Several years ago, I was reading an illustrated Bible story book to my eldest daughter. We were reading the story of Jesus’ arrest in Gethsemane. The Roman soldiers were drawn with angry scowls on their faces, while Judas Iscariot was illustrated as shrinking in the shadows with a look of guilt on his face.
My daughter pointed to Judas and said, “He’s a good guy, hey Dad?” I corrected her, but she was unconvinced. Flipping back through previous New Testament stories, she pointed out that, whenever the illustrators drew “bad guys”—that is, the Pharisees—they were drawn with angry faces. Those without angry faces are the “good guys.” Since Judas was not portrayed angrily, her visual interpretation was that he was a “good guy.”
Her misunderstanding, while understandable, illustrates a common misunderstanding with regard to the Gospel accounts. We are familiar enough with the Gospel accounts to know the real character of the Pharisees, and so we tend to villainise them in our mental images. As R. C. Sproul has noted, “We view the Pharisees as the treacherous, corrupt group of unprincipled men who actually plotted the murder of Christ. What could be more diabolical than that?”
In fact, the New Testament does not universally portray the Pharisees as “treacherous,” “corrupt,” “unprincipled” and “diabolical”—at least not in the way that we might ordinarily think of these vices. Paul recalls his former life as a Pharisee and concludes that it was a time when he lived in a “blameless” fashion (Philippians 3:4–6). He adds that his moral and religious achievements were ultimately “rubbish” (v. 8) in terms of earning favour with God, but that does not mean that those things were morally reprehensible. As Wiersbe says, “Paul had enough morality to keep him out of trouble, but not enough righteousness to get him into heaven! It was not bad things that kept Paul away from Jesus—it was good things!”
We don’t want to ignore what the Gospels reveal of the true nature of the Pharisees, but at the same time, it is helpful to consider carefully what a Pharisee looked like. When we do so, it gives us a far greater appreciation of what it means to be pharisaical.
Jesus once said that only those whose righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees will inherit the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:20). That may surprise us if we think of the Pharisees as morally reprehensible creatures. Surely it can’t be that difficult to exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees?
When Jesus spoke of the need to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, He was, of course, referencing their external righteousness. A Pharisee was (so it seemed) the epitome of righteousness. In contrast to our often-diabolical misconception of the Pharisees, the New Testament reveals that Pharisees were—at least externally—far more like Bible-believing Christians than we might like to admit. Here are four things that you must do in order to be a Pharisee.
First, to be a Pharisee, you must be an evangelist. All Christians understand, at least in theory, the importance of evangelism. You cannot read the Gospels or the book of Acts without being impressed with the evangelistic zeal of Jesus and His followers. We rightly conclude that this is something to emulate. But have you ever thought about the fact that the Pharisees were zealous evangelists—and far more zealous evangelists than we usually are. Jesus said that the Pharisees would travel over land and sea in order to make a single convert (Matthew 23:15)! You cannot be a Pharisee apart from evangelistic zeal.
Second, to be a Pharisee, you must tithe. Statistics show that tithing is not a matter of stringent obedience amongst most Christians. One research project showed that, while 17% of adults claim to tithe, only 3% actually tithe. Like evangelism, tithing is a matter of obedience—one in which so many Bible-believing Christians dismally fail. But not the Pharisees. They tithed so meticulously that they even gave of their spices (Matthew 23:23)! You cannot hope to be a Pharisee apart from a commitment to faithful tithing.
Third, to be a Pharisee, you must pray. No one who was exposed to the Pharisees doubted that they were men of prayer. It was obvious to all. They stood on street corners and in synagogues, loudly lifting their voices to God in prayer (Matthew 6:5). They prayed in church and at work. Their prayer life was evident to all to see. Prayer is perhaps the most neglected spiritual discipline in contemporary Western Christianity. But no one can aspire to be a Pharisee who is not committed to prayer.
Fourth, to be a Pharisee, you must study the Bible. The Pharisees not only read the Bible, but deeply studied the Scriptures. Jesus said that the Pharisees “searched” the Scriptures (John 5:39). The word implies careful, thorough study. Their Scripture reading was far deeper than ours often is. We tend to read the Scriptures quite superficially, but the Pharisees were devoted to studying the Scriptures. You cannot hope to be a Pharisee if you do not study your Bible.
So Pharisees faithfully evangelised, tithed, prayed and studied the Bible—things that Bible believing Christians ought to do. But we must not only match the Pharisees, we must exceed them in these areas. Could your zeal in these regards be said to exceed the Pharisees?
Of course, the title of this article is somewhat facetious. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the New Testament realises that the Pharisees are not held up as examples to be emulated. Jesus reserved His harshest words for the Pharisees (Matthew 23).
While it was right to evangelise, a convert of the Pharisees was soon made into “twice as much a child of hell” as the evangelist (Matthew 23:15). While tithing was a matter of obedience, the Pharisees meticulously tithed even as they “neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23). While the Pharisees offered eloquent public prayers, they did so only to “be seen by others.” And while searching the Scriptures was a good and necessary discipline, the Pharisees managed to do so while completely missing the fact that all Scripture pointed to Christ (John 5:39–40). They missed out on eternal life because they missed the point in their study.
And so, while the things that the Pharisees did—evangelism, tithing, praying, Bible study—were good things in and of themselves, and disciplines in which Christians ought to be involved, it is little wonder that Jesus expected those who will inherit the kingdom of heaven to exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees.
Jesus warned his hearers of the “leaven” of the Pharisees, which He defined as “hypocrisy.” He acknowledged that they had a legitimate position of authority, which needed to be respected, but their actions were not to be emulated (Matthew 23:1–3). Their righteousness was merely external. It was a veneer that covered the true decay beneath. It was a whitewashed sepulchre that concealed rotting bones inside. As “leaven,” their hypocrisy was “injected in seemingly harmless amounts” but was “potent in its full impact” (Sproul). Jesus’ ultimate conclusion of the Pharisees was stinging:
You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.
Those who will inherit the kingdom of heaven must not emulate the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. And yet their (external) righteousness must not only be matched, but exceeded (Matthew 5:20). Many of the Pharisees’ disciplines—like the four we have briefly considered—ought to be mimicked by Christians today. Christians ought to be zealous about evangelism, tithing, prayer and Bible study. It is to our shame that we are not as passionate about these matters as the Pharisees were.
And yet it is possible to do these things with no internal reality. It is possible to be a modern-day Pharisee. The question is, how do we avoid that? How do we exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees and so inherit the kingdom of heaven?
The answer, of course, is by looking to Christ as our source of righteousness. That is what the Pharisees missed in all their religiosity. Paul admitted as much with his background as a Pharisee:
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
There is only one standard of righteousness that is truly pleasing to God, and that standard is the Lord Jesus Christ. He alone lived a life of perfect obedience, and thereby achieved the righteousness of God. And by dying on the cross in the place of those who, unlike the Pharisees, will come to Him for eternal life, He satisfied God’s wrath against all unrighteousness. He now offers his righteousness as a substitute for our own lack of righteousness if we will receive Him. His obedience in life and death, and His victory in resurrection, secure an exceeding righteousness for all who will receive it by faith alone.