The Pharisees are some of the best known, yet worst understood groups of people in the New Testament. Read even a short amount of any of the gospels and you’ll quickly come across them. Have you ever wondered who they really were and what they have to do with the 21st century Christian?
Some people look to Jesus’ teaching on the Pharisees and apply it to their lives. But as Christian believers are we really Pharisees? In applying the Pharisees to us, are we missing what the gospel authors wanted us to know?
The elites of their society
It's important to understand first who the Pharisees were.
They were an influential religious sect within Judaism, known for strictly following the traditional and written law. The word 'Pharisee' comes from a Hebrew word meaning 'separated'. They taught that all Jews should observe all laws in the Torah (over 600 of them), in addition to other rituals particularly concerned with ceremonial purification. They were mostly middle-class businessmen and sometimes leaders of synagogues.
People in Jesus’ time would have seen the Pharisees as the religious, moral, social and business leaders in society. They were the elites of Israel.
Though our human eyes can be deceiving. Jesus' verdict on them was stark: "How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees." (Matthew 16:11–12). Luke's account adds another dimension: "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy." (Luke 12:1).
Luke’s background to the Pharisees
We don’t need to go outside of the Bible for context. Even a quick walkthrough of Luke’s eye-witness account tells us much about the Pharisees. A closer look at several exchanges in chapter five tells us much.
First, Jesus heals a leper and sends him to the priest as a challenge to the religious community. Next, we see Jesus healing a paralysed man. That incident begins with Pharisees and teachers of the Jewish law, who came from all over Jerusalem, Judea and Galilee—the whole region. After that miracle, Levi the tax collector accepts the invitation to follow Jesus and throws a great party in his honour. Levi’s repentance creates some tension amongst the Pharisees with them asking: "Why do you eat with tax collectors and sinners?" (Luke 5:30).
Over the next two chapters, complaint quickly turns to evil intent. The Pharisees come to check up on Jesus. They discover him reaching out to ‘sinners’ and the outcasts of society, rather than the religious elite. As a result, they then reject Jesus and plot against him.
Luke also gives us a unique insight into what was really going on. "The Pharisees and experts in the law rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptised by John [the Baptist.]" (Luke 7:30). They won’t accept Jesus because they've rejected John's baptism—they won’t humble themselves to that baptism of repentance.
Luke’s message to us is clear. The Pharisees are a group of people who refused to repent despite the evidence in front of them. They instead want to cling on to their lofty self-righteous religion.
The tension continues through the following chapters, leading to Jesus’ words against them in chapter 11: "But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the market-places. Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it." (Luke 11:42–44)
By the next chapter, the parable of the rich fool is a parable told by Jesus directly against the Pharisees. At this point, we see the Pharisees for who they are—worldly people who love material things. They enjoyed the privilege and status that came with their high positions. As the religious establishment figures, they loved the prestige and honour in society.
There is a more sinister undercurrent as we discover they also want to murder Jesus. As we read on, we find out they eventually succeed.
Who will be saved?
The Pharisees take centre stage in Luke 13:22–17:9. It's a defined section of the gospel which begins with a question: "Lord will those who are saved be few?" The answer: "Strive to enter through the narrow door." This question runs through the whole section of the gospel. The answer is consistently not what the reader would expect.
Things become heated in an extended dinner party conversion in chapter 14. Challenging them directly, Jesus publicly calls out their hypocrisy. To help understand what is going on, Jesus gives us the parable of the wedding feast. It’s told against the Pharisees to explain what is really going on. The Pharisees’ deeds are not selfless—they help people they think are going to pay them back in some way.
The following chapters in the section give us a number of 'dinner party parables', all concerned with who will be saved. This section contains some of the best-known parables—the prodigal son and the parable of the dishonest manager. The section ends with Luke giving retelling an exchange between the Pharisees and Jesus. "The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him. And Jesus said to them, "You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God." (Luke 16:14-15).
The message for the reader is again apparent. The Pharisees are unbelieving worldly leaders. They are greedy and reject Jesus.
Seeing the Pharisees the way Luke wants us to
All of this builds the case for us. As Christians over 2000 years later, it helps us understand and see the Pharisees in the way Jesus did. Luke’s carefully constructed account gives us plenty to think about. It also helps us to consider the proper application.
Unfortunately, the desire for a useful application or contemporary relevance means some church leaders and preachers apply passages in Luke in a way the author never intended. Have you ever heard a church leader try to connect Christians to the Pharisees? If so, you’re not alone.
Think back to what we have seen of the Pharisees in Luke. Then look around your church. You’ll notice several problems straight away. Most people are not the religious elites of society in the way the Pharisees were. Added to that, there probably aren't many people in a believing congregation who would look to murder Jesus if they had the chance!
Remember also why Luke wrote his eye-witness account. He wants us to have certainty concerning the things that we have been taught (Luke 1:1–4). His purpose is to produce confidence in the gospel, so we take it to the ends of the earth. As Christians reading Luke, that’s where we have to start—with confidence as followers of Jesus.
The Pharisee is not the true Christian in your church. Preachers who connect the two, risk creating guilt instead of confidence. That is the opposite of what Luke aims to accomplish!
Christians—real followers of Jesus—have been brought to repentance. We are all sinners, so there may be an element of Pharisee in us in some sense. However, as Christians, we want to love and serve Jesus. We’re not then Pharisees.
Who are the Pharisees today?
A more obvious line of application would be to look at a deeply religious or theocratic country. In these societies, the religious establishment is usually joined with the elite establishment—the elites of both set the agenda.
The institutions in these countries nearly always have a thick veneer of religious respectability. There is a right way of doing things, dictated by the elites. In reality, they are deeply hostile to Jesus and his teaching.
Many state Christian denominations are the same. They are plugged into the highest institutions, enjoying all the privileges. To protect their positions, they’re willing often to compromise on biblical truth to please the society.
Our highly secularised Western European culture has pharisaic elements to it also. The secular elites also want to have a veneer of moral respectability. They will use different phrases and have various rituals, though it's still the same.
Their moral codes come in the form of political correctness. To follow these Pharisees means following their rules of morality and ethics. Dissent isn’t allowed. HR departments forcing everyone to wear rainbow lanyards. If you disagree publicly, you’ll be shut down, excluded or no-platformed.
The establishment elites—whether they be secularists or religious—all fall under the same bracket. They, like us, all need Jesus and his words of life.
On a personal level, we too self-promote for self-gain. We all make choices which usually benefit us first. No act is truly selfless.
Jesus sees our hearts
Jesus calls out the hypocrisy. He sees our hearts for what they are. As we repent, follow Jesus and live our lives for him, rather than ourselves, a transformation starts.
Believing followers of Jesus are not Pharisees. We shouldn’t draw lines of comparison—we’ve already seen it is not Luke’s purpose. The real purpose of Jesus’ teaching is to expose humanity as it is. Wonderfully, we’re also given the solution.