The Pharisees are perhaps the main villains of the Gospels.
These popular religious leaders were constantly at odds with Jesus, challenging Him and His teaching, and eventually grew to hate Him so much that they conspired with others to have Him killed (e.g. Mt 12.14).
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The Pharisees were devout in their worship of Yaweh, fiercely committed to the Scriptures, reverent defenders of the Law, and completely devoted to the Jewish people.
But they were also self-righteous, self-serving, and so positive that they had God and the Scriptures figured out that they were completely blind to what God was actually up to.
Because of their role as the bad guys in the Jesus story, it is common for Christians to accuse other Christians of being Pharisees – it’s an easy title to slander our opponents with, and automatically sets them up as being on the wrong side of God.
(We, of course, are always on the right side of God!)
But if we’re being honest, there’s a little Pharisee in all of us who follow Jesus.
Phariseeism is what happens when our humanness gets mixed up in our spiritual life. It happens to everyone. Inevitable and unavoidable.
It happens when acting for God gets disconnected from God Himself.
When we overemphasize right behaviour without right hearts.
When we worry about outward appearance more than inward change.
When we don’t practice what we self-righteously preach.
When knowing about God becomes more important than knowing God.
When the Scriptures become a legal document instead of a God-breathed revelation.
In Matthew 23.13-39, Jesus famously rebukes the Pharisees for their actions, in seven great statements of “woe” against them.
We’ll take a look at these seven specific corrections, to see what Jesus had to say about this group that always seemed opposed to Him, and to see what we can learn from them.
The point is not to read over these and think, “I know other people who totally do that!”
The point, in humility, is to read and pray, “Lord, where do I do these things?”
And “What can I learn from them?”
So what was wrong with the Pharisees?
- The Pharisees turned people away from Heaven (Mt 23.13). People were seeking the Lord, trying to come to Him, and the Pharisees were actually getting in the way. We are not told why or how exactly (the whole list of woes may contribute to the answer), but it begs the question: Are we Christians ever turning people off, or turning people away, who are trying to know or understand or come to Jesus?
- The Pharisees evangelized for wrong reasons (v.15). They worked hard for converts, but then brought their converts no closer to the LORD. Were they looking for increased numbers? Money? Bragging rights? The Church falls into these traps for sure. We aren’t told the specifics as to why. But they were striving to win souls, and then failing to help these souls actually follow the LORD. It is evangelism without discipleship, and it is a major problem for the modern Church.
- The Pharisees invented or exaggerated rules and regulations that were not found in Scripture (v.16-22). Think of the anti-dancing preacher in Footloose. The Pharisees typically elevated their man-made rules to same level as Scripture and demanded obedience to them. It may have been done with the best of intentions, but nonetheless, they glorified their own opinions and traditions, and minimized the Scriptures in doing so. It is easy for us to do the same, whenever we elevate our policies and practices and values to “holy” levels, even if they are not clearly found in Scripture.
- The Pharisees were meticulously obedient to the LORD in some matters while ignoring others (v.23-24). Jesus commends them for their scrupulous tithing but challenges them for ignoring huge and vastly more important moral categories like acting with justice, mercy, and faithfulness in their lives. They apparently felt that their devotion to the little things gave them a pass on the more important things. Think of the stereotypical Christian who “never misses a Sunday,” gives faithfully, and helps in various ministries, but still holds on to racist or sexist attitudes, or ignores the poor in the community, or worries more about their own rights and privileges instead of serving others. As Jesus said, we should practice the former without giving up the latter.
- The Pharisees emphasized outward action instead of inward change (v.25-26). The phrase “shiny plastic Christians” comes to mind – showing off to the world how good and pious we seem, without ever dealing with the root issues of fear, anger, greed, etc. which brew inside of us. Without inward transformation, outward actions can only go so far before we slide back into old habits and patterns. The promise of the Gospel is an entirely new heart, stamped with the word of God, which desires to do His will (Jer 31.33-34; Eze 36.36-37; 2Co 5.17). From that inward change, the outward action will follow.
- The Pharisees were more concerned about looking good than being good (v.25-28). Similar to the previous “woe,” they focused on how others viewed them, and what they were displaying to the world, instead of working on the inner transformation that would lead to lasting outward change. Think of what social media has done in our time – never has it been easier to make ourselves look good! But they were deceiving themselves, thinking that appearance was all that matters, and we easily do the same.
- The Pharisees lived in a mentality of “us vs. them” (v.29-36). The Pharisees and their ancestors attacked God’s true servants. No doubt they attacked and killed thinking they were doing the will of God! But the Pharisees decided that they were right, that everyone on the other side was wrong, and then fiercely persecuted those on the other side. Of course, they would even do this with Jesus Himself, because He did not line up with their particular interpretation of Scripture. In so doing, they themselves were dead wrong, and attacked the very ones that were doing God’s will. Whenever we start thinking of other people in terms of “us vs. them,” we would do well to remember that Church history is rife with examples of Christians eventually turning to bloodshed in these times. It is completely opposite to the call to love our enemies (Mt 5.43-48), and thus is not the way of Jesus.
Again, we do not read these with a judgmental eye towards other believers or other churches – we should read with a sobering eye towards ourselves.
The Pharisees are perhaps the main villains of the Gospels.
And if we’re honest, there is at least a little Pharisee in all of us.
Jesus’ rebuke for them is a rebuke for all of us.
But rebukes, although painful, don’t need to remain in pain.
Not if we take the words of Jesus to heart, see our mistakes, and in humility, turn from them, seeking to walk in the ways of Christ instead.
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