There is some disagreement regarding the origin of the phrase “speak truth to power.” It is not clear whether the phrase originated with civil rights activist Bayard Rustin in the 1940s as a battle cry against black oppression, or if the phrase originated with the 18th century Quaker movement as a phrase that description of the Quakers’ non-violence posture. Regardless of its modern-day origins, the phrase aptly describes the actions of Jesus as he engaged the power-brokers of his day, most notably the Pharisees.
The Rise of the Pharisees
The Pharisees Φαρισαῖος (separatists, or separated ones) were a religious sect that appeared prior to the ministry of Jesus, though their precise place and time of origin is unknown. The Jewish historian Josephus reports that the Pharisees rose to power during the reign of the Hasmonean prince John Hyrcanus, which places their origins between 135 and 105 BC. Prior to the Maccabean wars, Greek culture dominated the region and there was a concerted effort to Hellenize the Jews, and not surprisingly, this effort was meeting with some level of success. The rise of the Pharisees, then, was a protest mounted in response to the failing integrity of their kinsmen as they abandoned the Law of Moses in favor of Greek customs and practices, and their desire to be distinct from that shameful practice led them to become “the separated ones.”
Though never large in number, the Pharisees were a profoundly influential group, one of three that Josephus notes as dominant among the Jews, those being the Pharisees, the Saducees, and the Essenes. Their prominence is further evidenced by their close connection with Alexandra Jannaeus, a woman who became ruler of Judea upon the death of her second husband, Alexander, and who sought the support of the Pharisees on the advice of her dying husband. Alexandra is credited with restoring strict religious practices to the nation, and her close ties with the Pharisees would facilitate such a restoration. This speaks convincingly of both the Pharisees’ power and their influence.
Jesus and the Pharisees
Whether feared or honored, it is clear that the party of the Pharisees was highly influential at the time of Jesus’ ministry. They were the power brokers of the day. Where the common man or woman would not dare contradict or confront them, it is for the Pharisees that Jesus reserves some of the harshest words ever recorded as falling from his lips. Given the standing of the Pharisees in Jewish society, and the esteem they held with the people, it is no small thing in the eyes of the people for Jesus to have opposed the Pharisees so strongly and so publicly. In Matthew 23, we find eight recorded statements of woe pronounced against both the scribes and the Pharisees. I can hear the intensity in Jesus’ voice, and feel the fire in his eyes as he speaks these. Read through them and see if that is not true for you as well.
Woe #1 But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in. – Matthew 23:13, NASB
Woe #2 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you will receive greater condemnation. – Matthew 23:14, NASB
Woe #3 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves. – Matthew 23:15, NASB
Woe #4 Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is obligated.’ You fools and blind men! Which is more important, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold? And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering on it, he is obligated.’ You blind men, which is more important, the offering, or the altar that sanctifies the offering? – Matthew 23:16-19, NASB
Woe #5 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel! – Matthew 23:23-24, NASB
Woe #6 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also. – Matthew 23:25-26, NASB
Woe #7 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. – Matthew 23:27-28, NASB
Woe #8 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, ‘If we had been living in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partners with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the guilt of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how will you escape the sentence of hell? – Matthew 23:29-33, NASB
I cannot count the number of times I have read through those rebukes from Jesus, yet I never reach a point where I can read them without thinking to myself that Jesus is using dangerously strong language. But it is language appropriate to the work he came to do.
Jesus and Roman Authorities
It was not against the authority of the Pharisees alone to which Jesus stood in opposition. Consider Jesus before Pontius Pilate, the fifth Prefect of the Roman Province of Judaea. Pilate governed Judaea as an extension of the power and authority of the Roman Emperor Tiberius. Take note of the way in which Pilate discusses the concept of authority with Jesus:
He entered his headquarters again and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.” – John 19:9-11, ESV
Today, anyone who dared to speak similarly, even to a local judge, would be held in contempt and made to serve time behind bars. Jesus has no lack of courage. Following this statement to Pilate, the Prefect made attempts to release him, but eventually succumbed to the shouts and outrage of the crowd.
Courage as a Christ-Follower
Being a Christ-follower carries with it a level of courage that is difficult to miss. It is a courage that says, “Come what may, I will speak the truth.” It is as much the case today as it was when Jesus and his disciples walked their dusty roads. This is what happens to the follower of Jesus:
Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus. – Acts 4:13, NASB
There is something about spending time with Jesus (or perhaps it is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit of God) that emboldens us to speak the truth courageously, even if those in authority order us to remain silent. Jesus modeled this backbone to us, and the Christ-saturated man and woman will model this backbone to the world. We speak truth with love and courage, just as Jesus speaks truth boldly regardless of the consequences, whether that truth involves him being the bread of life, or the cost of being a disciple, or fasting, or the Sabbath, or the ability to accept and grow with his teachings. Jesus speaks truth confidently, and the Christ-follower will speak truth just as confidently. Remember, however, we are talking about truth, not opinion, tradition, or preferences.
For Jesus, speaking truth is of such great import that he does so knowing that the truth he speaks will cause those who hear it to want to kill him.
“Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.” “You are not yet fifty years old,” the Jews said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!” “I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” At this, they picked up stones to stone him. – John 8:56-59a, NIV – 1978
Stay bold, Christian. Stay courageous.