THE PHARISEES IN THE GOSPELS
Most "Christian" scholars will agree that John the Baptist and
Jesus Christ were truly "men sent by God" to proclaim the truths
of God to a deceived world of their day.
Now HOW did these two great prophets of the Lord look at these
piously religious leaders and teachers of the law, that were
known as the sect of the Pharisees, did they think this sect of
Judaism comprised "the true Church of God" in their day?
Did Jesus and John believe the Pharisees had full and PERFECT
understanding of the Law of the Lord?
Notice what John the Baptist thought about the two prominent
sects of his day: "But when he saw many of the Pharisees and
Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, 0 GENERATION OF
VIPERS, WHO HAS WARNED YOU TO FLEE FROM THE WRATH TO COME? Bring
forth therefore FRUITS meet for REPENTANCE....." (Mat.3:7,8).
This does not sound to me like John thought they were a part of
the true Church of God, or that as touching the law they were
BLAMELESS, nor that they were teaching the PERFECT MANNER OF THE
LAW of God.
Were the DOCTRINES of the Sadducees and Pharisees pure and
without fault? Jesus gave us the answer as He taught His
to BEWARE of these two Jewish sects. You can read the whole
account in Mat.16:1-12.
The word "leaven" i s often used in the NT to represent SIN -
a missing of the mark, defilement, unGodliness -- see 1
Jesus clearly taught us to "take HEED and BEWARE of the LEAVEN of
the Pharisees and Sadducees." And He meant to say by this,as
verse 12 shows, "the DOCTRINE of the Pharisees and of the
Anyone who looks to these two Jewish sects thinking they are, or
one of them is, the holders of the pure and perfect DOCTRINE and
RIGHTEOUSNESS which is in the law, is not doing what Jesus said
in taking heed and being beware of the sin of their doctrines!
Concerning this section of scripture WILLIAM BARCLAY in his
"Daily Study Bible" series in part says this: "Leaven has a
second meaning which is metaphorical and not literal and
physical. It was the Jewish metaphorical expression for an evil
influence. To the Jewish mind leaven was always symbolic of evil.
It is fermented dough; the Jew identified fermentation with
putrefaction; leaven stood for all that was rotten and bad.
Leaven has the power to permeate any mass of dough into which it
is inserted. Therefore leaven stood for an evil influence liable
to spread through life and to corrupt it. Now the disciples
understood. They knew that Jesus was not talking about bread at
all; but he was warning them against the evil influence of the
TEACHING and the BELIEFS of the Pharisees and
Sadducees."(emphasis his and mine).
Again I ask the question: Were the scribes and Pharisees
perfectly understanding and living the law of the Lord? Were they
as touching the righteousness of the law, BLAMELESS?
Turn to Mark the seventh chapter and read verses one to thirteen
for the answer.
Jesus gives us the truth of the matter. The Pharisees and the
Scribes were REJECTING and LAYING ASIDE the commands of God, and
doing about keeping the traditions of men!
We shall in some detail look at what Jesus taught us about the
Scribes and Pharisees as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew
Jesus takes all of 36 verses to show us the real nature of the
majority o these individuals who made up the groups known as the
Scribes and the Pharisees.
For our study I have reproduced the pertinent pages from WILLIAM
BARCLAY'S "THE DAILY STUDY BIBLE' SERIES - the Gospel of Matthew,
Vol.2 Revised Ed.
SCRIBES AND PHARISEES
If a man is characteristically and temperamentally an irritable,
ill-tempered and irascible creature, notoriously given to
uncontrolled outbursts of passionate anger, his anger is neither
effective nor impressive. Nobody pays any attention to the
anger of a bad-tempered man. But when a person who is
characteristically meek and lowly, gentle and loving, suddenly
erupts into blazing wrath, even the most thoughtless person is
shocked into taking thought. That is why the anger of Jesus is so
awe-inspiring a sight. It is seldom in literature that we find so
unsparing and sustained an indictment as we find in this chapter
when the wrath of Jesus is directed against the Scribes and
Pharisees. Before we begin to study the chapter in detail, it
will be well to see briefly what the Scribes and Pharisees stood
The Jews had a deep and lasting sense of the continuity of their
religion; and we can see best what the Pharisees and Scribes
stood for by seeing where they came into the scheme of Jewish
religion. The Jews had a saying, "Moses received the Law and
delivered it to Joshua; and Joshua to the elders; and the elders
to the prophets; and the prophets to the men of the Great
Synagogue." All Jewish religion is based first on the Ten
Commandments and then on the Pentateuch, the Law.
The history of the Jews was designed to make them a people of the
Law. As every nation has, they had their dream of greatness. But
the experiences of history had made that dream take a special
direction. They had been conquered by the Assyrians, the
Babylonians, the Persians, and Jerusalem had been left desolate.
It was clear that they could not be preeminent in political
power. But although political power was an obvious impossibility,
they none the less possessed the Law, and to them the Law was the
very word of God, the greatest and most precious possession in
There came a day in their history when that pre-eminence of the
Law was, as it were, publicly admitted; there came what one can
only call a deliberate act of decision, whereby the people of
Israel became in the most unique sense the people of the Law.
Under Ezra and Nehemiah the people were allowed to come back to
Jerusalem, and to rebuild their shattered city, and to take up
their national life again. When that happened, there came a day
when Ezra, the Scribe, took the book of the Law, and read it to
them, and there happened something that was nothing less than a
national dedication of a people to the keeping of the Law
From that day the study of the Law became the greatest of all
professions; and that study of the Law was committed to the men
of the Great Synagogue, the Scribes.
We have already seen how the great principles of the Law were
broken up into thousands upon thousands of little rules and
regulations (see section on Matthew 5:17-20). We have seen, for
instance, how the Law said that a man must not work on the
Sabbath day, and how the Scribes laboured to define work, how
they laid it down how many paces a man might walk on the Sabbath,
how heavy a burden he might carry, the things he might and might
not do. By the time this Scribal interpretation of the Law was
finished, it took more than FIFTY volumes to hold the mass of
regulations which resulted.
The return of the people to Jerusalem and the first dedication of
the Law took place about 450 B.C. But it is not till long after
that that the Pharisees emerge. About 175 B.C. Antiochus
Epiphanes of Syria made a deliberate attempt to stamp out the
Jewish religion and to introduce Greek religion and Greet customs
and practices. It was then that the Pharisees arose as a separate
sect. The name means "The Separated Ones;" and they were the men
who dedicated their whole life to the careful and meticulous
observance of every rule and regulation which the Scribes had
worked out. In face of the threat directed against it, they
determined to spend their whole lives in one long observance of
Judaism in its most elaborate and ceremonial and legal form. They
were men who accepted the ever-increasing number of religious
rules and regulations extracted from the Law.
There were never very many of them; at most there were not more
than SIX thousand of them; for the plain fact was that, if a man
was going to accept and carry out every little regulation of the
Law, he would have time for nothing else; he had to withdraw
himself, to separate himself, from ordinary life in order to keep
The Pharisees then were two things. First, they were dedicated
legalists; religion to them was the observance of every detail of
the Law. But second - and this is never to be forgotten - they
were men in desperate earnest about their religion, for no one
would have accepted the impossibly demanding task of living a
life like that unless he had been in the most deadly earnest.
They could, therefore, develop at one and the same time all the
faults of legalism and all the virtues of complete
self-dedication. A Pharisee might either be a desiccated or
arrogant legalist, or a man of burning devotion to God.
To say this is not to pass a particularly Christian verdict on
the Pharisees, for the Jews themselves passed that very verdict.
The Talmud distinguishes seven different kinds of Pharisee.
(i) There was the Shoulder Pharisee. He was meticulous in his
observance of the Law; but he wore his good deeds upon his
shoulder. He was out for a reputation for purity and goodness.
True, he obeyed the Law, but he did so in order to be seen of
(ii) There was the Wait-a-little Pharisee. He was the Pharisee
who could always produce an entirely valid excuse for putting off
a good deed. He professed the creed of the strictest Pharisees
but he could always find an excuse for allowing practice to lag
behind. He spoke, but he did not do.
(iii) There was the Bruised or Bleeding Pharisee. The Talmud
speaks of the plague of self-afflicting Pharisees. These
Pharisees received their name for this reason. Women had a very
low status in Palestine. No really strict orthodox teacher would
be seen talking to a woman in public, even if that woman was his
own wife or sister. These Pharisees went even further; they would
not even allow themselves to look at a woman on the street. In
order to avoid doing so they would shut their eyes, and so bump
into walls and buildings and obstructions. They thus bruised and
wounded themselves, and their wounds and bruises gained them a
special reputation for exceeding piety.
(iv) There was the Pharisee who was variously described as the
Pestle and Mortar Pharisee, or the Hump-backed Pharisee, or the
Tumbling Pharisee. Such men walked in such ostentatious humility
that they were bent like a pestle in a mortar or like a
hunch-back. They were so humble that they would not even lift
their feet from the ground and so tripped over every obstruction
they met. Their humility was a self-advertising ostentation.
(v) There was the Ever-reckoning or Compounding Pharisee. This
kind of Pharisee was for ever reckoning up his good deeds; he was
for ever striking a balance sheet between himself and God, and he
believed that every good deed he did put God a little further in
his debt. To him religion was always to be reckoned in terms of a
profit and loss account.
(vi) There was the Timid or Fearing Pharisee. He was always in
dread-of divine punishment. He was, therefore, always cleansing
the outside of the cup and the platter, so that he might seem to
be good - He saw religion in terms of judgment and life in terms
of a terror-stricken evasion of this judgment.
(vii) Finally, there was the God fearing Pharisee; he was the
Pharisee who really and truly loved God and who found his delight
in obedience to the Law of God, however difficult that it might
That was the Jew's own classification of the Pharisees; and it is
to be noted that there were six bad types to one good one. There
would be not a few listening to Jesus's denunciation of the
Pharisees who agreed with every word of it.
MAKING RELIGION A BURDEN
Matthew 23: 1-4
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, "The Scribes
and Pharisee sit on Moses's seat. Therefore do and observe
everything they tell you; but do not act as they act; for they
speak, but they do not do. They bind burdens that are heavy and
hard to bear, and place them on men's shoulders; but they
themselves refuse to lift a finger to remove them."
HERE we see the lineaments of the Pharisees already beginning to
appear. Here we see the Jewish conviction of the continuity of
the faith. God gave the Law to Moses; Moses handed it to
Joshua; Joshua transmitted it to the elders; the elders passed it
down to the prophets; and the prophets gave it to the Scribes and
It must NOT for a MOMENT be thought that Jesus is COMMENDING the
Scribes and Pharisees with all their rules and regulations. What
he is saying is this, "In SO FAR AS these Scribes and Pharisees
have taught you the great principles of the Law which Moses
received from God, you must obey them." When we were studying
Matthew 5:17-20 we saw what these principles were. The whole of
the Ten Commandments are based on two great principles. They are
based on reverence, reverence for God, for God's name, for God's
day, for the parents God has given to us. They are based on
respect, respect for a man's life, for his possessions, for his
personality, for his good name, for oneself. These principles are
eternal; and, IN SO FAR as the Scribes and Pharisees teach
reverence for God and respect for men, their teaching is
eternally binding and eternally valid.
But their whole outlook on religion had one fundamental effect.
It made it a thing of thousands upon thousands of rules and
regulations; and therefore it made it an intolerable burden. Here
is the test of any presentation of religion. Does it make it
wings to lift a man up, or a deadweight to drag him down? Does it
make it a joy or a depression? Is a man helped by his religion or
is he haunted by it? Does it carry him, or has he to carry it?
Whenever religion becomes a depressing affair of burdens and
prohibitions, it ceases to be true religion.
