Whenever someone plays the Pharisee Card, they often seem to think that the Pharisees were more concerned with sound doctrine and personal holiness than loving God and loving people. For one thing, loving God and loving people is a part of personal holiness, so this idea is already a self-refuting idea. However, if we look deeper into Scripture, we can see that the Pharisees, for the most part, were not doctrinally sound at all.
The Pharisees Did Not Understand Regeneration
In John 3, Jesus famously expresses the doctrine of Regeneration and being born again to the Pharisee named Nicodemus. When Jesus says in verse 3 (ESV), “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God,” Nicodemus responds by asking, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Interestingly enough, it is actually Jesus who seems more concerned with doctrinal accuracy. In verse 10 (ESV), Jesus says, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” implying both that regeneration is a doctrine that should’ve been understood even at that time and that Nicodemus, a Pharisee, did not know it.
The Pharisees Did Not Understand the Mosaic Law
Though it is often said that the Pharisees were concerned with personal holiness and keeping God’s law, that isn’t necessarily the case. Jesus said about the Pharisees in Matthew 23:2-4 (ESV), “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, 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.” They weren’t acting in the same way that they were preaching. Rather, they were hypocrites, only doing good works to be noticed.
Furthermore, they added to the Mosaic ceremonial law. They inserted their own man-made traditions rather than holding on to what was delivered to them. Mark 7:3-4 (ESV) describes one of these additions, “For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.” In verse 8 (ESV), Jesus told them, “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
The Pharisees didn’t even understand the purpose of the law. In Mark 2, the Pharisees approached Jesus with the intent of correcting Him for allowing the disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath. He turned it around and rebuked them for their lack of understanding, saying, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27-28, ESV)
According to Matthew 21:32 (ESV), “For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him…” So even when corrected, they persisted in their error.
The Pharisees Did Not Understand Jesus
For the most part, all of the Pharisees rejected Jesus as the Messiah, as a prophet, and as God. The only known exceptions would be Nicodemus and Paul, who later converted. The Pharisees tried multiple times to test Jesus, hoping He would fail (Matthew 16, Matthew 22, Mark 10, Mark 12). This shows that they did not recognize Jesus as God. Matthew 22 seems to indicate they didn’t even recognize that the Messiah would be God. In verse 42 (ESV), Jesus inquired of them, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” The Pharisees responded by saying, “The son of David.” Jesus corrected them by saying, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet’? If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son.” This lack of understanding is even further evidenced by their role in the crucifixion of Jesus (John 11:47).
Despite what most people think, the Pharisees were not a group of people who were too concerned with being right and doing good. In fact, one could argue that a lot of their problem stemmed from not being interested enough in correctness and holiness. Their confusions of God’s law led them to enter into a hypocritical practice of public legalism based on man-made traditions rather than rightly pursuing genuine holiness as shown in the word of God. Furthermore, their rejection of Jesus as God and the Messiah ultimately led to their constant opposition towards him. So next time someone uses the Pharisee card in order to mock someone for being concerned with believing sound doctrine and doing good works, point them to the Scriptures to show them that those are far from the real problems with the Pharisees.
[Contributed by Brandon Hines]
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