The Pharisees are boogeymen among evangelicals, and as such, it is hard to conceive that we ourselves might be Pharisees. They are other people—bad people, legalists, judgmentalists, those who attack Christ and defend fake, hypocritical religion. “Hypocrites” is the most important descriptor. Pharisees act as if they are righteous; while they “strain out a gnat” of sin, they “swallow a camel” of evil (Matt. 23:24). They travel over land and sea to win a single convert, only to make him twice a son of hell as before (Matt. 23:15).
Surely, we are not them.
In a strict historical sense, Christians are not Pharisees. Pharisaic religion rejected Jesus as the Christ, and therefore when someone worships him as God’s Son, he is no longer a Pharisee.
But is there an essence of Pharisaism alive today, even active within creeds that embrace the divinity of Jesus, the doctrines of grace, and Trinitarian orthodoxy? If we leave aside the doctrinal and historical elements of Pharisaism, the following six areas of examination might expose our own inner Pharisee.
1. Our Prayers
Are our prayers, even if explicitly God-honoring, implicity self-exalting (Luke 18:9–11; Matt. 6:5)? For instance, do we pray to sound impressive to those who hear us?
2. Our Preaching
Is our preaching more concerned with preserving human tradition than proclaiming God’s disturbing Word (Mark 7:8)? For example, do we appeal beyond what the text warrants in order to guard our particular ecclesiological tradition or personal doctrinal preference?
3. Our Practice
Do we fail to practice what we preach, such that our hearers had better follow what we say but not what we do (Matt. 23:3)? For instance, could someone observe us on Saturday night as much as on Sunday morning and imitate both to their own edification?
4. Our Judgments
Do we judge on appearances rather than on truth and character in order to avoid being challenged by those outside our “tribe” (John 8:52)? For example, are we less likely to accept what someone is preaching if he wears the wrong clothes, speaks with the wrong accent, or comes from the wrong seminary?
5. Our Conclusions
Do we reject God’s supernatural gospel work such that we’re blind to the obvious conclusion that he is at work (John 9:34)? For instance, are we unwilling to accept the conversion of someone from the “wrong side of the tracks,” even if all evidence points to a work of God?
6. Our Motives
Are we willing to use unrighteous means for what we think is a righteous end (John 18:2–3)? For instance, are we willing to play the manipulative politician—lying, threatening, bargaining, deceiving—to gain an apparent spiritual victory in our denomination or church?
At its heart, Pharisaism rejects God’s inner work in favor of external appearances (Matt. 23:25). The Pharisees refused to worship Jesus as the Christ—with some glorious exceptions (Paul, of course; see also John 3:1–15; 19:39–42)—because he didn’t fit their idea of a Messiah, and he threatened their religious power (Matt. 12:1–14).
In the end, the Pharisees were even willing to support murder to accomplish their desires. May God keep us focused on the Lord Jesus, and may he enable us to embrace the Spirit’s work in our lives.
Editors’ note: This article is inspired by Josh Moody’s new book, John 1–12 for You (The Good Book Co.)