Christians commonly view the Pharisees as a group of evil people who were completely opposed to God. After all, they questioned Jesus constantly and played a big role in the plot to have him crucified. As a result, none of us who call ourselves Christians want to be associated with them.
But after studying the Pharisees more in depth, it’s hard to ignore the shocking similarities between the first-century Pharisees and some Christians today. In this article, I’ll be taking a closer look at who the Pharisees were, sharing a little about my Pharisaical past, and sharing how Jesus has transformed my life.
Who Were the Pharisees?
I’m not quite sure how our understanding of the Pharisees was shaped, but somehow many of the people I’ve interacted with have a similar perspective of the Pharisees. Generally, we see them as a group of religious nuts who didn’t want anything to do with following God. They appear like nothing more than a washed up, pompous group of men who were Jesus’s arch nemeses throughout the three and a half years of his ministry.
However, this is a very lopsided, only minimally accurate picture of the Pharisees. The Pharisees were actually a very highly respected group of Jewish religious leaders who had a great amount of influence over the Jews and who were known by their strict adherence to the Mosaic Law, the law which was given to the Jews by God. The Pharisees knew the Old Testament like the back of their hands. Many of them had memorized the entirety of the first five books of the Bible. Additionally, they had memorized all the finite details of these laws which sought to further clarify its ambiguities (613 laws in total).
In addition to their vast knowledge of the scriptures, they made it a habitat to attend the temple or synagogue on a regular basis. They read the scriptures and prayed every day. They tithed (gave 10 percent) on all their income. In accordance with the ritual purification process, they washed their hands before every meal. Jesus even acknowledged their apparent mastery of self-righteous living. The Pharisees did all these things because they thought that they would bring them closer to God; they thought the only way to be accepted by God was to obey every component of the law.
When Jesus came on the scene, he claimed to be God. Now, the Jews had experienced a long history of people claiming to be God, so the fact that Jesus claimed to be God wasn’t out of the ordinary. However, all the people who had come before Jesus weren’t actually God. So naturally, the Pharisees were very skeptical about whether Jesus was truly God. As highly respected Jewish leaders who saw it as their role to protect the people from heretics, they asked Jesus a lot of questions and observed his behaviors to determine whether he was a heretic or whether he was truly the Son of God. In the end, the majority of them concluded he was a heretic which led them to play a significant role in having him crucified.
Do We Have Pharisees in Our Midst Today?
Although Jesus and the other biblical writers were very clear that there’s nothing we can do to earn God’s acceptance, it doesn’t seem to have stopped us from trying. I encounter people all the time who are trying to earn God’s acceptance. They believe they have to fix this or that about themselves before God will listen to them or act on their behalf. Or even that they have to regularly perform a certain set of rituals in order to earn salvation (or keep it).
I’m very familiar with the Pharisaical mentality because I used to be one. No, I never ran around in a long black robe dragging sinners out to the street to be stoned, but I believed that active sinners couldn’t receive salvation until they stopped sinning (my uneducated understanding of repentance). I spent many years “obeying all the rules” in an attempt to earn God’s acceptance. I went to church every Sunday, even when I was out of town. I read my Bible every day. I gave 10 percent (and most of the time more) of my income to my local church. I led a small group, joined the praise band, became the Treasurer, and became an elder at my church. And I even quit my full-time “secular” job to be on staff at my church (which came with a huge pay-cut). But that’s not all. In my personal life, I never cussed, smoked, drank alcohol, had extra-marital sex, or viewed pornography. On the outside, I was nothing short of a superstar Christian.
If God’s acceptance was something that could be earned, then certainly I would’ve earned it. But as I finally learned, God’s acceptance isn’t something that can be earned. Thankfully, God graciously decided to show me that I was nothing more than a whitewashed tomb which looked beautiful on the outside, but on the inside was nothing more than lifeless bones. Inside I was absolutely dead. And none of my good works or self-righteousness was worth anything; they were as worthless as a pile of poop. What God showed me was that I couldn’t do anything to earn his acceptance. It was only by his grace, and not by my works, that he accepted me.
How Can We Be Zealous for Righteousness and Not Become a Pharisee?
I actually admire the passion Pharisees have for obeying the law. All the commandments of the Bible give us practical examples of behaviors we will most likely exhibit when we are transformed into the image of Jesus. And Pharisees seek to attain perfection in living them out. But where they error is that instead of viewing Jesus as the means to get to God, they view the law as the means to get to him. It’s no wonder they have such motivation to live in obedience to the law.
Conversely, when we recognize that Jesus is the means to get to God, we are tempted to dispose of the law thinking it’s of no more use. After all, if we are saved by grace and not by works, then no matter what we do, our sins will be forgiven. Although it is true that Jesus paid for all our sins both past, present, and future, this mindset is not consistent with the mindset of the biblical writers. The biblical writers communicated their disgust with their sinfulness. They absolutely hated it. But they also recognized that they couldn’t do anything to fix it; they knew that God was the only one who could make that change in them.
This is the same mindset we are called to have. It is a mindset that is so in love with God and his ways that we want to be transformed into his image, but which recognizes that we’re not there yet and can’t do anything to get there. We’ve got to wait on God to do his work, and in the meantime, continue to hate the sin in us.
Although it may seem like this mindset isn’t much different from a Pharisaical mindset, it’s actually very different. The focus of the biblical mindset is on God and his work whereas the focus of the Pharisaical mindset is on us and our work. We don’t have to fix ourselves for God to accept us; God accepts us because he chooses to accept us and then does his work to fix us. Personally, this is very relieving, because I recognize that I can never fix myself enough to meet God’s standards.
Do you find yourself trying to earn God’s acceptance through self-righteousness? Do you think you have to do a bunch of “good works” in order for God to be glorified? Do you then try to impose all these same self-righteous standards on others? If your answer to any of these questions is “Yes,” then you’ve got Pharisaical tendencies much like I did. The good news is that you don’t have to continue living there. Jesus can break those tendencies in you much like he did with me. Feel free to drop me a note on social media or via email with your thoughts or if you’d like to discuss this topic some more.
 Spotlight Ministries, “In What Ways Does a Knowledge of Intertestamental History and Literature Shed Light on the New Testament Gospels, which a Knowledge of the Old Testament Books Alone Could Not?”, 2003, accessed June 24, 2015, http://www.spotlightministries.org.uk/inter.htm.
 See Matthew 15:1-20, 23:23-28, and Philippians 3:4-6.
 See Matthew 23:23.
 See Matthew 15:1-2.
 See Matthew 5:20 and 23:25-28.
 See Matthew 23:27-28.
 See Philippians 3:8.
 See Romans 10:2.