The Pharisees were a sect of the Jews whom Jesus often had discussions with over matters of the law because they were constantly trying to test Him and find fault in Him. Many today believe that the Pharisees were condemned by Jesus because they were “law-keepers” and were so concerned about obeying the law that they failed to understand the grace that God was bringing into the world through Jesus Christ. Thus, the term ‘Pharisaical’ is often times applied today to those who would teach or stress obedience to the commandments of God in the New Testament.
But I ask you, is this right? The Pharisees did fail to understand the grace being brought through Christ. BUT were the Pharisees condemned by Jesus for their “law-keeping”? Is it correct to label someone as ‘Pharisaical’ because they teach obedience to the commandments of God today? Does that mean that they fail to understand grace when they teach obedience to the law of Christ? Consider the following:
While it is true that the Pharisees did not believe in Jesus and did not understand the grace of God, Jesus did NOT condemn them for their adherence to the law. In fact, it was the exact opposite. Jesus even told the people to listen and OBEY what the Pharisees told them to do from the law (Matthew 23:1-3a). Jesus still proclaimed the authority and role of the scribes and Pharisees in teaching the Law of Moses to the people. He commanded the people to keep the commandments of God.
Here is what Jesus really condemned the Pharisees for:
1) Not Practicing God’s Law. While the Pharisees were instructors of the law, they were not followers of the law. So, in fact, we see that Jesus condemned them for NOT adhering to the laws of God. “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you–but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice” (Matthew 23:1-3). He condemned them for their sinfulness and hypocrisy in Matthew 23:25-28.
2) Corrupting God’s Law. Jesus condemned them for changing God’s law and adding their own. “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? … for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me; in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men'” (Matthew 15:3-9). Again, He condemned them for their lack of obedience to the law of God. They taught their own doctrines instead of teaching God’s commandments.
3) Neglecting God’s Law. Jesus also condemned them for only keeping PART of the law instead of all of it. The following is a verse that needs to be understood correctly – “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23a). Here is where some might be tempted to stop and say ‘See! Jesus told them to focus on justice, mercy, faithfulness and not on all that other law-keeping stuff.’ But that is not what Jesus was saying at all. That verse doesn’t end there. Jesus went on to say “These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23b). Jesus told them that they SHOULD have done all of the tithing but without neglecting the rest of the law.
So, we see that the Pharisees were NOT condemned by Jesus for being too concerned about obeying God’s law, but because they weren’t concerned enough!
Today, when one teaches the commandments of God in the New Testament, they are not being ‘Pharisaical,’ they are being true to the Word of God. At the same time, the term ‘Pharisaical’ can rightly be applied to any and all who claim to be followers of Christ who are hypocritical in their service to God, teach other doctrines that are not in accordance with God’s, and those who neglect parts of God’s law. Let’s all make sure that in all we do we are obeying the laws that Christ has given us. God has saved us by His grace but He has also called us to obey. Don’t be pharisaical. Be faithful and true to God.