The Errors of Phariseeism
Taking away from the word of God constitutes serious error, and we all shudder at the heresies of theological liberalism – going doctrinally askew is something we scrupulously avoid. However, adding to the word of God is equally wrong and equally erroneous (Rev 22:18-19), and one that we should be at pains to eschew. This seemed to be part of the reason why the Pharisees went so wrong; adding to the word of God might have started small and with good intentions, but it quickly spiralled out of control into a convoluted, hypocritical, and legalistic system.
As a slight aside it is amazing to see the righteousness and boldness of the Lord as he sits in the house of a Pharisee and confronts sin head on. Surrounded by the religious elite he does not dilute the truth, or dumb down his message. Being ‘full of grace and truth’ (Jn 1:14) he never strayed into the extremes of rage nor compromise as he addressed these men. Such is his moral perfection he said everything right and in the right way – his words were evidence of the goodness of God leading men to repentance (Rom 2:4). We are creatures prone to polarisation, but he was perfectly balanced in everything that he did. May we also follow his example and heed his warnings as he exposes the errors of Phariseeism.
Error 1 – They emphasised externals
“Ye Pharisees make clean the outside of the cup and the platter; but your inward part is full of ravening and wickedness” (v39)
It is all too easy in Christian living to appear right on the outside and look the part. We can quickly get into the routine of going through the motions, saying the right words and pleasing others, while our heart is far from God. The Pharisees thought that holiness worked from the outside – in, but the Bible makes clear that holiness starts in the heart and works its way out. David prayed “create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me…then will I teach transgressors thy ways” (Ps 51:10,13). Sanctification and pure living is not achieved by externals pressing in, rather it has to be the Spirit of God transforming the heart and this working itself out in practise. It is the pure in heart that shall see God (Mt 5:8), he is not impressed with the veneer of shallow externals.
Error 2 – They majored on the minors
“Woe unto you, Pharisees! for ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass over judgment and the love of God” (v42)
The Pharisee’s focused on the minutia but omitted “the weightier matters of the law” (Mt 23:23). We too can use our theological microscopes to emphasise our own preferences whereas the Bible emphasises liberty. We think the Lord is impressed with every ‘i’ dotted and ‘t’ crossed, but all the while we neglect love for the people of God and righteous living. Sometimes we can look at the spec in our brother’s eye, while there is a significant plank in our own (Mt 7:3). The Lord Jesus makes clear here that the Pharisees should have tithed their herbs, but not at the expense of love for God. If the majors are in place, then the minors will follow, it cannot be the other way around. Let us remember that “to obey is better than sacrifice, and to harken than the fat of rams” (1 Sam 15:22) and “to do justice and judgment is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice” (Pr 21:3).
Error 3 – Wanting man’s praise
“Woe unto you, Pharisees! for ye love the uppermost seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets” (v43)
Isn’t this the propensity and bias of every human heart? We seek to exalt self and glory in ‘me’. Through long prayers and public acts of ‘spirituality’ the Pharisees did everything for the approval of their peers, and to be seen by the crowd. The motivation of their heart was love for self and not God. It’s also possible for us to masquerade under the guise of spiritual work, but all the while harbour the desire of being seen by others and hear their praise. Such is the subtlety of sin, we can through hints and intimations tell others what we are doing for the Lord; we can use social media to create a spiritual persona and become like the Pharisees – doing all our works in order to be seen by men (Mt 23:5). True godliness is not achieved in the public eye, but rather in the quiet place, alone with God. The Lord Jesus told his disciples “when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret” (Mt 6:6). What we are in secret will show out in public – let us seek the approval of God alone.
Lest we think Phariseeism is a relic of the past, the Lord’s words provide a timely warning to us all; “beware … of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy” (Lk 12:1). We have all been guilty of hypocrisy to varying degrees and at different times; may we endeavour to live lives of complete transparency – fearing God and not men.