At the heart of this problem is a misunderstanding of what exactly a Pharisee was. Much of the popular conception of Pharisees is driven more by faulty stereotypes than it is by the words of Christ. It seems many simply want to take all the negative things Christ said about Pharisees and apply them directly to people who have more rules than they do. But if we don’t have a clear Scriptural understanding of what a Pharisee is such a judgment is a nothing more than a straw man. In this post we will examine four characteristics of a Pharisee, and more importantly how Christians of all stripes can avoid the pitfalls these misguided zealots fell into.
A Pharisee was someone who believed works earned salvation.
This is a crucial place to begin. Pharisees rejected Jesus Christ and trusted in their keeping of the law to earn them salvation. As such, they went to hell for their sin (Matthew 23:13-15). This is an important distinction to make from the beginning. Pharisees were not misguided believers; they were unbelievers. While I realize that the specific sins Pharisees committed can certainly be true of believers today (more on that later), when you call someone a Pharisee you are calling them an unbeliever. When Christ rebukes the Pharisees, He is not just telling Christians to lighten up, He is telling sinners they are on their way to hell. Because of this, the label Pharisee is much stronger than most people realize and Christians should be very careful before they flippantly label another brother as a Pharisee.
A Pharisee was someone who very carefully kept certain of God’s rules.
Pharisees were of course known for being zealous keepers of the law. They tithed mint leaves. They made sure they didn’t do anything that would even come close to being considered work on the Sabbath. They prayed piously. They fasted intensely. They made sure they were keeping all of the external rules they could think of. And Christ never condemned them for it.
Now you may be thinking that Christ did call Pharisees out for their overly strict rule keeping. However, a careful examination will show that this is not the case. He rebuked them for equating their personal standards with God’s commandments (Mark 7:9-13), for being motivated by pride instead of love for God (Matthew 6:1, 5, 16), and failing to keep the two biggest commandments – love God and love others. But none of these are the same as having high personal standards. In fact, Christ commended them for their strict tithing practices even while condemning them for ignoring the weightier matters of the law (Matthew 23:23).
Too many Christians view this as a choice between one or the other. You either are concerned with keeping the minutiae of all God’s laws, or you view God as a God of grace and mercy who cares more that you love other people than that you tithe every Sunday. But Christ doesn’t make it an either/or, He makes it a both/and. He tells the Pharisees they are cups that look great on the outside but are full of filth on the inside. The solution? Clean the inside so that the cup can be clean both inside and out! (Matthew 23:25-26). A genuine love for God should exhibit itself in a desire to be holy and obedient to every command we are given.
A Pharisee was someone who added to God’s rules.
Here we come closer to what many people have in mind when they equate Pharisees and Fundamentalists. Pharisees put their interpretations of God’s laws on the same level as God’s laws themselves. So God said, “Don’t work on the Sabbath.” And the Pharisees came up with a hundred different things that counted as work. And when the disciples plucked the heads of grain and started to eat, the Pharisees complained that this was unlawful “work” (Matthew 12:1-2). Another example is when the disciples started to eat without washing their hands. Now, this was not a hygienic thing, it was a ritualistic thing. The Pharisees taught that people should always wash their hands to be ceremonially pure, although that command is nowhere in Scripture (Matthew 15:1-2).
Here we must truly be careful. We should never let our traditions or our specific applications of God’s Word be put on the same level as God’s commands. Paul has much to say about the issue of Christian liberty in Romans 14. Those with looser standards should not look down on those with higher standards, and those with higher standards should not condemn those with looser standards, because one day everyone is going to give an account to God (Romans 14:10-12).
But the real heart of this issue often is not personal standards, but very specific and unpopular applications being made during preaching and teaching. The concern for many comes when issues like social drinking, tattoos, modesty, musical styles, or entertainment are addressed from the pulpit. If Scripture is not clear, some assert, the preacher should not tell his listeners what to believe, especially when other Christians disagree. Fundamentalists are often the ones making stricter applications, and this causes some to scoff and begin throwing around the “Pharisee” card.
It is true that some have developed an unhealthy obsession with certain hot button issues and have made them too much of a focus, and this is probably where the Pharisee stereotype has developed. I agree we should spend much time glorying in Christ and teaching doctrine, as the apostles did. But we must also get specific as to how that Christ and that doctrine apply to our current culture, as Christ and the apostles did (see basically the whole book of 1 Corinthians). The application of biblical principles to real life is not at all what Christ is condemning, but an unhealthy focus on one’s own applications that makes them central and all consuming.
For the record, fundamentalists are not the first to make very strict and very unpopular applications of God’s Word to everyday life. Both Spurgeon and Chrysostom rebuked Christians for going to theaters. The Puritans, whose work has almost become the standard for deep spirituality, held to very strict no work on Sunday practices and strict rules in virtually ever other area of life. If you would discount the fundamentalist because of his stricter applications, you must also discount the Spurgeon, the Puritan, and the Chrysostom. All throughout the history of Christianity good men have debated how and where the Bible applies exactly to the culture one is living in and, ironically, the ones who came down with the stricter applications are generally speaking the ones whose legacy have lasted the test of time.
A Pharisee was a hypocrite.
This was Christ’s primary concern when it came to the influence of the Pharisees on His followers. In Luke 12:1 he warns his disciples, “Beware the leaven of the Pharisees,” but he doesn’t go on to warn against being too strict in our observance of God’s rules. He doesn’t go on to say don’t add rules like they did. No, He goes on to clarify “which is hypocrisy.” The primary danger and fault of these legalists was their proud hypocrisy.
I fear that this is being missed by much of American Christianity. When those with stricter standards are labeled as “Pharisees,” the ones doing the labeling are basically exempting themselves from the charge. But being a hypocrite has nothing to do with how long your list of rules is. A hypocrite can have a hundred rules or ten. The question is not how many standards do you have, but rather, where is your heart? Anyone who does what is right for the approval of others while their relationship with God is not what it should be is a hypocrite.
When we equate hypocrisy with rule keeping we miss the heart entirely, which is the whole point! The Pharisees made the mistakes they did because they were motivated by pride and a love for others approval. Any and every Christian is capable of this terribly egregious error, no matter how strict our loose their personal standards are. Pride is the natural position of the heart, and everyone who names the name of Christ must daily do battle with the flesh that would rather look good for others than deal with sin.
Pharisee or Saint?
Christ didn’t condemn the Pharisees because they were separatists. In fact, one of the most common titles for believers is saints, or literally “the holy (i.e. set apart or separated) ones.” Christ doesn’t condemn them for their conscientious observation of the Law or their zeal for holiness. The difference between a saint and a Pharisee is not that one is concerned with keeping rules and the other loves God, it’s that one obeys because he wants to look good and the other obeys because he loves God.
The greatest profit to be gained from the Pharisees is not to point the finger at our neighbor because he has higher personal standards. Instead, we ought to examine our own motives to see if our obedience is being driven by a love for God or a desire to maintain appearances, to make sure that our hearts are where our mouths are, and all the while to be zealous to keep all of God’s commands and apply the Bible properly to our culture so that we can be saints, not Pharisees.
Written by Ben Hicks
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