Are the Pharisees still among us?

pharisees do not honor JesusWhat comes to your mind when you hear the word Pharisee? A self-righteous person? A religious hypocrite? A haughty and arrogant legalist?

Most people have a negative view of Pharisees. The Pharisees are primarily remembered as the chief antagonists against Jesus. Yet what many do not know is that they had a noble beginning long before the days of Jesus’ earthly life.

The Pharisees (in early formation) had great zeal for the things of God. Believing that God’s people had been punished through the Babylonian captivity for neglecting God’s law and compromising with pagan culture, these men became zealots for the Law and extreme separatists from the world. From the intensity of their devotion to the Law, they progressively established detailed oral traditions to hedge up the actual laws of God. They did this to insure against any possible infringement of God’s Law.

The Jewish leaders (t the time of Jesus’ ministry) were divided into various groups. The New Testament primarily refers to the Pharisees and Sadducees. It also mentions scribes and priests, the majority of whom were numbered among the Pharisees. These religious groups were organized into distinct and closed communities, and were divided based on differing schools of interpretation of the Law. The Pharisees influenced a large segment of society and were more accepted among the people than the Sadducees.

Conservatives of the conservatives 

These men were the conservatives of the conservatives — the fundamentalists of the fundamentalists. “All others might go liberal,” they thought, “but not us, we are the separated ones.” Even during New Testament times, these men were distinguished by their religious devotion. They would cross land and sea to make one convert! They were committed to detailed tithing. Although the Old Testament required one fast a year, they fasted twice a week. Their ideas of Sabbath observance required far more than the intention of Scripture and the ability of man.

Sabbath regulations

Jewish historian Alfred Edersheim wrote, “The Biblical Law forbade such labor (on the Sabbath) in simple terms (Exodus 36:6; comp. Jeremiah 17:22). But Rabbinism developed the prohibition into eight special ordinances, by first dividing ‘bearing of a burden’ into two separate acts – lifting it up and putting it down – and then arguing, that it might be lifted up or put down from two different places, from a public into a private into a public place. Again, a ‘burden’ meant, as the lowest standard of it, the weight of ‘a dried fig.’ But if ‘half a fig’ were carried at two different times – lifted or deposited from a private into a public place, or vice versa – were these two actions to be combined into one so as to constitute the sin of Sabbath desecration? The standard measure for forbidden food was the size of an olive, just as that for carrying burdens was the weight of a fig. If a man had swallowed forbidden food of the size of half an olive, rejected it, and again eaten of the size of half an olive, he would be guilty because the palate had altogether tasted food to the size of a whole olive,” (The Life & Times of Jesus The Messiah, pp. 778-79).

Measures of true godliness

We might laugh at these traditions and consider them ridiculous, but they were neither funny nor trivial to the Pharisees. Their traditions became measures of true godliness and instruments of condemnation.

The original concern of the Pharisees was to safeguard the people against the disobedience and worldliness that led to divine punishment in the Babylonian captivity. By Jesus’ time, (though the same zeal existed), their intentions had become corrupt. Their love for the Law was replaced with a love for the reputation gained by Law-keeping. The Law itself (with the traditions) became a convenient vehicle for self-exaltation (Matthew 23:5-7). Jesus said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts” (Luke 16:15). He identified the Pharisees as those “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and viewed others with contempt” (Luke 18:9). The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were so self-righteous they actually believed God and man owed them honor for their devotion to their traditions.

On one occasion, the Scribes and Pharisees said to Jesus, “Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders?” Jesus responded, “And why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” Jesus rebuked them saying, “you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, ‘In vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men'” (Matthew 15:2-9).

NT picture of the Pharisees

Although there were some sincerely devout Pharisees (e.g. Nicodemus, John 3;7:50; 19:39, Joseph of Arimathea, Mark 15:43; Luke 23:51), the NT picture of the Pharisees portrays them as unscrupulously judgmental, severely unmerciful, unkind and unforgiving. Their evaluations of others were based on external appearances. They heaped their traditions on the truth of Scripture and on the shoulders of people (see Matthew 23:4). They were proud, self-exalting, self-righteous people who viewed others with contempt for not living up to their traditions.

The primary distinctive of Pharisees was the significance they attached to their traditions. They elevated their laws to divine status, as coming from Moses himself. To protect against any possible violation of the actual Law, the Pharisees built a hedge around it by establishing what they considered to be legitimate applications of that Law. The problem came in their inability to differentiate between the command and the means used to safeguard against violating the command—- their applications.

