The Pharisees

Their Extreme Righteousness


Dr. John Hoole – January 3, 2016







Each claimed to have the answer to Israel’s problems.  But each of them had a different approach in solving the problems facing Israel.







                   • WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT THE ESSENES?





                            ….or give me some synonyms for pharisaism.


                   --       hypocrites

                   --       self-righteous

                   --       prideful

                   --       legalists

                   --       nitpicky

                   --       judgmental

                   --       “I’m right, you’re totally wrong type of people”

                   --       ”knew the Law but didn’t practice it”

                   --       “rejected everybody”

                   --       “demanding”

                   --       “the ones who killed Christ”



As a general rule, there will usually not be a word associations of a positive nature.  I would like to mention that if we played the same word association game with a Jewish audience probably all of the associations would be positive.


Matthew 5:20  (KJV)


20  For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. 




Among other things, it means that those who are Christians must be different from those who are simply religious.  How often have we heard the statement by an unsaved person, “You Christians are no different that everyone else.”  That’s a very strong indictment…….but, unfortunately, often true.


We should be able to ask and get a positive response to the question: “What in the world is the church doing in the world?”  We should be able to say it is making a great impact for the Kingdom of God.  But too often we actually need to ask this question:     “What in the world is the world doing in the Church.”


As we have gone through this study on the Sermon on the Mount, I have had to take a closer look at the Pharisees than I ever had before.  I have directed your attention to the words of Matthew 5:20 several times during the last few months..  And the more I have thought about it, the more I believe it wasn’t so much a derogatory statement about the Pharisees, as much as it was a statement about his followers having an even greater righteousness than theirs.


Let me give you some possible examples that might help us understand.  When BMW comes out with an advertisement stating that surveys show their customer satisfaction index has surpassed that of Mercedes Benz what are they saying about Mercedes Benz?  Why didn’t they compare themselves with Hyundai or Ford or Volkswagen?  It’s because Mercedes Benz is the recognized leader in customer loyalty and repeat business.  If you’ve overtaken the recognized leader, you’ve accomplished something special.


A few years ago, Burger King launched an ad. campaign concerning their new kind of fries.  Who did they compare their fries to?  McDonalds.  Why?      Why not Dairy Queen, or Arby’s, or Jack in the Box?  Because surveys say that McDonalds has the best fries.  When you want to be the very best, you compare yourself to the here-to-fore recognized leader.


And I truly believe that is what Jesus is doing here in Matthew 5:20.  He isn’t telling His followers that their righteousness must exceed that of the worst people on the face of the earth -- but rather, our righteousness must surpass that of the recognized leader in righteousness of that day.  But, when thinking about the Pharisees, seldom if ever does a positive statement come to mind.  We sort of just dismiss, not realizing that there is much we Christians can learn from the Pharisees to help us live closer to our Lord.


I contend, and will try to show, that we would not recognize a real Pharisee if one bumped into us on the street, sat next to us in church,…….or, might I say, stared at us in the mirror.


By the time Jesus arrives on the scene, the Pharisees had become the religious leaders in Israel.  They controlled the activity of the Synagogue and were represented on the Sanhedrin which was the highest tribunal (or supreme court) in Israel, presided over by the High priest.


The Pharisees had as allies a growing group of eminent Bible scholars - called scribes - who were zealous for God’s Law.  After some early bad experiences with politics, they specialized in their spiritual pursuits.  Though the “hard core” Pharisees were apparently few in number their influence was considerable.  Even Herod, who despised their views, was forced to respect their influence with the masses and he was usually careful not to offend them.


Looking at the roots of the Pharisees in their early history, one can see the striking similarity to the Protestant Reformation.  You can also see many likenesses to the fundamental-evangelical movements of today.


During the second and third centuries before Christ, the Jewish clergy and the religious culture of Judaism was moving increasingly in a secular direction.  To counter this, a group of pious laymen (“pietists”) rose up to reclaim the identity of the Jews as a people of God’s Word.  They were a people determined to get “back to the Bible.”  They did believe in the observation of religious holy days, some of which centered its activities in the Temple.  But because the priests, the leaders in the Temple, had become increasingly secular, they began something new – called the synagogue.


For these scriptural purists, the synagogues became a new rallying center for their brand of Judaism the “house of study.”   In these synagogues, the Pharisees offered the Jews a place where they could meticulously study and apply the Bible to every aspect of their lives.  They were the chief proponents of a strong Bible-based education a sort of forerunner of our emphasis on Christian education.


The Pharisees asserted the responsibility of every Jew, not just the priests and scribes, to know and practice the Law.  They were, one may say, among the first to assert the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers.”… which we ascribe to this day.


Are you beginning to see some very strong similarities to evangelical fundamentalists of today of which we are a part.


They also protested (“Protestants”) the corruption of religion and resisted the humanism of their day, known as Hellenism.  They tenaciously clung to the “faith once delivered to the saints.”  Like the Holiness Movement of a century ago, they sought to purify a religion that had become too ritualistic and preached living holy lives.  Conservatives of any faith today would be duly impressed with roots like these.




