THE PHARISEE IN US – Part 1

“But beware of the leaven of the Pharisees…” Matthew 16:11 (NAS)

“Pharisee” means “separated ones.” Of the three sects that made up the Jewish religious realm, the Essenes, Sadducees, and Pharisees, the Pharisees were the most strongly rebuked by our Lord Jesus for their actions and especially their attitudes.

The Pharisees believed that some things were the work of fate. Other human events were thought by them to be under the control of the individual. The Essenes believed that fate ruled all things, and that nothing happens to man except by the decree of fate. The Sadducees removed fate as an influence of the human condition altogether. They believed that all things were under the control of man.

As a group, or association, the Pharisees separated themselves from every kind of Levitical impurity and were united together as a force to preserve the Mosaic law in all its purity. The two essential conditions enacted upon potential members of this sect were these: firstly, man should observe all the sacred tithes (in relation to the production of the land), and refrain from eating anything which had not been tithed (or anything in which tithing might be called into question); secondly, man should observe the laws of purity, which so materially affected the eating of food and of all family matters.

We will discuss nine manifestations of Pharisaism.

1. The Phariseesconsidered themselves to be the guardians of the divine law and of theirancestral customs.

2. They physicallyseparated themselves from people of questionable character and integrity.

3. They pridedthemselves in denouncing impurity or ungodliness.

4. They were sodetermined not to break the law that they set up fences of rules forthemselves and others that would guarantee, if obeyed, a safe distance fromthe transgression of God’s laws.

5. These pharisaicalrules became so entrenched in their everyday living that they becameindistinguishable from scriptural commandments.

6. The Pharisees, as apower bloc, were very influential. When Jesus confronted them during his firstadvent, they were second in power only to the Roman governor.

7. They were rigid andunyielding.

8. They took pride inbeing recognized as Pharisees by other men.

9. In their piety theylooked down upon others whom they viewed as being

inferior tothemselves.

In fairness to the Pharisees it must be noted that they were not lukewarm, nor indifferent to God’s Word. They did, in fact, care a lot and gave it their all. However, their zeal became so unbalanced that it affected their judgment, for it excluded the spirit of the law and thus it resulted in spiritual destruction rather than self-preservation.

Many other items could be listed. Some can be found in the twenty-third chapter of Matthew, in which Jesus pronounces a series of “woes” upon the Pharisees based upon their erroneous traditions. For the sake of our discussion, we will limit ourselves to these nine.

Could These Attitudes Affect Us?

The Pharisees were concerned for God’s Word and Law as well as for righteous living. If such things happened to them, could they not also happen to us who share these same concerns? 

Then some of thePharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem, saying, “Why do yourdisciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash theirhands when they eat bread.” And He answered and said to them, “Andwhy do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of yourtradition?” (Matt. 15:1-3, NAS)

Could Jesus be asking we who are living today the same question? Let’s look at these nine points in connection with this possibility.

Divine Guardians

The Pharisees considered themselves to be guardians of divine truth: the Word, its Law, and the Jewish traditions. They assumed this responsibility, thinking that only they were qualified to perform this duty. Thus, they set themselves in the position of controlling other men’s customs as well as the correct interpretation of the Law. They came to believe that their traditions and superior wisdom were essential to the guidance of God’s people and that God was dealing only with their group; therefore, it was their duty to keep their neighbor straight in what was truly God’s Word and practice.  Yet, their words and actions betrayed their attitudes.

While preparing this article an event occurred, which seemed providential. I received a letter containing 191 points, which were presented as scriptural truths. I was asked to reply to each point on that list, stating whether I subscribed to it. We quote from that letter: “We are planning to prepare a directory which will include every prospective speaker to whom this letter is mailed. Along with his name, it will show whether he believes all the items, or if he rejects some, the items that he rejects will be listed. If he does not respond, he will be designated ‘non-responder.’ Please help us complete the directory by informing us in which of the above categories you wish to be placed. This directory will be made available to all the brethren so that they can know how every prospective speaker stands on every point of ‘present truth.’  We have been unable to find scriptural precedent for this type of request.

The writer of this letter was clearly assuming the responsibility of screening and publishing whether others believed as they did on one hundred ninety-one points of truth.

Some of us use the term “nominal church” in both our dialogue and discourse. The word “nominal” means “in name only.” While it may be true that this term applies to many who name the name of Christ, the way in which the phrase is uttered is often very judgmental and objectionable. In many cases, this expression is used to indicate one’s superiority over others who they deem “believers in name only.”

