No one wants to be a Pharisee. It’s the ultimate religious insult. No doubt we have our own idea of what a modern-day Pharisee looks like. It’s probably the type of Christian with whom we strongly disagree, their standards and convictions are far removed from ours. It’s easy to apply the Pharisee label without thinking much about it. We ought to be careful, however, before identifying others with the enemies of Christ. What was it about the Pharisees that Christ Himself opposed? This will tell us what we need to know about where the term applies today. Perhaps modern Christianity isn’t as immune as we might think from strains of the Pharisee virus.
It’s possible for any type of professing Christian to place undue weight on outward activities and things that identify us as religious. Sometimes these are things we may scarcely think about or question but they have been given considerable importance. They could be what is considered trendy just as much as what is considered traditional.
It is highly important to identify the spirit of the Pharisees today. The Lord Jesus Christ has such solemn things to say about them that we need to ensure that we avoid their characteristics. The general stereotype is that Pharisees were obsessed with being ultra-holy. True, they were interested in outward conformity to their own man-made regulations but they weren’t interested in heart holiness and entire conformity to God’s law. Christ actually says that they weren’t strict enough when it came to righteousness. What is more He says that we must be “exceed” the Pharisees when it comes to righteousness or we will not “enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
The Pharisees and scribes took great effort in making great outward profession of holiness of life. The truth is, however, that they only made conscience of outward obedience only (Matthew 5:21) and even then, only in relation to certain commandments (Matthew 15:3). There is a tendency to try to get around obeying God’s requirements by championing our own man-made slogans and rules. A true Christian must first be clothed with the righteousness of Christ and have their sins forgiven in Christ. They must be justified freely by grace without the works of the law. They then seek to demonstrate the authenticity of their faith by true and sincere obedience, inwardly as well as outwardly. They desire to obey all of God’s commandments. They want to make further progress in holiness all the days of their life.
Their righteousness must outstrip that of the Pharisees and scribes. First, they must have the righteousness which is of God by faith in Jesus Christ reckoned to their account. Second, they also should manifest an inherent righteousness, sincerely pursuing a holy life before God and man. These are the ways in which their righteousness must far exceed the superficial righteousness of the Pharisees.
The most solemn warnings Christ gives against the Pharisees are found in Matthew 23:1-36. Frequently they take the form of “woes” (eight in total). In other words, He is warning them of God’s judgment for their hypocrisy. Of course, He was able to read their hearts but their conduct and words were very obvious too and these exposed the true state of their heart.
David Dickson has some key insights into Christ’s words in this chapter. It is a long article but it makes for vital reading. Here we highlight the main aspects of the Pharisee virus that we must avoid like the plague. Where we see heart religion and careful godly living ignored, it has an opening. Where man is exalted and worldly desires masquerade under religious language and man-made practice we ought to be warned. We must of course, avoid those who alter the true gospel.
1. Pharisees Don’t Make their Life Match their Convictions
Christ warned about false teachers (Matthew 23:1-3).
(a) People must be warned to beware of contracting the plagues of false teachers who will not amend their conduct.
(b) We ought still to obey the truth of God’s Word even though it may be promoted by false teachers; it is still God’s truth (v2).
(c) People are more in danger of following the example of the sinful life of false teachers rather than any commands of God they may teach. They need to be warned not to follow the works of such false teachers.
(d) Someone may obey what God commands but not for the purpose for which God has commanded it. In the sight of God this is no better than not doing it. Although the Pharisees did many works that were commanded in the law, yet they did them to be seen of others and to earn merit before God. They were more careful about the outward ceremonies of the law than observing the moral duties of justice and mercy. What they did was therefore counted as though they had not done them. Christ says that “they say, and do not”.
2. Pharisees Urge Moral Duties without the Gospel
The Lord shows how the Pharisees urged moral duties without reference to the gospel (which is the only way by which such duties can be done) (v4).
(a) The law is intended to lead us to the gospel where grace and strength for righteousness and new obedience. Otherwise it is an unbearable yoke. It is here called a heavy burden, and grievous to be borne. And therefore to press moral duties on a people without teaching them how to draw strength from Christ for obedience is to bind heavy burdens on their shoulders.
(b) Hypocrites command people with least compassion which does not enable them to give obedience. They do not seek to help them by wise teaching, example or prayer. Therefore Christ says “they will not move [the burdens they impose] with one of their fingers”.
3. Pharisees Care More About Appearances than Reality
Pharisees had ways of appearing to be religious before others. One was to enlarge their phylacteries (items they would wear containing verses of Scripture) (v5). The first is their vain ostentation of holiness and ambitious seeking of vain applause of men, to which end they did write the words of the law on the borders of their garments, as if it had been all made up of love of the law.
(a) Hypocrites take greater effort to seem religious than to be religious. They strive to please others with appearances rather than to please God in truth. They “do their works…to be seen of men”.
(b) Hypocrites are most concerned about making a show of outward religious practices and outward aspects of duties that have been commanded, while neglecting the substance.
4. Pharisees Love Status and Celebrity
Pharisees love to be given status and to be hailed as a prominent teacher (v6-7). The Pharisees were vain and sought preeminence in all things above other people. We should not esteem any mere man too highly any gifts he has or any good we have received through him. It takes away from God’s glory when we attribute too much to men (v9-12).
(a) Although the Lord does not condemn respects and reverence due to men according to their callings and places, yet he condemns those who love take pride in them.
(b) Hypocrites and vain men least worthy of respect or honour most desire respect.