Nor would the Pharisees allow the slightest relaxation. Their
whole self-confessed purpose was to "build a fence around the
Law." Not one regulation would they relax or remove. Whenever
religion becomes a burden, it ceases to be true religion.
THE RELIGION OF OSTENTATION
Matthew 23: 5-12
"They perform all their actions to be seen by men. They broaden
their phylacteries; they wear outsize tassels. They love the
highest places at meals, and the front seats in the synagogues,
and greetings in the market-place, and to be called Rabbi by men.
You must not be called Rabbi; for you have only one teacher, and
you are all brothers. Call no once upon earth father, you have
one Father - your Father in Heaven. Nor must you be called
leaders; you have one leader - Chris. He who is greatest among
you will be your servant. Anyone who will exalt himself will be
humbled; and whoever will humble himself w ill be exalted."
THE religion of the Pharisees became almost inevitably a religion
of ostentation. If religion consists in obeying countless rules
and regulations, it becomes easy for a man to see to it that
everyone is aware how well he fulfils the regulations, and how
perfect is his piety. Jesus selects certain actions and customs
in which the Pharisees showed their ostentation.
They made broad their phylacteries. It is said of the
commandments of God in Exodus 13:9: "It shall be to you as a sign
on your hand, and a memorial between your eyes." The same saying
is repeated, "It shall be as a mark on your hand, or frontlets
between your eyes" (Exodus 13:16; cp. Deuteronomy 6:8; 11:18). In
order to fulfil these commandments the Jew wore at prayer, and
still wears, what are called "tephiliin" or phylacteries. They
are worn on every day except the Sabbath and special holy days.
They are like little leather boxes, strapped one on the wrist and
one on the forehead. The one on the wrist is a little leather box
of one compartment, and inside it there is a parchment roll with
the following four passages of scripture written on it Exodus 13:
1-10; 13:11-16; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:13-21. The one worn on the
forehead is the same except that in it there are four little
compartments, and in each compartment there is a little scroll
inscribed with one of these four passages. The Pharisees, in
order to draw attention to himself, not only wore phylacteries,
but wore specially big ones, so that he might demonstrate his
exemplary obedience to the Law and his exemplary piety.
They wear outsize tassels; the tassels are in Greek "kraspeda"
and in Hebrew "zizith." In Numbers 15:37-41 and in Deuteronomy
22:12 we read that God commanded his people to make fringes on
the borders of their garments, so that when they looked on them
they might remember the commandments of God. These fringes were
like tassels worn on the four corners of the outer garment. Later
they were worn on the inner garment, and today they are
perpetuated in the tassels of the "prayershawl" which the devout
Jew wears at prayer. It was easy to make these tassels of
specially large size so that they became an ostentatious display
of piety, worn, not to remind a man of the commandments, but to
draw attention to himself.
Further, the Pharisees liked to be given the principal places at
meals, on the left and on the right of the host. They liked the
front seats in the synagogues. In Palestine the back seats were
occupied by the children and the most unimportant people; the
further forward the seat, the greater the honour. The most
honoured seats of all were the seats of the elders, which faced
the congregation. If a man was seated there, everyone would see
that he was present and he could conduct himself throughout the
service with a pose of piety which the congregation could not
fail to notice. Still further, the Pharisee liked to be addressed
as "Rabbi" and to be treated with the greatest respect. They
claimed, in point of fact, greater respect than that which was
given to parents, for, they said, "a man's parents give him
ordinary, physical life, but a man's teacher gives him eternal
life." They even liked to be called "father" as Elisha called
Elijah (2 Kings 2:12) and as the fathers of the faith were known.
Jesus insists that the Christian should remember that he has one
teacher only - and that teacher is Christ; and only one Father in
the faith - and that Father is God.
The whole design of the Pharisees was to dress and act in such a
way as to draw attention to themselves; the whole design of the
Christian should be to obliterate himself, so that if men see his
good deeds, they may glorify not him, but his Father in Heaven.
Any religion which produces ostentation in action and pride in
the heart is a false religion.
TO BE CONTINUED