How to avoid being pharisaical.

The Bible says little, if anything, positive about the Pharisees. In fact, the Pharisees drew Jesus’ ire more than anyone else (for a sampling, read Matthew 23). To describe people as pharisaical is to say they are hypocritical, legalistic, compassionless, and self-focused.

The Pharisees did not practice what they preached. They mistakenly and tragically reduced the Mosaic covenant to a list of rules that, if followed, made one right with God. They did not care about the people they were leading. They craved attention and adulation from people more than they sought the grace and mercy of God.

The more I look at what the New Testament says about the Pharisees, the more I think that their core problem was “going beyond what is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6). As if the 613 commands in the Old Testament law were not enough, Jewish rabbis had added hundreds, if not thousands, of traditions and regulations in the Talmud and other Jewish writings. These traditions were then elevated to essentially the same authority as Scripture. This made observing the “Law” especially burdensome (see Matthew 23:4).

The motive behind most of these extra traditions was to clarify the laws and help people to understand how not to violate God’s commands. The outcome of the extra traditions was rules God never intended.

The Pharisees viewed themselves as not only keeping God’s law (Mark 7:1-13) but observing it to an even greater extent than God required. This caused them to be prideful and self-righteous. They believed they had earned God’s favor by their efforts.

The Pharisees also viewed any violation of their traditions as equivalent to a violation of God’s laws. While they occasionally accused Jesus of breaking the actual Mosaic law, most of their objections to Him and His teaching involved His refusal to observe their traditions (see Mark 7:5 and Jesus’ response in 7:6-8). What the Pharisees failed to understand is that God’s law was already impossible to perfectly obey, and by adding to it, they had made His law burdensome, and in some instances, contradictory to what God originally intended.

The key to avoiding being pharisaical today is to not go beyond what is written (1 Corinthians 4:6; Revelation 22:18-19). God’s Word does not need to be amplified (John 17:17; 2 Timothy 3:16-17).

God established the barriers between right and wrong, good and evil, holiness and sin. As tempting as it is, and as helpful as it might seem, it is not biblical to build extra barriers to prevent people from even coming close to God’s barriers and then viewing a violation of those man-made barriers as a violation of God’s standards.

For example, the Bible commands against drunkenness and addiction (Ephesians 5:18; 1 Corinthians 6:12; 2 Peter 2:19). Obviously if you never consume any alcohol whatsoever, it is impossible to become inebriated or addicted. But, complete abstinence is not the command. The commands are to avoid drunkenness and addiction. There is no biblical command to abstain entirely from alcohol.

The Bible commands against adultery and lust (Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10). For some, this may mean not having any close relationships with people of the opposite sex other than one’s spouse. To elevate this personal conviction to a universal standard and require it of others, though, is to go beyond what is written.

Jesus’ main conflict with the Pharisees was violating the rules the Pharisees had added to the biblical command to not work on the Sabbath day. Today, there is a significant amount of debate as to whether the Sabbath command is still in effect, and, if so, how it is to be observed. Romans 14:5 and Colossians 2:16-17 seem pretty definitive to me. Whatever the case, your convictions on what should or should not be done on Saturday or Sunday should not be forced on others.

The key to avoid being pharisaical is to not go beyond what is written. God’s commands are sufficient on their own. Sticking with what the Bible commands and forbids is the best way to avoid self-righteousness (James 1:23-25) and unwarranted condemnation of others (Romans 14:4).

I’ll close with a quote from Jesus that encapsulates His view of the Pharisees: “You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’” (Matthew 15:7-9; cf. Isaiah 29:13).

Ouch. Let’s not do that…or be that.

S. Michael Houdmann

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How to avoid being pharisaical.