Datafile: PhariseesBy Nathan Mates
Reading the Old Testament, we see that God's people, the Israelites, historically had problems remembering and keeping God's law. Noah and family survived because they were the few righteous people in the world. Much later, even after delivering them from Egypt, the Israelites had consistent and troubling problems with living as they should. Instead of eliminating all traces of the Philistines and their culture from the land, they intermarried, physically and spiritually with the ungodly.
In the book of Judges, we see that many times Israel did as they pleased, until God let their actions lead them to trouble. The Israelites repented, cried out to God who delivered them, and then the cycle repeats. Later on with the kings of Israel, they similarly ignored God's word for kings at a time, and then recovered from that. Because of this longstanding neglect of God's words, and their sinful deeds, it was promised that the Babylonians would conquer and plunder away the nation of Israel: "Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, "Hear the word of the LORD: The time will surely come when everything in your palace, and all that your fathers have stored up until this day, will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left, says the LORD." [2 Kings 20:16-17]
In a case that illustrates how bad the neglect of God was, during the reign of King Josiah, "While they were bringing out the money that had been taken into the temple of the LORD, Hilkiah the priest found the Book of the Law of the LORD that had been given through Moses." [2 Chronicles 34:14] In short, even the priests didn't know what the law was, or have a ready copy to read. Continuing on, "When the king heard the words of the Law, he tore his robes. He gave these orders to Hilkiah, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Abdon son of Micah, Shaphan the secretary and Asaiah the king's attendant: "Go and inquire of the LORD for me and for the remnant in Israel and Judah about what is written in this book that has been found. Great is the Lord's anger that is poured out on us because our fathers have not kept the word of the LORD; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written in this book." [2 Chronicles 34:19-21] The King, God's anointed didn't know the law either, and at least repented of the neglect.
At least during the time of captivity, some Israelites got the message. God's words were important enough to make them a priority in their lives. Beyond knowing God's laws, they also wanted to obey them. This appears to trace back to the first groups of returnees to Jerusalem under Ezra, as he said "What has happened to us is a result of our evil deeds and our great guilt, and yet, our God, you have punished us less than our sins have deserved and have given us a remnant like this. Shall we again break your commands and intermarry with the peoples who commit such detestable practices? Would you not be angry enough with us to destroy us, leaving us no remnant or survivor? O LORD, God of Israel, you are righteous! We are left this day as a remnant. Here we are before you in our guilt, though because of it not one of us can stand in your presence." [Ezra 9:13-15]
And so, groups formed to obey God's commands, including the command to keep all the commands: "These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates." [Deuteronomy 6:6-9]
God had been serious about remembering his law, and finally, many centuries later, people started listening. People accepted God as sovereign, the Old Testament as his word, sought out to be missionaries to Gentiles (nonbelievers) [Matthew 23:15], regularly tithed, accepted the resurrection of the dead, didn't try and get involved with the political structure of the time, and generally obeyed the law. They were a bedrock for God's law in times when it was being attacked, tried to be watered down, or dismissed as irrelevant. They refused to compromise their high standards. In a time of lawlessness, and declining morality, they didn't budge.
Those people were the Pharisees.
Yes, despite all the denunciations of the Pharisees in the New Testament, they did have a number of good points. However, it was their inability to fully obey the law that earned them many denunciations from Jesus. And so, it is useful to see what they did do, and what they failed to do.
One problem with the Pharisees was that they took their righteousness too far into self-righteousness. The Pharisees refused to associate with anything that had a hint of evil in it: "While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew's house, many tax collectors and "sinners" came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and 'sinners'?" On hearing this, Jesus said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." [Matthew 9:10-13]
Instead of acknowledging that evil exists in this world, usually found in concentrated form around nonbelievers, the Pharisees wanted nothing to do with anything resembling evil. This isolation was a serious problem, as their evangelism and associations were with those like them, not those who needed them most. Jesus knew who needed his teachings, and hung out with those who could learn from his message-- the outward sinners of society knew of their sin, and were receptive to a message of forgiveness they never heard from the Pharisees.
