While reading the New Testament in particular, we often hear about the Pharisees, most notably when Jesus engages them during his life on earth. Who exactly was he talking about?
Who Were the Pharisees?
The Pharisees were a sect of Judaism probably dating back to 160 B.C. They taught that the only way to God was by obeying the law; they were legalists in the purest form of the word’s meaning. It’s easy to see why Jesus’ claim that we are saved only by his death and resurrection (John 14:6) would be a thorn in the side of people who held to the keeping of the commandments as the single most important act of faith.
According to J. Julius Scott, Jr.’s excellent introduction,
“From whom did the Pharisees separate? From those, especially priests or clerics, who interpreted the Law differently than they? From the common people of the land (John 7:49)? From Gentiles or Jews who embraced the Hellenistic culture? From certain political groups? All these groups of people the Pharisees would have been determined to avoid in their resolution to separate themselves from any type of impurity proscribed by the Levitical law — or, more specifically, their strict interpretation of it.”
What Did Jesus Think about the Pharisees?
The admonition Jesus applies to not be like the Pharisees (Luke 12) refers to the fact that as a whole, the Pharisees also tended to do one thing for public optics and another in their private lives. What they held to, the laws they kept, and their high view of religious behavior insured that they both relied on their own works to make themselves right before God and scorned anyone they felt was not doing the same.
“Jesus and the early Christians strongly opposed views that externalized religion and/or sought God’s favor on the basis of human effort.” -J. Julius Scott, Jr.
In other words, the Pharisees were obsessed with earning God’s favor by way of their own good works, and Jesus was teaching that he, the Messiah, is the only way in which we gain the glorious love of God.
10 Ways to Be Sure That We Will Not Be like the Pharisees
1. Remember who God is.
God has many attributes, but he is not a taskmaster. He did not leave the burden of our salvation resting at our feeble human feet. We can breathe the easy breath of the redeemed because He is our redeemer, our savior, our living God who created, loves fully and without blemish, and restores. If you struggle to know who God is, take a look at this short encouragement from Crosswalk.
The Pharisees forgot who God is. They remembered his law and his commandments, but they forgot that those are only the tools God had given them to remind them of who he is. We become Pharisees when we put our hope in the gifts rather than the gift-giver.
2. Remember what God has done.
Scripture is very clear about what God has done for us, from the beginning of Genesis to the end of the book of Revelation:
God created humans in his image
Mankind fell by (Adam’s) our sin
God sent a Redeemer, his son Jesus Christ, who took all of our sin upon him when he was crucified, died, and resurrected. His work on the cross is our redemption.
God is about the beautiful work of restoring mankind to himself. It is because of Jesus’ work and sacrifice that we are restored to God, our father.
Remember the old hymn, “Jesus Paid it All?” It’s true. What Jesus did on our behalf paid for all of our sins, all of our pride, all of our humanity. We add nothing to that. Simply put, the Pharisees forgot what God had done for them. They shifted their focus to their own good works and forgot that God alone is our redeemer.
3. Remember who you are in light of what God has done.
You are redeemed! You are made right before God the father because of what Jesus did for you (Galatians 3:13). That makes you a child of God who has full access to him whenever you need (and we need him all day long). Isn’t it a life-changing truth to know that our identity is fully in the perfection of Jesus Christ, and not in who we are or what we do? The Pharisees were so focused on what they must do that they forgot who they were in light of what God had done.
4. Remind yourself daily (hourly?) that Jesus paid it all, and it is finished.
When Jesus was experiencing the horrible death of crucifixion on a wooden cross, Roman style, he was also acquiring the sins of all mankind, over all time, as his body was dying. Just before he died, he declared, “It is finished.” (John 19:30)
But somehow, we humans tend to think we need to add something to the finished work of Christ: our good behavior, our good thoughts, our good deeds. The truth is, our righteousness is as filthy rags except for the redemption and justification provided us by Jesus’ one world-altering act on the cross.
Don’t forget! Write it on your bathroom mirror, on your desk at work, on the dashboard of your car: Jesus paid it all, and it is finished. Otherwise, we tend to want to add to what he has already done, and no amount of law-keeping will make God love us more. We become accidental Pharisees, hoping to save ourselves by our good works, when we forget that God’s work was made complete by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
5. Remember that there is no amount of law-keeping we can attempt that will add to, enhance, or secure our salvation.
Does this point sound redundant? It bears repeating because we humans are stubborn and kind of stupid. But if we forget this one, we have essentially forgotten the gospel itself! The gospel tells us that we are dead in our sin, that we can do nothing to save ourselves, that Jesus came to save us by his death and resurrection, and that we are saved by this one gracious act on our behalf.
