Pharisee. When you hear that word, a few adjectives tend to come to mind. Hypocritical. Judgmental. Pompous.
If you read Matthew 23, it’s not surprising that we might hold such an opinion of the Pharisees. Throughout the Gospel accounts in the New Testament, the Pharisees presented as being at constant odds with Jesus and He readily rebukes their behavior. But it’s important to understand how the Pharisees were seen in Jesus’ day in order to fully grasp the significance when Jesus challenged them.
We tend to think of the Pharisees as the ‘bad guys’. In reality, they were highly respected religious leaders know for being passionate. They initially had a real heart for God. They wanted to demonstrate their heart for God in tangible ways so they established standards. They eventually began creating rules about rules. Their passion for God subtly transformed into passion about the rules and a desire to enforce others to live by the standards they had set for themselves. They became misguided in their practices. What may have begun as a way to honor God became a way to prove that God should honor them.
There are ways that all of us can become a Pharisee. Whenever we determine that our way is the right way and everyone else is wrong, it damages our relationships, our testimony of God and our own spiritual life. Larry Osborne states it well in his book, Accidental Pharisee:
You’ve probably known a jerk for Jesus – someone who thought they were advancing the cause of the Kingdom when in reality they were embarrassing the King. I think of a man in our church who sees himself as a mature, front of the line Christian. He’s passionate about the scriptures. He loves to study. He digs deep. He knows far more than most so he’s taken it upon himself to become a spiritual watchdog to protect the rest of us. He barks at and attacks anyone who misspeaks or misuses or misunderstands the Bible. He thinks he’s helping out Jesus by keeping the heretics out. The problem is that God never asked him to be a pit bull for right doctrine. God does ask him, and all of us, to contend for the faith. He asks us to do it on a manner exactly the opposite of the way my pit bull friend defends the Gospel. We’re supposed to avoid quarreling, to be kind, and to gently instruct people who oppose us. My friend’s pit bull methodology illustrates the biggest problem with over-zealous faith and the reason why it’s so hard to self-diagnose. It’s almost always true to Scripture but it’s not true to all of Scripture. It’s partly right and it fixates on one area of God’s Word – for instance, defending the faith while ignoring other parts, like doing kindly and acting gently. Unfortunately, most of us, when we think of having over-zealous faith and being a jerk for Jesus, we picture someone with bad breath, bad theology, and no people skills. So it never dawns on us that we could be included. It’s easy for us to spot a pompous co-worker with a big Bible on his desk, a chip on his shoulder, and a tiny heart in his chest. The self-proclaimed great witness for the Lord, whom everyone tries to ignore and no one wants to eat lunch with. But we seldom see it in the mirror.
The problem created by a Pharisee is the misperception that faith and following Jesus requires a life that is so externally perfect that there is no way anyone can meet the standard. It causes people to become hopeless or dismissive. Even worse, many people have confused misguided and over-zealous Christians with genuine faith. Mahatma Ghandi had a pointed observation, “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
How do we live a life of authentic faith that is winsome rather than a faith that turns others away? We must first identify the piece of Pharisee in all of us. We can learn some indicators found in Matthew 23:
- Presumption: Matthew 23:2 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat
A Pharisee assumes the right to speak for God. Anytime we try to set other people right, we are saying, “My way is the best way,” and we assume authority that we don’t really have. We transfer our own passion and justify what we’ve already decided. Ashley Null puts it this way, “What the heart loves, the will chooses, the mind justifies. “ If you find yourself feeling justified in getting angry and amped up over an issue rather than being anything but gentle and kind, you may be transitioning to a Pharisee, Instead of living by policing the actions and thoughts of others, we must come to them with an open heart and open hands.
- Presentation: Matthew 23:3-5 do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries[wide and the tassels on their garments long.
A Pharisees is concerned about the outward appearance and what others think. A Pharisee takes a principle, rule, or standard and makes an absolute out of it. And a Pharisee can fall on either side of the extreme. Because drunkenness is a sin, some may choose to never drink alcohol and some see no problem with alcohol in moderation. A Pharisee can be the one who chastises another for drinking, but a Pharisee can also be the one who chastises one who chooses not to drink. We all develop affiliations that represent what we feel is right. We can develop a sense that our group – whether it is in politics, church affiliation, or social action – is the group that Jesus likes best. We live like a Pharisee when we feel that the outward group we associate with is the only group that is right.
Matthew 23:5-12 Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others. “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
A Pharisee wants to be seen for way they live and be esteemed for who they are or what they do. The reality of pride is that all of us look for something to make us feel good about ourselves. We transfer this to faith by assuming that God will think higher of us if we can be seen doing the right things – by being better than the next guy. We can feel good about the fact that God loves us, but it’s not because of anything we could possibly do. It is all about what Jesus has done on our behalf. God loves you not because of what you think or do but because of what Jesus has done for you
The problem with a Pharisee is that they seem to have a high view of the law because they are all about rules and standards. In actuality, they have a low view of the law because they feel that it is something that is reached or attained. If you succeed at a low view of the law, you can start to feel like you’re really good. If you fail at it, you can sink into self-doubt and rejection. J. Gresham Machen made this observation almost 100 years ago, “A low view of law always produces legalism; a high view of law makes a person a seeker after grace. “
The reality is that all of us with have times of being a Pharisee. We can’t just will ourselves to stop the behavior. We must, instead, come to terms with what the Bible teaches us about sin and Jesus Christ:
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 2 Corinthians 5:21
God made Jesus sin for us so we could become the righteousness of God. If our view is that we just need to try harder, do a little better, and make sure everyone else is doing it better, then we haven’t accepted the central message of the Bible. Instead, we have a low view of the law, thinking it is obtainable and can be reached on our own. The way to be truly changed is by acknowledging our own inability to measure up to the law. When we realize that we come short of the perfect standard of God and that we are sinful and in desperate need of a Savior, we can be rescued from our own inner Pharisee.