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Digging Deeper: The Pharisees

Author: Jonathan Pruitt, Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM


Jesus likely had more clashes with one group of people than any other in the gospels: the Pharisees. There are many dramatic episodes, and on a particular occasion, Jesus, frustrated with some of the Pharisees, exclaimed to them, “You hypocrites! You snakes! You brood of vipers!” (paraphrase of Mt. 23:29-33). Clearly, Jesus had some objections to the Pharisees, what was the problem specifically?

Who Were the Pharisees?

Before we talk about Jesus’s rebuke of the Pharisees, let’s first look at who the Pharisees really were. If we don’t read the Bible carefully, it’s easy to get the impression that the Pharisees were all bad, all the time. But that is not what the Bible really says. Some Pharisees are portrayed in a neutral way, like Simon the Pharisee who invited Jesus to his house and listened to Jesus’s teaching, even if he initially misunderstood Jesus’s approach to the woman who barged into wash Jesus’s feet (cf. Luke 7:36-50). Some are even portrayed positively, like Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee who sought Jesus out to ask him questions and, evidently, finally believed in Jesus (cf. John 19:39-42).

The Pharisees were a group that started at least 100 years before Jesus was born. The Pharisees likely began with good intentions. They wanted to help people follow the Law of God. They were committed to the truth and authority of the whole Old Testament, unlike their counterparts, the Sadducees. Jesus even agreed with the Pharisees on some things, like the resurrection and the existence of life beyond the grave. Likely to help make sure they follow God’s law, the Pharisees firmly upheld the oral tradition of the rabbis as well (later known as the Mishna). This oral tradition gave additional rules that were, at least in theory, easier to follow than the Law. One could be sure she wasn’t breaking the Sabbath, for example, if she kept all the Pharisee’s detailed rules about Sabbath keeping. They were apparently popular with the Jewish people as the Pharisees were able to wield great influence in the temple and community, even though the Sadducees held most of the positions of power.

It’s easy for us to think of the Pharisees as a caricature, as a mustache-twirling, cartoon-like villain. We might have a mental picture of them as totally conceited, smug, and willfully blind to the reality of Jesus’s status as the true Messiah. There’s truth to that image, but it’s also an oversimplification. That’s not how the Bible portrays them or what history shows us. The Pharisees are real people, and like real people, they are a mixed bag.

So, most likely the Pharisees started with the good intentions of keeping the law and honoring God. Some of them, like Nicodemus, still had good intentions. But something seems to have gone seriously awry by the time Jesus encounters them in the gospels. What was the problem with the Pharisees according to Jesus?

The Problems with the Pharisees

The first problem is that the Pharisees eventually forgot the point of God’s law. They sincerely wanted to keep God’s law, at least at first, and so they made more rules to make sure God’s law wasn’t broken. Then, they started to think their own rules were God’s rules. They felt safe and righteous because they could keep the rules they made up.

The Pharisees enforced the law based on technicalities. For example, they argued that if one swore on the altar of the temple, then the oath meant nothing. But if she swore on the gift on the altar, then it counted. Jesus said instead, “All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’” (Matt. 5:37). The point was to honor God by telling the truth. Jesus thought the Pharisaic rules were nonsense and missed the point (Matt. 23:18). They focused on the laws they could keep and ignored the ones that really mattered. Jesus said that they were hyper diligent to give a tenth of their vegetables, but neglected the law of justice, mercy, and forgiveness (Matt. 23:23). That gave them the sense that didn’t really need God’s help or forgiveness. They thought they’d already done everything God had asked.

A second problem with the Pharisees has to do with their self-righteousness. It’s easy to see how someone could become self-righteous if he really started to believe that he was doing everything God told him to do. If he believes God wholeheartedly approves of his actions, then why shouldn’t he be the judge over everyone else? The Pharisees had replaced God’s standard with their own. They measured righteousness, of themselves and others, by how well their invented rules were followed. That was something they could do on their own, without God’s help.

Though these rules may have been written with good intentions, they became burdensome. Some of the Pharisees made following the law of God equivalent to complying with a complex, arbitrary system. The result was that, according to Jesus, the Pharisees tied up heavy loads for everyone else, but refused to lift a finger themselves (cf. Matt. 23:4). These Pharisees were righteous in their own eyes because they kept their own rules. But in God’s eyes, they needed grace and forgiveness, just like everyone else. Therefore, when Jesus encountered the Pharisees, he encountered a group that implicitly thought that they didn’t need God. They’d convinced themselves that they had no need to repent and no need for God’s grace.

Jesus’s Solution

What Jesus taught runs in deep opposition to the view of these Pharisees. God does not care about technicalities. Jesus said that the whole law can be summed up in two commands: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:36-40).

If we are being honest, we know by our own experience two things. First, we have not done what God commands. Second, we cannot do what God commands. So, we are in desperate need of not only God’s forgiveness, but his grace to do what is right. This is what the Pharisees missed and what vexed Jesus so deeply in his confrontations with them.

We can learn from the mistakes of these Pharisees. Certainly, we should not be self-righteous. We should recognize our own deep, constant need for God’s forgiveness and his grace. But we can also see that our good intentions will not suffice. It’s like a dad told his five-year-old son, “I want you to build a house for our family.” The father knows his son can’t do it on his own. The father wants the son to ask for his help. But the son sincerely wants to do what his father asks, so he builds a house out of blocks and decides he’s done what his father asked. The son has good intentions, but he’s missed the point. He’s built the wrong thing and in the wrong way. To please God, we must do what he asks the way he asks us to do it. That means we need God’s help.