The Pharisaic Approach: Reproached or Complimented?

By Daniel H. King

Very often when I am engaged in an attempt at getting a brother to sit down with me and determine together exactly what the Word of God teaches on a given subject, I have the designation “Pharisee” thrown up at me. Now, frankly, I must make the admission that under those circumstances a jibe like that does not really bother me. In fact, it=s a compliment! What does irritate me, though, is the misunderstanding that lies behind their usage of the word. Ponder this question for a moment: Where is there a biblical denunciation of the exacting determination of and adherence to the law of the Lord which characterized the Pharisees? Unless I am very badly mistaken you will look in vain to find such. It just is not there. On the contrary, let me direct your attention to a few considerations which you may not have focused upon previously.

Firstly, if you will remember, as Jesus began his condemnatory oration pointed at the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23, the Lord prefaced his remarks by saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat: all things therefore whatsoever they bid you, these do and observe: but do not ye after their works; for they say, and do not. Yea, they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger.” At the very outset of his speech Jesus makes a significant point regarding the Pharisaic approach to interpretation of and obedience to the Law of Moses: the Pharisees were right! Were it not so the Savior certainly would not have said, “the scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat,” and, “all things therefore whatsoever they bid you, these do and observe.” The fact that they bound “heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders”, does not imply that these burdens were not implicit within the Law itself. Contrariwise, Jesus had earlier offered, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30). The figure of the yoke employed here is undoubtedly a reflection back to the Old Testament usage (Lam. 3:27), but it was commonly applied to the Law by the Rabbis at the time Jesus made the allusion. The Lord was suggesting that the Law of Moses was a “heavy burden,’ grievous to be borne” and he was placing this in contradistinction to his new and superior system. Peter, in his opposition to one of the stipulations of Moses’ Law being bound upon Christians, later queried, “Why make ye trial of God that ye should put a yoke upon the. neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?” (Acts 15:10). Paul also utilized this same figure regarding the selfsame issue, “For freedom did Christ set us free: stand fast therefore, and be not entangled again in a yoke of bondage” (Gal. 5:1). Indeed, the yoke of bondage was implicit within the Lalv, making it a “law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2), and placing a curse upon everyone “who continueth not in all things that are written in the book of the law, to do them” (Deut. 27:26; quoted by Paul at Gal. 3:10). The Pharisees were merely binding upon men the burdens and obligations which the Law itself entailed. This is why Jesus did not condemn their strict interpretation of and adherence to the Law: their’s was the right approach!

Now, in case you think that I have missed it on this one, take a look at the sect called Pharisees from the vantage point of a former Pharisee, the apostle Paul. In Paul’s letter to the Philippian Christians, the apostle put his critics to silence by boasting of his past acquaintance with the Hebrew religion and’ the Pharisaic approach to the Old Testament, with words: “a Hebrew of Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee” (Phil. 3:5). What useful purpose would have been served in Paul’s making such a statement if the Pharisaic viewpoint had been completely wrong? It is interesting to note, as well, that the evangelist clearly distinguished himself from the liberal Sadducees in the midst of the divided Sanhedrin council at Jerusalem with the exclamation, “Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees: touching the hope and the resurrection of the dead I am called in question” (Acts 23:6). This was no mere politically motivated expression-this was Paul’s conviction! Paul’s heart was still committed to the Pharisaic conviction that the Word of God was to be carefully interpreted and strictly obeyed. When he had become a Christian Paul had not given up the Pharisaic contention for reverent devotion and total submissiveness to the authority of the scripture (here applied to the particulars of the resurrection hope and the existence of angels and spirits); rather, he had continued to embrace them. It is only thus that Paul could continue to call himself a Pharisee. The conservative Pharisees were right and the liberal Sadducees were wrong! Again, Paul offered an interesting description of the group in his defense before Agrippa in Caesarea: “After the straitest (strictest, most exacting) sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee” (Acts 26:5). As well, you may remember that there were certain believers who remained with the Pharisaic sect in Jerusalem even after the beginning of the church. And, although they were wrong regarding the continuance of Mosaic legislation into the Christian era (Acts 15:5), it remains quite evident that their basic approach was consistent with that of the early church-else their relationship with the Pharisaical sect, or the church one, would have been entirely severed. Where do we read of Essenes or Sadducees having any such affinities with the church? We do not because their viewpoints were far too disjunctive. The church and Pharisaism, on the other hand, had a common ground upon which they could agree and from which they could work.

No, the Pharisees were neither condemned nor castigated for strict adherence to the Law. They were judged guilty because they preached the truth but did not practice what they preached; they said and did not (Matt. 23:3). Also, notwithstanding the fact that the outward forms of their worship were correct, they were worshiping to be seen of men rather than to please God (Matt. 23:5, 27-28). Holding that the Mosaic system was supreme, superior even to that of the Messiah (the Messianic system espoused by Jesus, anyway), they shut the doors of the kingdom to themselves and others (Matt. 23:13). They proselytized by “hook or crook,” then perverted their converts by their own hypocritical ways (Matt. 23:15). In addition, they made false distinctions between oaths (Matt. 23:16-22), allowing certain oaths to be broken, and bound traditions of former generations as on a par with scripture (even at times to the exclusion of scripture itself, as in Matt. 15:1-9). Their strict application of the tithe was good, “these ye ought to have done,” but they neglected the weightier matters of the law, “justice, mercy, and faith” (Matt. 23:23-24); their preoccupation with externalism left out true inner holiness and spirituality (Matt. 23:25-28). In their hardness of heart they garnished the tombs of the prophets, bewailing their awful treatment, yet became guilty of the far-worse crimes of rejecting and crucifying the Son of God and persecuting his chosen apostles and prophets (Matt. 23:29-36).

If they were guilty of all of this, you say, how can there by anything good about them that is worthy of consideration or imitation? In spite of all of this, as we earlier demonstrated, their attitude of regard for the Word of God was good. It was never condemned. Sometimes they were not completely consistent with it, but that does not mean that they- did not possess it. What it means is that they sinned against it and against the God who inspired it. Moreover, their desire for exacting obedience to the law was right. This was precisely what the law demanded. Because they themselves did not put the principle into practice does not in the least undetermine the propriety of the principle itself. It was and is sound. Christ now has a law (Rom. 8:2; Gal. 6:2; Js. 1:25; 2:12), and it is to be respected (Jn. 12:48; 1 Cor. 4:6; Col. 3:17; 1 Tim. 1:3; 2 Tim. 6:3; 2 Jn. 9) and observed . with precision (Jas. 2:10). And, though Christ’s law involves the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:6), liberty from Moses law (Gal. 5:1; 2 Cor. 3:17), and freedom from sin (Jn. 8:32), this does not for one moment imply that it is to be any less respected or any more laxly observed than was Moses’. We can certainly learn many negative lessons from the Pharisees, but we must not fail to learn this positive one.

Now, my main point is this: the term “Pharisee” involves both a derogatory and a complimentary sense. And, it in to my dismay that I hear Christians using the term to make light of the very characteristics that Jesus and Paul complimented them for. By their gross misrepresentation, they do not realize that they are despising the most praiseworthy thing about the Pharisees. Their name is thus being misused to undermine a sound and inherently biblical approach to the Bible.

Truth Magazine, XVIII:43, p. 6-7
September 5, 1974