What do you know about the Pharisees?
Halley's Bible Handbook states that the:
"Pharisees were the most numerous and influential of the religious sects of Jesus' day. They were strict legalists. They stood for the rigid observance of the letter and forms of the Law, and also for the Traditions."
Is this view correct? Did the Pharisees stand for the observance of the law, did they keep the law, were they 'legalists', or instead did they prefer to keep traditions of men?
The first mention of the Pharisees in the Bible involved John the Baptist.
"But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, 'Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father''" (Mat 3:7-9).
The first statement Jesus made which mentions them was also negative,
"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" (Mat 5:20).
According to Smith's Bible Dictionary,
"The fundamental principle of the Pharisees...is that...there was an oral law to complete and explain the written law, given to Moses".
A biblical example of that would be Mat 15:1-2,
"Then the scribes and Pharisees who were from Jerusalem came to Jesus saying, 'Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread'".
Interestingly, the Pharisees were quite concerned about 'the tradition of the elders' even though there was no biblical requirement to wash hands before eating bread.
What did Jesus do?
Jesus had problems with the Pharisees:
"He answered and said to them, 'Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition? For God commanded saying, 'Honor your father and your mother'; and he who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.' But you say, 'Whoever says to his father or mother, 'Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift to God'--then he need not honor his father or mother.' Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition. Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophecy about you, saying: 'There people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines of God the commandments of men" (Mat 15:3-9).
Jesus also said, "making the word of God of no effect through your tradition, which you have handed down. And many such things you do" (Mark 7:13).
Jesus often called the Pharisees hypocrites (Mat 15:7;16:3;22:18;23:23,25,27,29; Mk 7:6). According to Strong's Exhaustive Concordance, the Greek word Jesus used that was translated as hypocrite means, "an actor under an assumed role".
The Pharisees didn't really want to be good, they just wanted to look good (Mat 23:25-27).
Why? Because "they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God" (Joh 12:43).
Jesus condemned the Pharisees by saying, "you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness" (Mat 23:28).
Jesus said the Pharisees were filled with lawlessness because they did not keep God's law (Mat 15:3-9;22:15-18;23:23), and that they mainly tried to appear righteous before men (Mat 23:23-28).
Were the Pharisees Legalists?
The term 'legalist' is not actually in the Bible (AV/NKJ). Some claim that believing in following the laws of God makes one a legalist. However, if legalism is defined as adhering to the ten commandments, then the Pharisees could not have been 'legalists'--the Pharisees repeatedly violated the ten commandments and justified these violations by traditions of men (Mk 7:13).
How Did the Pharisees Violate the Ten Commandments?
Jesus indicated that the Pharisees did not even keep the law,
"Did not Moses give you the law, yet none of you keeps the law? Why do you seek to kill Me?...and the Pharisees and the chief priests sent officers to take Him" (John 7:19,32).
In addition to overly relying on tradition, the New Testament teaches that the Pharisees broke and/or did not proper understand everyone of the Ten Commandments Let us look at how the Pharisees seemed to violate each of the ten commandments:
1.) "But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the will of God for themselves" (Luke 7:30), which is a violation of the first commandment.
2.) They considered gold more important than the temple which seems to be a violation of the second commandment (Matthew 23:16).
3.) "Then the Pharisees went and plotted how they might entangle Him in His talk. And they sent to Him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, 'Teacher, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone for You regard not the person of men" (Matthew 22:15-16). This is a violation of the third commandment since they were taking God's name in vain.
4.) The Pharisees also plotted to kill Jesus because He healed someone on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:10-14; Mark 3:4-6), not because this act was prohibited in the Law of God (it was not), but because of their traditions. They would not admit that it was lawful to do good on the Sabbath (Mark 3:4; Matthew 12:12-14; Luke 6:9-11), which should be considered as a violation of the fourth commandment.
5.) As cited earlier they violated the fifth commandment and justified it through their traditions (Matthew 15:3-6).
6.) They also had Jesus killed (Joh 11:57;18:3;19:6) for their envy (Mark 15:9-10), thus they violated the sixth commandment. Plus, they also apparently plotted to get Stephen improperly condemned (Acts 6:11-13) and thus were part of his murder.
7.) Jesus suggested that some committed adultery through divorce (Matthew 19:3-9; Mark 10:2-12), and adultery is a violation of the seventh commandment.
8.) Jesus also implied they stole from widows, which is a violation of the eighth commandment (Matthew 23:14).
