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When “Book, Chapter, Verse” Becomes A Bad Thing

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Few Bible characters take as much of a beating from our pulpits today as the Pharisees. It seems everyone wants his turn in taking a swipe at them. To be labeled a modern-day “Pharisee” is considered one of the worst things you could be called. We almost can’t even utter the name “Pharisee” without scowling.

Jesus was pretty severe with them too, calling them “hypocrites” (Mark 7:6), “sons of the devil” (John 8:44), and “whitewashed tombs” (Matt. 23:27). He pointed at them when raising the standard of righteousness for His followers: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20).

The Pharisees loved to debate the technicalities of the Law of Moses. They were so preoccupied with hair-splitting that they lost sight of the spirit behind the law. Thus, Jesus rebuked them:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. (Matt. 23:23)

Jesus did not discount the importance of observing the “minor” details (are any of God’s commandments small matters?). He did, however, criticize the Pharisees for forgetting the foundational principles upon which the law was built.

The Pharisees were commended for their meticulous keeping of the law and the prophets (Matt. 23:2-3, 23). Like them, we too must care about the details (Isa. 42:21; John 14:15; 1 John 5:3). However, while the Pharisees diligently studied the Scriptures and knew lots of facts (John 5:39), they “did not have the love of God within them” (John 5:42). They reduced the law of Moses, with its 613 commandments, to a cold, legal document with loopholes to be exploited.

They saw the absence of specific commands in Scripture as permission. “The law doesn’t say it’s wrong to hate my brother; it only says I can’t kill him” (Matt. 5:21). “The law doesn’t say it’s wrong to lust after a woman; it only says I can’t commit fornication with her” (Matt. 5:27). “The law doesn’t say it’s wrong to divorce my spouse; it only says I have to do it through the proper legal channels” (Matt. 5:31). “The law says my oaths should be made in the name of God, therefore it must be okay to lie if I’m not under oath” (Matt. 5:33).

The Pharisees totally missed the point of God’s law.

Just like the Pharisees, many people today point to the absence of specific commands in the Bible as permission. “The Bible doesn’t say I have to go to every church service.” “The Bible doesn’t say it’s a sin to gamble.” “The Bible doesn’t say how long my shorts have to be or how loose my jeans have to fit.” These are the words Pharisees utter. Such statements demonstrate a failure to see the foundational principles behind God’s law.

The Pharisees weren’t wrong for keeping the law. They were wrong for being hypocrites about it – claiming to be God’s people when their hearts were anything but (Matt. 15:8). How ugly it is when we pretend to care about keeping God’s law when we’re really just longing for license.

After listing several specific sins that will keep someone out of heaven, the apostle Paul concludes the list with the words, “and things like these” (Gal. 5:21). In other words, “You’re smart enough to know what kinds of things disappoint God, even if they aren’t directly stated in Scripture.” God doesn’t want us to limit our faith to “book, chapter, verse.” He wants us to go deeper.

Woe to Christians if we ever stop caring about the explicit and implicit commands of the Bible. We should demand “book, chapter, verse” preaching and continue trying to be “people of the Book.” But true people of the Book don’t always need “book, chapter, verse” to know what displeases God. The Bible doesn’t stop with a period at the end of the book of Revelation. It must go on to change us into holier, righteous people – people who obey God’s Spirit (not just His letter) because we love Him (1 Cor. 13:1-3; John 14:24).

Your comments are welcome and encouraged, even if they are in disagreement. However, please keep your comments relevant to the article. For my full comment policy, click here.

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5 Responses to When “Book, Chapter, Verse” Becomes A Bad Thing

  1. Matthew October 3, 2017 at 9:19 AM #

    One of your better articles. I agree, we do not necessarily need bcv to know what DISpleases God. I wonder, would you affirm the converse? That is, that we do not necessarily need bcv to know what pleases God?

  2. Ewell Pritchett October 3, 2017 at 9:42 AM #

    point well taken. However, we must remember that the meticulous laws the Pharisees enforced had been so perverted over the years that it bore little resemblance to the law Moses received from God. They were hypocrites for enforcing their own manmade traditions, not the real Law of Moses.

  3. Carl Mason October 3, 2017 at 9:58 AM #

    I like to think of it this way. In a conversation about the Word, I need to know BCV. However, my answer should be given with humility and gentilness as Peter tells us.

  4. Sam Glover October 4, 2017 at 3:43 PM #

    I’m not going to lie, this sort of reasoning makes me a bit queasy. The Law did forbid bearing a grudge against neighbors and friends (Leviticus 19), but the Pharisees, who had Leviticus memorized if traditions about them are to be believed, knew this and they just chose to ignore Leviticus here for the sake of their tradition. Their beliefs could be disproven at almost every step of the way either by the prophets (Malachi declaring God’s hatred of divorce for instance) or by the Pentateuch (see above). Beyond that factual error, however, I worry because on the surface, this sort of thing looks good. Some things that aren’t explicitly condemned in the Bible are in fact sinful because they clearly violate the spirit of the Word. However, I can easily see this sort of reasoning being abused for the sake of someone forbidding things they find personally offensive but can’t clearly condemn from Scripture. Human reasoning is limited and flawed; there’s a way that seems right to a man but in the end leads to death (Proverbs 16:25) for example. Further, the mind that is set on the flesh does not want to please God, nor can it please God (Romans 8:7). My point here is that when going beyond Scripture, we risk letting a limited mind capable of being drastically wrong on a subject subjugate the product of an infinite and perfect Mind. I didn’t mean to write a treatise and I know that’s not what you’re suggesting, but still, it makes me nervous. May the Lord bless and keep you.

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