5 Signs of Being A Pharisee

Brooklyn Museum - The Pharisees and the Saduccees Come to Tempt Jesus (Les pharisiens et les saducéens viennent pour tenter Jésus) - James Tissot

Here he comes, Mr. Know It All! Mr. Know It All always knows what everyone else should be doing, what everyone else is doing wrong, and he is always (and I mean always) right. Everyone knows someone like this. Some of us work with this individual, go to school with him, or have him as their next-door neighbor. Sadly, this Mr. Know It All is not limited to the world. His attitude is present in the church.

In the time of Jesus, there were those who possessed this uppity, self-righteous spirit. We know them as Pharisees. Whenever “Pharisee” is mentioned, many people have a lot of thoughts swirling in their minds (legalist, goody-two-shoes, etc.). Many people can think of nothing positive when they think of Pharisees.

However, the Pharisees did not start out as a bad group of folks. The word Pharisee comes from a word that simply means “separate.” The Pharisees had high regard for God’s law and sought to follow it to the best of their ability (Matt 23:2-3).

However, the Pharisees’ zeal outran their compassion for others and respect for God (Rom 10:1-4). They began to feel like they were better than others because they obeyed God. They made their own rules and their religion made them cold, harsh, and ungodly (Mark 7:6-8).

Jesus rebuked the Pharisees more harshly than He did any other group of individuals (Matt 23). We need to know about the Pharisees, their failings, and their hang-ups so that we might avoid them. Everybody likes warnings (especially when you get pulled over for speeding), and we need to observe some warning signs to see if we might be just like the Pharisees.

 1. Being All Talk

Jesus said the following concerning the Pharisees: “So do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger” (Matt 23:3-4).

The Pharisees set high standards of righteousness for others, but they themselves could not even reach those standards. It’s easy to tell someone else that they need to memorize the book of Zechariah to be considered spiritually elite when you haven’t even read your Bible in a week. The Pharisees felt good about telling others what to do, but they never did those same things. You might be a Pharisee if you have a habit of telling other people they should stop lusting, lying, or cursing, when you haven’t stopped these things yourself.

When a new Christian is trying his or her best to grow and you put stumbling blocks in their way and make them jump your personal theological hurdles before they can be considered the real deal, you might be guilty of this Pharisaical blunder (cf. 1 Pet 2:2).

The Pharisees talked a good game, but they were not the real deal. They were all talk. The cure is not to stop talking about the right things and encouraging others to do the right thing. Rather, we need to be those who do the things that are right before we go to others (Rom 14:12; Phil 4:9).

2. Desiring to Look Good Rather Than to Do Good

The Pharisees were more concerned with getting attention from men than getting attention from God. Even when they did good deeds, it was to get notoriety among men:

They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers (Matt 23:5-8).

The Pharisees were the loudest philanthropists in the first century. Whenever they did good works everybody knew it. If you didn’t know it, you would soon find out (don’t ever ask a Pharisee for a loan). Jesus says His followers are to do good for others in secret so only God would see it and then reward them openly (Matt 6:1-4). The Pharisees want everybody to notice them and pat them on the back. After all, they are Pharisees.

We can be guilty of the same things. The Pharisees wanted their Phylacteries (little visors with Scriptures in them) broad so they could fit all the verses they could in them in order to look more spiritual. If we read our Bible or memorize Scripture just to feel better than others, or to let everybody know what special reading plan we just finished, we are like the Pharisees.

If we always feel that we need a plaque, a banquet, and a ceremony for doing good, we have forgotten that we do good on behalf of Christ and not for human praise (Matt 25:31-46). If our Sunday morning attire is more important than (or as important as) the application of the Sunday morning sermon, the DNA of the Pharisees is probably in our blood.

3. Majoring in the Minors

To some people, everything is a big deal. For the Pharisees, everything was a big deal except the big things. The Pharisees were worried about the small things while totally ignoring the more pressing matters:

 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. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! (Matt 23:23-24).

Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for tithing the smallest herbs while neglecting to be concerned with justice, mercy, and faithfulness. If we focus all of our attention on the smaller matters like homeschool vs. public school, Bible translations, or dress clothes, we are missing the point.

While those things need to be addressed, they are not more important than loving my neighbor, feeding and clothing the orphan, or sharing the gospel with my lost coworker. If all of our spiritual conversations are about shallow things, we are mirroring the behavior of the Pharisees.

4. Working From the Outside in

Society says that if you get enough surgery and lose enough weight you will feel better about yourself. If you go buy the nice suit with the cufflinks, or the $100 sundress you will be more reverent and closer to God. Jesus says attempting to work spirituality from the outside in is working backward:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matt 23:25-28)

Jesus taught that what is inside will flow outward and not the other way around (Matt 12:34-35). Are we more concerned with the outside of our cup? Are we making sure we look the part spiritually, but inside we are corrupt, wicked, and far from God? Jesus has no problem with our dressing up on Sunday’s but this must not replace a mind that is pure throughout the week and seeking things that are above (Col 3:1-9).

If our Facebook posts make us look spiritual but we disrespect our spouse, lust in our hearts, or hate others, we are just like the Pharisees. All the outward extravagance in the world cannot take the place of the renewal of the heart that must be present in Christ (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 2:20)

5. Hating the Truth

The Pharisees gave the impression that they loved truth but they really did not:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, “If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. (Matt 23:29-31)

The Pharisees were comfortable with all of the truth already affirmed what they believed. Whenever truth challenged them, convicted them, or suggested they change, they were ready to kill the proclaimer of that truth (John 11:57). Are we only comfortable with hearing sermons that pat us on the back and make us feel like good, but hate the teaching that pushes us outside of our comfort zones?

Do our faces cringe when someone mentions fasting, the error of denominationalism, instrumental music in worship, the book of Revelation, or true first-century benevolence? If there is any of God’s truth that we don’t like, or don’t want to hear, then we are like the Pharisees.

Jesus wants us to be sincere, not showy. Jesus desires that His followers focus on the details, but not to the neglect of the more important issues. Jesus wants us to love the truth (John 17:17) and fix our inside so that it may show on the outside. Jesus wants us to practice what we preach and not put unrealistic burdens on others. Jesus expects us to be better than the Pharisees: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20).

Hiram Kemp

Hiram is a graduate of the Florida School of Preaching, Freed-Hardeman University, and is working on his Ph.D. from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He currently serves as one of the ministers at the Lehman Avenue church of Christ in Bowling Green, Kentucky. He and his wife Brittani have two children, Nadia and Andre.

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