(c) Christ does not condemn ways of distinguishing individuals for order and for the sake of their office from others. He condemns those who exalt themselves over their brethren in outward dignity (v8).
(d) Those who seek to exalt themselves above their brethren in the same office are offensive to Christ. He alone must have the preeminent. He has appointed a ministry in the Church and made them equal in office as brethren (v8).
(e) We are very ready to ascribe something to ourselves if we are able to profit others by any gifts given to us. Christ says not to be called Rabbi, or Master. The meaning is, do not take to yourselves more than is the creature’s due. When you teach others by God’s gift bestowed on you and anyone ascribes to you any more than is due, see that you do not permit it this sacrilege.
(f) All the authority, light and success of teaching flows from the powerful teacher Christ, “for One is your Master, even Christ”. Anything given to the creature above its place is taken sacrilegiously.
5. Pharisees Hinder the Salvation of Others
Christ pronounces a woe on the Pharisees for hindering the gospel (v13).
(a) Men by nature are exiles from heaven and from the grace of God offered in the gospel. Yet by ministering the Word and ordinances of God in the right or wrong way, the door of heaven is opened or shut. The Pharisees, says Christ, shut the kingdom of heaven against men.
(b) It is a fearful charge against false teachers that they do not come to Christ themselves and also divert others by their bad example or doctrine.
6. Pharisees Combine Religion with Covetousness
(a) Just as ambition and hypocrisy go together, so do ambition and greed (v14).
(b) Simple, ignorant and helpless souls are the prey of corrupt Church leaders. This is nothing new.
(c) The most cursed behaviour that can be devised may be cloaked with the pretence of religion.
(d) The more plausible the pretence put upon a wicked course of action, the greater the sin (and the punishment. Christ say that they will “receive the greater damnation”.
7. Pharisees Make Many Converts, But Not to the Genuine Gospel
The Pharisees had a blind zeal to poison others with their errors and make converts to their sect (v15).
(a) False teachers are more busy to draw others to their error than teachers of the truth are
diligent in drawing others to the truth.
(b) The more effort and haste in false zeal that someone shows in perverting others from the truth, the more wrath abides on him.
(c) The more someone advances in error and superstition, the more he is the child of hell and Satan. Such errors have their origin in hell and Satan is the father of error, superstition and heresy. Christ said that the Pharisees made their converts “the child of hell”.
(d) Young converts who drink in superstition being persuaded by learned false teachers are far more taken with their false opinions. They are more addicted to these false superstitions than their teachers because they believer them to be the truth.
8. Pharisees Define Sin According to their Own Ideas
The Pharisees actually believed they could take the name of God in vain. They said that if they swore an oath “by the temple” it was not binding but if they swore “by the gold of the temple” it was (v16). Christ shows (v20-22) that this was altogether wrong.
(a) Church leaders that corrupt religion and fearfully mislead people become “blind guides”. This is despite the fact that their office requires that they should be wise and seeing guides.
(b) These corrupt hypocrites fostered swearing by created things such as by the temple, altar, gold and gifts.
(c) Corrupt Church leaders make things to be sin or no sin as it serves their purpose. Here they made an oath by the temple to be nothing and an oath by the gold of the temple to be binding.
(d) To make light of any oath as not binding opens a door to superstition and perjury.
(e) When men depart from the rule of God’s Word in determining sin, they prove themselves foolish and blind
(f) Superstition and error blinds the mind, and stupifies the heart.
9. Pharisees Only Give Partial Obedience
The Pharisees vaunted their precise keeping of the law in the smallest things while they despised the law in the greatest duties.
(a) It is no new thing for hypocrites to major on small matters while rejecting the most weighty duties. The Pharisees tithed anise and omitted mercy. Yet doing those greater duties does not liberate us from our obligation to do the smallest duties, one authority obliges us to do both. Christ say that they ought still to have done these but “not left the other undone” (v23).
(b) Hypocrites being strict are more ridiculous than someone refusing to swallow a fly while swallowing a camel.
(c) Those who take it upon them to teach others the way to heaven need to know it well themselves; for it is a fearful charge to be found blind guides.
10. Pharisees Pretend to be Holy but are Not
The Pharisees deceived the people with an appearance of holiness when there was nothing of the kind in them (v27-28).
(a) Hypocrites may carry their wickedness so fair that men may be deceived: for they may seem very beautiful outwardly, when inwardly they are filthy, like tombs plaistred12 without, and full of rottenness within.
(b) God will not be deceived by hypocrites, but will find them out. In His time He will expose them to the world and pour out wrath on them, for Christ says “Woe unto you”.
11. Pharisees Honour the Godly of the Past but Hate the Godly of the Present
The Pharisees pretended to honour the saints of the past (v29-30) but in the meantime hated the godly in the present. Indeed they were about to murder Christ Himself.
(a) The world loves dead prophets better than the living: the living reprove their sin more directly than the dead.
(b) Gross hypocrites pretend to love good men and yet do not love goodness. They can condemn their fathers’ faults and yet practise the same themselves. They are like those who said: “If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers of the blood of the prophets”.
12. Pharisees are on their Way to Hell Unless they Repent
He condemns them and threatens them with hell (v33).
(a) When the Lord makes a reckoning, he will declare the sin of the wicked to their face.
(b) It is good to show the obstinate the difficulty of being saved if they can by any means they can be driven to seek salvation.
(c) The end of Christ’s enemies shall be condemnation in hell.