How to be a Pharisee

i’ve been thinking some more about pharisees.

(for the non-north pointers,  i preached about the pharisees this past sunday…when jesus told his followers that their righteousness needed to exceed that of the pharisees)

in my early years of bible teaching,  i was clearly guilty of trashing those boys.   i definitely joined in with the majority of would-be theologians in labeling pharisees as self-righteous,  judgmental,  smug,  legalistic hypocrites.   but those were my days of giving limited attention to old testament history.   oops.

long before jesus gave his double-barrel judgment of pharisees in the later years of his life,  there is a true standing of pharisees in jewish culture that we need to come to grips with:

  • they were employed to support and enforce the proper expression of the torah in the life of israel.
  • they functioned much like lawyers…providing authoritative,  and much needed,  interpretation of the law.
  • they had a high and respected standing among the nation of israel.
  • they were loved and respected for their stance against the ungodliness of paganism that threatened the identity and integrity of the people of god.
  • they were admired for their fidelity and loyalty to the word of god.
  • they were the ones who faithfully kept god’s commandments…and boldly taught others to do the same.
  • they were widely regarded as the epitome of righteousness and proper response to god.


but here’s where it gets interesting.   and personal.

the cultural equivalent of pharisees today?   seminary professors.   bible college instructors.   theologians and bible commentators.   authors.   pastors.   counselors.   bible study leaders.   youth ministers.   pretty much any and all of those that have assumed the position of one who interprets god’s word and gives guidance for how to faithfully obey it.

so here’s a confession:  i am a pharisee.

the only question is whether i’m a good one or a bad one.

bad pharisees elevate their personal interpretation of the scripture to be the authoritative equal of the written word.

bad pharisees add more to the truth than what actually exists.

bad pharisees think they are better than others because they know more than others.

bad pharisees don’t practice what they preach.

bad pharisees make people feel guilty for not living up their interpretive expectations.

bad pharisees relish their titles and public recognition and places of honor…and fat salaries,  reserved parking spaces,  and speaking engagements.

bad pharisees have prideful blind spots.

bad pharisees believe that their legalistic self-righteousness actually improves their standing with god.

bad pharisees are more concerned with right and wrong than grace and mercy.

bad pharisees neglect the poor and are insensitive to matters of true justice.

bad pharisees are more concerned with the outside (the show) than matters of the heart.

(matthew 23)

so can there be a “good” pharisee?   i’m thinking there can be.   we may have to realign our perspective,  but it can be done.

we need people who are diligent in their study of the word.   we need people who will pay the price to study history and biblical languages.   we need people who are capable and gifted to do solid and honest bible exegesis.

we need people who take god’s word seriously and help people understand it.   we need people who can give practical and helpful application.

but we also need people who know the difference between fact and opinion.   people who can separate their own personal bias from absolute truth.   people who can comfortably navigate the waters of denominational interpretations… and with the people who share those different positions.   people who respect other traditions.   people who are open to new ideas and who can admit they just might not have all of the truth.

we desperately need pharisees that refuse to believe their own press.   pharisees who are truly humble.   pharisees who leave room for different ideas and explanations.   pharisees who are gracious and forgiving.   pharisees who excel in loving and listening and serving and caring.

to the pharisees among us:   do your job well.   guard your heart.   flee hypocrisy.   love first…and last…and everywhere in between.

to those who sit at the feet of pharisees:   expect more.   don’t believe everything you’re told.   study for yourself.   worship jesus,  not the pharisee.


4 thoughts on “How to be a Pharisee

  1. Yes, I think we have often been too harsh on them. I think many Christians would be very surprised to read in the end of Acts where Paul stands before the Sanhedrin and says “I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees.”

  2. This shift from thinking the pharisees are the worst people ever to thinking they’re figures in church history to respect, and emulate in some cases, blows my mind. It’s cool that the bible and interpretation of it still throws curveballs

  3. MIke !! MIke!! MIke!!…

    this was really cool.
    too much info to go into here but… just cool info.

    AND… if the, a, Pharisee takes away from the point of Christianity… I mean, at the time of Paul the Pharisee’s, Saducee’s, Sanhedrin… were threatened by “Christians”. If we are no longer held under the law…we are no longer held under nor need them.

    Help me understand what you mean by “help others understand Scripture” but, “be open to not having all of the truth”… am I safe to explain when caught up in the middle (I truly didnt know, long short story) of a Methodist Bible Study and there was repeated reference that the Bible (certain books) is part “fairy tale”, “written by man” to illustrate points but is not inerrant… I had to speak up. we went to Utah to learn…question, reflect even… are you saying now…hmmmm there might be something to that gold Angel and wonderful choir and political candidate. no, seriously- would you please help me understand what you mean ??

  4. Psalm 119.

    p.s. please forgive my choppy dialogue and … eclectic thought pattern… I know I am hard to follow I recognize I jump around…

    sorry to blow up your blog…I dont mean too…wish you were closer (you may not) but I really wish I had someone to school me – more… like in depth…

    I once took (ok more than once) communion down at St. John’s Catholic Ch. it’s really pretty in there and I wanted to worship in the architecture and hear the sing song Father guy, it was nice … i was chastised later for taking communion “Youre not Catholic! you cant take it there”… I saw in a movie once the Priest put the wafer on your tongue…apparently they cut that out like 30 years ago or something (whoops, Protestant alert!!, bells went off)… nah, but I really wanted communion and it hurts someone telling me no….you havent been to the classes yet!… (then I broke out my Jet Cadet sash and was like- BAM!!). kidding.

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