It is proper to appreciate truths we have, and to express that appreciation openly, but let us be sure that our motivation for expressing it is not tinged with pride and judgmental attitude of others. If we are proud that God has specially given us some measure of His truth that others do not see, are we any better than the Pharisees? If we think that we alone have exclusive rights to divine truth or if we believe that only we have the Holy Spirit, because of what we believe and others do not, are we not in danger of looking down on others as did the Pharisees?

If we are so positive that God could not be dealing with anyone outside of our circle of truth, specially among those we term “nominal Christians,” are we in danger of Pharisaism? Or if we seek to limit God (by our interpretations and traditional convictions), are we any better than the Pharisees of Jesus’ day? 

We should appreciate our understanding of God’s Word and of His wonderful, inclusive plan of the ages, but let us do so in true humility. When we share these precious truths, which have so enriched our lives, let it be in the spirit of meekness. Let us not erect barriers or go up by steps to

the altar of our God. If we do, we will not be following in the footsteps of our Master and Leader, the Lord Jesus Christ, who described Himself as “meek and lowly of heart.” The Pharisees’ improper attitudes led them to erect a staircase to God’s altar, elevating themselves where they could only look down upon others whom they had risen above. They had forgotten the Word of the Lord, “And you shall not go up by steps unto my altar, that your nakedness may not be exposed on it” (Ex. 20:26, NAS). In their misguided zeal, they repeatedly transgressed this commandment.

THE PHARISEE IN US – Part 2

Physical Separation

The Pharisees were very careful with whom they associated. According to McClintock and Strong, the name Pharisee was first used by the Sadducees in the Mishna. By their use of this word towards this sect, they were not being complimentary. The term may well have described their separated lives. At first they were separated ones for the purpose of ridding themselves of any Levitical impurity. But they erred when they began to view themselves as being holier and as being on a higher level than others.

Can this happen to the child of God today? Can we view others in the same way as the Pharisees viewed their contemporaries? Do we view those outside our fellowship as unworthy of our time, attention or love? Some of the Pharisees used their separation as a visible sign to others that they

alone were the special ones in God’s sight. They believed this fact was self-evident. Further, they came to believe that their example of separation and their appearance of holiness were of utmost importance to the guidance of God’s people. They felt that somehow this display of holiness would have a preserving influence upon the conduct of others and it raised their sense of self-worth. They became important in their own eyes. The more they practiced this, the more they enjoyed the feeling.

This power became addictive, a need to feel special, a need for personal recognition of one’s own holiness and piety. How subtle is the love of recognition. It clouds the mind and heart with feelings of pride and self-interest. “Woe to you, Pharisees! For you love the front seats in the synagogues, and the respectful greet- ings in the market places” (Luke 11:43, NAS).

Is it possible that that could be said of us? Could this happen to an elder or Pastor of the Lord’s people? Ask yourself, how strong is my desire to be recognized and appreciated or to be accepted in the prominent ranks of brethren, or of speakers? Is it important that my work receive recognition from others? Do we enjoy being looked up to as being fine examples of those who are faithfully walking the narrow way? Is it necessary that others should be aware of our soundness in doctrine or wisdom or that they should seek our counsel? Do we feel that for a work to be done properly we must do it ourselves? Do we think our presence so important in our fellowship that if we are absent the group and study will not function as well?

The real issue in all of these questions is plain: What is my own motivation? Let it not be any of the things just mentioned but only that we want to please and glorify our Heavenly Father and Lord Jesus Christ by doing God’s will humbly and with all our might – as we serve Him, and His brethren.

Let us remember the wise axiom, “There is no end to the good we can do, if we do not care who gets the credit” and always remember if there is any credit due, it should go to God and our Lord Jesus Christ. If we boast, may it alone be in the Lord!

Proud Denunciations

Many Pharisees took pride in opposing and denouncing impurity and ungodliness in the actions of others. They thought of themselves as a sort of spiritual police force to the Jews. In one instance we read of a woman entering the house of a Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50) and of his judgmental attitude towards her. This woman had washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. She had anointed him with expensive ointment and had kissed his feet repeatedly. In the 37th vs. we learn that she was a sinner, publicly known as a woman of the streets. The Pharisee was embarrassed, and assessing the situation (vs. 39) he said to himself, “If this man (Jesus] were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner.”

The Pharisee would have quickly thrown her back on the street, and would have felt dirty and ritually contaminated had he been touched by her. He had already judged her; she counted as nothing more than garbage; she was beyond help.

His abhorrence of outward sin had removed all compassion, and left him woefully unbalanced. His harsh judgment blinded him to any good that this woman might do and kept him from seeing that she had come in contrition and repentance. He saw only the filth of her reputation and looking down upon her, revealing his own pride and self-righteousness. How differently Jesus treated this woman. He recognized her repentant heart and the love her actions manifested. He perceived her desire for forgiveness and encouragement. Compassion moved within him as he watched the display of her faith and love.