1.      Holiness was a matter of outward actions


2.      Their motives were wrong in that they displayed their righteousness to receive the praise of men.


3.      They majored in minors


4.      They were hypocritical


5.      They added to life’s burdens.


1.     Holiness was a matter of outward actions


First of all the scribes and Pharisees concerned themselves entirely with external observance of the law and traditions.  Motives and attitudes were given little consideration.  No matter how much they may have hated a person, if they did not kill him they were not guilty of breaking the commandment.  No matter how much they may have lusted, they did not consider themselves guilty of adultery or fornication as long as they did not commit the physical act.


Let’s look at what the Bible has to say about the Pharisees and scribes as it relates to righteousness.  Matthew 23 is a chapter that takes the Pharisees to task.  In this chapter Christ lists the shortcoming of the scribes and Pharisees and warns his followers against Phariseeism.


Matthew 23:1-3, 13-16, 23-26  (NAS)


  1        Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples,

  2        saying, "The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses;

  3        therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say {things,} and do not do {them.}

  4        "And they tie up heavy loads, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves are unwilling to move them with {so much as} a finger.


13       "But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from men; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.

14       ["Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows' houses, even while for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you shall receive greater condemnation.]

15       "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel about on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.

16       "Woe to you, blind guides, who say, 'Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obligated.'

23       "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill (anise) and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.

24       "You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!

25       "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence.

26       "You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also.

27       "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness.

28       "Even so you too outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.


This last verse says that the scribes and Pharisees “appeared righteous” outwardly.  And appearance before others was important to them.


Throughout this passage, the Lord prefaces many statements with, “Woe to you…hypocrites.”  They saw nothing wrong with having evil thoughts as long as they did not carry out those thoughts externally.  They did not think God would judge them for what they thought – but only what they did.  Yet that is precisely the sort of righteousness Jesus declared to be the worst sort.


As we continue through the Sermon on the Mount, Christ emphasizes  that God’s first concern is with the heart.  Later in Matthew 5, Christ tells the people that if you have hatred in your heart, you are guilty whether or not you act on that hatred.  He also tell them that lust in the heart after a woman is guilty even before the act.


On into Chapter 6, Christ continues.  If our giving, our prayer, and our fasting are done for public show, and not with a loving spirit and humble heart, they count for nothing with Him.  Ritual is no substitute for righteousness.


Mark 2:16-17  (NKJV)


16       And when the scribes and Pharisees saw Him eating with the tax collectors and sinners, they said to His disciples, "How is it that He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?"

17       When Jesus heard it, He said to them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance."


Jesus is speaking to the scribes and Pharisees who thought they were righteous by not eating and drinking with publicans and sinners.  What they thought constituted righteousness was 180 degrees from what Jesus taught.


Now let’s look at Luke 18:9



9        To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable:



9        And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:


The Pharisees trusted, or were confident, in their own righteousness – that is, they were self-righteous.  That is a very weak thing to rely upon.  Millions put their trust in themselves; others in some religion, denomination, secret order, lodge, or program, and despise all others who do not have the same faith or belong to a similar order.


Titus 3:5  (KJV)


5        Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost;


The word “Pharisee” means “separated one.”  Now that was not necessarily bad – in fact it can be a good thing.  The Pharisees believed that holiness was primarily a matter of outward actions.  Their righteousness was a safe system of dos and don’ts by which they could measure their spirituality.  They ignored the inward attitudes of the heart.


2.     Their motives were wrong


Not only were the Pharisees and scribes mistaken about what constituted righteousness, in that they saw outward show as a primary element, but they were also mistaken in their motives for serving God.  Jesus deals with this more in Matthew, chapter 6.


The scribes and Pharisees were religious in order to get the approval and praise of man.  But the true Christian has a greater motive than that       -- he lives for the approval and praise of God.  After all, if true righteousness is a matter of the heart, and only God can see the heart then only God can give the reward.  Revelation 2:23 states, “I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts.”  The motives – or why we do things – are important.


Jesus reserved His strongest criticism for religious people who used their spiritual reputation to get social attention and honors.  To such religionists Jesus said, “Woe to you Pharisees!  For you love the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces” (Luke 11:43).  Then, speaking to His disciples, He said of the Pharisees, “All their works they do to be seen by men.” (Matthew 23:5)


We all love to be appreciated by others.  We love to be approved by those who see something praiseworthy in us.  That’s not bad.  What is bad, however, is when the opinions of others become more important to us than the opinions of God.


3.     The Pharisees majored in minors


Matthew 23:23  (NAS) reads:


23       "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.


As I stated earlier, Jesus is not only speaking to the scribes and Pharisees, but is teaching his followers.  Jesus knew that our tendency would be to make rules and to focus on “morally correct” behavior instead of keeping our eyes on the bigger issue of WHY we are trying to be so right.


In this Passage, Jesus describes the dangers of getting lost in details.  He makes this point when telling the Pharisees that a fault of their religion was to major on minor issues.


The righteousness practiced by the scribes and Pharisees fell short of God’s righteousness because it was woefully incomplete.  In Matthew 23:23, the Pharisees were diligent to meticulously observe some details, but they left other, more important, things unobserved totally.  Did they disregard justice and mercy and faithfulness because such things are essentially the reflections of a transformed heart?  It is impossible to do those things without a divinely changed heart.


