Jesus, Islam, Pharisees, and the New Perspective on Paul

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Founder & Teacher,

Listening to an interview by Mark Dever with Thabiti Anyabwile, I heard Mark use an illustration that I found tremendously helpful. It relates to the question whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God under different names.

He said that we should picture two old classmates from college discussing a common friend from thirty years ago. They begin to wonder if they are talking about the same person. One of them is convinced they are, and the other keeps thinking this is not quite the way he remembers the friend. Finally, they decide to dig out an old yearbook and settle the issue. They open the book, and as soon as they see the picture of their classmate, one says, “No, that’s not who I am talking about.” So it was not the same person after all.

Mark said that Jesus, as he is revealed in the Bible, is the picture in the yearbook. When a Muslim and a Christian, who have been discussing whether they are worshiping the same God, look at God in the yearbook, it settles the matter: “No,” says the Muslim, “that’s not who I am talking about.”

But that is who the Christian is talking about. John 1:18 says, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.” Jesus makes known the invisible God for us to see. In John 14:8, Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” To this Jesus responded, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’” And Paul said in 2 Corinthians 4:6, “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

In other words, Jesus is the yearbook picture that settles the issue of who is worshiping the true God and who is not. If a worshiper of God does not see in Jesus Christ the person of his God, he does not worship God. This is the resounding testimony of Jesus and the apostles as we see in the following texts.

  • Mark 9:37, “Whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” (See also Matthew 10: 40; Luke 9:48; John 13:20.)
  • John 5:23, “Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.”
  • 1 John 2:23, “No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.”
  • Luke 12:9, “The one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God.”
  • John 15:23, “Whoever hates me hates my Father also.”
  • 2 John 1:9, “Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.”

Now, if we take this question back two thousand years and turn a Muslim-Christian question into a Pharisee-Jesus-follower question, the same thing emerges. Were the Pharisees worshiping the same God that the followers of Jesus were worshiping? I don’t mean to imply that every Pharisee was the same. For example, Nicodemus (John 3:1ff.) did not seem to be of the same spirit with most (though even he found the new birth incomprehensible at first). In asking this question, I am simply referring to the group of Pharisees in general as Jesus saw them. Did these Pharisees worship the same God as the followers of Jesus?

This question is even more striking than the Muslim-Christian question, because Pharisees and followers of Jesus had the same Holy Book, the Tanach—the Old Testament. That means that they used the same name for God and told the same stories about God and followed the same rituals in relating to God. Why would the question even come up about whether the Pharisees and the followers of Jesus worshiped the same God?

Because Jesus brought it up. And the way he brought it up and talked about it, makes it hard to believe some of the things that the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) says about the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day. E. P. Sanders is the main spokesman for the way Pharisaism is reinterpreted by the New Perspective. Here is the way N. T. Wright summarizes it:

[Sanders'] major point, to which all else is subservient, can be quite simply stated. Judaism in Paul’s day was not, as has regularly been supposed, a religion of legalistic works-righteousness. If we imagine that it was, and that Paul was attacking it as if it was, we will do great violence to it and to him. . . . The Jew keeps the law out of gratitude, as the proper response to grace—not, in other words, in order to get into the covenant people, but to stay in. Being “in” in the first place was God’s gift. This scheme Sanders famously labeled as “covenantal nomism” (from the Greek nomos, law). (What Saint Paul Really Said, pp. 18-19)

Wright agrees with this main thesis of the New Perspective: “Sanders . . . dominates the landscape, and, until a major refutation of his central thesis is produced, honesty compels one to do business with him. I do not myself believe such a refutation can or will be offered; serious modifications are required, but I regard his basic point as established” (Ibid, p. 20).

For example, Wright says that the boasting which Paul aims to exclude by the doctrine of justification by faith (e.g., in Romans 3:27) is not what we usually think it is.

