Our Lord Jesus reserves his harshest criticisms for the Pharisees. The Pharisees were a conservative sect in Judaism whose mission statement was to live pure lives before God and to keep Jews separated from the world by their conformity to Godâ€™s Law. The problem was that although the Pharisees knew a lot of the Law of God, they were in fact lawless (Matt. 23:28). They merely kept the Laws of God externally, and they sought by their traditional interpretations of Godâ€™s Law to make them â€œdo-ableâ€, not realizing that one of the purposes of the Law of God was to reveal to them their need for Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:15-28; Rom. 2:21-29).
And so while they spoke of God and His Word, their hearts were in fact far from God (Matt. 15:7-9). Although these professors claimed to know Godâ€™s Word, they actually did not really know it; they were described by Jesus as those who: â€œpreach but do not practiceâ€ and those who made â€œvoid the Word of God for their traditionsâ€ (Matt. 15:3-6). Jesus said to them that they were religious posersâ€”they were hypocrites, and the condemnation of God awaited these Christ-less, religious men if they did not repent and receive the Lord Jesus as Savior and Lord (Matt. 23:24-28). Jesus clearly revealed that He was the only righteous person acceptable before a Holy God. Only Jesus Christ had perfectly kept the Law of God that required perfection (Matt. 5:48).
A popular notion today is that those who seek to be holy and live out Godâ€™s law are â€˜Phariseesâ€™ but this is incorrect and very unfair. Sure, there will always be those who try to live out the Law of God through their own self-righteous efforts, rejecting Christ (Rom. 10:3; Gal. 1:6), and these will be damned (Matt. 7:23). But those in Christ, who seek to uphold the Law of God through obedience because of Christâ€™s love and grace extended to them (Rom. 6:17), should not be called Pharisees. This is very unfair.
How can we be â€œphunctional Phariseesâ€ then? We can intentionally and unintentionally â€œshut the kingdom of heaven in peopleâ€™s facesâ€ in our carelessness as Christians (Matt. 23:13). We can send a message to our community that what is most important to us is not the Gospel and seeking and saving the lost, but our need to stay free from contamination, to categorize those we think are safe and unsafe, or those we think might respond to the Gospel and those who will not, and to subtly make our convictions commands that others are to follow.
I think there are three ways that this is revealed in to us in Scripture as we look at the practices of the Pharisees: (1) Thinking unbelievers are â€œcontagiousâ€ in their sins; (2) Unfairly categorizing people; and (3) Making our convictions commands for others to follow.
â€œSinner: Are you contagious?â€ The Pharisees would not fellowship and show compassion to folks lost in sin. They thought that folks like tax collectors and prostitutes were â€œtoo far goneâ€ to be recipients of Godâ€™s grace (with which they themselves were unfamiliar). They thought if they got too close to notorious sinners, then they would be contaminated. One of their interpretations of Godâ€™s Word (which was contrary to the mercy and steadfast love of God in Christ) was that if they got too close to sinners, then they would be made unclean before God, so they tried to keep themselves, their family, and their synagogues â€œsin freeâ€ merely in this external way.
Isnâ€™t this how we can behave, too, if we are not careful?! Yes, we must be wise in our interaction with sinful people, and there may be some people and places that would prove too much of a temptation for us, but do our hearts deceive us into thinking that we cannot get near sinful people? Do we not even pray for them? Our commission by our loving and merciful Lord is â€œGoâ€¦making disciplesâ€¦teachingâ€¦â€ (Matt. 28:18ff). As we learn in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (and throughout Luke 15), we are to imitate Jesus in His grace by â€œseeking and saving the lostâ€¦â€ by bringing the healing Gospel of the Great Physician to sinners who are sick (Mark 2:17). Have we extended a hand of friendship, or an invitation to table fellowship (Mark 2:13-17), or even an invitation to worship to a notorious sinner in the community lately? Could it be we think that they will contaminate our families, our congregations, etc.? Be honest about this.
We can also unfairly categorize people. We inevitably must use categories, but do our categories that we make of others place them in conditions that we functionally believe they are â€œtoo hardenedâ€ or â€œtoo far goneâ€ for redemption? Remember the parable of the tax collector and Pharisee in Luke 18? The Pharisee refers to, or categorizes other men as â€œextortioners, prostitutes, adulterers, tax collectors,â€ etc. He looked on them with â€œcontemptâ€.Â This is sinful manâ€™s way of playing God and seeking to do his own way of â€œelectingâ€ sinners. In other words, he placed the category of his own making as a priority over the power and grace of God in Christ toward men (donâ€™t we do this with the gay and lesbian community particularly?!).Â The Pharisees referred to the â€œunchurchedâ€ or those who didnâ€™t live according to their interpretations as â€œsinnersâ€. We are all sinners, but this was a special category of â€œsinnersâ€ that implied that they were what we might call â€œhopeless casesâ€. Do we categorize people and think that we are better merely because of the things we have been enabled by Godâ€™s Spirit to do for Christ? Have we forgotten mercy? Donâ€™t we talk like this? Those â€œHollywood peopleâ€ or â€œthose lawyersâ€ or â€œthose ___________â€ insinuating that these folks are too far gone, and outside any reach of Godâ€™s power and grace revealed in Christ.
Making our convictions commands for others to follow. We can make our convictions commands for others, and imply that those who might disagree with us are not welcome, and so we unnecessarily place a stumbling block in the way of sinners who might seek salvation in Christ. Do we shut up the Kingdom of Heaven in menâ€™s faces, too?! (Matt. 23:13). If we make issues of Christian liberty, like ways we school our children, or political parties we belong to, or our conviction about whether one should drink alcohol or not drink alcohol, we can be functional Pharisees. Why? Because we are adding to Godâ€™s Law, and adding to Godâ€™s Word which is always prohibited. The Pharisees did not keep Godâ€™s Word. They make up additional laws (some 613, I understand!) that were to be followed if one wanted to be in fellowship with them.Â If we are making our convictions that have been informed by Godâ€™s Word (legitimately) and we are implicitly (or explicitly) saying to others that you must be of the same mind as me on this, or sending the message that another is unacceptable to me, my family or my church, this too, can be a way of being a â€œphunctional Phariseeâ€.
We must follow our consciences. We must seek Godâ€™s wisdom on important issues of schooling our children, how we vote, and whether we are going to drink or not, but our convictions are not to become measures by which we judge others, or boundary lines to keep from fellowship. Think of how subtle this is, and yet how real this can be in a local congregation of Godâ€™s people. Rather than acknowledging the liberty God grants to His people, we insist that everyone live by our convictions. The outside world of sinful people can think a particular congregation would not welcome them because they do not live specifically as those inside, and functionally something other than the Gospel becomes what separates those who might have â€œinquired withinâ€. It is true that people will be offended by Christians if the Gospel is preached. But let those from outside the congregation be offended by the Gospel, and not our â€œphunctional Pharisaismâ€.
Let us repent of this â€œphunctional pharisaismâ€. Let us beat our breast as former tax collectors and sinners, and ask God to have mercy upon us! Let us be thankful for the completed work of Christ and His perfect law-keeping that has been imputed to us by faith. Let us befriend sinners, like our Lord Jesus has befriended us! Let us live with holy hearts and holy compassion as our Lord Jesus displayed to us.
In Christâ€™s love,
Pastor Charles R. Biggs