4 misconceptions about the Pharisees.

August 26, 2014.

It seems (at least to me) to be a growing consensus among Christians today that the sect of the Jews that held so tightly to the law in Jesus’ time called the Pharisees were inherently really, really bad. It is even becoming popular to describe certain groups of Christians who are more conservative as “Pharisees” and dismiss any viewpoints that they hold outright without consideration because they are obviously wrong. But was this really who the Pharisees were? Is this the lesson that is being taught in the gospels about this admittedly self-righteous group? I think there is a deeper message being taught though Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees. I propose here four misconceptions about this religious sect that we need to get past if we wish to examine the true meaning of the text.

1. The Pharisees were always wrong.

This is an over generalization that is inherently flawed no matter who you are talking about. It is not at all likely that someone is always wrong, or always does the wrong things. Even hardened criminals can do something unexpected that spawns from good will. However, as we rain our harsh judgments on this religious sect that was self-righteous and full of pride, we tend to associate everything they did with falsehood or even evil. But the problem with that is, the Pharisees were not always wrong, even in what they taught. Listen to what Jesus said to the people during his sermon on the mount:

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
(Matthew 5:20)

Jesus tells the people that their righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees. Think about how hard that would be to hear for the people listening! I guess to put it in prospective, you can think of the most “by the book” Christian or Christian group you know and imagine Jesus telling you to be more righteous than they are. Indeed, this was partially because the Pharisees were not handling the righteousness in the correct way, as we will see in the next point, so part of exceeding their righteousness was simply not having the religious pride that they did. However, in the immediate context, Christ is speaking about the law and how the people were expected to keep it to the letter, a concept which the Pharisees seemed to have down pat. This phrase, “exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees…,” implies that the Pharisees held at least some degree of righteousness in the eyes of Jesus. Thus, they were not always wrong.

What lesson do we need to take from this? Just because someone is wrong in one thing or another, or they don’t live according to their teachings does not mean we can necessarily throw out all their teachings as false. They could very well be true, and they should be examined with the light of God’s word. In Jesus’ time, if a Pharisee came up to you and said “you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind…,” he wouldn’t have been wrong. Even if he didn’t love the Lord like he told you that you should, the statement still would stand true. The same goes for anything that is taught in the bible, both then and now, no matter who teaches it to us.

“[…] test everything; hold fast what is good.”
(I Thessalonians 5:21)

2. Jesus condemned the Pharisees because they stuck to the law.

This is perhaps the most common misconceptions about the Pharisees that there is today. The ideology goes, Jesus condemned the Pharisees because they were so strict and stuck to the letter of the law of God. The Pharisees indeed were strict, but this is not why our Lord gave them His seven woes. Let’s first look at the context of the verse above:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
(Matthew 5:17-20)

Now, does that sound like Jesus was upset with the Pharisees because they stuck to the law? No. Jesus himself kept the Old Law perfectly. Some have even ventured to say that of the four sects of Jews in his day, he was closest to begin a Pharisee. I don’t know if this is true, but I would assume that if we were just going by how strictly someone were keeping with the law, Jesus would have been in this group, though he understood the law more perfectly than they did so he had different teachings. In fact, in some ways Jesus even taught a more strict law than what the Pharisees did, as he continues (also see his teachings on marriage and divorce):

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”
(Matthew 5:21-22)

So why did Jesus get so upset with the Pharisees? The answer does not lie in the law they were keeping, but how they were keeping it, their misconceptions about it and where they went beyond it and bound things on the people that were not taught in the law.

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbiby others.”
(Matthew 23:1-7)

The Pharisees were the religious leaders of the day. They should have had things right. I think this is the main reason Jesus got so upset with them. He came to redeem Israel. He came to seek and save the lost. He came to be a blessing on the entire world. He should not have also had to deal with his people who were already supposed to be following him correctly. He even says in Mark:

And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
(Mark 2:16-17)

If you read through the minor prophets in the Old Testament, you can get a sense of how upset God is with the leaders of his people. They should be leading them into righteousness, not wrongdoing and mistruth. They should be a healing for the people, not a sickness. The Pharisees had this problem, as their self-righteousness and heavy burdens of law that went beyond what is written were toxic to the people of God. The Pharisees had a heart problem. Many of their laws were correct, but the way they obeyed them and served God was sickening to God. They had the form of righteousness on the outside, but on the inside was corruption.

Our lesson? Though we are under the new covenant, we are still under a covenant. We cannot throw out commandments just because we don’t like them under the excuse “there’s freedom in Christ.” There is freedom in Christ, but the love of Christ is that we keep his commandments. Citing the Pharisees as an example of why we shouldn’t hold to law is a misconception of why the Pharisees were wrong.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.”
(Matthew 23:15)

3. Jesus did not hang around Pharisees.

Perhaps it is for the first reason that we assume that Christ did not associate with Pharisees. We have a saying that goes “Jesus hung out with sinners,” which seems to imply that he never hung out with righteous people, or at least people who thought they were righteous. But this again is not true. Jesus’ time on this earth was spent with many different people, not just one group or one subset of the population. Yes, he hung out with the tax collectors (who were hated by nearly all Jews) and sinners, but he also hung out and interacted with scribes and Pharisees, along with everyone in between. Just as an example, when a Pharisee named Simon asked Jesus to come eat with him, he did:

“One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table.”
(Luke 7:36)

The story goes on of course to teach a lesson, but the point I’m making is that Jesus did not avoid contact with Pharisees just because of what they believed, or even just because they were wrong. He embraced opportunities to teach and did not show partiality with the gospel. One of the very first events that is recorded about his life is when he, at age 12, stays to listen and ask questions to the religious teachers in the temple, amazing them with his understanding and answers. Jesus was no stranger to religious people, nor was it his intention to be.

4. The Pharisees could not be saved.

Three and four work together, for many who believe that Jesus didn’t associate with the Pharisees believe this to be so because they could not be saved, or even were not worthy of being saved. I think when it is said openly like this, we would all agree that it is not true, but when it is masked with the other misconceptions of the Pharisees it is harder to distinguish. After all, didn’t Jesus condemn all scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23? Or didn’t he straight up tell “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”?

No, Jesus was the Messiah that was prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures that was to come and offer reconciliation for the world. The world of lost sinners. Everyone, Jew and Gentile alike. Yes, Jesus came to save the sinners and tax collectors, but he also came to call the religious leaders who were practicing the way of God incorrectly. They needed Christ just as much as we do, and he died for them and us alike. Once for all. It is a bit unfair to look back at the Pharisees and see their sins as any worse than the things that we have done that held our Lord on that cross.

If there is any evidence that Jesus came to save the Pharisees too, it is the fact that Saul, a staunch Pharisee before his revelation of Jesus, was called to be an apostle to the Gentiles. Saul was a Pharisee through and through, so much so that he was bringing Christians bound to Jerusalem to be tried before the Jews. He calls himself the chief of sinners at one point because he had so heavily persecuted the church. But Jesus had other plans for Saul (who to the Gentiles was known as Paul). Paul received grace and mercy from the Lord and turned his whole life upside down to start preaching the Way.

Our lesson? Jesus died and rose again to save everybody, even the people we don’t like. Our sins are no better than any one else’s. All sin will separate us from the Almighty God, who is holy and true. But the good news is that Jesus came to remove those sins, and cover us in his blood so that we might be able to stand blameless before the Lord on that great day. Are you ready for that day to come?

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
(Matthew 28:18-20)

Suggested Daily Reading: Matthew 5, 7, 23, Luke 7.

The peace that passes all understanding be upon you.


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