Learning a Lesson FromThe Pharisees

by Richard A. Wiedenheft

Many modern Christians read Jesus’ warnings against the Pharisees and feel secure: “We don’t do those ‘Jewish’ things, so we are all right!” But we may have more in common with the Pharisees of Jesus’ day than we think! They were zealous for God! Are we? Now zeal is a very good thing, provided it is moving in the right direction. Unfortunately, the Pharisees’ zeal was going in the wrong direction. They were zealous in the wrong dimension. Perhaps we can learn some lessons from them. After all, Jesus warned His disciples,

For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5:20).

Our righteousness must exceed theirs—not in degree; it must be of a completely different type!

Preoccupation with Appearances

Jesus said of the Pharisees,

Everything they do is done for men to see. They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels of their prayer shawls long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them “Rabbi’ (Matt 23:5-7).

How many religious leaders today love to be called by special titles like Rabbi, Father, Reverend, Mister, Doctor, Elder, Bishop or Minister? (Not that all are specifically prohibited by Scripture.) How many love fancy clothes, magnificent buildings, the high visibility of TV and slick publications? They live for the approval of men. But this tendency is not limited to religious leaders who like titles and fancy clothes. This preoccupation with appearances and concern with external obedience can be found to some degree in all of us!

On one occasion the Pharisees came to Jesus with a question about one particular activity: “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” (Matt 15:2.)

Of all the questions the Pharisees could have asked the Son of man—of all the important issues they could have questioned him about, of all the problems in Judah at the time, they had to ask (accusingly, of course), “Why don’t your disciples wash their hands?”

What kind of questions would we pose today? Would we ask the Master about world peace, about eternal life, about justice, mercy, about relief for guilt? Or would we want Him to resolve matters of make-up, jewelry, clothing, hair length, swim suits, alcohol, and meats? Are we preoccupied with the same sort of things (Col 2:21)?—what a person wears, what he eats, how he looks? Are we busy judging according to outward appearances, while God is looking at the heart? (1Sam 16:7.)

To be sure, the Bible deals with some of these external matters; but it makes very clear that what is more important is the inward attitude, which will, of course, be reflected on the outside. The problem is that all too often we, like the Pharisees, assume that everyone’s heart will express itself externally the same way ours does; and we seek to make our external, outward measures the standard of judging the heart. Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees’ question about hand washing could be very instructive for us. He showed them there were far more important matters to be concerned about.

“Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man unclean. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean’.” (Matt 15:16-20).

Is there a lesson in this for our day? To be sure, what we put in our mouths is very important relative to health, something Christians should be concerned about. But compared to important spiritual issues that face us, washing or not washing hands is inconsequential—it’s not even in the same ballpark. And neither are a lot of the physical things Christians worry about!

Letter- of- the- Law Obedience

On a Sabbath the Pharisees observed Jesus’ disciples shelling and eating grain in the fields—an activity contrary to their man-made traditions. Jesus answered their accusation by citing from the Old Testament two examples that involved a technical breaking of the letter of the Mosaic law (David eating shewbread and the priests serving in the temple on the Sabbath). In both situations the offenders were considered not guilty because of a higher, weightier “law.” Jesus concluded by stating that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28).

Do we, like the Pharisees, tend to judge one another—not on matters of justice, mercy, love, joy, and kindness, but on external matters we can see and quantify—like the precise moment for the beginning of the Sabbath, whether or not one is permitted to spend money on the Sabbath, what someone wears, or touches, or eats or drinks? Are we so concerned with letter-of-the-law obedience in one dimension that we completely ignore obedience in other dimensions?

On another occasion Jesus upbraided the Pharisees for being so meticulous in tithing (something quantifiable) while they ignored justice, mercy, and faith (Matt 23:23). He called them hypocrites! While indicating that they should not neglect to tithe, Jesus plainly told the Pharisees that there are “weightier matters” in the law. They are just as weighty today. Oh, that we would devote more of our precious time to them!

Preoccupation with Doctrinal Correctness

Many Christians today are very concerned with doctrinal correctness. I have personally written scores of articles, preached scores of sermons, placed dozens of ads promoting doctrinal truth! For centuries controversies have raged, churches have split, people have been executed over doctrinal differences. Today, particularly among Sabbath-keepers, there are debates about the correct Biblical calendar, about foot-washing, sacred names, how to keep feast days, tithing, Anglo-Israelism, etc., to name just a few.

There is nothing wrong with the quest for the theological truth; indeed it is a noble and worthwhile pursuit. But at what price? Do we ignore the truth about love and mercy for the sake of the “truth” about counting Pentecost or observing new moons?

Consider that the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were also preoccupied with doctrinal issues. The Sadducees wanted to know about the woman who was married to seven brothers. Whose wife would she be in the resurrection? (Even though they did not believe in a resurrection—Matt 22:23.) The Pharisees asked about paying tribute to Caesar (Matt 22:15). They wanted to know which was the greatest command (Matt 23:34); what should be done with the adulteress (John 8:1-11); who sinned, the blind man or his parents? (John 9:1).

Of course, their questions were usually designed to put Jesus on the spot, but it is quite obvious from the record that they were very much concerned with preserving and promoting their own brand of doctrinal correctness. And in so doing they missed the really important things of God.

Jesus put it to them straight: “You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.” (Matt 23:15) Today we might publish and print and preach—to convince someone of the fact that the lost aren’t tortured for all eternity in hell fire! But once we convince him, is he more a child of God? Is he more loving, peaceful, patient, and understanding? Or is he just more self-satisfied because he “knows the truth!” We might take a lesson from Jesus’ words to the Pharisees.

In our zeal for doctrinal correctness we publish booklets and make tapes. We promote the truth about prophecy, about the precise vocal pronunciation of God’s names; we write articles (and I’ve written more than my share) to expose false doctrines; we debate whether Jesus was crucified on Wednesday or Friday; we debate feast days, tithing, the correct date for Passover, speaking in tongues!

Our zeal is commendable—but at what price? One can believe every correct doctrine and not even know God! A person can have perfect theology and not have an intimate, personal, growing relationship with God. He can know “all truth” and be a lousy parent, a selfish spouse, and an egotistical hypocrite!

Oh, that even a small fraction of our zeal for truth were invested in sharing Jesus Christ with those who don’t know him! Oh, that our zeal were directed to growing in and promoting love, patience, kindness, goodness, and meekness. Oh, that for every article about the precise meaning of a Greek word, there were ten on compassion and kindness. Oh, that for every sermon on counting Pentecost, there were ten sermons on respecting parents, loving mates, teaching children.

The Pharisees and Sadducees’ problem was not that they sought doctrinal truth, but that, with all the effort expended in that pursuit, they missed simple truths such as “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18), “do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great” (Lev 19:15), and “you shall not murder” (Ex 20:13). They wanted to stone a woman “caught in the act of adultery” (John 8:4), but they completely ignored the equal sin of the adulterous man (Deut 22:22). Some of them even plotted to kill Jesus—partly over doctrinal disputes and partly because they thought they might lose their place in the government (John 5:18; 11:47-48, 53). Preoccupied with their own doctrinal and prophetic understanding, they missed the greatest truth of all: the Messiahship of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit to become sons of God.

Today, when millions are starving in the world, when millions of women kill their unborn children in ignorance, when billions don’t even have Bibles to read, when so few have an intimate personal relationship with Jesus Christ, when the media is bombarding us and our children with promiscuity, violence, pornography and godlessness, how much time can we afford to devote to being sure about who was involved “when the sons of God went to the daughters of men” (Gen 6:4)? We compass land and sea to find the truth about the Beast of Rev 13, about the rebuilding of a temple, about Israel in prophecy, while our next door neighbor suffers with a crushing load of guilt and loneliness. Where are our priorities?

Keeping the Right Company

If Jesus came in the flesh today, where would we find him? Would he be preaching in great cathedrals, ancient and modern? In small country churches? In Sabbath-keeping assemblies? Would he be at our church activities and socials? Would we find Him at ministerial conferences, with evangelical theologians, with mainstream denominational leaders?

Well, check the account of His ministry in Palestine. Yes, He did talk to the religious leaders—usually in a less than pleasant atmosphere. But most frequently He was ministering to the working men and women of Galilee and Judea—sharing the good news of the Kingdom of God. In fact, the company He kept was a real problem for the “righteous” people of the day. And I wonder if it would be a problem for us who “know the truth” today.

The Pharisees’ attitude is evidenced by a question they asked Jesus’ disciples. “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matt 9:10). Just so we understand what kind of ‘sinners’ the Pharisees referred to, we should check a similar passage in Matthew 21:32: “Jesus said to them ‘I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.’” The sinners He was not above eating with included prostitutes. They needed the spiritual food he had to offer, and He was not too mindful of His “public image” to minister to those who most needed His healing presence. If He came today, I suspect He would spend a great deal of time with the sinners of our day—sinners of all sorts—including prostitutes, and even homosexuals!


It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice. For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. (Matt 9:12-13).

Are we too busy offering the sacrifice of doctrinal truth to minister to the spiritually sick? Are we so concerned about the sacrifice of theological purity that we can’t reach out with justice, mercy and faith? Are we so occupied with letter-of-the-law obedience and judging one another on outward appearance that we neglect kindness and patience? Are we too busy avoiding and condemning sin to reach out to prostitutes and homosexuals? Or are we—with Jesus living in us—doctors, busy ministering to the spiritually sick, just as He did?

Jesus did tell sinners to “go and sin no more.” But His harshest words were reserved for the self-righteous who were so concerned about external obedience while they themselves were filled with evil. How much are we like the “righteous ones” of Jesus’ day?”

Please don’t misunderstand. Christians should pursue doctrinal truth. We ought to study the Bible to discover truth and we must be diligent in living by what we discover! But, at the same time, we must realize that there are weightier matters of God’s way. We must realize that there is a world out there—a world full of sinners who desperately need to come to know God. Let us not be so wrapped up in our pursuit of truth and obedience and doctrine, that we neglect a world that so badly needs the basic knowledge of Jesus—who lives in us! &