It seems these days whenever a Christian exercises Biblical discernment and questions the theology being presented or taught by a Pastor, Teacher, or fellow Christian, the accusation or warning of being Pharisaical is just around the corner. The trendy thing in today’s evangelical circles is to be “above denominations” and to be known as a “Word church”, a “Bible believing” church. What strikes me as odd is that many time such churches teach so very little Scripture, that one wonders exactly whose “word” the church has been built around. If Christ is to be both the Head of the Church and the Cornerstone of the church, then shouldn’t the very Word of God be the sole measure of the Church and its doctrine? Recently, a friend of mine shared that he was reading a book called Pharisectomy, so I decided it was time we stopped throwing around this general pejorative and look at what the sin of the Pharisee truly was in hopes of properly defining what it means to be Pharisaical.
The Pharisees Rejected Jesus as the Christ, Son of God
I thought I’d start at the most obvious, and eternally condemning sin, the sin of rejecting Jesus as the Son of God. All of Israel was longing for the Messiah (Hebrew for the Anointed One of God) the Christ (Greek for the Anointed One), the Son of David to arrive as prophesied. In Matthew, we see from the beginning that the Pharisees were aware of the prophecies concerning the coming Christ, and they knew well enough to seek out the “one calling in the wilderness”.
Matthew 3:4-12 (ESV) 4 Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 10 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Wow. John the Baptist wasted no time calling out the Pharisees and Sadducees who came out to investigate John the Baptist. As Matthew records this event, he captures 3 statements (underlined) that serve as prophetic statements. The first is John’s reference to them as a “brood of vipers“. What is interesting to me, is that this will come up again a couple of times when Jesus confronts the Pharisees. The next underlined portion serves as prophetic warning of an argument that the Pharisees will indeed make during a confrontation with Jesus. Finally, the third statement ends up being a recurring theme in Jesus’ teachings regarding trees not bearing fruit. Very exciting. However, before we get to it, I want to hop over to John for the rest of this encounter between John the Baptist and the Pharisees. I can’t say whether or not this happened before the account in Matthew or after it, but it adds to the picture of what is taking place.
John 1:19-28 (ESV) 19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21 And they asked him, “What then?Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” 24 (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) 25 They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, 27 even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28 These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
Clearly, the Pharisees were looking for the Christ, Elijah, or the Prophet. There hadn’t been an anointed Prophet of God since Malachi. Many expected Elijah to be the forerunner of the Christ. I find it interesting that John the Baptist denied this, when Jesus later spoke of John the Baptist as Elijah who had already come and was not recognized. I am certain that in his desire to do the will of God, his sole focus was to point to the Christ, the Son of God. Now Jesus performed a great many miracles. These miracles were to serve as a testimony to the fact that Jesus was in-fact, the Christ, the Son of God.
Matthew 11:2-6 (ESV)2 Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” 4 And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. 6 And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
This was what John the Baptist needed to hear, and all of these signs were performed before people so that they would know who Jesus is and repent. However, there were many who did not repent.
Matthew 11:20-24 (ESV) 20 Then [Jesus] began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.”
John 9:24-34 (ESV) 24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind and said to him, “Give glory to God. We know that this man is a sinner.” 25 He answered, “Whether he is a sinner I do not know. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26 They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27 He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28 And they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30 The man answered, “Why, this is an amazing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him. 32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34 They answered him, “You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?” And they cast him out.
John 8:31-47 (ESV) 31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” 34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. 37 I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you. 38 I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father.” 39 They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, 40 but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. 41 You are doing the works your father did.” They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God.” 42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. 43 Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. 44 You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. 46 Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? 47 Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.”
Now, as for what the Pharisees were looking for in the Christ, Jesus asks them directly toward the end. Granted that by this time, it is clear that the Pharisees had already hardened their hearts against Jesus declaring him a blasphemer, an impostor, even a sinner (for breaking the Sabbath according to their rules) and a demon-possessed man, still the answer is interesting:
Matthew 22:41-46 (ESV) 41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, 42 saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43 He said to them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying,
44 “‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet”’?
