The Expository Files.

Religion Like the Pharisees

Matthew 23

Those familiar with the life of Christ know that He did not get along very well with the religious sect of the Pharisees. One interesting thing about this is that when it came to many of the controversial questions of the day, Jesus and the Pharisees were in agreement! Both Jesus and the Pharisees believed in angels, but the sect of the Saducees did not. Also, Jesus and the Pharisees taught the resurrection, but again, the Saducees did not (Matthew 22:23-33). Not surprisingly, the Pharisees really liked it when Jesus put those Saducees in their places!

But that is about all the Pharisees liked about Jesus. Jesus did not care for their religion either. What this means for us, of course, is that we do not want to be either like the Pharisees nor the Saducees when it comes to our worship, beliefs and practices.

Jesus began a long treatment of what was wrong with the Pharisees' religion with the following words:
"The Scribes and Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore, all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them." (Matthew 23:2,3). Right away, we see something drastically wrong here. When Jesus spoke of the Pharisees having sat themselves down "in the chair of Moses", He was simply saying that when they instruct you from the writings of Moses, listen to and obey those instructions. Just because it is a rascal who is speaking the truth does not mean that is an excuse to reject the truth. During His lifetime, Jesus taught His disciples to obey the Law of Moses. This was God's covenant with them. Soon would come a new covenant that would replace the first one. We are now under the covenant of Christ (Hebrews 8:6-13; 9:15-18; Galatians 3:23-27; 5:1-6).

Something else we notice here; the Pharisees expected others to obey the Law but always found reasons as to why they did not have to themselves. Jesus said that "they say and do not." They were great at excuse-making. They were more interested in appearing that they were righteous than in really living righteously. This is why Jesus calls them hypocrites. This is why we want to be sure that our religious life is not like that of the Pharisees!

They Do Deeds To Be Noticed By Men
"But they do their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries, and lengthen the tassels of their garments." (Matthew 23:5). Everything was done to attract the approval and attention of others. The approval of God took a back seat. The Pharisees would dress distinctively in garb that would symbolize their righteousness. It was more important that they appeared righteous to others than whether they were really righteous or not. In today's world they would be the ones to carefully watch the opinion polls and then try to do and say those things which would garner them the most respect. They would wear a red ribbon for AIDS awareness. They would be for "gay rights" and deny that Jesus is the only way to the Father. They would seek to be politically correct. They would turn true righteousness on its ear, ridicule those who seek to live by faith, and heap congratulations on one another for their wonderful insight and tremendously good deeds.

In addition to their distinctive dress, the Pharisees loved places of honor at banquets, chief seats in synagogues, respectful greetings such as "Rabbi", "Father" and "Leader". Anything that would tend to exalt them in the eyes of men would be fine with them.

They Block Entrance Into The Kingdom
"But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from men; for you do not enter yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in." (Matthew 23:13). By prescribing their own doctrines, traditions and creeds, the Pharisees were actually hindering others from truly accepting God's rule in their lives. They had formulated their own standards of right and wrong. Much like today, where we are witnessing a casting off of New Testament moral, ethical and doctrinal standards in favor of the standards of men. Again, today's "experts" are doing the same thing; not entering themselves, nor do they permit others to enter "the kingdom of God." How seldom to men and women today appeal to the only sound standard of right and wrong; the word of God.

They Convert Others To The Wrong Side
"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel about on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves." (Matthew 23:15). A person's zeal is not the only indicator as to whether he is right with God or not. While we may be sure that a person who is neglectful and disinterested is not right in the sight of God, it is also true that there are people extremely dedicated to false systems, social, religious and otherwise. I once had members of a cult ask me, "Who else do you see traveling all over the world teaching and preaching like us?" Next time I am asked that question, I think I'll turn to this passage and answer, "The Pharisees!" It's not that it is wrong to travel and teach. In fact, that is right. But what is taught must be correct, else we make the same mistake the Pharisees did.

They Lie
"Woe to you, blind guides, who say, 'Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obligated." (Matthew 23:16). The Pharisees had all sort of tricks to make it appear that they were telling the truth when they were not. They had decided that the gold in the temple was more important than the temple, so they would "swear by the temple" and lie, but they would not "swear by the gold of the temple" and lie because the gold is so precious. So, they would phrase their oaths to make it look like they were swearing by something too holy to lie about. Actually, as Jesus points out, it is always wrong to lie (vss. 17-21).

They Neglect The Weightier Matters
"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the Law; justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you ought to have done without neglecting the others." (Matthew 23:23). The Pharisees were not much on justice and mercy and faithfulness to God. You would find them going through even their spice cabinets to be sure they gave a tenth of everything, as the Law required a tenth, but then neglecting developing their hearts and minds so that their motives might be pure. Jesus does not say that their concern for obeying the Law was wrong, but that they should not have left the weightier matters undone. Jesus says they should have done both.

They Are Hypocritical
"Even so you too outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness." (Matthew 23:26). This is pretty much a summation of what kind of people the Pharisees had become. They did what they thought was necessary to convince others that they were righteous. This might also well translate into those members of the church today who go through whatever motions they must to satisfy what they think are the minimum requirements of faith, so that people will think pleasing God is at least somewhat important to them. Such a shameful attitude was unacceptable to Christ then, and it still is today. How can one even think that Jesus will be pleased with offering Him the barest leftovers of our lives?

They Reject The Prophets
"Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city." (Matthew 23:34). Jesus referred to how their fathers had rejected and killed the prophets of the Old Testament. The Pharisees during His time honored these same prophets, but Jesus said that they were just like their fathers before them (vss. 29-36). Truth is sometimes not received very well. It wasn't during Jesus' day, it isn't today as well. The outcome of such rejection? "Behold, your house is being left to you desolate" (vs. 38).

By Jon W. Quinn
From Expository Files 4.4; April 1997