Who Are The Pharisees?

I heard it again this past week, this time from an established Bible teacher, which shows how the Christian community has been swayed to think the way our culture does rather than as the Bible teaches.

As you could guess from the title of this post, I’m referring to what people believe about the Pharisees, that Jewish sect of the first century often in conflict with Jesus. The common idea is that Jesus opposed them because they were oh, so religious.

This is simply not the case. In reality, Jesus Himself could easily be thought of as an example of a religious person. He could tick off a list of things similar to the one Paul recited in Philippians 3.

Jesus was circumcised the eighth day, of the tribe of Judah, a Hebrew of Hebrews. In fact, He was in the temple discussing the Scriptures with the priests and Levites at the age of twelve. As an adult, He was regularly in the synagogue on the Sabbath, often reading from Scripture and explaining its meaning.

He participated in religious activities, attending Passover, insisting John baptize Him, and instituting communion.

No, Jesus’s problems with the Pharisees didn’t stem from the fact that they were religious. Rather, He objected to their selfish, hypocritical use of religion. They were, in fact, prideful cheats.

The Pharisees had learned to make a show of their religion. Apparently since the restoration from the Babylonian exile, the Jews had learned their lesson and put aside their idols. You might say, it became the popular thing to be a worshiper of Yahweh. Consequently, to hold a powerful position in the nation, a person had to be better than the rest when it came to obeying God.

However, the Pharisees figured out ways they could “obey,” or at least appear to do so, and still make a buck. For example, they created a law that said if they dedicated their property to God, then they didn’t need to sell it to help their parents in a time of need. As Jesus pointed out, they created a tradition that superseded God’s command to honor their parents.

They also out-and-out cheated genuine worshipers by selling animals for sacrifice in the temple, often at a price that was unfair and sometimes using unfit animals—the law required an unblemished lamb.

Then there was their redefining of the term “work” since no one was to do any work on the Sabbath. They didn’t want Jesus to heal on the Sabbath because that would be considered “work.” They didn’t want His disciples to pick and eat grain when they were hungry on the Sabbath because that would be considered “work.”

These “work” laws were not from God. They were things the Pharisees concocted to establish and hold onto their power.

They were greatly concerned about power, as the gospels reveal, to the point that they wouldn’t give Jesus a straight answer to His questions for fear they would turn the people against them. They were also afraid the Romans would come in and take their power away if the people continued to carry on about Jesus being the Messiah.

And that was the bottom line. They rejected Jesus as the Christ. They above all others should have known what the Scriptures said about the Messiah, but they had learned to pick and choose the passages they wanted. A suffering servant? Not the messiah they were looking for. They wanted a glorious, triumphant King, if they still really wanted a messiah at all. Could be that they saw the messiah as a threat to their position too.

To sum it up, the Pharisees were interested in themselves. They made a show of religious activity because it benefited them, but it was nothing more than an outward display that belied what was going on in their hearts. They cheated people and bullied them, all in the name of doing God’s work. They freely ignored Scripture, added to it, and changed it to fit their purposes.

In other words, the Pharisees were those who used religious language to do what they wanted, not what God had said. They put themselves as the authority to determine what was right, not God’s Word.

Just like false teachers do today.

Published in: on December 29, 2010 at 7:02 pm  Comments (2)  
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  1. Great point about Jesus being religious. Jesus had the perfect relationship with the Father and he obeyed the Father perfectly. So it really is when we elevate the rules of man and try to make them out to be rules of God, that we are acting like Pharisees. Not when we point to one of God’s rules and say, “This one is not a mere suggestion.” And also, as you say, when we act like hypocrites condemning other lawbreakers while we keep the letter of the law but not the spirit of the law.


  2. Thanks for your comment, Sally. I see in a new way what Jesus meant that they were of their father the devil, he being a liar and the father of lies.

    The Pharisees were liars. They lied about the law, they lied about their reasons for keeping the law, they lied about God, and they lied about the Messiah—sometimes with their words, and sometimes with their actions.

    I don’t things have changed today. Metaphorical Pharisees, in my book, are still those who lie about God, His work, and His word.



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