Pharisees (1): Who Were They Then?

By Harry Osborne

The word “Pharisee” or a form of it is used 101 times in the New Testament. That those references are overwhelmingly negative is not news to anyone remotely familiar with the Bible. Our purpose in this study is to identify why the Pharisees were the repeated object of our Lord’s condemnation. To understand that, we must not turn to secular history to give us the answer, but to the Bible.

The most detailed statement from Jesus showing the reason for his condemnation of the Pharisees is found in Matthew 15 and Mark 7. Since Mark 7 explains the background more fully, let us see what it says:

And there are gathered together unto him the Pharisees, and certain of the scribes, who had come from Jerusalem, and had seen that some of his disciples ate their bread with defiled, that is, unwashen, hands. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands diligently, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders; and when they come from the market-place, except they bathe themselves, they eat not; and many other things there are, which they have received to hold, washings of cups, and pots, and brasen vessels.) And the Pharisees and the scribes ask him, Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with defiled hands? And he said unto them, Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoreth me with their lips, But their heart is far from me. But in vain do they worship me, Teaching as their doctrines the preceptsof men. Ye leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men. And he said unto them, Full well do ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your tradition. For Moses said, Honor thy father and thy mother; and, He that speaketh evil of father or mother, let him die the death: but ye say, If a man shall say to his father or his mother, That wherewith thou mightest have been profited by me is Corban, that is to say, Given to God; ye no longer suffer him to do aught for his father or his mother; making void the word of God by your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things ye do (Mark 7:1-13).

This passage makes it clear that Jesus condemned the Pharisees because of their failure to adhere to the pattern of Scripture, instead substituting “the tradition of the elders” as being on a par with God’s word. The process by which they did so is made plain.

Process of Replacing Divine

Law with Human Tradition

First, they left the commandments of God (v. 8). When God’s commands are cast away as the absolute standard, the stage is always set for apostasy. The same thing was seen during Hosea’s time (Hos. 4:6-10). They did not do as God had commanded in loving his law and letting it be their sole guide (Ps. 119:10-11, 72, 77,103, 105, 167, et. al.). When we leave the boundary of divine teaching and doctrine, we are by definition in a way of sin and separated from God (2 John 9).

Second, Jesus notes that in the place of God’s commands, the Pharisees substituted “the tradition of men.” Yes, they thought that the traditions they set up through their rabbinical traditions were based upon God’s command, but their focus for determining right and wrong was on human tradition rather than the Scripture. The tradition had a good intent of being a “hedge around the law” according to the rabbinical writers, but its effect was to replace God’s law with man’s law. However good the original intent, the effect was to negate God’s teaching by turning attention to a standard other than God’s word.

Third, Jesus says they rejected the commandment of God in order to keep their tradition. Of course, they would have denied this charge, but it was true. Jesus proved that by noting the conflict that came to exist between the plain command of God and their tradition. God commanded, “Honor thy father and mother” (Exod. 20:12; et. al.). The fulfillment of that command obviously involved a monetary responsibility towards one’s father and mother. But the tradition to which the Pharisees held taught that one need not help his parents if he declared that the portion of income with which he would have cared for his parents was given to God. When such a conflict between human tradition and divine law occurred, which one did the Pharisees uphold? The tradition of men! Thus Jesus rightly charged that they rejected the commandments of God to keep their tradition.

Jesus summed up his condemnation of the Pharisees by saying that were guilty of “making void the word of God by [their] tradition.” Jesus goes on to make it clear that his example just given was not the only case in which they made God’s law of no effect by their traditions. He says, “And many such things ye do.” The Pharisees’ practice was replete with examples of supplanting divine commands with human traditions. This passage clearly demonstrates that the Pharisees did not focus upon God’s law to seek author-ity from his word for their actions. They did not demand “book, chapter, and verse” for all that they did. They sought for human law and tradition to authorize their actions. For this, they stood condemned by the one who had a part in authoring that rejected law.

Pharisees Fail to Judge by

Proper Standard

In Matthew 12:1-8, the Pharisees see Jesus’ disciples plucking grain from the field and eating it on the sabbath. Upon seeing this, the Pharisees say to Jesus, “Behold, thy disciples do that which it is not lawful to do upon the sabbath.” Why do they make this charge? No principle of the law of Moses was violated by plucking corn to eat. So what could be “unlawful” about their action? Their charge was based upon their traditions and Jesus corrects such as he teaches about how to tell the difference between those who do that which is “not lawful” and those who are “guiltless” (vv. 3-8).

Jesus first asks, “Have ye not read what David did?” Read where? Obviously, in God’s law. The reference is to David’s actions in eating the showbread (1 Sam. 21:6). Jesus says that was “unlawful.” Why? Because the law which they were to read said only the priest could eat the showbread (Lev. 24:9). The Pharisees would not condemn David in this action even though it was against the law.

Then Jesus directs their attention to the law again, this time making his appeal to the actions of the priests in the temple on the sabbath. For anyone else to kindle a fire as the priests did would be to “profane the sabbath” (Exod. 35:3). Why? Because the law said so! Yet, the priest were “guiltless” when they did so. Why? Because the law authorized their actions (Num. 28:9-10). In applying the principle to his disciples, Jesus, as “lord of the sabbath” who gave the regulations governing that day, pronounced the disciples “guiltless.” Why? Because judgment according to the law showedsuch. Thus, Jesus shows that the Pharisees were the ones to be condemned for judging by a standard other than God’s law while his disciples were justified by that standard.


The failure of the Pharisees to appeal to the Scripture as the absolute standard for their conduct was at the root of many other problems for which they were condemned. Their rejection of Jesus for doing miracles on the Sabbath was a result of that false concept. Their attempts to trap Jesus in speech were not the result of a close investigation of his conduct in light of Messianic prophecy, but because he violated their traditions and so posed a threat to their authority. Their self-righteousness and pride were a result of their looking to their traditions as the standard for judgment, rather than God’s law. Their failure to understand the weighty matters of the law came, not as a result of carefully scrutinizing the law, but from a failure to put their focus on that law sufficiently. Jesus said they should have paid close attention to even small matters of the law, but not to the exclusion of the principles which should have been seen as foundational to that law (Matt. 23:23).

The Pharisees’ pretentious prayers, permitted by their traditions, were an abomination to God and the true, quiet reverence demanded of his people (Matt. 23:13-14; 6:5-8). Their hypocrisy so strongly condemned by Jesus in Matthew 23 was the result of leaving the commandments of God and holding fast to human tradition. Pharisees never came under condemnation of Jesus for holding too closely to the provisions of God’s law. No one ever did! The condemnation of the Pharisees came, simply put, from a failure to seek authority from God for all that they did. Book, chapter and verse preaching would have helped!

Guardian of Truth XL: No. 17, p. 6-7
September 5, 1996