The Pharisees also didn't like their positions in society being disrupted by Jesus and his miracles. The Pharisees taught the law, which had some miracles, but mostly commandments. Jesus did lots of miracles: "While they were going out, a man who was demon-possessed and could not talk was brought to Jesus. And when the demon was driven out, the man who had been mute spoke. The crowd was amazed and said, "Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel." But the Pharisees said, "It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons."" [Matthew 9:32-34] In other words, the Pharisees stated publicly that the only reason Jesus could do any miracles was that he was from the Devil, not God.
Further, the Pharisees could not accept any so-called violations of the Law, particularly the 10 Commandments. "Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, they asked him, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?" He said to them, "If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath." Then he said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus." [Matthew 12:9-14] Jesus showed mercy on the Sabbath, which was a higher and greater act than merely resting on the Sabbath. The reaction back was extreme, to say the least: the Pharisees wanted Jesus dead.
John the Baptist had the first words in against the Pharisees in the New Testament: "But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire." [Matthew 3:7-10] These Pharisees had done some of the right things, but their hearts had not produced true mercy, and only wanted to observe this new prophet-- to see how much of a threat he was to them, but not to learn from John.
In the days before the Crucifixion, the Pharisees tried many times to trap Jesus into religious or political disputes. [Matthew 21:23-22:46] Once again, they only wanted to destroy the one who threatened them, instead of considering the possibility that the greatest preacher was there in front of them and they needed to learn. Unfortunately for them, they found themselves soundly outclassed at debate, losing arguments over resurrection, who to pay taxes to, and more.
Jesus had had enough of the constant attacks by the Pharisees, and turned the tables on them, and denounced them in a series of seven 'woes' on them. As a warmup to the main event, in Matthew 23:1-12, Jesus denounced the Pharisees for seeking importance in the eyes of men. "Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues;" [Matthew 23:5-6] But, as Jesus goes on to say, that in God's kingdom, the rules are flipped: "The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted." [Matthew 23:11-12]
As the first woe, Jesus said "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to." [Matthew 23:13] These Pharisees had no desire or plans to get into heaven through the only way possible -- belief in Jesus [John 14:6]. So, in their rejecting of the one way, they tried to prevent others from believing in Jesus. They had rejected Jesus because he wasn't like them, and tried to enforce this belief on others.
The second woe is likewise: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are." [Matthew 23:15] While Jesus acknowledges their missionary aims and energy, he doesn't like the end result: more Pharisees. Many converts to Phariseeism took on the worst habits of their teachers, not the best, and so they were even stricter in the outward forms of the law, but were still at fault with the inward forms.
The third woe attacks the Pharisees for their totally missing the point of oaths and the Temple: "Woe to you, blind guides! You say, 'If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.' You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? You also say, 'If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.' You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. And he who swears by heaven swears by God's throne and by the one who sits on it. [Matthew 23:16-22] The Pharisees were putting all of their emphasis on the outward things-- gold and offerings, while trivializing the whole purpose of the Temple and sacrifice. As had been noted in Proverbs, "To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice." [Proverbs 21:3] But, the Pharisees flipped that around, and valued the sacrifice over doing what was right.
Jesus next attacks the Pharisees on a similar subject, for their incomplete following of the law: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices--mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel." [Matthew 23:23-24] Jesus acknowledges that they correctly tithe, but that's not enough. Without losing this devotion to tithing, the Pharisees also needed to practice the affairs of the heart as well.
In the fifth woe, Jesus makes clear the condition of the Pharisees' heart: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean." [Matthew 23:25-26] Jesus had explained this matter to his disciples earlier: "After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. "Are you so dull?" he asked. "Don't you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him 'unclean'? For it doesn't go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body." (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods "clean.") He went on: "What comes out of a man is what makes him 'unclean.' For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man 'unclean.'"" [Mark 7:17-23]
God cares about people's hearts in addition to their outward actions, because while actions may be able to fool others for a while, if the heart is not in the right place, the actions will eventually match that. Thus, it is important to find and fix problems at the root causes and sources, instead of legalistically setting up restrictions on outward behaviors only.
