Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The experts in the law and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. Therefore pay attention to what they tell you and do it. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy loads, hard to carry, and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing even to lift a finger to move them.
— Matt 23: 1-4
The fierce words of Jesus addressed to the Pharisees of His day stretch across the bands of time. Today they are directed not only to fallen televangelists but to each of us. We miss Jesus’ point entirely when we use His words as weapons against others. They are to be taken personally by each of us. This is the form and shape of Christian Pharisaism in our time. Hypocrisy is not the prerogative of people in high places. The most impoverished among us is capable of it. Hypocrisy is the natural expression of what is meanest in us all.
— Brennan Manning from The Ragamuffin Gospel
Curiously, the righteous Pharisees had little historical impact, save for a brief time in a remote corner of the Roman Empire. But Jesus’ disciples – an ornery, undependable, and hopelessly flawed group of men – became drunk with the power of a gospel that offered free forgiveness to the worst sinners and traitors. Those men managed to change the world.
— Philip Yancey from Grace Notes
We live by revelation, as Christians, as artists, which means we must be careful never to get set into rigid molds. The minute we begin to think we know all the answers, we forget the questions, and we become smug like the Pharisee who listed all his considerable virtues, and thanked God that he was not like other men.
— Madeleine L’Engle from Walking on Water
The Pharisees were probably condemned more severely than any other group of people by the Lord during His life on earth. The label of “Pharisee” has come to us as an extremely uncomplimentary label. Often it is misused by false teachers and those in sympathy with them. Let us notice some of the characteristics in Pharisees that Jesus condemned.
They were critical of Jesus for teaching sinners, but would not listen to Him themselves. The great chapter on God’s attitude toward the lost and what ours should be, Luke 15, was spoken to Pharisees who murmured because Jesus associated with sinners. Their attitude was demonstrated in the elder son who stayed home, but said to his father basically what the Pharisees had said to Jesus, “This man receiveth sinners and eateth with them.” They objected to Jesus receiving sinners, “but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected for themselves the counsel of God, being not baptized of him (John)” (Lk. 7:30). The Pharisaical attitude is shown by those who criticize faithful teachers for teaching the truth, while refusing to listen or teach it themselves.
The Pharisees were hypocritical because they claimed to be interested in the details of the law, but ignored it when it suited their purposes. Jesus said, “But woe unto you Pharisees! for ye tithe mint and rue and every herb, and pass over justice and the love of God: but these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Woe unto you Pharisees! for you love the chief seats. in the synagogues, and the salutations in the marketplaces” (Lk. 11:42,43). They liked to appear “righteous,” but, justice and love were not part of their armor. When men today profess to be interested in God’s law, but lie, refuse to pay their debts, etc., they are demonstrating Pharisaical hypocrisy.
Pharisees were long on talk and short on practice. Jesus said: “All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not after their works: for they say, and do not” (Matt. 23:3). This spirit of finding things for others to do, but not for self did not die with the first century Pharisees! “Do as I say, not as I do” may be good advice; Jesus gave it; but He did not commend the conduct of those who lived that philosophy.
They were bound by traditions. In fact, the Pharisees were very strict when it came to observing their customs, even if they contradicted the teaching of God’s word (Matt. 15:1-6). Though there is nothing wrong with a practice because it has been done for a long time, there is something wrong with elevating custom to a “thus saith the Lord.” There was nothing wrong with washing hands before eating food, but to make this a law of God was to elevate man’s traditions to an equality with God’s word. Whether we have two songs and a prayer, or two prayers and a song are matters of judgment. Whether we have the Lord’s supper before the sermon or after it; close with a song or with a prayer, are all matters of liberty, but when men elevate traditions to a “thus saith the Lord” they disrespect God’s word. Likewise, when men substitute sprinkling for immersion, or add instrumental music to singing, they are demonstrating the Pharisaical spirit.
Jesus told a parable to those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and set all others at nought in Luke 18:9-14. The Pharisee who had not been an “extortioner, unjust or an adultere” and had given “tithes of all” that he got was not condemned because of those characteristics, but because of his attitude toward others. This was not the only condemnation of this bad trait. Earlier, Luke had said: “And the scribes and Pharisees watched him, whether he would heal on the sabbath; that they might find how to accuse him” (Lk. 6:7). They had set their minds on finding fault, and faultfinders usually find fault!
Pharisees majored on minors. Jesus said that they “left undone the weightier matters” and “strained out the gnat, and swallowed the camel” (Matt. 23:23-25). Many misrepresent what Jesus said in this passage by saying that the little things are not important. Jesus did not say to “swallow the gnats,” but He did say that those who are careful to strain out gnats and then swallow camels are inconsistent. All of God’s word is important.
Not everything about Pharisees was bad. Paul said, “after the strictest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee” (Acts 26:5), and “as touching the law (he lived) a Pharisee” (Phil. 3:5). We need to strictly obey God’s law, but we must avoid the bad characteristics that God condemned in the Pharisees.
— Frank Jamerson Dothan from Truth Magazine (Guardian of Truth Foundation – July 3, 1986)
I love the religion of Christianity—which cometh from above—which is a pure, peaceable, gentle, easy to be entreated, full of good fruits, and without hypocrisy. I love that religion which sends its votaries to bind up the wounds of those who have fallen among thieves.
By all the love I bear such a Christianity as this, I hate that of the Priest and the Levite, that with long-faced Phariseeism goes up to Jerusalem to worship and leaves the bruised and wounded to die. I despise that religion which can carry Bibles to the heathen on the other side of the globe and withhold them from the heathen on this side—which can talk about human rights yonder and traffic in human flesh here…. I love that which makes its votaries do to others as they would that others should do to them. I hope to see a revival of it—thank God it is revived. I see revivals of it in the absence of the other sort of revivals. I believe it to be confessed now, that there has not been a sensible man converted after the old sort of way, in the last five years.
— Frederick Douglass from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass