When you read the Bible, which character(s) do you find yourself connecting with? Maybe a David? Or a Martha? Peter? Or a Mary?
For me, the more I’ve meditated on God’s word, the more I find myself identifying with the Pharisees. This is not a good thing. But I think my owning it is a necessary step for getting out of it.
Let me explain.
The Pharisees were known for their:
- conservative views on God and Scripture (Luke 11:51; Acts 23:8; Phil. 3:5-6)
- zeal to convert people to God (Matt. 23:15)
- disciplined prayer and fasting (Luke 18:12)
- Bible studying (John 5:39)
- fellowshipping with “like-minded” believers (Luke 15:29)
- thoughtful interpretations of the Bible (Mark 7:11-12)
- wanting to please God to the best of their abilities (Rom. 10:2; Phil. 3:5-6)
- wanting to follow Gods commands to a T (Matt. 23:23)
- schools of learning for other people to know about God (Acts 4:13)
- charitable giving (Luke 18:12)
- and so forth
In fact, the word, “Pharisee,” literally means, “a separated one,” i.e. “someone who is separated from sin.” Because this is what they prided themselves in: their self-perceived holiness.
Further, Jesus even tells his listeners, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you,” (Matt. 23:2-3). In other words, they are teaching correct things.
So far you might be tempted to think the Pharisees were doing pretty well. And, from all outward observation, they were.
Their fundamental flaw was this:
[They] trusted in themselves that they were righteous…Luke 18:9 (see also Luke 16:14-15)
They wrongly thought they were (or could be) righteous enough to merit God’s favor on their own. They wrongly thought that outward actions proved their righteousness. They wrongly thought that all the flattering words that their like-minded friends told them mirrored God’s own thoughts toward them.
So when Jesus says He came to save sinners (Mark 2:17), they made sure they weren’t in that line. And this is, was, and ever will be the bed they made for themselves: a lifetime and eternity removed from the God who came to save sinners.
In fact, Jesus leveraged his harshest criticism toward the Pharisees–conceivably to shock them out of their self-righteous complacency. He called them, “Sons of hell,” (Matt. 23:15), or a, “Brood of vipers” (Matt. 23:33).
Meanwhile, the worst of society (in the Pharisees’ eyes)–people like prostitutes, tax collectors, and other sinners–were finding favor with God through Christ, and being forgiven of all their sins (e.g. Matt. 21:31; Luke 18:9-14). This, of course, was the ultimate insult to self-righteous people like the Pharisees. They especially didn’t want to get near a God who embraces those kinds of people.
Alarmingly, I can’t help but see myself in the scary place of a Pharisee more times than I’d like to admit. I think I have the “right” answers, the “right” doctrine. Further, I do the “right” things, and the Christians in my circles seem to think I’m a pretty good guy. But then I find myself leaning on these things to curry favor before Almighty God. And it sometimes creep in my thinking that I’m more righteous in God’s eyes than those around me.
In comparing my life with the Pharisees, I’d be tempted to say that all hope is lost…
There was a man–a self-proclaimed, “Pharisee,” (Phil. 3:5)–who set an example and gives hope. Us pharisees can be cured!
How did it happen?
Let’s hear from him (Paul) directly:
I have lived as a Pharisee…[then] I saw…a light from heaven…
You have heard of my former life in Judaism…I was advancing in Judaism beyond many…But…He [God]…was pleased to reveal His Son to me…[thus] we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ…
[We] put no confidence in the flesh–though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh…But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ…in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ…that I may know Him…Acts 26:4-23; Gal. 1:11-2:21; Phil. 3:2-11
“Paul” literally means, “small.” He used to be big and proud and thought he was righteous. He was, after all, a good Pharisee. Then God humbled him and gave a revelation of his smallness and God’s greatness. God showed him that he is a sinner who needs Christ’s salvation. In fact, he would later write that all humans are in the same boat (Romans 3:23).
It is this same revelation that caused John Newton (a proud slave owner) to become a great abolitionist and pen the words, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” And when he later reflected on his life, this same revelation caused him to say: “Although my memory’s fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.”
We must plead to God for such a revelation – continually reading His word to remind us of these things. Plead and read that we would see our sinfulness in light of his holiness. And plead and read that we would see his cross forgives all who own this sinfulness and their need of a Savior.
Any fellow Pharisees ready to denounce your righteousness and live by Christ’s righteousness with me?