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 Vol. 4, No. 2 


February, 2002


~ Page 13 ~


What Was the
Problem of the Pharisees?

By Neal Pollard

A popular saying used especially in the church is, "Majoring in the minors and minoring in the majors." Properly used, this phrase refers to those who omit or violate some of the broadest, most basic commands while pressing and over stressing what is relatively minor. Sometimes, these "minors" may involve causes or issues that need addressing. Other times, matters of no consequence are ridden without mercy or relief. Jesus was constantly berated and challenged by some religious people who "majored in minors" and "minored in majors." On them he unleashed one of the stronger condemnations found in Scripture (cf. Matthew 23:23-33). The scribes and the Pharisees were the objects of his righteous anger. Why?

First, understand who the Pharisees were. Between the Old Testament and the New Testament, with the remnant of Judah settling into a land they once owned but never would again, they needed to maintain spiritual stability. Nehemiah seems to be the first to organize a permanent authority to preserve and interpret the Law. Ignorance about how to treat the priests, who could be fellowshipped religiously according to the law, who could live in the Temple and other matters naturally disturbed Nehemiah (13:11). Somewhere along the line, those first gathered by Nehemiah began to be known as "The Great Assembly" to preserve the Law. The Great Assembly, soon known as the Sanhedrin, was led by what amounted to a president and vice-president. The famed leaders of the Sanhedrin in Christ's day were Hillel and Shammai, whose positions on marriage are often contrasted even to this day. The Sanhedrin sometimes had great political power, and at others had only religious authority. By the time of Christ, four major religious parties survived in Palestine. They were the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and Zealots. During this time, the Sanhedrin was very powerful and influential -- as seen in the example of its influence over the Roman authority at the crucifixion of our Lord (John 19:12).

Next, consider the many admirable qualities of the Pharisees. Certainly, reading Matthew 23, there was ample corruption among them. The relevant question is, "Were they all bad? Was Jesus condemning the Pharisees simply because they WERE Pharisees?" Josephus favorably describes the sect, writing, "They strictly managed their money and their diet, relied heavily on the use of reason, respected the elderly, believed men had a free will, taught the resurrection, and believed in eternal reward and punishment." The Pharisees were the most in touch with the common man, compared to the other sects. What they said about prayers, worship and sacrifices, the people did. They strictly interpreted the Old Law.

The one quality that was probably their best is one some confuse as being their worst -- their careful attention to law. Notice what Jesus said. "The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do..." (Matthew 23:2-3). God has always wanted his people to give detail to obedience (cf. Leviticus 10:1-3; 1 Chronicles 15:12-13). Jesus equates obedience with love (John 14:15). Faithfulness is good (James 2:17). Righteousness, simply put, is doing right (1 John 3:7). The greatest problem facing man is not following too strictly what God says in the Bible; contrariwise, it is rebellion and disobedience (Romans 3:10-12). Maybe some have been persuaded into thinking that Christ condemned the Pharisees because of their emphasis on law. This is misguided (cf. Luke 6:46; 1 John 5:3).

So, what were the spiritual problems of the Pharisees? In no particular order, consider the following. First, they did not practice what they preached (Matthew 23:3). They were hypocrites (Matthew 23:4-7). They went to great lengths to appear righteous, but they did not act out of genuine love and obedience to God. Next, they gave attention to some Bible matters while ignoring other, more important Bible matters. They "strained at gnats" and "swallowed camels." Third, they misinterpreted the Law of Moses. That was the point Jesus made in the Sermon on the Mount. They emphasized the externals of the law, but had sinful and wicked hearts (Matthew 5:17-48; 15:8). They bound and enforced their false interpretations. They put their human traditions, laws and doctrines on par with God's Word. This is not the same as strict attention to obedience.

How can we avoid the mistakes of the Pharisees? WE MUST AVOID HYPOCRISY. The Bible class teacher that stresses attendance, then stays away... The preacher who stresses moral purity, then is found to be immoral... Christians who condemn something they themselves actively do... Anytime we hold someone else to God's law then neglect it ourselves, we are guilty of hypocrisy. Note: This does not mean stop speaking out against sin! It means live what God wants you to preach and teach. WE MUST NOT STRAIN AT A GNAT AND SWALLOW A CAMEL. Let's avoid getting our lives so out of kilter, hanging up on opinions and pet peeves while leaving weightier matters undone. Also, we must avoid keying in on one issue so much that we neglect to stress and personally obey other of God's commands. WE MUST AVOID MAKING LAWS WHERE GOD HAS NOT SPOKEN. We had better respect the silence of Scripture, which will keep us from adding to God's worship and doctrine. We had better also avoid making laws where God has not spoken (Revelation 22:18). God has always wanted his people to neither add to nor take away from his law (Deuteronomy 12:32).

The Pharisees were legalists from the standpoint that they were trying to trust in their own goodness to save them. Yet, giving strict attention to obedience is not legalism. The New Testament, our law, teaches clearly that we could not go to heaven without God's grace (Titus 2:11-12). God's grace teaches obedience. The Pharisees did not originate that idea. They simply perverted it.

Image Studies in Colossians: The Savior's Supremacy
by John L. Kachelman, Jr.

paperback, 165 pages
$9.30 + S&H   Order: [email protected]

Bible History

15 Periods of Bible History
by Andy Kizer
paperback, 68 pages, 15 chapters
$5.45 + S&H           Order: [email protected]

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