We believe the gospel, but we’re also really good at forgetting it. We tend to think that it’s the thing that “got us in” when in reality it is the whole entire crux of our faith. We become like the Pharisees when we set aside the truth of the gospel and look around for all the ways in which we can add to it, hoping God might love us or accept us more because of what we do.
6. Identify where you might be misplacing your hope.
We’re also really great idolaters, and by idolatry, I don’t mean that we erect golden calves or tall pillars and shrines. Most of us don’t engage in that kind of idolatry. Most of us are just really good at subtlely shifting our hope from the only source of hope, the Lord God, to anything and everything.
As the Pharisees elevated the law above the Lord, we often elevate our choices, our churches, and our behavior, and before we know it, we’re hoping those things will have the power to change our lives. Nothing, outside of the finished work of Christ on the cross and the continual work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, will change our lives, no matter how hard we hope they will. We are like the Pharisees when we put our hope in all of the choices we’re making.
7. Shift your hope back to the only source of hope, Jesus Christ.
If you cannot readily identify where you might be shifting your hope off of God, now is a good time to ask him to search you and know your heart. God wants nothing more than for us to realize fully that he is the only source of our hope and joy, and he is ready to reveal to us where we are searching elsewhere. Isn’t that a loving act?
As a parent, I want my kids to recognize how loved they are by their father and mother. I want the best for them, to see them thrive and be healthy in both body and mind, and to that end, I will pull them in and redirect them if I see they’re chasing things that will ultimately lead to their destruction.
When Jesus admonished the Pharisees, he was showing them where their hearts had gotten way off track. When he does the same to us, he is doing so because he knows that we will only ever be fulfilled and at peace if our hope is solely in him. It’s a loving act by a loving God.
8. Let the overwhelming knowledge that you are saved by grace alone change the way you live from day to day.
What does it look like when we spend our hours safe in the knowledge that we have been saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, because God loved us even while we were still sinners? It changes everything!
I can’t help but read about the Pharisees in the New Testament as they interacted with Jesus and think that they must have been the most miserable people on the face of the earth. There was no security or peace in the way they lived because they were always scrambling to try harder and do more so that God would be pleased with them. They couldn’t comprehend the gospel because the gospel offers us the love of God without any strings attached.
9. Let the overwhelming knowledge that you are saved by grace alone change the way you interact with others from day to day.
Knowing that God has saved us because of Jesus’ work and not our own is the opposite of miserable. Knowing that God has saved us because of Jesus’ work and not our own is the key to lasting joy.
When we bask in the glory of God and allow ourselves to know, deep down, that we are saved by grace alone because God loves us so, we can turn and love others because we have nothing to lose. Nothing to protect. We are loved by God no matter what, and we can’t make him love us less.
The Pharisees couldn’t love their neighbors because their neighbors didn’t uphold the law as perfectly as the Pharisees thought they should. Had they realized that they themselves could only be saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, they too could have looked at the people around them with eyes of grace and gratitude.
10. Ask God to help you believe him better.
When we surrender to the Lordship of Christ and begin to follow God, He will change us from the inside out. The gospel alone has the power to do that. Our pursuit shouldn’t be all the ways in which we can behave better. Throw out your list of how to be a better Christian and simply ask God to help you believe him better. When we truly believe he has the power to transform our hearts, we will be changed forever by his work, not ours.
So, Are You a Pharisee?
Throughout our son’s high school years, he had a friend who was a frequent presence in our home, eating up piles of French toast and making music videos in the garage, as teenage boys are prone to do. We enjoyed the friendship as much as our son did, but we began to chuckle quietly whenever he would leave the room because he, at the ripe old age of 15, had mastered the art of “the Eddie Haskell”. You remember Eddie; Wally Cleaver’s buddy on the classic Leave it to Beaver TV show, Eddie would shmooz his way through every interaction with adults, saying and doing all the right things in their presence.
“Why, good afternoon, Mrs. Cleaver. You’re looking especially lovely today.” Eddie and Wally would then make their way up the stairs to Wally’s bedroom, where Eddie would promptly roll out a plan to watch the girls at school try out for spots on the cheerleading team or to teach Beaver to tell people “You have a face like a pig” in Spanish.
Like Eddie, our son’s friend would butter us up in the church building while forging foolish plans, using profanity he thought we couldn’t hear, and talking smack about his youth leaders and other adults in his life. Before we deal too harshly with our young friend, we need to take a look at our own hearts, because we humans are more prone to “Phariseeism” than we care to admit. Yes, it’s likely that you behave like a Pharisee from time to time, and so do I.
Here’s the truth we must never forget, Jesus paid it all. He came to save sinners and sufferers like us. Like Eddie Haskell. Like the Pharisees in the New Testament, too. When we realize that we’ve wandered off into Pharisee territory, we have to remind ourselves that we are loved by God, and he will never, ever leave us nor forsake us.