In this article it is not the writer’s intention to speak of the Lord’s people as Pharisees. God’s Word would teach us to speak carefully about His children. “Speak not evil one of another’ is the word from James 4. 11. Note how Paul addressed the erring Corinthians, “my beloved brethren”, 1 Cor. 15. 58. Rather we want to draw attention to how the Lord Jesus warned His disciples of the possibility of becoming like them. It would seem that the same thought was with David in Psalm 28 who prayed that he might not “become like them that go down into the pit”. He was not one of them but could become, almost unknown to himself, like them. So if the Saviour warned His disciples in this manner, it should teach us a solemn lesson and inspire care, lest we become like the Pharisees.
Who were the Pharisees? Mr. George Gould (Senr.) said, “they were like an oil painting, the further you were from them, they looked the better”. We will not go too close, but close enough to see the dangers and try to avoid them.
They became prominent after the ministry of the post-exilic prophets. They were a group of pious God-fearing people who deplored the departure of God’s people and the going to Babylon. They seemed resolved carefully to learn God’s law, meticulously to observe it, and then in turn, to teach others. By almost any means they sought to ensure that God’s people would keep it and never again depart from Him and His ways. Originally their motives were good but see the outcome; brethren take heed!
They were not all hypocrites; certainly many were and none came under the scathing denunciation of Christ as they did. But some were not in this class; Paul in sincerity could say, “I am a Pharisee" and no hypocrite was he! Rather, they were deceived as were their devotees. The Lord Jesus said., “Blind leaders of the blind”. Professing to know and aspiring to lead, they were deceived and guilty of deceiving others. And so to open eyes and to enlighten all concerned, the Lord speaks to the multitude and the disciples about being unlike them.
We may well ask why? Matthew 23. 2 and 3 answer this: “they sit in Moses’ seat”, that is, in the place of teachers and teach what is good. In effect, the Lord says, “respect and obey the law of God, but do not as they do, for they say and do not; they do not practice what they teach”. What, then, were their practices?
1. They “trusted in themselves”, Luke 18. 9. Christian life commences with a personal trust in the Lord and many are the encouragements to Christians to continue thus; for example, “Trust ye in the Lord forever”. The Pharisees were different, “trusting in themselves”, self-opinionated, self- confident, always right, making no mistakes, knowing every- thing, so different from the converted Pharisee Saul of Tarsus who said “not that we are sufficient of ourselves".
2. They “despised others”, Luke 18. 9, that is, set others at nought. This was what Herod did with the Lord Jesus; Paul warned the Roman Christians against this in Romans 14, for the weak were setting at nought the strong because he ate meat, the strong were despising the weak because he ate not. His weighty and searching words in verses 4, 10 and 12 arc worthy of prayerful thought.
It does not seem that it was a hatred of sin that caused the Pharisees to despise; rather it appears to be a supposed sense of moral and religious superiority. Job discerned this in his friends, Job 12. 2, and God saw it in men claiming holiness in Isaiah 65. 5. How easily it could mark any of us, being done by looks, words, or, as Michal did with David, “in her heart".
3. They “love the uppermost rooms … and the chief seats”, Matt. 23. 6. There is in many places a great difficulty in getting local Christians to occupy the front seats in meetings. It would be good if they would consider others and, without having to be asked, occupy seats other than those at the back, thereby to make it more pleasant for strangers. But this is not what the Pharisees did; they sought place and prominence, wishing all and sundry to “bow and scrape" to them. Satan sought to take advantage of this weakness when he suggested, “ye shall be as gods”, Gen. 3. 5. This was a source of trouble amongst the disciples; “who should be the greatest”. Diotrephes was so marked by it that John and other labourers in the gospel were not allowed into the church, 3 John 9,10. Had you asked him, Diotrephes might have said, “Well! days are dark and there is much departure, I’ll have to be careful who preaches here and with whom I have fellowship”. He might have deceived men but not God, who saw his heart and said, “who
loveth to have the preeminence”; he was fond of being first!
After a good many years in public service for the Lord in a variety of places, the writer has to come to the conclusion that many of the problems between assemblies, servants of the Lord, and local Christians, are due to this “place seeking”. Often Pharisee-like, there is pretence. In order to help them-selves, they hurt others, “devour widows’ houses”. Oh what pretence-"long prayers"! So many look grave, talk wise, shake the head, and so on, and all the while God seeing the heart would say “they love the preeminence”. What a rebuke when we turn to Philippians 2. 1-8. May God cause it to speak to us.
4. They Make Outward Show, Matt. 23. 5. Consider the phrases: “to be seen of men”, “clean the outside of the cup and of the platter”, “whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones”, “sound a trumpet" when about to give alms, “pray … in the corners of the streets”, when fasting to be of a “sad counted- ance".
Edersheim suggests that Monday and Thursday were market days in Jerusalem and that it was on those days the Pharisees fasted and disfigured their faces. But the disciples were taught “do not sound a trumpet”, “pray to thy Father which is in secret”, "when thou fastest, anoint thine head”, Matt. 6. 2, 6, 17. The emphasis must be upon reality and sincerity, not upon show.
