10 Marks of a Pharisee

A Look at Jesus’ Description of Pharisees in Matthew 23

In our modern Christian vernacular the title Pharisee carries a markedly negative connotation, and rightfully so. In the days of Jesus, however, they were recognized as the most fastidiously observant religious leaders of the day. I suppose there exists some Pharisee in all of us, so it’s important to recognize their toxic attitudes and behaviors.

Fortunately for us, Jesus left little to the imagination about their hypocrisy (Matthew 23:1–33). We would do well to learn and apply the warnings He gave the Pharisees. Here are a few marks of Pharisees to which we should all take heed:

1. Pharisees expect of others what they will not do themselves.

Jesus told us that “they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers” (Matthew 23:4).

Words have weight. And when we repeat them and say them loudly, they even have more weight. But all of our words put together are not nearly as weighty as our actions. Actions always speak louder than words. Emerson said that your actions speak so loudly, they drown out what you are saying.

When I expect of others what I will not do myself, I not only negate the validity of the expectation, but I invite the malice of the one on whom the burden has been laid. In the mind of the one on whom this onerous expectation has been placed, I am no different than a domineering prison guard.

2. What Pharisees actually do practice, they only do in order to be noticed of others.

Our Lord told us that “all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments” (Mathew 23:5).

You typically won’t find Pharisees working behind the scenes or making an anonymous donation. Slaves to the approval and approbation of others, they proclaim their own goodness. On the football field of religious life, they are the after-tackle dancers and the after-touchdown prancers. “Look at me! Look at what I did!” Religion is their football field.

3. Pharisees are fond of positions, titles, and formal recognition.

They “love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi” (Matthew 23:6–7).

Thoughts of, “where I sit” and “what I’m called” rule them. Dangerously, and all too often, Christian leaders become enamored with what people say about them or what position they “have attained” in their church or denominational hierarchy. More than ever we need to get away from the tired old mantra of, “Dr. Somebody did such and such great thing!” Perhaps we should all be a bit more fond of Jesus who did not seek position, title, or formal recognition—but rightfully possesses all three!

4. By their counterproductive lifestyle and doctrine, Pharisees inhibit others from entering the Kingdom.

But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.—Matthew 23:13

Avid in their proselytizing, the Pharisees succeeded in convincing others to embrace Judaism, often on the pretext of a coming kingdom. Sadly, the Pharisees themselves rejected God’s true prophets and even Jesus, thereby exempting them from any future hope at all. Sadly, their “converts” only learned the harsh strictures of a fruitless religion.

May our lives never be an inhibition for someone to come to Christ!

5. Pharisees take advantage of the weak for personal gain while simultaneously making a show of religious superiority.

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.—Matthew 23:14

A Pharisee thinks, “Look at how godly I am! I can impress you with my religious jargon and the eloquence of my public prayer and ministry.” Meanwhile, through religious chicanery, he takes advantage of those who are most vulnerable.

Pure religion cares for widows and orphans. Toxic religion profits by exploiting them.

6. Pharisees apply great zeal in coercing others to act and behave just as they do, to the ultimate detriment of the proselyte.

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.—Matthew 23:15

Without a people group, Pharisees have no one to control, to exploit, or to offer them the praise they so desperately crave. Therefore they take great effort to “make proselytes.” A subtle but powerful distinction exists between the notion of introducing someone to the Saviour who will transform and the notion of introducing someone to a system that will conform. If my standard of success is to make people to be more like me, I have a low standard indeed.

7. They are deceptive and savvy, often engaging in institutionalized lying.

Through a complex system of oath swearing, the Pharisees effectively created a series of loopholes by which they could bind others to—and exempt themselves from—religious responsibility.

In all of their loopholes, however, they had forgotten the presence of God Himself. Jesus cut through all of their complexity by declaring the pressing need for (a) a renewed God-consciousness, and (b) complete honesty.

8. To the exclusion of larger areas of internal obedience, Pharisees tend to emphasize relatively tiny, albeit valid, areas of external obedience.

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.—Matthew 23:23–24

When the attitudinal and internal matters of God’s law are addressed first, the external areas of obedience will have weightier context. In fact, there will be a less pressing need to address them because they serve as a natural byproduct of heart obedience.

The Pharisees would strain a gnat out of their cup of beverage lest it die and render the liquid unclean! Such was their level of adherence to the purity laws regarding eating and drinking. But, by not addressing the weightier heart issues, Jesus said it was as if they were “swallowing a camel.” The camel was the largest unclean animal of the region. Talk about heart burn... Now there’s a mental image!

9. Pharisees approach holy living from the outside in instead of the inside out.

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.—Matthew 23:25–26

Everyone gets this illustration. It’s not difficult to understand. Yet it plays itself out time and time again in our lives. Why? Because it’s so much easier to deal with cosmetics than it is to deal with character. Mowing grass beats pulling weeds, every time.

Jesus is concerned about the inside and the outside. But the teaching is clear: prioritize the inside. Deal with it first.

Always remember that a Pharisee will exert great effort to guard his image, but will make little effort to maintain his integrity. Like beautifully maintained gravestones, their lives attract admiring attention, but testify only to the deadness within.

10. Sadly, Pharisees typically cannot identify themselves.

Pharisees see themselves as the heroes of history. “If we had been alive during the days of the prophets, we never would have killed them!” But Jesus said of them just the opposite, “Your fathers did kill them. And so will you.” And they did.

Isn’t that something? The Pharisees wouldn’t dream of identifying with the fickle, self-serving, hypocritical murderers of the Old Testament prophets. “We would never do that!”

Could it be that we, looking back at the historical Pharisees, wouldn’t dream of identifying ourselves with those fickle, self-serving hypocrites?

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