Were Pharisees Condemned for Keeping or Not Keeping the Law?


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 issues 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” (Mt 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).


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 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).

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” (Luk 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 (Mat 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” (Mat 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 (Mat 12:10-14; Mk 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 (Mk 3:4; Mat 12:12-14; Luk 6:9-11), which is a violation of the fourth commandment.

5.) As cited earlier they violated the fifth commandment and justified it through their traditions (Mat 15:3-6).

6.) They also had Jesus killed (Joh 11:57;18:3;19:6) (even though they knew He worked many signs, John 11:47), 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 (Mat 19:3-9;Mk 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 (Mat 23:14).

9.) They were insincere, bearing a false witness, “Then the Pharisees went and plotted how they might entangle Him in His talk…But Jesus perceived their wickedness” (Mat 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” (Luk 11:39), thus the Pharisees violated the tenth commandment (many Pharisees were also lovers of money (Luk 16:14).

Thus, the Bible either states or implies that the Pharisees one way or the other violated all ten of the commandments!  They truly did not understand the law of God.

Were you aware of that?

Many, especially those who consider themselves Protestant, do not seem to understand that the Pharisees were condemned for violating the law, not for actually keeping it.  Many do not understand the law of God today.

Some articles of possibly related interest may include:

What Did Jesus Teach About the Ten Commandments? This article quotes what Jesus actually said about them (His words are in red).
Were the Ten Commandments Nailed to the Cross?
Some have said so. This article provides some biblical quotes to answer this important question.
What Did Paul Actually Teach About the Ten Commandments? Many say Paul taught against the ten commandments. Is this true? This article quotes Paul with his words in green.
Are the Ten Commandment Still in Effect? This article quotes the ten commandments and combines some of the previous articles into one article about the ten commandments. The commandments are shown at Mount Sinai, before Mount Sinai, in the teachings of Jesus, after the crucifixion, and in the teachings of Paul. It addresses the most common “traditions of men” regarding them as well.
Were the Pharisees Condemned for Keeping the Law or Reasoning Around it?
Many believe that the Pharisees were condemned for keeping the law, but what does your Bible say? If they were not condemned for that, what were they condemned for?
The Ten Commandments Reflect Love, Breaking them is Evil
Some feel that the ten commandments are a burden. Is that what Jesus, Paul, Peter, James, and John taught?
Was the Commandment to Love the Only Command?
Some have stated that John’s writings teach this, but is that what the Bible really says?
The Ten Commandments and the Early Church Did Jesus and the Early Church keep the ten commandments? What order were they in? Here are quotes from the Bible and early writings.
Are the Laodiceans the Modern Sadducees and Pharisees? Discusses similarities of the Sadducees and Pharisees to various COGs in this end-time.
Hope of Salvation: How the Living Church of God differ from most Protestants How the Living Church of God differs from mainstream/traditional Protestants, is perhaps the question I am asked most by those without a Church of God background.
The Similarities and Dissimilarities between Martin Luther and Herbert W. Armstrong This article clearly shows some of the doctrinal differences between in the two. At this time of doctrinal variety and a tendency by many to accept certain aspects of Protestantism, the article should help clarify why the Living Church of God is NOT Protestant. Do you really know what the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther taught and should you follow his doctrinal example?

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