In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees were an prominent group of religious Jews often regarded as being holy and spiritual. While their founding (150s BC) ideal was noble – separation from sinfulness and adherence to God’s law – by the 1st Century AD they had become a harsh group of self-righteous elitists, often passing judgment on others they perceived to be less holy while ignoring glaring sin in their own personal lives.
Every Christian should examine himself regularly to be certain he isn’t infected with the spirit of the Pharisees. For Jesus Himself warned His disciples to “take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees…” (Mth 16:6). This mentality is compared to leaven in that once it is deposited into one’s mind, it permeates as yeast does in dough and begins to affect the general demeanor and actions of a person.
Pharisees were cruel people. The general populous revered them as righteous, but both Jesus and John the Baptist condemned them as a generation of vipers, deserving of the fires of Hell. You. Do. Not. Want. To. Be. A. Pharisee. 🙂
So what are the warning signs? Let’s look at Matthew 23, Jesus’ longest rebuke of the Pharisees, for some of the symptoms.
1. Rules, Rules, and More Rules (Verses 2 and 3)
The Pharisees loved rules. Jesus said they sat in Moses’ seat, acknowledging their authority under the law. But these men were professionals at making rules to impose on others. What’s wrong with that, you might ask? God makes rules. We obey His rules. To elevate a system of religious or social rules on people and wield religious power over them for obeying or disobeying your system is bondage.
Did you know Christianity isn’t about rules? Sure – God has standards by which He expects us to live and chastens us when we disobey. However, the Disciple’s life is to be one of faith, liberty, and mercy. The word that sums up our experience in Christ is the word LIBERTY. Outside of the sphere of things sinful, Christ lovingly gives us great liberty, freedom to choose.
Do you impose rules on others?
2. Rules For Others – Not For Self (Verses 3 and 4)
Pharisees “say and do not.” Jesus further elaborated that they bound heavy burdens but would not so much as “move them with one of their fingers.”
If you find yourself making rules for all around you but opting out and excusing yourself from your imposed mandates, you have cause to be concerned. Such infringes upon the conscience of others. To be frank, doing such assumes the role of Jesus Himself and is a usurpation of authority. One who insists upon rules for others but lives outside of those said rules is a hypocrite.
Do you opt out of your own rules?
3. Religion For Show (Verse 5)
The Pharisees loved to be “seen of men.” Their works are intentionally public so others would see and perceive them as Holy, for in the Jewish culture (a true Theocracy), perceived holiness was a status symbol.
Jesus told us to do our alms in secret. To pray in secret. To serve in such a way that our right hand doesn’t know what the left hand does (remember, a church is a body).
Do you do good works so others see?
4. A Lavish, Elitist Lifestyle (Verse 6 and 7)
While the Pharisee loved to be seen of men, they also enjoyed the privilege which came with their spiritual rank. Jesus describes this as the “chief seats” in the synagogues and “uppermost rooms” at feasts, or Jewish festivals. By their status, they had the best room, the best seat, the prominent spot, special recognition. In short, they wanted preeminence. They wanted special recognition.
Do you desire special treatment or recognition?
5. Shut Up The Kingdom (Verse 13)
Pharisees loved their religion. Yet, Christ came to fulfill the law and prophets, ending the Old Covenant and ushering in the New Covenant (worship contract). They rejected Christ, refused to humble themselves and be a part of the Church (Kingdom). But what’s worse, they turned many people away from entering Christ’s Kingdom who could have ordinarily entered in. This means they caused God’s regenerated children to avoid walking with the disciples, likely through fear or false teaching.
While the modern Christian Pharisee might not threaten people away from the church, his or her attitude could drive people away.
Does your attitude drive people from church?
6. Step On Heads For A Religious Career (Verse 14)
Their career was religion. These charlatans found no fault in squeezing every cent from the budgets of the poor and downcast, all to perpetuate their religious career. Notice from this verse (14) that they devour widows houses and make long prayers for a pretense. A pretense is a false claim. Ouch! They robbed the poor to perpetuate their fake ministries!