In brokenness and contrition before God, David cried out: “thou desirest truth in the inward parts”. May God grant us grace (for our hearts are deceitful) to keep us from preaching, teaching, praying, giving, and from associations just to make a show before men, but rather to be like one “who did that which was right in the sight of the Lord".
The writer asked a fellow-labourer after a conference prayer meeting if the prayer he offered was to God or his brethren. His immediate reply was, “some told me they were glad I prayed that way; there were some present who needed it"! A New England newspaper once described a prayer as “the best ever offered to a Boston congregation".
5. They “compass sea and land to make one proselyte",
Matt. 23. 15. It is excellent when zeal for God’s glory will cause the saints to compass sea and land to see sinners saved and God’s children helped. But this was not the motive with the Pharisees. They wished to increase their numbers and strengthen their influence and, says the Lord, if they succeed and make a proselyte, he will turn out worse than themselves. It is often noticed that mere followers, at times, go much further than their leaders. Sometimes the leaders know where to draw the line; the followers do not. John the Baptist would labour and preach with no thought of becoming a leader or creating a party, rather, in John 1. 35-39, we see he pointed men away from himself to Christ. The great evangelist and assembly builder, Paul, foresaw the danger, Acts 20. 30. We see in 1 Corinthians chapters 1-3 that long before he departed, this was seen. The Corinthian assembly was pervaded by this spirit, and in chapter 3. 4, the apostle gives the reason for it, “are ye not carnal?”. Some might have said, we like Paul’s pioneer spirit; another, I like the oratory and ability of Apollos; while yet another says, Peter’s legality appeals to me.
But to such men, the apostle’s weighty word, despite all their knowledge, ability, picking and choosing was “are ye not carnal?”.
It could be that an honest, solemn, prayerful consideration of this before the Lord would show that many, perhaps blindly but nevertheless in a real way, have this attitude, and we do well to hear our Lord’s words, “Be not like them".
6. They “have omitted the weightier matters*’, Matt. 23. 23. Was the tithing of “mint and anise and cummin" at all asked for by God? Yet that which God was explicit about, they omitted: “judgment, mercy, and faith”. We need to be careful, lest any idea should be given that some parts of Scripture are essential and some are not, for “all scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable”, 2 Tim. 3. 16.
But how easy it is to be obsessed with one side of things and become “lop-sided”. It could be almost unknown to us, so deceitful are our poor hearts. Samuel said to Saul that while sacrifice is good, to obey is better. Isaiah 1. 11, 16 and 17 teach the same important lesson, as does Micah 6. 6-8 also.
In seeking to help the Corinthian assembly, the apostle points out to them that while ability, knowledge, oratory, liberality and even conviction ("body to be burned") are good, if the possessor of all of these has not “charity”, all else is of no value, 1 Cor. 13. Amidst all the gift and ability around us and profession to believe this and that, may God help us to search our hearts, lest we Pharisee- or Corinthian-like “omit weightier matters".
7. They “strain at a gnat and swallow a camel”, Matt. 23. 24. So critical and severe on others, they seek to strain out a gnat or remove a mote and all the while they “swallow a camel" or still have “the beam”. This could possibly be illustrated if the number of occurrences of certain truths indicates in what spirit God intends His people to think about them. Take for instance a brother wearing a ring, the question of sisters having long hair, and heads covered in public meetings. These are important subjects, but each receives only one reference in Scripture. The writer has heard young inexperiencedmen, whoseattitudebetokenedpride, a critical spirit, and self-importance, speak frequently on these, and, all the while, “pride which God hates”, strife, talebearing, sowing discord, sometimes even untruths being swallowed.
8. They Add to God’s Word, Matt. 15. 9. They teach the “traditions of men’. There are good traditions and the apostle commends the saints for having kept these, 1 Cor. 11. 2; 2 Thess. 2. 15, But what the Pharisees did was so different; they imposed upon the Word of God men’s ideas. It is incumbent upon us to accept and observe all the Word of God. Nothing short of this is sufficient. But it is equally serious to add to what God says, Rev. 22. 18, 19.
This is what Eve did with such disastrous results; this is what Christendom has been doing for centuries and what confusion! In many cases the truth of God is so obscured that multitudes live and die in darkness. A certain group of pro-fessing believers in recent years put the word of their leading teachers before the Word of God, leading to division, sorrow in homes and families and the dishonouring of God in the eyes of the world. We, in the assemblies of the Lord’s people, would need to take care here also, A well known and sincere servant of God, when asking overseeing brethren for a scriptural explanation of their actions was told, “we need no scripture, turn to page so and so in an issue of a magazine. That is our authority”. “Brethren these things ought not so to be".
While grateful for helpful magazines, let us remember, no magazine, it matters not who the editor is or who contributes to it, is the mouthpiece or official organ of local assemblies; God’s unerring Word is our final court of appeal; “To the law and to the testimony”. All the Word of God is for all the people of God, but there is no place for the traditions of men along with the Word,
It was the enlightening delivering power of the Word of God that delivered Luther, Knox, Darby and many of our forefathers from the darkness and deadness of the world’s religion. Let us all, those who take a liberal view and those who take a conservative view, search our hearts honestly before God and seek grace from God in the light of the judgment seat of Christ to see to it that “we be not like the Pharisees” but daily “more like our blessed Lord whose face we soon shall see".