During my first two years of college, I had a long commute home each weekend. I often used my drive to listen to audio tapes of preaching. As a young believer, those times behind the wheel did a lot to develop my faith. I’ll never forget listening to a sermon entitled “Pharisees Again.” In it the preacher warned that Christians can unwittingly develop a pharisaical spirit — a self-righteous, smug, performance-driven approach to Christianity that is devoid of the true life of Christ. Indeed, we all stand in danger of adopting a second-best approach to following Jesus. I believe that’s why the New Testament contains so much information about the Pharisees. If one is actively seeking to follow Christ, he or she may unwittingly be ensnared by a self-righteous perspective. Consider three marks of the Pharisee.
Pharisees operate by a check-list mentality.
They are addicted to rules, ritual, and religious regulations. Jesus often remarked on this reality. He mentioned how Pharisees were faithful to tithe (Matthew 23:23), evangelize (Matthew 23:15), pray (Matthew 6:5-8), and fast (Matthew 6:16-19). The problem with the Pharisees wasn’t that they didn’t do religious things. The problem was that they did religious things without a right heart relationship to the Lord. As they checked boxes and completed elaborate lists of sacramental requirements, they missed the true meaning of the law. Their task-oriented religion inoculated them to truth. The same malady plagues many today. Droves of professing Christians are dominated by a busy, performance-motivated religion, and they know little of what it means to abide in Jesus (John 15:4-5). Be on guard! Make sure you have a real relationship with God, and not just an empty shell of religious busyness.
Pharisees appear outwardly righteous.
Because they are adept at jumping through religious hoops, they impress a lot of people. Jesus told the Pharisees, “You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” (Matthew 23:25). Scores of Christians are guilty of the same scenario. They are sanctimoniously sparkling on the outside, but filthy on the inside. We are in danger of this same error. Because fellow-Christians can’t see into our souls, we often place too much weight on the external. We play a game of spiritual charades, making people believe we are the real deal. In the end, such outward righteousness is of little benefit, because shallow religion often fuels moral failure. Worst yet, it can lead one to a fearful encounter at the final judgment (Hebrews 10:31).
Pharisees are blinded to their own sin.
Jesus called them “blind guides” (Matthew 23:16). Because of their self-righteous obsession, they were unable to see their own short-comings. Modern Pharisees are the same. They are often the busiest in church activities, the most spiritually sanctimonious, and the quickest to see the fault in others; however, they often have heinous pride and secret sin hiding behind their masks. Make sure you aren’t ensnared by the spirit of the Pharisee. Be humble and strive to worship the Lord in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). Find your righteousness in Christ, not in your religious performance.
Dr. Patrick Latham