“You’re a Legalistic Pharisee!” “All you do is rule, keep, and judge, you’re a Pharisee!” Statements like these are often thrown around and are used to show describe how somebody is a hypocrite, comparing them to the Pharisees who were resistant towards Jesus during his earthly ministry. The Pharisees were known as hypocrites and those who would try to entrap and trick Jesus (Mt.19:3; 23:5-36). The Pharisees were seen as blind guides that would lead men into the same ditch that they would fall into (Mt. 15:14). Now just on the surface it seems like the Pharisees are the worst example of spirituality that one can read about in the New Testament. The fact that the Pharisees were bad examples to a certain degree cannot be argued, but there is a sense in which Jesus told his followers to listen to the Pharisees and a sense in which we can learn something from them today as well (Mt. 23:1-3).
What can I learn from a Pharisee? I am trying to walk in the light and be a strong Christian, why would I need to follow men that attempt to entrap Jesus and that would bind heavy burdens around the necks of others (Mt. 23:4)? I should be looking to men like David, Abraham, Peter, and John—not to the halfhearted and prejudicial Pharisees. We need to try to learn what is right and wise from whoever we can, regardless of the blunders that they make. Solomon wrote more on wisdom than any other author in the Bible, and often discussed how one should have the proper relationship with women, yet Solomon made horrible decisions as it relates to wisdom and women (1 Kgs. 11:1-8; Neh. 13:23-27). Some may conclude that since Solomon did a horrible job of taking his own advice and fell into a devastating situation with women, I will not take his advice. But the exact opposite is true, and Solomon’s words are still inspired of God (2 Tim. 3:16-17). So, keep an open mind as we look together at some positive lessons that we can learn from the Pharisees.
The Pharisees teach us that details do matter in religion. So many people say “You shouldn’t focus on the little details in religion, don’t be such a Pharisee”. The fact of the matter is that this is not true. Details do matter in religion (read Leviticus or Romans), but the heart is important while the details are being carried out. Jesus commended the Pharisees for their attention to details in religion, but they did it with an empty and cold heart and at the expense of omitting the weightier matters (Mt. 23:23; Lk. 11:42). Are there weightier (more important/pressing) matters in Christianity? I believe that there are weightier matters, but in the first place God determines those matters and not us, and in the second place, this does not excuse me from doing the other detailed matters of Christianity. We can learn a lesson from the Pharisees about the importance of paying attention to details in Christianity. Have I allowed Christianity to swallow up my life in all of its aspects (Col. 3:1-9)? Are there pockets of my life over which Jesus does not reign as King (1 Tim. 6:15)? The Pharisees teach a lesson of paying attention to details, just not at the expense of the more important matters and not with a cold spirit of apathy or indifference: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone” (Mt. 23:23).
Authority Is Important in Religion
When you began to have a religious discussion with someone and ask them about where they get the authority for some of their practices and they either look at you crazy or seem as if that does not matter! Authority does matter in religion, in fact all that we do in Christianity must be done in the name of, or by the authority of Jesus Christ (Col. 3:17). We would not know how to do Christianity without Jesus, and so to roam outside of His authority in an effort to please Him is senseless and unwise. The Pharisees question Jesus about His religious authority, and they recognize that no one can do the things He is doing without the proper authority or permission from God (Mt. 21:23). Jesus did not answer them because they would not answer His question about where John the baptizer got his authority from (Mt. 21:24-25).
Jesus was not upset because they asked for religious authority, in fact Jesus implies that John operated under some authority (authority from God). Jesus knows that in their cold hearts they rejected John and He is operating under the same authority as John so they will not accept him, it was not about authority with these guys (Mt. 21:25-27). However, that does not negate the fact that religious authority is important and that we need to respect the authority that belongs to Jesus and operate under His authority in religion. Ask yourself if the things you are practicing in religion are authorized by Jesus Christ, after all he has all authority (Mt. 28:18).
Some Pharisees Were Sincere
Some people get the idea that all Pharisees were the same. They all hated people and were self-righteous and religiously smug, thinking they were better than others. However, not all of the Pharisees were this way. There was a man named Nicodemus who came to Jesus at night with sincere religious questions and recognized Jesus had come from God (Jn. 3:1-11). Nicodemus was not justified because he had a sincere inquiry of Jesus and the new birth, but this does show that he had an open mind and was willing to seek answers, all Pharisees were not the same. Nicodemus also was involved in giving Jesus proper burial (Jn. 19:38-40).
Sometimes we lump folks into one group and say they all think the same, Pharisees were not all cut the same way and we need to give people the opportunity to show who they really are. There was also another Pharisee named Saul (later Paul), who although operated in a sinful and angry way as a Pharisee had operated with a clear conscience and sought to do what he thought was right (Acts 23:1,24:16). When Paul came to the knowledge of the truth, although he was a Pharisee, he was sincere enough to change. Pharisees were not incapable of being reached (1 Tim. 1:13-16). People can change even if they are Pharisees, we need to learn this lesson so that we can better evangelize and relate to people who may be associated with a certain group, but are not afraid to think for themselves.
They Believed in the Resurrection
The Pharisees believed in the resurrection (Acts 23:6-8). Not everyone in the first century believed in the resurrection so this set them apart to some degree (Lk. 20:27). I am not suggesting that the Pharisees understood all about the resurrection or taught the truth concerning this (1 Cor. 15), however they did recognize that there is a life after this one. In a world where so many people act as if there is nothing else after this life and live as if they will not be resurrected in the same fashion in which they lived (Jn. 5:28-29), and In a world where there are those who cling to the false view of Realized Eschatology, or Preterism (that the resurrection has already passed), we can learn a lesson from the Pharisees in believing in the resurrection (2 Tim. 2:16-18). The Pharisees had the right idea about the fact that there is a life after this one and individuals in our “live it up” society need to be reminded of this truth.
So we see that while the Pharisees are not the perfect spiritual role models for us to follow, we need to learn from these positive aspects of their lives. There are aspects of the Pharisees which we can benefit from when we apply them to our lives. The Pharisees did some things that are noteworthy and worth keeping in mind. Even if a Pharisee does something which reflects spiritual truth, it’s still true. Wherever we see the truth lived, or something of true spiritual virtue, we need to emulate it and try to incorporate it into our lives. There is indeed some value in the life of the Pharisee. Jesus said these words to a Jewish audience: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you” (Mt. 23:2-3).