45 If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” 46 And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
They set their hearts and minds to kill him, primarily because they rejected Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God. Their fate was sealed by their hardened hearts and their unbelief. In His trial, Jesus made it clear to them that He had already said all that needed to be said, and He had done so openly, plainly, and publicly:
John 18:19-24 (ESV) 19 The high priest then questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. 20 Jesus answered him, “I have spoken openly to the world. I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. 21 Why do you ask me? Ask those who have heard me what I said to them; they know what I said.” 22 When he had said these things, one of the officers standing by struck Jesus with his hand, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” 23 Jesus answered him, “If what I said is wrong, bear witness about the wrong; but if what I said is right, why do you strike me?” 24 Annas then sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.
There is a lot more to be said about how these Pharisees ignored Messianic Prophecies and the Law of Moses to feed their greed, defend their pride, and feed their bloodlust against Jesus. They hated Jesus and were lovers of themselves, and their esteemed positions.
The Righteousness of the Pharisee was Purely External
Jesus had a lot to say about the heart issue of the Pharisees. They were neither fulfilling their duties as priests, nor were they serving the people. They were serving themselves. Let’s see how Jesus rebuked them.
Matthew 23:1-7 (ESV) 23 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, 3 so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, 6 and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues 7 and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.
Matthew 23:23-36 (ESV) 23 “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. 24 You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! 25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. 27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. 29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, 30 saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. 33 You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? 34 Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, 35 so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.
I skipped a couple of Woes because the fall more into the next point. Notice here, that Jesus doesn’t say that the Law is bad or wrong. He says plainly that the disciples are not to emulate their works. They preached perfection of the Law and their identity as Levites, Scribes, and Rabbis while hiding greed, self-indulgence, uncleanness, and lawlessness. In Luke 11, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees while dining in one of their homes. The Lawyers jump in, much to their dismay:
Luke 11:45-52 (ESV) 45 One of the lawyers answered him, “Teacher, in saying these things you insult us also.” 46 And he said, “Woe to you lawyers also! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers. 47 Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed. 48 So you are witnesses and you consent to the deeds of your fathers, for they killed them, and you build their tombs. 49 Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ 50 so that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, 51 from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be required of this generation. 52 Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.”
That last comment is telling. In their refusal to accept Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, the Pharisees also persecuted the church, in the same way that their fathers killed and persecuted the prophets.
They Did not Understand the Law, and They Abused it to Serve Themselves
Matthew 15:1-9 (ESV) 1 Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” 3 He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 5 But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” 6 he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. 7 You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
8 “‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
9 in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
Matthew 22:23-33 (ESV) 23 The same day Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection, and they asked him a question, 24 saying, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies having no children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother.’ 25 Now there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died, and having no offspring left his wife to his brother. 26 So too the second and third, down to the seventh. 27 After them all, the woman died. 28 In the resurrection, therefore, of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they all had her.” 29 But Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. 30 For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 31 And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” 33 And when the crowd heard it, they were astonished at his teaching.
Matthew 23:16-22 (ESV) 16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ 17 You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? 18 And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ 19 You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21 And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. 22 And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it.
Luke 18:9-14 (ESV) 9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Beware the Leaven of the Pharisees
Luke 12 (ESV) 12 In the meantime, when so many thousands of the people had gathered together that they were trampling one another, he began to say to his disciples first, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. 2 Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. 3 Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.
Matthew 12:33-37 (ESV) 33 “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. 36 I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, 37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
Hypocrisy, twisting of Scripture for their own traditions, self-aggrandizement, and rejection or obfuscation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ are the markings of a Pharisee, or the sin of being Pharisaical. These are strong accusations. The rebukes levied against the Pharisees were of the strongest that Jesus uttered. We should be very careful to flippantly toss out such accusations at a brother or sister who is trying to point to the Word of God. Are there present-day Pharisees? Sure. However, I’d wager that they aren’t the ones commonly being labeled Pharisaical. Someone who preaches himself, or preaches only Law without Gospel, who weighs a man’s tithing before serving as his shepherd… these are the indicators of a Pharisee, not the one who is exercising Biblical discernment, objects to questionable teaching and insists on sound doctrine.
I pray that you walking the Spirit of God, and that you exercise Biblical and Spiritual Discernment. Guard your doctrine, and preach the Word of God rather than the schemes of men.
Jude 1: 24-25 (ESV) Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.
May the Lord bless you and keep you,