“Isay to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much;but he who is forgiven little, loves little,” and He said to her, ‘yoursins have been forgiven’” (vs. 47, 48, NAS).

Which style of judgment do you follow, Jesus’ or the Pharisee’s? The Pharisee would have expelled her, would have scorned her, and she would have been left to continue in her sinful ways. But because of the love and compassion of Jesus, we may logically conclude that the woman never

reverted back to her path of sin. Jesus could separate the sinner from the sin, an ability that most of us find difficult. Jesus hated the sin but could still love the sinner. What a worthwhile trait to emulate in our lives!

Fence Makers

The Pharisees were compelled to keep the law. They felt it was necessary to take further steps to insure that the law was not broken. So they set up fences which were designed to keep them at a safe distance from any point in which they might break the law. These barriers, or fences, which

were incorporated into the traditions of the elders, soon became as important as the law itself.

We, too, may set up rules, fences, and barriers that we feel will keep us on safe ground in keeping the Lord’s commandments. Do we regard some of our traditions with as much authority as Scripture? Is it possible that we have set up fences of conduct for ourselves by which we also judge the conduct of others?

This is an important consideration, for it is one thing to establish restrictions or standards for ourselves, but it is quite another to expect others to live up to the same and if they do not, to judge them as not living up to the principles of Scripture. Hardly anyone would dare admit such an

attitude, but do our thoughts or actions sometimes reach this very judgment?

Another tradition of the Pharisees was to establish loopholes that would work to their own benefit. Jesus reproved them sharply for this (Matt. 15) in connection with their responsibility to their aging parents. By declaring their own possessions as reserved for the Lord they relieved themselves of their responsibility of caring for their parents. Jesus calls this practice a commandment of man (vs. 9). Later on the Apostle Paul would preach contrary to this accepted practice. “But if any one does

not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8, NAS).

There is no doubt as to the intent of this verse. But could there be a wider interpretation also? In his letter to the Hebrew Christians he says that Christ was faithful over his own household, and He adds that we are that house. (cf. Heb. 3:6). In Galatians we are admonished to do good to all men and especially to do good to those of the household of faith (6:1 0).

These verses clearly place a responsibility upon any who claim to be of his household. If we ignore the needs of any, whether they be parents, dependent children, or other members of the body of Christ, or anyone the Lord puts in our pathway, we are in danger of breaking God’s Word. Let us not rationalize this matter away. It is not acceptable to say that we were going to use this substance, time, money, land, for the Lord in some areas that we think more important. If we are inclined to do so, are we any better than the Pharisee? “He who shuts his ear to the cry of the poor will also cry himself and not be answered” (Prov. 21:13, NAS). Conversely, we read, “He who gives to the poor will never want, but he who shuts his eyes will have many curses” (28:28, NAS).

The principle, which Jesus described in the Parable of the Sheep and Goats (Matt. 25:31-46), applies to us today as well as to all of mankind in the Millennial Kingdom of our Lord. Let us not be among those described in His sharp words:

“For I washungry, and you gave me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me nothingto drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite me in; naked and you didnot clothe me; sick and in prison, and you did not visit me.” Then theythemselves also will answer, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry,or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not takecare of you?” Then he will answer them, saying, “Truly I say to you,to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did notdo it to me” (Matt. 25:42-45, NAS).

Responsibility towards others is an important part of the Christian’s walk. The parable shows that we are required to be careful both of the physical and spiritual needs of those around us. Let us look often at the examples of Jesus so that our judgment will be balanced and that we will resist all attempts at improper rationalization. We have received freely from the bounty of the Lord. Should we not be as free to give to others? Let us give and share with joy, as though we were giving or sharing with the Lord Himself.


Some Added Thoughts on Traditions

· Humanly devised traditions often focus on external actions while God focuses on the attitudes of the heart that motivate the actions.

· Living God’s truth requires a relationship with Him.

· It is impossible to clean up the inside without divine help. In fact, God must do it for us…we need just to be willing.

· Tradition exerts an enormous pull on our emotions because it provides sameness, security, stability, and it feels right.

· The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were proud of their traditions for they believed they were given to them by God Himself.

· The Pharisees, and even some in today’s churches, measure righteousness by loyalty and obedience to “sacred” tradition.

· If you doubt the power of traditions, try to change something in your church from the way that it has been done in the past.

· Traditions often set up safety fences and post “no trespassing” signs.

· Freedom always has the potential for abuse, but it also provides the opportunity for true convictions and character to develop.

God tells us of those who, “measuring themselves and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise” (2 Corinthians 10:12).