Luke 11:42  (NIV) states what we read in Matthew 23 slightly differently


42       "Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.


He is saying that the little things have their place as long as we don’t let them get in the way of the more important issues.


4.     The Pharisees were hypocritical


Matthew 23:1-4  (NIV)


1        Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples:

2        "The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat.

3        So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.

4        They tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.


The Pharisees did not always practice what they taught.  Their religious activity, which was always visible to the public, hid their real problems.  The same kinds of religious activity can mask or gloss over problems and spiritual issues in our life even today.  It is so easy to hide the real you and me.  We put on our Sunday Clothes and Sunday face when we go to church.


Efforts to hide our problems with religious activity goes back to the beginning of human history.  After our first parents sinned, they were stunned by their loss of innocence.




They used fig leaves to cover themselves and fled among the trees to hide themselves from the presence of the Lord.  People have been hiding themselves behind the fig leaves of human effort ever since.


Rather than humbling ourselves and admitting our need of Christ’s saving death and saving life, we try to do enough religion to compensate for our sins.  In the process, we hide ourselves from Christ, who offers His mercy only to those who are willing to humble themselves in needy and broken honesty.


5.     The Pharisees added to life’s burdens


Imagine what it would be like to have two kinds of people in the world -- brick-givers and brick-takers.  Every time you meet another person, a brick is either added to your pile or one is taken off.  Jesus would be one of the brick-takers.  The Pharisees would be brick-givers


This function of Jewish religion became apparent as Jesus responded to a question posed by a lawyer (a scribe).  He said, “Woe to you also, lawyers!  For you load men with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers” (Luke 11:46).  This issue could also fit under point # 4 concerning hypocrisy.


Jesus knew His audience.  These religious experts attached hundreds of additional obligations to the Law of God.  Yet they themselves were masters of the loophole.


The Scribes and Pharisees practices the art of brick-giving while having ways of excusing themselves from the obligations they placed on others.  By contrast, Jesus consistently upheld the high ideals of the Law while making merciful provisions for the repentant sinner.  Jesus understood the healthy balance between holiness and the love of God, when He said, “Come unto Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest for your soul.  For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”




In describing the righteousness of the Pharisees and scribes, Christ on many occasions pointed to how it was all a matter of outward show.  The tenor of His message was that their righteousness was external only.  The Christian righteousness is in the inner man.  The Pharisee “cleaned the outside of the cup and the platter.” (Matt. 23:25)  The Christian is clean within.  The Pharisee labored to present God with a good life -- the Christian with a holy heart.


We cannot exceed the righteousness of the scribe and Pharisees by doing more good works, or by paying greater attention to the details of the law.  We can exceed their righteousness because our righteousness exceeds theirs in kind, not degree.


Paul describes two kinds of righteousness in Philippians 3:6-9. (NKJV)


6        ……Concerning the righteousness which is in the law, {I was} blameless.

7        But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ.

8        Yet indeed I also count all things loss…… that I may gain Christ

9        and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith;


Though the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was impressive to human observation, it could not prevail before God.  Isaiah 64:6 states that our own righteousness is “as filthy rags” before God.


To do no harm, to do good, to attend the ordinance of God - the righteousness of the Pharisees -- are all external.  On the other hand, poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, hunger and thirst after righteousness, the love of our neighbor and purity of heart – this is the righteousness of God -- these are all internal.


So then, we are not made righteous by keeping the law.  In fact, when one considers what the law required we should be thankful that Christ offers a different kind of righteousness to us.


The Lord requires genuine righteousness, real holiness that far exceeds anything humans can do.  First, it can only exist in the heart of the redeemed.  Without inner beauty, outward adornment is a pretense and a sham.


God not only requires inner righteousness but perfect righteousness.


Matthew 5:48 NKJV


48     Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.


To qualify for God’s kingdom we must be as holy as the King Himself.  That standard is so infinitely high that even the most self-righteous person would not dare claim to possess it or be able to attain it.  This impossibility leads the sincere person to wonder how such is obtained.  They may wonder, like the disciples of Christ, in Matthew 19:25 “Who then can be saved?”


While it is impossible with men, it is not impossible with God.  He who requires perfect righteousness gives perfect righteousness.  The One who tells us of the way into the kingdom is Himself that way.  The King not only sets the standard of perfect righteousness, but will Himself bring anyone up to that standard who is willing to enter the kingdom on the King’s terms.


A person is not justified by the works of the Law but through fain in Christ Jesus.  To be justified is to be made righteous, and to be made righteous by Christ is the only way to become righteous.  The righteousness God requires, God also gives.  It cannot be deserved or accomplished, but only accepted.  God gave the impossible standard and then Himself provided its fulfillment.


It is tragic that many people today, like the scribes and Pharisees, will try any way to God but His way.  They will pay any price, but will not accept the price He already paid.  They will do any work for Him, but they will not accept the finished work Jesus did for them.  They will accept any gift from God except the gift of His free salvation.