Please understand, scripture does teach the support of the ministry. But this is the support of the TRUE MINISTRY, not uncalled deceivers.
Do you step on heads to move up the religious ladder?
7. Spreading Their Dominion (Verse 15)
Jesus said of the Pharisees, that they compassed sea and land to make a single proselyte, or convert. Notice they didn’t make disciples (students) of God and Christ. Nay, rather they made proselytes to their religion. When these men found one worthy and willing to receive it, they trained them in their hateful ways and in the end, the student was worse than the teacher.
Do you seek to convert men to you, or disciple them to Christ?
8. Earthly Wealth Over Spiritual Value (Verse 16 and 17)
When it came down to “brass tacks,” the Pharisees cared more about the money in the Temple treasury than the Temple itself. Jesus condemns this mentality, for obvious reasons. Money is money. God’s Temple was Holy. The only reason that money was significant was because God’s House sanctified it (see the verse).
Do you care more about money than Spiritual things?
9. Boast Great Accomplishments, Neglect Simple But More Weighty Daily Issues (Verses 23 and 24)
Notice this one. The Pharisees had many outward accomplishments in the religious realm. They tithed of all they had, meaning they gave 10% of their money and goods in religious service. I even get the impression they they believed everyone owed them a debt of gratitude for their pomp. However, Jesus said they completely ignored more important issues – more weighty issues – like mercy, judgment, and faith.
Mercy is simple to explain. It is intentionally forgiving and not holding things against others, even if they deserve your wrath. It is letting go of offences. Judgment, here, doesn’t refer to judging others, but proper discernment. Good judgment, if you will. Faith is obviously the trust we should have in God throughout our day to day lives. These concepts didn’t compute in the Pharisee.
Do you pride yourself in religious works but neglect the “internals” of service to God?
10. Make Mountains Out Of Molehills (Verse 24)
Pharisees major on the minors. Jesus said they strained at gnats (a small bug) and swallowed camels (a large animal). Their reasoning is full of inconsistencies to start with, a product of their legalistic framework for daily life. Thus, they blow insignificant issues out of proportion and ignore enormous, glaring problems in their life or theology. You could say they “fly off the handle” at the smallest of things. They are unable to “let things go.”
Do you make mountains out of molehills?
11. Outside Clean – Inside Dirty (Verse 25)
Jesus’ comparison of the Pharisees to a platter is pointed. He described them as China, polished clean and bright on the outside but full of rot on the inside. Imagine if you went to your favorite restaurant, ordered a cup of coffee, was given a bright white cup only to begin drinking only to find someone else’s rotting food stuck to the bottom of the cup. This was the Pharisee. The condition is one where outside performance indicates holiness but the inside condition is evil and wicked. They are further compared to a decorated tomb, a whited sepulcher, nice on the outside but full of death within.
Do you project holiness while harboring hatred and evil feelings towards others?
12. Persecution of Truth Tellers (Verses 29-32)
Finally, the last characteristic of the Pharisee Jesus gives is that they persecute the men who dare call them out for their despicable ways. In the same way that their fathers killed the prophets, they persecuted Christ and the Apostles. When God-called men spoke out against the wicked actions of these Pharisees, they became enraged and did all they could to destroy those who spoke against them.
Consider the words of Solomon in Proverbs –
Reprove not a scorner, lest he hate thee: rebuke a wise man, and he will love thee. – Proverbs 9:8
Though correction stings us all, faithful are the wounds of a friend and a wise man will digest it and improve. A scorner, however, will hate you for it. The Pharisees sat in “the seat of the scornful” (Psa 1).
Do you seek to destroy those who call you out?
While the Pharisees were a group of elite, religious people with official power, any of us could be striken with the “leaven” of the Pharisees. Let us be weary and continually self examine our most inward parts (Psa 51:6) and purge out any tendencies such as this, calling on God, seeking repentance through Christ.
Originally published September 2014