In the sixth woe, Jesus uses even stronger language to denounce the Pharisees' actions: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness." [Matthew 23:27-28] Harsh language, no matter who the speaker was. But, Jesus could say this, as they were truthful words-- as God, he could see into their hearts and call them on every sin in their life.
Finally, in the last woe, Jesus calls them no better than their forefathers in Israel who denied the law: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, 'If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.' So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers! "You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?" [Matthew 23:29-33]
The Pharisees, like those in Israel before, didn't mind God's prophets, as long as they were safely dead and not challenging them to their face. Jesus was a prophet, and like so many prophets before, was telling "God's" people to change their ways. Instead of repenting from the sins of their forefathers and acting a little differently now that a genuine prophet (or two-- Jesus and John the Baptist) was in their midst, they were about to do the same dumb mistake as their forefathers: kill God's messenger.
Despite the above, not all Pharisees were beyond hope. Nicodemus [John 3:1-21] was a Pharisee and had the right ideas as to Jesus's source of power: "He came to Jesus at night and said, "Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him."" [John 3:2] In using the 'we', Nicodemus saw that there were others. Joseph of Aramathea, a member of the Sanhedrin (70 elders, mostly Sadducees, some Pharisees) courageously asked for Jesus's body after the crucifixion. [Luke 23:50-52] Later on in the Sanhedrin, a Pharisee by the name of Gamaliel gave the early church some breathing room by declaring "Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God." [Acts 5:38-39; 5:26-42 has the rest of the story.]
The most famous Pharisee of the New Testament definitely had the chance to do great things for God-- a Pharisee by the name of Saul. While originally just like the Pharisees that Jesus denounced, persecuting Christians, on the road to Damascus, Jesus stepped into his life, and he became Paul. From then on, he taught the greater parts of the law he'd previously missed out on. As he writes, "If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ--the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead." [Philippians 3:4b-11]
After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. with the breakdown of the Temple's sacrificial system, the Jewish sects of Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, and Essenes faded into more obscurity. While there are no longer outright Pharisees today who self-identify with that, there are still some who fall into the same traps as the Pharisees and follow only some parts of the law.
Some people today refuse to be anywhere near something that might be considered sinful. But, we must always remember this: "If we claim we have not sinned, we make him [Jesus] out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives." [1 John 1:10] There's no escaping sin in this lifetime. We are not to allow ourselves to be tempted by it [Galatians 6:1], but as Jesus reached out to the sinners around him, we must also do the same. A "bit of evil" is going to be in *everything* of this world, like it or not.
Humanity is flawed, and demanding otherwise is going to lead to problems. Take the (true) story from _Schindler's List_, for example. Was Oskar Schindler a good person? He was a womanizer, an alcoholic, and a whole pile of other sins. Yet he saved others from death. So, was he good? Is his story worth telling, even with the "large bit of evil in his life"? Absolutely. The Pharisee mentality would rather have nothing at all to do with this sinner, and yet he showed more mercy and saved more lives than most Pharisees ever would.
Nobody's going to live up to Jesus's standards, no matter how much we try. In fact, look at the Bible-- it's *full* of God's chosen people acting pretty darn stupid, breaking God's laws, and yet they're still commended for the good deeds they did do. The Pharisees weren't. I seriously think that some parts of the Bible embarrass those Pharisees that demand perfection, as they don't show "God's Chosen" as perfect role models to be copied in every aspect. But, that's where they deny the fact that God's power is made perfect in our *weaknesses* -- our faults, our sins, our problems. The Pharisees attempt to do everything in their own power, and so fail miserably at keeping God's law. Working through us, God can do far more.
There is no way we can be righteous on our own-- that's why we need God's righteousness to make up the (huge) difference between our righteousness and the standard God demands. There's no way we can be free from sin on our own-- we likewise need Jesus's sacrifice to cover all our sins. But, trying to gain righteousness or avoid sin on our own power, on our own terms is futile and useless. We must always remember to practice justice, mercy and faithfulness to others before we get stuck in the Pharisitical trap of thinking we can better ourselves by avoiding "sinners" that happen to sin more blatantly than we do.