The Holy Spirit did not go into such detail about the Pharisees in the New Testament just so we could understand a group unique to the first century. Pharisaism is a poisonous weed that grows in every garden of orthodox religion. Pharisaism is every bit the threat to the orthodox today that it was then. – J.D Greear
Several years ago I heard a pastor introduce his guest speaker, who was going to teach the congregation about meditation techniques, inner visualization, and the power of religious icons. Knowing that many in his flock would be uncomfortable with this, the pastor said, “Now we’ll see how many Pharisees we have here tonight by the reaction our guest
That was clever. Any objections to questionable teaching would be written off as the rants of a Pharisee which, I’m pretty sure, guaranteed that nobody with honest concerns spoke up.
But is anyone who values sound doctrine really a Pharisee? If not, what exactly is a Pharisee, and what’s the difference between him and someone who simply cares about truth?
Who They Were
No one provoked Jesus’ wrath like these guys, so whatever they were, we want none of it.
Yet what they were doesn’t seem so awful at first glance. Probably formed after the Babylonian Exile, Pharisees weren’t duly appointed priests, but rather a sect of Jewish leaders getting their name from a word meaning “distinct” or “separate”, both of which are accurate descriptors of
They considered themselves the true interpreters of Moses Law, a consideration shared by a high percentage of the Jewish population, among whom they wielded tremendous influence.
Josephus estimates about 6000 of them operated in Jesus’ time, and their profile among the people was strong (John 7:48) competing for prominence with sects like the Sadducees and the Essenes.
As self-appointed interpreters of the Law, they added reams of traditions and applications to it, and that alone puts a question mark over their heads.
But that’s not what got the Lord so riled. It was their self-righteous attitude, double standards, and lopsided priorities that He railed against. These, in a nutshell, are the seven qualities that made them awful:
- Hypocrisy – they said one thing and did another (Matthew 23: 3)
- Vanity – they did good works for the sake of recognition (Matthew 23: 5)
- Arrogance – they craved positions of prominence among the people
(Matthew 23: 6-7)
- Rigidity – they kept people from believing they can enter the kingdom (Matthew 23: 13)
- Religiosity – they valued ceremonial observances above human need and fair treatment (Matthew 23: 14-19)
- Imbalance – they nit-picked about secondary ceremonial issues while neglecting weightier matters like justice, mercy,
and compassion (Matthew 23: 23)
- Defilement – they paid attention to outer appearance while neglecting the inner man (Matthew 23 25-26)
So Who Qualifies?
To be a true Pharisee, it’s not enough to simply believe some things are right while others are wrong. Nor is it enough to be concerned, even angry, about wrongdoing or wrong doctrine.
You must be a hypocrite, preaching a high standard to others while secretly falling short of it yourself. Then you have to look down on most people, considering yourself holier than others.
You’ve also got to place higher value on religious tradition than human need, and you have to covet position and power. And, of course, you have to make a very public show of your good works.
Unless these things are evident in your life – a superior attitude, a double standard, indifference to others, and a penchant for showing off – then sorry, you didn’t make the cut. You’re simply not a Pharisee.
If you judge what’s preached or taught by comparing it to scripture, and consider that a responsibility all Christians have, then you don’t qualify. But if you look for minor flaws in someone’s message, and relish pointing them out, then you’re in.
If you pursue holiness and expect other believers to do the same, you’re not Pharisee material. But if you scrutinize another’s personal habits then pounce because he likes the wrong rock groups or watches the wrong tv shows, then you’re on the right track. (Especially if your own entertainment choices are questionable.)
If you exhort a fellow believer to look at a significant error in his life, you’re more of a good friend than a good Pharisee. But if you talk about that same brother behind his back, questioning his integrity and elevating yourself above him, then your long white robe is showing.
Christians who value truth, and react when it’s disregarded, aren’t Pharisees.
Christians who’ve appointed themselves critics and auditors of other believers, ignoring essentials and obsessing over secondary issues, deserve the title.
And, as the Serenity Prayer puts so succinctly, God grant us the wisdom to know the difference.