What is Pharisaical behaviour?

Our Messiah Jesus Christ warns us not to follow Pharisaical traditions. In Matthew 15:8-9 Christ quotes the prophet Isaiah, stating: These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honour Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”

In present-day Churches it is often said that people who are precisely trying to keep God’s commandments and who don’t want to bow to mainstream Christian concepts, are “Pharisaical”.

Is this term used correctly, when compared to its usage in Holy Scripture or is it being abused for the purpose of badmouthing those that simply want to do what God says?

David was a true servant of God, which is why he will be resurrected and be put as a prince over the nation if Israel: “And I, the Lord, will be their God, and My servant David a prince among them” (Ezekiel 34:24).

Now, this very same David wrote: “I delight to do Your will, O my God, and Your law is within my heart” (Psalms 40:8). This is why about David it is said: “I have found David the son of Jesse, a man after My own heart, who will do all My will (Acts 13:22 / 1. Samuel 13:14).

We can conclude that David was not a Pharisee and not Pharisaical for loving God’s law. Did the Pharisees love God’s law anyway? What does Christ say about them?

“For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

And He says to them: “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:3).

And He calls them: “hypocrites” and “blind guides” (Matthew 23:15.16.23f).

Clearly, the Pharisees did not love the law, but rather they loved themselves. This is why Christ tells us: “…but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do to be seen by men (Matthew 23:3-5).

So what did Christ obviously criticize? Was He upset that they tried to keep God’s law in detail? By far not, He Himself did the very same thing! He rather told them and us to DO these little things (Matthew 23:23: “These [matters of the law] you ought to have done, without leaving the others [laws] undone”) as well as the big things. So we ARE to tithe, to be precise and to pay attention to God’s Word, but there are different dimensions to it. Verse 23 mentions justice, mercy and faith, which are “weightier matters of the law” which helps us to have the right perspective on things. If we only paid attention to the details, but left out what is even more important, God is not pleased. This is what the Pharisees did. They left out justice, mercy and faith by not looking at other people’s feelings and needs, by judging quickly and harshly without love.

Christ’s criticism is directed against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and Scribes who cared more about people’s opinions than God’s opinion. What does God desire in man? King David gives the answer: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart” (Psalm 51:17). Christ says the same when comparing the Pharisee and the tax collector. The humble and repenting tax collector was justified (he had the right heart) while the proud and vain Pharisee was not just in God’s eyes – he was just only in his own eyes.

The second aspect of a Pharisaical attitude is the emphasis on mad-made rules and laws. The Pharisees were experts in inventing new rules and regulations which supposedly helped people to perform better in their religion and therefore to please God. They were wrong. Their “legalism” – which was a zealous act of inventing and enforcing new rules – blinded the Pharisees for the simplicity of God’s laws. We are told to keep the Sabbath by not working on it (Exodus 31:14-17). The Pharisees created many restrictions around that simple command: People were not allowed to walk more than a certain small distance, they weren’t allowed to pick a fruit to be enjoyed on that day (cf. Luke 6:1-5 where the disciples plucked some grains in the field to eat), etc. It appears like the Pharisees invented 1001 laws. Christ call those laws “burdens, hard to bear” (Matthew 23:4). These laws are not God’s laws, but humanly devised instruments of self-righteousness and control over others. These laws Christ refused to keep, which is why He kept healing people on the Sabbath (Luke 6:6-10 / Luke 13:10-16 etc).

The strongest reproach Christ gave the Pharisees when He revealed how they abuse God’s law for their own selfish purposes: All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition. 10 For Moses said, ‘Honour your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ 11 But you say, ‘If a man says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is Corban”—’ (that is, a gift to God), 12 then you no longer let him do anything for his father or his mother, 13 making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down. And many such things you do” (Mark 7:9-13).

What was the sin of the Pharisees? Their tradition? No! It was that they placed their tradition BEFORE God’s commandments, which are holy and just and good” (Romans 7:12).

When someone then is Pharisaical, this person esteems own traditions higher than God’s law. This person most likely is focused on fulfilling these physical and biblically unfounded rules rather than practising justice, faith and mercy. Such a person is a hypocrite for demanding more from others than from oneself. A whole church can be Pharisaical if this church puts its own traditions before clear biblical instructions. Thinking that they earn righteousness and justice through absolute obedience towards their human customs they are blind towards the simple and otherwise obvious truth of God’s Word.

I come to the conclusion that most churches of this world are Pharisaical since most of them have departed from God’s ways and laws and commandments. They have started their own tradition and teach it as if it were God’s Word. Even some Sabbath and Holy Day keeping churches have gone down the road of tradition where new understanding and inspired truth is impermissible since it can come into conflict with established traditions and church-teachings. The true Church of God though doesn’t quench the Spirit (1. Thessalonians 5:19) but gives room for understanding, growth and development.

All of us need to rethink our traditions and consider that we might be Pharisaical in our personal convictions and teachings and that some rules we have made up are simply not the way God desires them to be. This requires a great deal of humility which most church leaders do not possess. Therefore be diligent to study God’s Word in details and to detect Pharisaical rules and attitudes. Don’t be a hypocrite, humble yourself and ask God to teach you. He won’t let you down!

p.s. some areas where a person or a church might be Pharisaical:

–          How do you conduct church services – is there only this one way you have always done?

–          Which laws do you keep and which do you ignore?

–          Which calendar do you follow? God mentions New Moons – do you recognize them?

–          Which day do you keep holy? Could it be Sunday, a pagan choice for the day of worship?

–          How do you keep God’s laws? Do you go and eat out in fancy restaurants on the day of rest? Consider that you cause others to work on that day for your enjoyment.

–          What do you expect from others that you don’t do yourself? Are you a minister that preaches patience, consideration and peace, but are often impatient, inconsiderate and angry?

–          What does your church teach as doctrine that can’t be proven straight from the Bible? Rethink these teachings.

Be careful whom you follow and what teachings you believe! The Bible is our sword, use it for your benefit!


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