone believes is his or her truth. Jesus did not subscribe to the view that all opinions are equally true. He engaged in controversy because some things are right and some things are wrong. What a person believes matters because it has eternal consequences. 

The Religious Leaders Confronted Jesus

The religious leaders critiqued Jesus about a number of things.

The Pharisees legalistically insisted on their oral traditions. In their self-righteousness, they despised “sinners.” They accused Jesus of blasphemy for claiming to forgive sin and making himself equal with God. They objected to his violations of their Sabbath rules, his failure to observe stated fasts, and his association with sinners. They accused him of being in league with Satan, planning the destruction of the temple, being a deceiver, being a Samaritan, and having a demon. They charged him with treason against Caesar. Though some Pharisees, Nicodemus for example, were not hostile to Jesus. 

The Sadducees, which included the high priest and chief priests, held social and political power. They became more vocal at the end of Jesus’ ministry. They demanded that Jesus show a sign from Heaven. The raising of Lazarus and Jesus’ triumphal entry angered them. They challenged his authority because he cleansed the temple. They orchestrated Jesus’ arrest and death. 

Jesus Confronted the Religious Leaders

Jesus had his own topics to discuss with the religious leaders: 

Life After Death 

Jesus debated with the Sadducees about life after death, critiquing their naturalistic view of religion (Matthew 22:23-33). Jesus exposed their root problem of being ignorant of Scriptures and of the power of God. 

Some people may accept Christ and be church members without having surrendered to the final authority of God and his Word. They may doubt some miracles and the creation account and question some of the Bible’s promises. We can help them by teaching the Scriptures, explaining why we can believe it is God’s Word, and showing evidence of the power, design, and wisdom of God in nature.

Authority of Tradition 

The Pharisees made human opinion equal in authority with Scripture. They disobeyed biblical teaching that children are to support their parents. Instead they followed a human tradition that money devoted to God was exempt from being used for parental support (Mark 7:9-13). For the Pharisees, their traditions were not merely considered along with Scripture; their traditions were Scripture!

Legalism makes human opinion authoritative, elevating it above Scripture. The Pharisees objected to Jesus, insisting that his disciples broke the traditions of the elders by not ceremonially washing before eating. Jesus said, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions!” (v. 8). Jesus equated what “Moses said” with “the commands of God” and “the word of God” (vv. 8-10, 13). He distinguished God’s Word from the “human traditions” and what “you say” (vv. 8, 11). 

John Stott in Christ in Conflict summarizes Jesus’ teaching on this matter: Scripture is divine; tradition is human. Scripture is compulsory; tradition is optional. Scripture is supreme; tradition is secondary.

Has your congregation had conflicts over different opinions about human traditions? Are you willing to insist on faithfulness to the authority of God’s Word while allowing freedom in matters of opinion?

Spiritual Experience 

• Jesus challenged the religious leaders’ pride and self-righteousness. Jesus told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18:9, English Standard Version). Jesus confronted this arrogant self-righteousness because it prevented both love for God and love for others. Humility is essential to pleasing God. 

The Pharisees grumbled, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (15:2). In response Jesus told three parables (lost sheep, lost coin, and prodigal son). Thinking too highly of oneself leads one to think too lowly of others.

Do we share God’s love for lost sinners in our community and those whose lifestyles disgust us? Why are so few church leaders notable for their humility? Why are those with experience in the business world often more confident in the world’s methods than biblical methods? Are those who read informational and spiritual books inclined to feel superior to those who read light-hearted novels? 

Jesus denounced the Pharisees’ hypocritical worship. “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Mark 7:6). Jesus said the Pharisees performed outward acts of worship that did not issue from sincere hearts. Jesus warned, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them” (Matthew 6:1). Our righteousness and morality must issue from a heart surrendered to God. Hypocrisy offends God. 

Where are our minds during worship services? Take inventory the next Lord’s Day. Do you pray along with the public prayers? Do you sincerely mean what you sing? During communion time, do you focus and express meaningful thanksgiving for your Lord’s sacrifice for your sins or is it a time for wool gathering? Instead of criticizing the service, how can we express genuine worship from the heart? 

• Jesus exposed their outward morality. True godliness issues from the heart. Superficial rule-keeping is not righteousness. A righteousness which merely avoids bad behavior falls short of the righteousness that our Lord desires. Evil thoughts and actions proceed from evil hearts (Mark 7:20-23). 

Do we walk in the shoes of the Pharisee who thanked God he was not like certain obvious sinners? Christians are all sinners saved by the grace of God. When we rate ourselves as righteous because of blatant sins we avoid, we have forgotten that God knows our hearts. Let us say and pray with the psalmist, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. . . . Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Psalm 51:3, 10). 

• Jesus unmasked their religion as self-centered rather than God-centered. The religious leaders wanted personal glory rather than God’s glory (John 12:43). Such me-centered religion corrupts the person and offends God. A self-centered religion is idolatry because it is self-worship. Jesus wanted the religious leaders to acknowledge that God was God and they were not. 

How much of our worship is me-centered instead of God-centered? Controversies occur in the church when people focus on their interests and feelings instead of on honoring God. People become fault-finders, picking the fleas out of one another’s hair. We can find unspeakable joy when we turn from focusing on ourselves to focusing on God, learning to know him and love him as he is. 

Jesus’ Approach to Controversy

We can learn from Jesus, our authoritative Lord yet humble servant. His confrontations with religious leaders concerned essential truths, not matters of opinion. He engaged in controversy concerning fundamental issues at the heart of true belief and obedience to God. While he was direct and straightforward, he maintained self-control and acted in the best interest of those with whom he disagreed. 

Jesus made effective use of logic. Since the Pharisees would rescue an ox fallen into the ditch on the Sabbath, Jesus showed their inconsistency when they objected to his healing of the man with dropsy (Luke 14:1-5.) When they accused Jesus of casting out demons by Satan’s power, he reminded them that a house divided against itself could not stand (Matthew 12:22-28). When challenged, he often answered with a question. When asked about his authority, he silenced his opponents by asking their view of the authority of John’s baptism. He used parables effectively in controversy. (A parable, as a pleasant story, presents a truth to the mind and secures assent before the point is applied.)

Someone perceptively observed, “Almost all the problems in the church come from people hungering and thirsting after something other than righteousness.” Conflicts in the church frequently concern matters of opinion, young versus old, contention within the leadership, power struggles, or personality conflicts. Compromise, cooperation, and love must guide us in conflicts concerning nonessential issues. 

Standing for the faith means standing for the truths taught by Christ and his apostles. Foundational truths of the gospel face challenges today. If we stand for biblical truth, morality, and values, we will encounter those who oppose us. Jesus helps us learn methods and issues about which we should engage in controversy.

H. Lynn Gardner is a retired Bible college professor and dean living in Carl Junction, Missouri (

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