"Am I am pharisee?" Have we ever asked ourselves that question? If we are, we probably haven't!! If we haven't, we should. Every aspect of our lives must be held up for inspection under the light of God's Word. This examination will not hurt us -- it can only help us.
What is a pharisee? To us the word is usually synonymous with hypocrite -- one who feign qualities, virtues, or religious devotion he does not possess. A pharisee is certainly a hypocrite, but more than just a hypocrite. Not the common variety -- but a religious hypocrite; not the lukewarm, but the fanatical. All hypocrites are not pharisees, but all pharisees are hypocrites. To define and understand the pharisee, we must examine the biblical record.
The implication from the Gospels is that the Pharisees were the most numerous and influential sect of the Jewish religion in Jesus' day. The Pharisees were divided from other factions chiefly because of differing positions concerning the law of Moses (Phil. 3:5). By observing their practices, doctrines, and attitudes, we may notice the distinguishing traits of the Pharisees.
The Pharisees were zealous (Rom. 10:2), though their zeal was misguided. They were devoted to their religion. They worked hard and traveled far to make converts (Matt. 23:15). Their devotion to their sect, its tenets, and its traditions was greater than their devotion to God (Mark 7:7,9). Their religion was a false one that shut men out of heaven (Matt. 23:13,15). In their blind zeal for their sect, they carried on a relentless campaign against Jesus and His work. The Pharisees' system of man-made doctrine was not compatible with Jesus' teachings. They impugned His character (Matt. 9:34; 12:24), denied His miracles (John 9:13-18), laid snares for His speech (Matt. 19:3: 22:15), threatened Him (Luke 13:31), attempted to stone Him (John 8:59), and eventually obtained agreement to His death (John 18:3; Matt. 27:20-22; Luke 23:13). Their devotion to their cause and their antagonism towards those who opposed it was so great they could justify the crucifixion of Jesus, and consent to the death of Stephen.
The Pharisees emphasized ritual and outward observance -- washings (Mark 7:3,4), fasting (Matt. 6:16; 9;14), strict Sabbath observance (Matt. 12:2), tithing (Matt. 23:23), public prayers (Matt. 6:5; Luke 18:11), etc. The hypocrite must necessarily have the outward in order to appear religious and righteous before men. Outer form replaces inner character as a sign of who is religious and right.
Doctrinally, Pharisees were strait and narrow (Acts 26:5). If the Sadducess were the religious liberals of Jesus' day, the Pharisees might be called the fundamentalists. They believed in a literal resurrection, angels & spirits (Acts 23:8), and were painstaking in their devotion to law-keeping (with their traditions, of course). Due to their lack of the Spirit, they were doomed to follow the letter. They were so sure they were right, everybody else must be wrong. They were the only scholars (John 7:15). They were self-righteous, covetous, treacherous, merciless -- even bloodthirsty -- but with skillful manipulation of the scriptures, they could justify every action (e.g. Mark 7:7-13).
The Pharisees were no mere hypocrites. They had so refined hypocrisy into a religious system, that Jesus identified their doctrine as hypocrisy (Luke 12:1 with Matt. 16:6, 12). They had a reputation for righteousness (Matt 5:20), but it was a self-heralded righteousness. The Pharisees feigned a religious devotion they did not possess. In the final analysis, they sought to exalt themselves and impress men rather than please God (Matt. 23:5). [Note: they did not necessarily try to please men, but tried to impress them; e.g. Matt. 6:2,5,16].
Jesus did not condemn their keeping of the law, but rather their exalting traditions above God's commands. He did not condemn their scrupulous observance of the details of the law, but rather their failure to observe its major themes. He did not condemn their zeal, but rather the misguided direction of it. Jesus' renunciation of the Pharisees shows that they exalted tradition over commandment, letter over spirit, seen over unseen, minor over major, ritual over spiritual, and that they condemned others while condoning themselves. Every single doctrine and practice was not bad, but their system moulded it all into a deadly combination. Their religion was a farce which outwardly continued that which was once inwardly meaningful to others.
Realize that any keeping of God's commands will be dubbed pharisaical and legalistic by some. Christianity has certain ritual (e.g. baptism, communion, etc.) and certain outwardly visible demands (e.g. modest dress, plain speech, etc.). These should be obeyed without concern for what one might be called. But Pharisees felt that these kinds of things alone marked them as righteous. Some outward things will be part of righteous separated living, but only an inward change of heart -- a washing in the blood of Christ -- makes one righteous. Realize also that claiming one way/doctrine/religion is right and another is wrong is not necssarily pharisaism. The apostles claimed their faith was from God and that both Judaism and paganism were wrong. But Pharisees found their rightness in being a Pharisee. Christians found their rightness in God.
Let's not worry about pharisaism among others. The question before us is, "Am I am pharisee?" If I travel far and wide to convert others to a religious affiliation rather than preach the gospel -- I am a Pharisee. If I exalt my forefathers, history and traditions above the commands of God -- I am a Pharisee. If I relentlessly, though insidiously, attack the words of God -- I am a Pharisee. If I observe outward motions without inward movement -- I am a Pharisee. If I follow the letter but not the Spirit -- I am a Pharisee. If I major on minors and minor on majors -- I am a Pharisee. If I feign righteousness and devotion -- I am a Pharisee. If I use the Bible to try to convict others, and it never condemns me -- I am a Pharisee.
The result of Pharisaism in Judaea was the existence of a self-righteous religionist who thumbed his nosed at sinners. I wonder if one reason Pharisees compassed land and sea to make one proselyte was that they would not reach down to the masses under their feet? And perhaps they could not, because the masses knew what they were. Maybe they had to find someone who didn't know them!! The failure of the Pharisees, though, did have the effect of highlighting the One who spoke "not as the scribes," and "the common people heard Him gladly."
The problem of pharisaism is not just one of legalism, ritual and tradition. These are symptoms of the problem. When religious affiliation and doctrinal correctness become more important than relationship with God, then religion becomes a clean-swept shell of a house which is completely empty inside. The outside must be kept freshly painted and beautifully adorned -- that it may appear someone dwells within. Sepulchres, however lovely, merely hold dead men's bones!
When presented with this challenge, we usually look at someone else (Matt. 23:29-35). The publicans and harlots had an advantage over the Pharisees -- they knew they were sinners (Matt. 21:32; Luke 5:30-32). The Pharisee will not get what the publican got until he gets where the publican was. Read Luke 18:9-14. May we, like Nicodemus, seek Him even if we must come by night. May I not say "I thank Thee that I am not as other men are," but rather, "God be merciful to me a sinner."
(A slight rewrite of an article that appeared in The Baptist Waymark, March-April 1995, page 1)
Note: In an e-mail on February 6th, Brother Hoyt Sparks called attention to two references that add information to show the totality of who the Pharisees were: John 8:23, "Ye are from beneath; I am from above: ye are of this world; I am not of this world"; and John 8:44, "Ye are of your father, the devil, and the lusts of you father ye will do."