Misericordias Domini, The Second Sunday after Easter April 29, 2001


Which Am I—Pharisee or Christian?

Acts 9:1-6


8, 207, 380, 644

Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted

And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem. And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do. Here ends our text.

In Christ Jesus, our risen and ascended Lord, Dear Fellow Redeemed,

“Choosy mothers choose Jiff.” do you recognize those words? Of course you do; they’re from a familiar television commercial advertising one of the higher-priced brands of peanut butter. It’s really kind of a silly commercial—they actually try to convince people that parents who are responsible, parents who really care about their family, will prefer their peanut butter rather than another brand. Now, I’m sure it’s no news to you that the family structure in the United States is in pretty rough shape; some people argue that the American family has completely fallen apart. And yet here is this company telling you how vital it is to your family’s welfare that you use their peanut butter. It seems ridiculous to emphasize these tiny details of family living, when we know that there exist much deeper, much more vital problems, that have to do with the very core of family life. Such attention to details, and so little regard for the greater spiritual values!

About 150 years before the time of Jesus, there developed a religious sect among the Jews who did the same thing. They were very strict about the details of Jewish customs and traditions, but didn’t have a clue when it came to the spiritual content of the Old Testament. They were the Pharisees. I’m sure you recognize the name—you no doubt remember them as the hypocritical scholars that were always trying to trap Jesus and antagonize Him. “Yes, the Pharisees, that was back in Bible times. They’re long gone now!” Or are they? I think that there are millions of Pharisees right here in America right now. In fact, in the world in which we’re living, it is difficult not to be a Pharisee! I want each one of you to ask yourself this question right now:


  1. If you are a Pharisee, then you are your own savior.
  2. If you are a Christian, then Jesus is your Savior!

By the time of Christ, the sect of the Pharisees had developed into an important and influential part of Jewish society in Palestine. The 6,000 Pharisees in Israel were considered to be the most “orthodox” Jews. They were relied upon to give the correct interpretation of the Mosaic Law. However, by this time their so-called “orthodoxy” had degenerated into a mere formalism. They paid great attention to the minute details of the Old Testament, while they totally ignored the spirit of God’s Word. They even made up new rules that were not found in the Bible, but which would make them appear more pious. Silly little things, like how many steps might be taken on the Sabbath without dishonoring the Lord’s day of rest, and which different garden herbs, like mint and anise, should be given in tithes to the Lord. In their own estimation they were the purest of God’s people. They didn’t feel the need of a savior. They considered themselves acceptable to God just the way they were, on account of their own perfect adherence to the Law. Jesus confronted them with their hypocrisy when He said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel.Matt 23:23-24. It’s interesting that they thought themselves the most holy and God-pleasing people on earth, when actually they were the most degenerate, the most corrupt.

By now you may be saying, “This is all very interesting, but what has it got to do with the conversion of Paul?” Well, if we want to be on the lookout for Pharisees among us, and make sure that we ourselves are not Pharisees, it is important to study the life of St. Paul. After his conversion on the road to Damascus, we know that he became a mighty evangelist, God’s strong right arm as He spread the Gospel throughout the world. A true Christian. A hard-working Christian. A model Christian. Before his conversion, however, Paul had been a model Pharisee!

Back then his name was Saul, and he was a rigorous adherent to this strictest of sects. He had studied in Jerusalem under Gamaliel, a renowned teacher of Judaism. All his life, up to the time of his conversion to Jesus, he had strictly observed all the rules of the Pharisees, and, like them, he trusted that through his own outward good works, and by observing tradition, he was righteous and holy before God. In fact, he was so brainwashed with this self-righteous philosophy that he considered anyone who was not like him to be a heretic and deserving of God’s punishment. In his eyes then, naturally, the Christians were the worst offenders against God’s Law, since they recognized Jesus as the promised Messiah, and considered the spirit of God’s Word and the Law of Christian love to be more important than the minute Jewish customs. Oh yes, Saul hated the Christians! He persecuted the early church in Palestine with a fury. Even as a young man, he was present at the stoning of the martyr Stephen, and held the coats of the other Pharisees as they put him to death. At this time, the Christians in Jerusalem were being actively persecuted by the Jews, but young Saul, who was rapidly gaining status among the Pharisees, was not satisfied to remain in Jerusalem. His hate even drove him to chase the scattering Christians when they fled the persecution to other cities! As a Pharisee, Saul was the opposite of a Christian. The Pharisees stood for tradition, the Christians stood for the Gospel. The Pharisees for legalism, the Christians for freedom in Christ.

Could there possibly be such terrible “anti-Christian” Pharisees in our day and age? Are there any Pharisees among us? certainly, there do not seem to be the same sort of physical persecutions now as there were then. What a strange idea it is that someone should force you from your home city, and pursue you all across the country simply because you were a Christian! No, that’s not likely to happen. But that doesn’t mean that there are no Pharisees around. I’m telling you that, in our day, Phariseeism is all over the place, and it’s at its worst among people who consider themselves “Christians”!

So-called Christians who put their confidence in good works and not in faith, who trust in what they do and not in what they believe, who place more store in tradition than in the Word of God—these are the modern day Pharisees. Now, as a congregation here at Ascension, you have a respectable building in which to worship. You have a set time of worship, and a specific liturgy which you follow during your church service. You even have specific rules about how the ushers should collect the offering, how meetings are conducted and so forth. This is all right and good—it helps us keep proper order within the church, as the Bible tells us we should. But this building, your attendance at a specific time, these procedures and rules and traditions, are they your religion? Your contributions to church, you attendance record, the good deeds that you do in your daily life; is that where your confidence lies? Think about it and try to answer that question honestly for yourself. Inasmuch as we put our trust in these outward things, we are bringing ourselves under the condemnation of God, when he said of the Pharisees, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.Is 29:13.

Such a Pharisee was Saul. Like all the other Pharisees, he trusted in his own works, his own righteousness, to save him. He was, in essence, his own savior, and he was walking right down the path to destruction. That is, until that day, on the road to Damascus, when he was knocked to the ground. With a brilliant light shining all around him, he saw the risen Lord Jesus. He heard Him speak these words, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? Up to this point, Saul had trusted completely in himself, but now he was confronted with the fact that there was Someone greater than himself, and that Someone was not happy! God was dissatisfied with him, God had just knocked him off his horse and flashed a bright light all around him, God had an important message for him. When he found the courage to ask, “Who are you, Lord?” Jesus replied, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness…Acts 26:15ff.

You know the rest of the story. For three days Saul was blind; he had to be led the rest of the way into Damascus by the hand. Just as you might discipline a child by setting him by himself in a corner to think about what he’s done wrong, perhaps God wanted Paul to sit in the darkness and think about the enormity of his sins, and ponder the words that the Savior had spoken to him. Then, Ananias was sent to him by God, so that Saul might regain his sight, be baptized and receive the Holy Ghost.

The Lord had turned that Pharisee Saul around 180 degrees. Before, he had been so concerned about the tiny details of the ceremonial laws; now he saw the Old Testament for what it really is: God’s gracious promise and foreshadowing of the coming Messiah, Jesus. Paul said to the Jews, “We tell you the good news; What God promised our fathers he has fulfilled in us their children by raising up Jesus…through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses.” Where Paul had known only technicalities, now he knew the full love of God, in His Son, Jesus Christ. Instead of placing his confidence in his own ability to do good and please God, now Paul placed his confidence solely in Jesus, 100% in His blood and righteousness.

Where is your confidence? Is it in the money you’ve given to God, or in the blood God’s Son gave for you? Is it in this building, or in the Savior we come here to worship? Is it in the outward form of our liturgy, or in the great Redeemer whom we praise in the liturgy? Is it in this pulpit, or is your confidence in the Word of God that is preached from this pulpit? I would hope and pray that if the Word of God, in all its truth and purity, ever ceased to be proclaimed in Ascension Lutheran Church that you would rather meet in someone’s living room or garage than sacrifice one precious Bible truth! Do you put your trust in your own honest living, in the good things that you do, in your regular attendance at church? Do you think that’s what makes you a Christian? If you do think so, then that’s what makes you a Pharisee! No matter how good a life you lead or think you lead, that’s not what will get you into heaven!

Whatever you do, don’t start looking around the church, trying to figure out who the hidden Pharisees are. We all have that sinful flesh. We are all tempted to be Pharisees. To take a little credit for our own salvation. To concentrate on rules and traditions and outward things, at the expense of God’s Word. But we know from the Bible that all our “righteousnesses” are as filthy rags; they sure won’t get us into heaven. Thank God they don’t have to! We have a different righteousness—one that is complete and makes us snow-white, pure and blameless before God, “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.Rom 3:23-24. Here is our confidence and joy! In Jesus’ death and resurrection we put our faith. We can daily turn away from our own dirty righteousness and our own feeble good works, and take on ourselves Christ’s holiness and His righteousness. For Jesus’ sake, God’s love and forgiveness toward us is complete and overwhelming. Here is Paul, the Christian, speaking: “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies!Rom 8:31-32.

Suppose you had been lost in a wilderness area for many days, and you were very hungry—starving to death!—and you finally found your way out of the woods and came upon a grocery store. I’ll bet you wouldn’t spend too much time looking at the delicacies and candies and spices in that store. You’d load your cart up with solid food; bread and meat and vegetables. Know what I’m getting at? We shouldn’t pay so much attention to the “extras” in our religion. Dig into the solid Word of God! It’s more satisfying than any meal you’ll ever eat, and more spiritually nutritious than all the vitamins in the world. Parents, the Word of God is more important for your children than the very food that they eat!

We’re not Pharisees, we’re Christians, so let’s show our joy in Jesus’ redemption by gladly hearing and reading His Word. With our faith in Jesus, and not in ourselves, with our trust in the Gospel and not in the outward forms of Christianity, we will finally be conquerors with Christ, and share with Him those eternal mansions! In His saving name, AMEN.

—Paul Naumann, Pastor

Sermon Preached May 7, 2000
Ascension Lutheran Church, Tacoma WA

Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.