Have you ever met ‘that guy’? The one who always tells you what to do and how to do it? The one who is certain that their way is the only way and insists that others think the same way? Here’s a more challenging question. Have you ever been ‘that guy?’
Most likely, the Pharisees didn’t consider themselves to be ‘that guy’. Pharisees were the well-known, highly respected religious leaders of their day. They knew the law and kept it meticulously – going even over and beyond what the law prescribed. So why would Jesus take them to task with admonishments throughout the Gospel accounts?
It was the Pharisee’s practice of religion that drew Jesus’ attention and caused Him to rebuke them:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.” Matthew 23:13, 15
The Pharisees had a zealous faith but in their enthusiasm, they became less about God and more about themselves. They took the law and added their own rules and standards. In essence, they created rules about the rules. They lost the heart of the Word of God as they sought to define higher standards that would affirm their own status. By doing this they “shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” (vs. 13)
And by insisting that others adhere to their rigid rules about rules, they sought to win people over to their own system. Jesus had harsh words for these religious leaders as he called them hypocrites and chastised them for traveling “over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.” (vs. 15)
The Pharisees had unwittingly become ‘that guy.’ They established boundary markers for faith by taking the law of God and heaping on additional rules as a requirement beyond what God intended. They defined a litmus test for faith by requiring others to follow the same artificial standards.
But Phariseeism is not restricted to biblical days. Larry Osborne observed the ways we can become like Pharisees in his book, Accidental Pharisees:
We become accidental Pharisees when we lay down some boundary markers that are narrower than ones laid down by Jesus and then treat people who line up on the wrong side of our markers as if they were spiritual imposters or enemies of the Lord.
Ultimately when you or I say we want to impress on others how they should live out their faith, then we become Pharisees. It can happen in subtle ways as we add rules and standards beyond the teachings of the Bible. It happens with lifestyle choices. We acknowledge that adultery is a sin, so we may set up protective barriers to guard against the possibility of adultery: no private conversations or activities with the opposite sex. These may be good barriers we establish for ourselves, but when we insist that others have the same barriers, we cross over to a Pharisee. It happens with worship expression. We are called to worship God and draw our heart closer to Him. We decide what that means for us, but as soon as we insist that another person raise their hands or sing with a loud voice because that is what we have chosen for ourselves, then we crossover to a Pharisee. It happens in our chosen method of time alone with God. Colossians 1:10 encourages us to grow “in the knowledge of God.” We chose for ourselves how to accomplish that, whether it is verse by serve study, topical study, or even journaling. As soon as we insist that another follow our style of spiritual reflection, we crossover to a Pharisee.
Jesus used this parable to describe the result of a zealous faith:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Luke 18:9-14
A Pharisee looks down on others and feels superior, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people” (vs. 11). A Pharisee categorizes the in and out people, “robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector” (vs..11).
As a result, a Pharisee misses grace. It was the tax collector who got it right, “‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’”(vs. 13). The tax collector recognized his sinfulness and sought the mercy of God.
Consider doing a character study on the Gospel accounts Joseph of Arimathea. He was rich (Matthew 27:57), and held a high position in a corrupt system (Mark 15:43), and out of fear of what others would think, became a secret disciple of Jesus (John 19:38). Joseph would not pass a litmus test as a sold-out follower of Jesus Christ, yet Luke 23:50 describes him as “a good and upright man.” Joseph sought after God – to do what was right in the eyes of God, rather than the eyes of man.
We can take heart with the lessons learned from the tax collector and the example of Joseph of Arimethia. Despite our sinfulness before a holy and righteous God, we can receive the love and mercy of God through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. When we come to the cross we simultaneously know that we are so sinful that Jesus had to die on our behalf and we are so loved that Jesus chose to die on our behalf.
If your practice of Christianity makes you feel virtuous, then probably, you either haven’t encountered Jesus and cross or you haven’t encountered Him recently. Instead of being assured that you have arrived and looking down on the faith of others, live in the humility and reality that you are a sinner who needs the grace of God. Your standing with God will never be based on anything that you do. You can stand with confidence before God because of what Jesus has already done for you.