What about the Pharisees?

Pharisees figure prominently in the New Testament and Jesus hardly had a good word for them. He called them a brood of snakes, blind guides, hypocrites; he accused them of honouring their traditions more than God’s commandments; he said their worship was a farce; he accused them of giving alms just to be noticed; he said they didn’t practice what they taught; he criticised them for making an outward show of goodness whilst being filthy inside; he accused them of being scrupulous about pointless minutiae whilst neglecting more important issues of the Law.  You could get the impression that Jesus didn’t approve of the Pharisees!

Apart from reporting the specific criticisms Jesus made about them, the Gospel stories show that the Pharisees were in a partnership of convenience with the political party known as the Herodians.  Pharisees didn’t approve of the morals of King Herod or his supporters, but they were willing to compromise with them to gain leverage with the forces of government.  It was an unholy alliance.  Pharisees were in league with the group that plotted to put Jesus to death.

Surprising though it may seem, there are notable similarities between Pharisaic and Christian doctrine. That comes through in some of the stories in the “Acts of the Apostles”, and even more in some of the stories St Paul relates in his letters. So, where would you expect to find the “pharisees”[1] of today?  In churches, of course. In the parable of “The wheat and the tares”, Jesus warned that the “enemy” would plant false believers amongst God’s true flock.  Is it really possible to have correct doctrine but be fighting on the wrong side?   St James gave the conclusive answer to that question:
You believe that God is one; well and good. Even the demons believe that – and tremble with fear.” [2]

It’s not doctrinal correctness, but personal commitment to Jesus, that makes a true disciple.  The Pharisees were noted for their rigid morality, and their meticulous observation of the Law.  But neither rigidity nor meticulousness figure amongst the fruit of the Spirit.
“But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” [3]

The fruit of the Spirit is not the product of our efforts, but the outcome of God’s grace working in us.  The classic pharisaical error in these days, as much as in biblical times, is to rely on good behaviour to earn God’s approval.  But we can never do enough good for that.  Christians are called to holiness, and our good attitudes and behaviour are vitally important.  But, when we stand before God’s judgement, the only plea that will save us is the testimony of Jesus saying, “I know this person”.

We tend to think of the Pharisees simply as a bad lot.  But the picture isn’t as black and white as it seems.   Some of them were more sincere.  A couple of the Pharisees mentioned in the Gospels were secret followers of Jesus.  Those two eventually acknowledged Jesus openly – on the day he died.  Nicodemus[4], and Joseph of Aramathea buried Jesus, with great care, in a tomb that Joseph had prepared for himself.  They weren’t the only members of that party to declare for Christ.  A number of Pharisees joined the disciples publicly in the years following the Resurrection, and one of them, Saul of Tarsus, became the Apostle Paul.

There have always been false disciples in the church.  In a great medieval classic, the writer said, “Many there are who count how long it is since their conversion; and yet full slender is the fruit of amendment of life” [5]  There are also those who are scrupulous about rules and ceremonies and condemn those who don’t stick to their petty rules. Rule keeping is not a mark of true discipleship. There are people who claim to be followers of the One who said, “love your enemies” but hate even fellow Christians who differ on minor points of doctrine.  Theological correctness is not proof of genuine faith.   Love is the true identifier. 

The full range of Christian virtues is summed up in love.  Modern day “pharisees” often show themselves up in debates about outward morality.  They tend to be the strongest advocates of censure, and the least ready to show mercy or forgiveness.  “Beware the leaven of the Pharisees” (or “Watch out for the yeast…”), said Jesus.  Watch out for legalists.  Don’t be taken in by people who talk good doctrine but lack love and mercy.  Follow the person who is humble rather than the one who boasts certainty.  Don’t be stained by the attitudes of the Pharisees.  Don’t hate them, but rather pray for them because they can change.  True disciples model their lives on just one person – none other than Jesus.

Derrick Phillips 2022

[1] Not, of course,  the true original Jewish sect, but the modern equivalent.
[2] James 2:19 (NET Bible)
[3] Galatians 5:22 (New Living Translation)
[4] See Chapter 3 of John’s Gospel
[5] From “The Imitation of Christ” by St Thomas a Kempis

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