9.) They were insincere, sometimes bearing false witness, “Then the Pharisees went and plotted how they might entangle Him in His talk…But Jesus perceived their wickedness” (Matthew 22:15,18). This a violation of the ninth commandment–if the Pharisees really felt that Jesus was true and taught the true way of God, they would not have plotted to entangle Him. They also apparently set up false witnesses against Stephen (Acts 6:13). They also had part in spreading the lie that Jesus’ body was stolen-Mat 27:62; 28:12-13; another violation of the ninth commandment.
10.) Jesus said to the Pharisees, "your inward part is full of greed and wickedness" (Luke 11:39), thus the Pharisees violated the tenth commandment (many Pharisees were also lovers of money (Luke 16:14).
Thus, the Bible either states or implies that the Pharisees one way or the other violated all ten of the commandments! (It perhaps should be noted that modern Messianic Jews have some of the lawlessness issues that the Pharisees of old had, for details, see Messianic Judaism Beliefs Differ from the Continuing Church of God).
The Pharisees complained that the disciples ate with tax collectors and sinners, which was also a violation of their tradition (Luk 5:30); they complained that Jesus did that too (Luk 15:1-2). Again, these acts by Jesus and the disciples were not violations of God's commandments. Because of the falseness of such teaching, Jesus warned people to beware of the doctrines of the Pharisees (Mat 16:11-12).
Now not all the individual Pharisees were bad. Some tried to learn from Jesus (Joh 3:1-4). Some even tried to help Jesus (Luk 13:31). They were never condemned for that. Actually some finally did believe (Act 15:5). Paul and Nicodemus are probably the two most famous believing Pharisees (Joh 3:1; Act 23:6). Most though, could not see their sins and would not repent (Luk 18:10-14;Mat 3:7-9;5:20;7:30). Remember, Jesus condemned them for pretending to keep the law and for actually breaking it (Mat 23:28).
Lest anyone feel that this condemnation of the Pharisees is in error, notice that there are some prophecies in Jeremiah that essentially confirms this:
8 "Behold, you trust in lying words that cannot profit. 9 Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal, and walk after other gods whom you do not know, 10 and then come and stand before Me in this house which is called by My name, and say, 'We are delivered to do all these abominations'? 11 Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of thieves in your eyes? Behold, I, even I, have seen it," says the Lord. (Jeremiah 7:8-11)
8 "How can you say, 'We are wise, And the law of the Lord is with us'? Look, the false pen of the scribe certainly works falsehood. 9 The wise men are ashamed, They are dismayed and taken. Behold, they have rejected the word of the Lord; So what wisdom do they have? (Jeremiah 8:8-9)
Since Jesus quoted the passage in Jeremiah 8:11 in Matthew 21:13, this indicates that at least part of the above was for His time. Hence, there will leaders and people who claimed to have true religion, yet were violating the Ten Commandments. Thus, apparently some of the Pharisees, to a degree, fulfilled this prophecy.
Stephen Also Condemned Them for Not Keeping the Law
Jesus was not the only one who condemned the Pharisees and Sadducees for not keeping the law.
Paul criticized the High Priest (who was likely a Sadducee) for not violating the law:
2 And the high priest Ananias commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth. 3 Then Paul said to him, "God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! For you sit to judge me according to the law, and do you command me to be struck contrary to the law?" (Acts 23:2-3)
And notice what Stephen said:
51 "You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. 52 Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, 53 who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it." (Acts 7:51-53)
Hence, despite the views of some that the Pharisees actually kept the law, they were considered to be murders (and did consent to Stephen's murder) and law breakers.
The term Pharisee is used in some religious circles to describe someone who is self-righteous or someone who keeps the laws of God. While the term may be proper to apply to the self-righteous (i.e. Luke 18:9-14), it is not proper to apply it to someone who believes God and tries to obey His laws like Jesus did. Jesus Himself said, "I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love" (Joh 15:10).
What, then, are the signs of a Pharisee?
1) They are interested in an outward appearing religion (Matthew 23:25-27).
2) They judge by their interpretations of outward appearance and draw false conclusions (Matthew 15:1-11).
3) They trust in themselves that they are righteous (Luke 18:9).
4) They do not necessarily actually keep the ten commandments (Matthew 15:3).
5) They rely on traditions more than the Bible for their religion (Matthew 7:1-13).
There are still Pharisees today. And if the emails I receive are an indication, there are probably some in all groups that claim to be Christian.
For related articles check out: Did Paul Teach and Keep the ten commandments?, Jesus and the Ten Commandments, Are the Ten Commandments Still in Effect?, Are the Laodiceans the Modern Sadducees and Pharisees?, Messianic Judaism Beliefs Differ from the Continuing Church of God, and Annual Worship Calendar.
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B. Thiel, Were the Pharisees Condemned for Keeping the Law of God? 1999/2001/2010/2011/2012/2013/2014 0918 www.cogwriter.com/pharisee.htm