Who were the Pharisees and why do they feature so much in the New Testament?
In my late teens I recall reading through the Gospels for the first time. One thing that struck me was that interactions often occurred between the Lord Jesus and a religious group called the Pharisees. I knew next to nothing about these Pharisees and yet they seemed to occupy such an important place in the Bible. So, who were they and why do we read about them so much?
The Pharisees are held in great esteem by many religious Jewish people today. They were considered to be the founding fathers of Rabbinical Judaism. They were responsible for the origin of the Mishnah, a written collection of the Jewish oral traditions that many practising Jewish people still follow now. Similarly, in New Testament times, the Pharisees were a highly respected group of religious leaders. In contrast to the Sadducees, who were an elitist group that had their power base in the temple in Jerusalem, the Pharisees were men of the people. They were associated with locally based synagogues and would have been well known in their communities.
The name Pharisee means ‘separated’ and they placed great emphasis on personal piety through keeping the commands of the Old Testament law along with other oral traditions. Another reason the Pharisees were so popular is because they protested at Roman rule and Hellenization (the influence of the Greek language and culture), in contrast to the Sadducees who collaborated with the Roman authorities for political advantage. Consequently, many Pharisees took great pride in their identity and standing. Prior to his conversion on the Damascus road, Paul was a Pharisee. He described himself as ‘an Hebrew of the Hebrews’ and as ‘blameless’ with respect to ‘the righteousness which is in the law’, Phil. 3. 5, 6.
Given this information, what then was so wrong with the Pharisees and why was the Lord Jesus often at variance with them? Paul provides a clue in Philippians chapter 3. He describes his pre-conversion experience as ‘having mine own righteousness, which is of the law’, v. 9. The chief problem with the Pharisees was self-righteousness. This one fundamental error lay at the root of many of their other behaviours.
Several of the most well-known parables told by the Lord Jesus were directed towards the Pharisees. In Luke chapter 18 verses 9 to 17, we read the ‘parable of the publican and the Pharisee’ as they were going up to the temple to pray. In contrast to the publican, who, on entering the temple, would not so much as lift his eyes to heaven, the Pharisee was full of pride. He completely misunderstood the most basic lesson on approaching God, that our approach is not based on what we can offer God but on what He can do for us through the sacrifice of Christ. The Pharisee returned to his house in the same unforgiven sinful state as when he left.
Sadly, despite the Pharisees often having a great knowledge of the scriptures, and understanding important truths such as resurrection, many of them were not saved. Their legalistic tendencies were a symptom of their underlying condition. They constructed a system of laws they could keep, to try to hide the fact that they could not keep God’s law as given in the Old Testament. This, of course, was humanly impossible because of the sinful human condition.
In Luke chapter 15, the Lord Jesus told three parables that were also directly addressed to the Pharisees and scribes, v. 3. In each parable, something had been lost, a sheep, v. 4, a coin, v. 8, and a son, v. 32. In all three parables, a seeking process took place. If one looks carefully, there is a subtle twist to the last parable, where the seeking process carried out by the father is not made towards the prodigal son, as one might expect, but rather towards the self-righteous son. The so-called ‘parable of the prodigal son’ is as much a parable about the self-righteous son. He is the son for whom we read, ‘therefore came his father out, and intreated him’, v. 28. Behind the exclusive attitude of the Pharisees was a failure to realize that they themselves were also lost and that God’s offer of forgiveness was open to all.
One reason the Pharisees feature so much in the New Testament is that the Lord Jesus had a great love for them and was fully aware of the grave danger they stood in eternally. The Lord Jesus uttered some of His strongest words to the Pharisees to shake them out of this complacency and ignorance. Along with publicans and sinners, He was also seeking them. It is clear that certain of the Pharisees (see Acts 15. 5), including named individuals such as Nicodemus and Paul, responded in faith.