So, what exactly is a Pharisee, anyway? Every Christian has some idea; in fact it has become the Christian version of “Nazi” – you win any argument by being the first to call the other guy a Pharisee. But do many Christians know what a Pharisee is?
There are a number of passages in the Gospels which speak of the Pharisees, but one brief interaction summarizes the major elements of their theology and practice. It is found in Matthew 15:
1 Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” 3 He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 5 But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” 6 he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. 7 You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
8 “‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
9 in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
And what do we learn about the Pharisees from this?
The first element of Phariseeism is clearly implied, and Jesus makes it even more clear elsewhere: Pharisees were moralists. That doesn’t just mean that they believed in morality; if that were so, every member of every religion ever would be a Pharisee. Rather it means that they saw personal morality as the path to redemption. It is why they became so adept at popping up in every situation to point out perceived sins. Only a moralist could be concerned with whether or not Jesus’ disciples washed their hands. This central element of their theology is what Jesus had in mind when He told the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The one saw that righteousness was unobtainable and relied on the mercy of God. But the other – the Pharisee – thought his own moral character was enough for him to draw near to God.
The second and closely related element of the Pharisaical theology is explicit in this passage: Pharisees were legalists. This means that they multiplied legal regulations never found in Scripture. The law detailed ceremonial washings for various occasions, but dinner was not one of them. They did not even pretend that the issue is biblical, asking instead why the disciples broke “the tradition of the elders.” The elevation of human tradition – what Isaiah called “the commandments of men” – to the level of God’s law is legalism. It is not surprising that those who see personal morality as necessary to salvation would soon multiply the regulations of the law.
But the third element of Pharisaical theology is unexpected: The Pharisees were antinomians. That seems impossible, but look at what Jesus asked: “Why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” He then offered up one commandment out of the Ten and demonstrated that the Pharisees habitually broke it. They talked a great game on the law, but when it came to actual moral commands which God expected them to follow they managed to re-write the law. Their tradition bound both them and others to a set of extra-biblical regulations, while at the same time exempting them from the laws of God.
So that is what a Pharisee really is: a moralistic, legalistic antinomian. Too many in our lawless age assume that this is oxymoronic, that legalism and antinomianism are and must be opposites. This is simply untrue. Legalism and antinomianism are instead the twin children of moralism. Here is how it works. Say you want to get to heaven on the basis of your own morality; you’ll find pretty quickly that the commandments of God are very difficult to keep. This is especially true once you encounter Jesus’ teaching on the meaning of the law. Remember how the Rich Young Ruler had his pretentions to morality smashed? After claiming to be a law-keeper, he heard the truth from Jesus, and he went away sad. Read through Matthew 5 closely and you’re likely to have your own sad moment as Jesus explains the deep spiritual application of the law. Moralism cannot coexist with the moral law of God; the depravity of man won’t allow it. The moralist, then, is forced to do two things: he must abandon the actual laws of God which genuinely apply to him, and at the same time he must concoct some new, easier set of rules which can be followed. That is what the Pharisees did, and it is what modern-day Pharisees must continue to do.
So what would we expect a real, modern-day Pharisee to look like?
Well, in the first place, he would say or at least imply that true Christianity can be judged entirely by actions rather than by beliefs. He might, for instance, suggest that until Christians look and act exactly like Christ they are not really Christians. Of course Christians are supposed to act like Christ; that is the essence of Christian morality. Remember: believing in morality is not moralism, but if we understand what Christ-like-ness really is, we won’t expect Christians to actually attain to it perfectly. The Pharisee, however, will, because he is a moralist. Meanwhile, in keeping with his deeds-not-creeds philosophy, he will downplay the significance of all doctrinal disputes.
Furthermore, the modern-day Pharisee can be expected to discount the law of God. True Pharisees will object to the most obvious commands. Perhaps, for instance, they will conclude that the Bible’s teaching on sexuality isn’t all that important and that Christians shouldn’t make too big of a deal about it. That would fit in perfectly with a philosophy which was arguing 2000 years ago that the Bible’s teaching on honoring your parents wasn’t all that important and that God’s people shouldn’t make too big of a deal about it.
Finally, having jettisoned the morality of the Bible, the modern-day Pharisee will doubtless invent a whole new set of rules and regulations for Christians to follow. Maybe he’ll say that Christians need to do more service outside the church than in, even though that’s pretty much the opposite of what Paul taught in I Timothy. Or maybe he’ll argue that Christians need to eat lots of meals with Muslims and Buddhists, which of course is nowhere to be found in the Bible anyway. What would recommend commandments like these, though, is that they’re pretty easily followed, at least as compared to the thorough, heart-mind-and-soul morality demanded by our Lord. Remember, if you’re going to be a moralist, you have to pick a law which you are capable of following!
That is at least a biblical picture of what a modern-day Pharisee might look like. Thank goodness we don’t actually have anyone like that in the church today!Tom Chantry, Pastor Christ Reformed Baptist Church .