Development of traditions

“This material apparently began to evolve during the Babylonian Exile through the new circumstances thereby brought upon the Jewish people. The Exile was seen as divine punishment for neglect of the law, and accordingly during this period there was an earnest turning to the law. Detailed exposition of the law appeared in the form of innumerable and highly specific injunctions that were designed to ‘build a hedge’ around the written Torah and thus guard against any possible infringement of the Torah by ignorance or accident. In addition, the new circumstances of the Exile and the post-exilic period involved matters not covered in the written Torah; consequently new legislation had to be produced by analogy to, and inference from, that which already existed.

“The content of this oral law continued to evolve and to grow in volume through the intertestamental, NT, and post-NT periods, finally to achieve written form in the Mishnah (AD 200). This oral law is referred to in the gospels as, ‘the tradition of the elders,’ or ‘the traditions of men’ (Mt. 15:1-9, Mark 7:1-23; cf. Jos Antiq X III. xvi. 2). The NT abounds with allusions to the scrupulous concern of the Pharisees with the minutia of their legalism: the tithing of herbs (Matt. 23:23; Luke 11:42); the wearing of conspicuous phylacteries and tassels (Matt. 23:5); the careful observance of ritual purity (e.g., Mark 7:1ff); frequent fastings (Matt. 9:14); distinctions in oaths (23:16ff), etc., and extremely detailed Sabbath law. The Mishnah offers even more striking illustration of this precise definition of the law. Here is a virtual encyclopedia of Pharisaic legalism that instructs the reader with almost incredible detail concerning every conceivable area of conduct” (Zondervan Pictorial Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, p. 748).

Tragically, the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were so blinded by their traditions that they rejected the Messiah himself. They did not have a category for Jesus. He healed people on the Sabbath and actually commanded one man to take up his pallet and walk. “Therefore the Jews were saying to him who was cured, ‘It is the Sabbath, and it is not permissible for you to carry your pallet.’ But he answered them, ‘He who made me well was the One who said to me, Take up your pallet and walk.’ And for this reason, the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because He was doing these things on the Sabbath” (John 5:10-16). D.A. Hagner

On occasions, Jesus tried to correct the error of the Pharisees but they refused to hear Him. They were convinced He violated their traditions which to them was equivalent to disobedience to God. Therefore, they concluded that Jesus had to be an evil man. Because of their proud hearts, they wouldn’t consider seeing themselves as wrong. In spite of the evident miracles and works of God visible in Jesus (confirming His identity as their Messiah), they rejected Him. They couldn’t comprehend how Jesus could eat with sinners, sit with sinners, let a sinful woman wash His feet and also be a prophet of God. “No truly righteous man,” they reasoned, “could do these things; He must be a sinner.”

The extent of their blindness was so serious that when they tried to kill Jesus. Finally, they had Him put to death and actually thought they were serving God. Ultimately their traditions promoted disobedience and shut men out of the kingdom.

Who are the Pharisees today?

It is vital for believers today to take a close look at the type of judging Jesus condemned. When Jesus said, “judge not” he had a specific kind of judging in mind. It was hypocritical judgment based, not on the actual commands of God, but on man-made traditions added to God’s Word.

Sadly, this type of judgmental attitude can still be found among Christians. It was addressed in the early church (specifically in Romans 14), and one might argue was anticipated by Jesus in Matthew 7:1-5.

The judgmental attitude Jesus condemns manifests itself whenever a believer, church, or institution establishes a conviction on something that is not specifically addressed in Scripture and uses that conviction (which is really a preference), to measure the spirituality of others. On matters not specifically addressed in Scripture, equally sincere believers have to come to different conclusions concerning right and wrong. But Christians have not always responded to their differences with maturity and grace. 

Author Garry Friesen lists areas of difference observed among Christians. Consider his list with a few of my own additions. Remember, these are issues which are not specifically addressed in scripture. Attending movies, Wearing two-piece swim suits (women), Watching television, Mixed swimming, Working for pay on Sunday, Playing pool, Mowing the lawn on Sunday, Playing cards, Fishing on Sunday, Gambling for recreation, Drinking wine in moderation, Buying insurance, Cooking with wine, Smoking, Attending the theater for live drama, Dancing, Participating in sports, Wearing pant suits to church (women), Participating in contact sports, Using a Bible translation other than King James, Eating food in the church building, Playing guitars or drums in church, Letting your children go trick or treating, Men wearing their hair over their ears, Women wearing make-up, Putting your children in public school, Purchasing cable television

Laughter and incredulity

Friesen writes, “People who read this list tend to react with laughter and incredulity. On the one hand, they chuckle at the items that are obviously in the area of freedom. On the other hand, they can’t believe that anyone could feel free before God to do the things that are obviously forbidden by principles of Scripture. And yet if we asked ten different believers of various ages and backgrounds from different parts of the country to separate those activities into categories of ‘permissible’ and ‘not permissible,’ we would likely end up with ten different sets of lists.

