The term “pharisee” gets thrown around a lot today. As you can imagine, I get accused of being a pharisee constantly. I can’t tell you how much this word hurts me when others carelessly throw it my way. I also can’t help but wonder if those who are so fond of using this slur really understand the historical and spiritual implications of such an accusation.
I hope this will cause you to think twice before calling someone a pharisee.
The Pharisees and Sadducees
The Pharisees and the Sadducees were two of the main Jewish sects during Jesus’ day. They were locked in an on-going battle for control of the Jewish people. The Sadducees argued for a strict and literal interpretation of the Torah (first five books of the Bible). They believed the Torah was the only thing that was authoritative and binding.
The Pharisees, on the other hand, were the more “progressive” group. They believed the Torah was open to interpretation. They insisted that the ever-growing collection of traditions and Torah interpretations were just as authoritative as the Torah itself. They believed the interpretation and application of the Law should be flexible, in order to fit the times and the needs of the people.
As you can see, it is ironic that Christians would accuse their more “conservative” brethren of being “pharisees,” when the Pharisees were actually known for being fairly liberal in their approach to biblical interpretation.
The Sins of the Pharisees
But this issue isn’t really a matter of religious conservatism vs. progressiveness. The implications of calling someone a pharisee are very serious. Here are some of the sins with which Jesus charged the Pharisees:
1. Pharisees Were Hypocrites (Matthew 23:1-12)
The word “hypocrite” means an actor, like in a play. It is someone who is intentionally deceitful about who he truly is and doesn’t practice what he preaches. The Pharisees were knowingly putting on a show of religious piety “to be seen by others” (Matthew 23:1-5).
When you accuse someone of being a hypocritical pharisee, you aren’t just accusing them of being inconsistent. You are accusing them of intentionally trying to deceive people. There are likely some Christians who fit this description, but this label doesn’t fit anyone who is sincerely trying to live their lives for God’s glory; even if they are unintentionally inconsistent at times.
2. Pharisees Kept People Out of the Kingdom (Matthew 23:13-15)
The Pharisees controlled and manipulated people through intimidation. They threatened their fellow Jews that if they followed Jesus, they would be “put out of the synagogue” (John 9:22; 12:42).
When you accuse someone of being a pharisee, you are implying that they attempt to control and manipulate others for their own benefit. Worse, you are implying that they are keeping people from becoming genuine followers of Christ.
3. They Created Legal Loopholes (Matthew 23:16-22)
The Pharisees interpreted the Law so that they could do whatever they wanted to do, while at the same time restricting the behavior of others. Unlike the Sadducees, who believed in taking the Law at face value, the Pharisees had created their own set of rules that suited their interests.
Most people think the modern day pharisee is one who believes in strictly following the New Testament. More accurately, at least in this sense, the modern day pharisee is someone who twists the Scriptures (2 Peter 3:16) in order to make it say what he wants it to say. A modern day pharisee is one who uses Scripture to create loopholes for himself and nooses for others.
4. They Neglected the Weightier Matters (Matthew 23:23-24)
The Pharisees had a tendency to follow parts of the Law to the “T,” while completely neglecting other parts. Jesus actually praised them for their obedience, but rebuked them for the negligence. And the matters they were neglecting were actually the most important parts of the Law.
You cannot accuse someone of being a pharisee simply because he is conservative in wanting to follow Scripture. You cannot say that a person who believes, for instance, Christians should always attend worship services is being pharisaical. However, a person who insists on being at the church building every time the doors are open, but ignores biblical mandates to be generous, loving, and encouraging, is rather similar (in that way) to the Pharisees.
5. They Were Full of Greed and Self-Indulgence (Matthew 23:25-26)
Jesus’ harshest words for the Pharisees were not on account of them being the self-appointed morality police, but for the fact that – while self-righteously playing the role of morality police, they were actually living immoral lives.
A Christian admonishing you on some moral or religious issue, does not necessarily make him a pharisee (of course, it does not necessarily make him right either). We need to understand that there is a place for loving admonishment and correction in the church (1 Thessalonians 5:14; 2 Timothy 3:16-17).
A person is pharisaical – not for their desire for purity in the church – but for the fact that they are bringing impurity in the church, while trying to maintain a facade of purity.
6. They Were Spiritually Dead (Matthew 23:27-28)
Jesus said, like tombs, the Pharisees were “full of dead men’s bones.” They had no spiritual life in them. They gave the impression of loving God and being zealous for His word, but in reality, their hearts were far from Him (Matthew 15:8).
In this sense, it is an extremely bold accusation to say someone is a Pharisee. To say someone is spiritually dead, but trying to give the impression of spiritual vitality, it is a very serious charge.
7. They Murdered Jesus (Matthew 23:29-36)
The worst part about the Pharisees was that they lamented the fact that their ancestors had murdered the prophets of old, but would themselves murder the Messiah. These men were so calloused, so hard-hearted, so spiritually dead that they could observe the miracles of Jesus and claim they must be the work of demons (Matthew 12:24). These men were so sinful that they demanded the Son of God be nailed to a cross.
To claim a Christian today should be put in the same category as these monsters should not be done lightly, if at all.
Are There Modern Day Pharisees?
If there are people who belong in this category, we will recognize them by their fruit (Matthew 12:33-37). They will be those who are intentionally trying to fool people into believing they are righteous, when in reality they are living secret immoral lives. They will use their influence, not for the glory of God, but for their own glory and benefit. These are the kind of people who use religion to control, manipulate, and line their own pockets.
Why Do You Label?
Most of the time this label gets thrown out, it is not used accurately. It is used as a way to shut people up. It is used as a way to excuse ourselves from listening to those with whom we disagree. If you disagree with someone on an issue, study the issue out and reason together. Don’t be lazy by categorizing and labeling people.
Unless it is obvious that a person is a hypocrite – because they’re living a double life – who are you to label them a hypocritical pharisee? Certainly, interpreting Scripture more conservatively than you is no reason to call someone a pharisee. As I said before, the Pharisees were actually the progressives of their age, not the conservatives.
And finally, when we call people pharisees because we believe they are being inconsistent and judgmental, aren’t we being inconsistent and judgmental? We are being inconsistent because we are saying they shouldn’t criticize, but we are criticizing them. We are telling them they have no right to be judgmental, but we are lumping them in with the people who murdered Jesus. Do you see the problem here?
Just some things to think about.
I love you and God loves you,
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