Is He Really a Pharisee?

I frequently hear and read of religious people today being referred to as Pharisees, but I don’t believe the word means what many of those who use it think it means. Before you ever refer to or think of someone as a Pharisee, it would be wise to see what the Bible actually says about that first-century Jewish sect.

When a person is accused of possessing the spirit of the Pharisees, exactly what is the accusation? Is he being charged with the love of money? “Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, also heard all these things, and they derided Him” (Luke 16:14).

Or could it be a reference to one’s hypocrisy in inventing ways to justify lying or some other sin? As strange as it may seem to us, that is what Jesus accused the Pharisees of doing. “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obliged to perform it.’  Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that sanctifies the gold” (Matthew 23:16-17 [16-22])?

Perhaps the charge is that, to borrow a modern expression, a person talks the talk but fails to walk the walk. And not only that, maybe he binds on others things he refused to do. Perhaps, it involves an accusation one is only doing things to be seen by others. I ask that because we see the Pharisees of old doing all three in Matthew 23:2-5. “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do to be seen by men.”

Are some labeled as Pharisees because they seek to circumvent God’s commandments by their manmade traditions as was done with the Pharisees’ “gifts” to God? “He answered and said to them, ‘Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition’ ” (Matthew 15:1-9)?

Could the charge stem from one’s attention to some details while omitting such things as justice, mercy, and faith? “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone” (Matthew 23:23).

If we are guilty of any of these we may be deserving of the comparison to the Pharisees, but more often than not the word is used today in a way that is very different from its first-century usage. If one demonstrates a strict commitment to obedience he is often dismissed as a Pharisee, but in reality that is the spirit of Jesus Himself. “Behold, I have come—in the volume of the book it is written of Me—to do your will, O God” (Hebrews 10:7). And Jesus expects us to be like Him in that commitment. Near the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount, a discourse in which He called for a righteousness which would exceed that of the Pharisees (Matthew 5:20), Jesus said in Matthew 7:21, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.” Just before going to the cross, the Lord told His apostles, “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15). Though the word is commonly used to minimize or even belittle the importance of obedience, not once did Jesus fault the Pharisees for being too strict in their obedience; instead, He demanded obedience.

And we might add that it is also a mistake to label as Pharisees those who express concerns about the false teachings of some, for Jesus Himself warned about doctrinal error—the doctrinal error of the Pharisees. “Then Jesus said to them, ‘Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.’…Then they understood that He did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Mt. 16:6, 12). Later, Jesus would be extremely critical of the Pharisees as He told the multitudes that the Pharisees were headed for the condemnation of hell (Mt. 23:1, 33).

Are there Pharisees today? Perhaps, but they are not the people seeking to obey the author of eternal salvation (Heb. 5:8, 9) and heeding His instructions to contend earnestly for the faith (Jude 1:3-4).


All quotes taken from the New King James Version, copyright 1994, Thomas Nelson Publishers.