“A primary reason for this state of affairs is that biblical commands tend to be general in character. They require holiness, love, separation from the world, good stewardship of resources, personal consecration, and the like. Such directives will be obeyed in different ways in different settings. Serious conflict arises when personal or cultural applications of divine imperatives are added to the list of universal absolutes” (Decision Making and the Will of God, p. 383).

Applying general commands

Pharisaic judgmentalism occurs when church leaders or individual Christians apply general commands in specific ways and openly or subtly place their application on the same level as Scripture – judging as unspiritual all who fail to live up to their standard. While believers are free to establish their own conviction in areas of freedom, they are clearly not permitted to condemn those who do not share their opinions (Romans 14:3).

If God has not specifically addressed a behavior, custom, or activity, we are not allowed to manipulate biblical data to suggest He has been specific. On the other hand, a believer should not ridicule or look down on another believer for feeling constrained in areas of freedom.

Artificial unity

Some Christians feel uncomfortable with the fact that certain behaviors and activities are “permitted or left to free and responsible judgment according to the best of our knowledge and conscience.” Desiring simplicity and security, they want everything to be understood as clearly commanded or clearly forbidden. They want everything to be labeled as right or wrong. If God has not accommodated their desire with specific instruction on an issue, they will put an interpretive twist on a more general command to place the matter into a clear category of right or wrong. These same people also mistakenly believe that the only way to maintain unity in the church is to offer detailed legislation on each debatable issues. This is artificial unity which ultimately ends up destroying the influence of a church.

Dr. Friessen offers helpful insight on this subject. “Part of God’s design for the Church is that it should successfully manifest unity in diversity. It was His intent that people with divergent personalities, nationalities, gifts, abilities, tastes, and backgrounds should become unified in Christ without sacrificing personal distinctiveness (I Corinthians 12:12-27); Colossians 3:11).”

“Accordingly, God does not view differences of opinion in the area of freedom as a bad thing. The inevitability of such variance of thought is not seen as a flaw in an otherwise beautiful plan. It rather represents one more situation in which the supernatural character of the Church, and its observable distinctiveness as a living organism, may be manifested before the world (John 13:35; 17:20-21).”

What God desires is not uniformity of opinion but unity of relationship (Romans 15:5-7). Instead of trying to eliminate difference of opinion, the Holy Spirit has given specific instructions to guide us into unity on debatable matters.

Avoiding Extreme Responses

“On the one hand, there is the Christian who relishes his freedom and appreciates his direct accountability to God. He basically ignores the opinions of others, and lets the chips fall where they may. If others get offended by his enjoyment of Christian liberty, that’s their problem.”

“The other extreme is represented by the sensitive saint who values his position in the Body of Christ. Recognizing his accountability to the other members of the Body, he bends over backwards to keep from violating anyone’s convictions. If he bends over far enough for long enough, he eventually discovers that he cannot move at all. Most Christians recognize instinctively that neither of these two extremes is appropriate. We cannot ignore our differences; neither can we be immobilized by them.” (Dr. Friessen)

For the sake of the gospel, we must take the more challenging path and relate to one another harmoniously—differences included. We must be slow to judge in less defined areas (and at times we must refuse to act as judge). We are also taught by Jesus to be slow to take offense and always ready for reconciliation. In areas of freedom, we are required to respect each other. We are not permitted to force other believers to conform to our standards (Romans 14:3).

Finally, keep things in perspective. If we presented the average unbeliever with a list of the things clearly condemned by Scripture, he would strongly oppose many things on the list. Yet, on this list there is no room for compromise! But when we treat our personal convictions as absolutes from God, we wrongly threaten the unity of the Church. When, however, we reduce God’s clearly stated absolutes to matters of personal preference, we threaten the purity of the Church. Using Romans 14 & 15 as a guide, Dr. Friessen suggests five points for

Decision Making When Christians Differ

1. Distinguish between matters of command and matters of freedom (14:14,20).

2. On debatable issues, cultivate your own convictions (14:5).

3. Allow your brother the freedom to set his own convictions – even when they differ from yours (14:1-12).

4. Let your liberty be limited, when necessary, by love (14:13-15:2).

5. Follow Christ as the model and motivation of servanthood (15:3-13).


Steve Cornell


Recommended reading:

  • “Who are you to Judge?– The dangers of judging and legalism” Dave Swavely, P&R, 2005
  • “Making Judgments without being judgmental: Nurturing a clear mind and a generous heart” Terry D.Cooper, IVP, 2006
This entry was posted in Church, Church membership, Jesus Christ, Judging others, Legalism, Pharisees, Unity and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Are the Pharisees still among us?

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