This ‘boasting’ which is excluded is not the boasting of the successful moralist; it is the racial boast of the Jew, as in [Romans] 2:17-24. If this is not so, [Romans] 3:29 (‘Or is God the God of the Jews only? Is he not of Gentiles also?’) is a non sequitur. Paul has no thought in this passage of warding off a proto-Pelagianism, of which in any case his contemporaries were not guilty. He is here, as in Galatians and Philippians, declaring that there is no road into covenant membership on the grounds of Jewish racial privilege. (Ibid, p. 129)

Wright’s statements are baffling in several ways. One way is that the Jews of Romans 2:17-24 do indeed claim to be successful moralists. They teach morality, but do not teach themselves (v. 21). They preach against stealing, but steal (v. 21). They oppose adultery, but commit adultery (v. 22). They denounce idolatry, but commit idolatry (v. 22). They boast in the law, but dishonor the law (v. 23). And in all this, they cause the Gentiles to blaspheme God (v. 24). How Wright can use this paragraph to distinguish moral boasting from racial boasting escapes me (as does the distinction itself).

Then, there is Wright’s affirmation of Sanders’ claim that the religion of the Pharisees was not the “religion of legalistic works-righteousness,” and that the “The Jew [of Jesus’ day] keeps the law out of gratitude, as the proper response to grace.” The only explanation I can find for such amazing statements is that the testimony of Jesus is denied or obscured. It is my impression that evangelicals enamored by the NPP have not reckoned seriously enough with the fact that the origination of the NPP seems to have taken place in the halls of such denial or obscuring.

When Jesus addressed the Jewish leaders of his day (Pharisees, lawyers, elders, Sadducees, chief priests), his resounding conclusion was they do not even know God. And, not knowing God, their lived-out religion (the kind Jesus is concerned with) is not “out of gratitude,” nor is it a “proper response to grace.”

When Jesus asked the Jewish leaders, “If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me?” his answer was, “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God” (John 8:47). This is the claim of Jesus to be the yearbook picture of God. “I am from God and I am speaking the words of God. You are not seeing or hearing God, therefore you are not of God.”

That is, they do not have God as their Father, but rather the devil. Jesus said, “If God were your Father, you would love me . . . . You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires” (John 8:42-44). This is the root reason why the Jewish leaders do not come to Christ. Their will is governed not by gratitude to God, giving a “proper response to grace,” but by their father’s will, and it is not the love of God. “You refuse to come to me that you may have life. . . . I know that you do not have the love of God within you. I have come in my Father's name, and you do not receive me” (John 5:40-43). They simply do not know the true God: “You have not known him” (John 8:55).

It is incomprehensible to me that what Jesus says about the Jewish leadership of his day in general (not every individual) could be taken seriously and yet their true lived-out religion could be exonerated from “self-help moralism” (Wright’s term). Why are they “sons of hell” (Matthew 23:15)? People don’t go to hell for “keeping the law out of gratitude” as a “proper response to grace.” People go to hell for relying on themselves instead of grace.

Jesus is the yearbook photograph that the Pharisees do not recognize. The reason they don’t is because they want a Messiah who will confirm their love of the praise of men for their own achievements (John 5:43-44). The follower of this self-exalting religion may genuinely be thankful to God for some of his outward moral purity (“God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers,” Luke 18:11). But his confidence before God is what he is (regardless of who made him that way). Whether one should call this religion a “self-help moralism” is an open question. But that it is a religion that trusts in its own morality and exalts self is clear. What Jesus thought of it is also clear:

  • They accused Jesus of being demonic (Matthew 12:24).
  • They do not know how to understand the law (Matthew 12:2-7).
  • They sought to destroy Jesus (Matthew 12:14).
  • They are “an evil and adulterous generation” (16:4).
  • They break the commandments with their traditions (Matthew 15:6).
  • They worship vainly and their heart is far from God (Matthew 15:8-9).
  • They are not planted by the Father (Matthew 15:12).
  • Their teaching is leaven to be avoided (Matthew 16:12).
  • They do not bear the fruit of the kingdom and will lose it (Matthew 21:43-45).
  • They are children of hell (Matthew 23:15, 33).
  • They neglect the weightier matters of the law (Matthew 23:23).
  • They are full of greed and self-indulgence (Matthew 23:25, 27).
  • Outwardly they appear righteous, but are lawless within (Matthew 23:28).
  • They were lovers of money (Luke 16:14).

The upshot of this is that we should always reach for the yearbook of the New Testament Gospels to see the picture of Jesus. He will make clear whether Muslims and Christians are worshiping the same God, and whether Pharisees and followers of Jesus are worshiping the same God.

Fixing my eyes on Jesus with you,

Pastor John