The Leaven of the Pharisees – Matthew 23:1-33


A church full of Pharisees could be a remarkable institution. Think about it. If every member was a true Pharisee, then every member would be in attendance at every service. They would all be on time and in their seats at precisely the top of the hour. It wouldn’t be necessary for the song leader to silence the casual conversation; everyone would be quiet and ready to hear the number of the opening hymn. And probably the only hymns to be sung would be doctrinally perfect – the Psalms of David. Every adult member would know his Bible well enough that the preacher wouldn’t have to fill in the details of the parables, the histories, and the Gospels or Acts. And their Bibles….. the members would all have the biggest King James Bibles their arms could carry. They might even have the English words in one column with the original Greek and Hebrew running parallel to it.

Of course, every member would tithe. So there wouldn’t ever be any problem in paying the church bills or taking on new projects, because each of the church financial accounts would be full. That would be especially true of the missions account, because of the difficulty in finding the perfect missionary to support. But the offerings might be hard on the treasurer, because the box would be filled with as many pennies as quarters and dollars, and probably not a single check would be written to a nice round number. Everyone would tithe to the exact 10.00%.

All would be dressed in their finest clothes; there wouldn’t be a t-shirt or knee-touching skirt in the auditorium. There probably wouldn’t be a single bare arm or low neck line either. That church would be evangelistically-minded, compassing sea and land to make just one more proselyte. And if it was known that one of the members had stepped out of line during the week, even if for only a minute, there would be a dozen or more members to point out his failure. The atmosphere would be so charged with fear (I mean “reverence”) that not even a child would dare to whisper, draw, or color a picture during the preaching of the Word. And the prayers…. oh, the prayers…. there wouldn’t be a single prayer among the 3 or 4 in each service, which didn’t go on for at least 10 minutes.

On the other hand, Jesus said that the publicans and harlots would enter the Kingdom of God before the members of that kind of church.

Looking back on the 3½ year ministry of Christ – who were Christ Jesus’ worst enemies? Herod, the half-Jew tried to kill Jesus when he was just a baby, but Herod wasn’t Christ’s worst enemy. And certainly the Romans had a hand in the Lord’s crucifixion, but they were not even close to the worst. There were lots of irreligious, secular, criminal types in Israel, but we see more of them – harlots and malefactors – coming to the Saviour than Jesus’ real enemies. The Sadducees were the religious political leaders of Israel, and they certainly hated Christ. But without a doubt the people who despised the Lord Jesus more than any other were the Pharisees. And after His ascension into glory, they continued to be vicious opponents of Christianity. People similar to the good folk of the perfect church I just described, those folk were Jesus’ worst enemies. And despite some of the positive things which might be said of them, only one group of people got an entire chapter in the Bible filled with “woe unto you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites…..”

I’d like to spend a few minutes thinking about those Pharisees. You might wonder why we’d take the time for this. “Is this going to be an historical message, supplying background information to the life of Christ?” No. The purpose in this message lays in the fact that Pharisaism is still a problem today. Pharisees are as detrimental to the cause of Christ today as they were in the day of Jesus’ incarnation, and in the days of the Apostles’ ministries. Why are we looking at the Pharisees? It’s explained in the last point of this message – Pharisees have “Christian” allies.

Let’s think about the characteristics of the Pharisees as we find them in the Bible, as we find them in Christendom, and as we find them in our own hearts.

Pharisees were, and still are, EXCLUSIONISTS.

The first hint of these people is found during the Maccabees’ rebellion against Rome about 160 years before the birth of our Lord. The Pharisee’s ancestors supported the rebellion, desiring to be free to serve God without the interference of the foreign idolaters. At first they were known as “Assidaeans” – a word coming from an Aramaic word for “saint.” They believed themselves to be God’s peculiar treasure – better than the heathen and even better the average Israelite – “saints” “sanctified people.” Their attitude devolved into the microscopic scrutiny of everyone else – and the rejection of anyone who wasn’t as scrupulous as themselves. And because of this attitude they eventually became better known as “separatists” than “saints” – they became “Pharisees” rather than “Hasidhem.” The word “Pharisee” originally referred to someone who separated himself from others. And the reason for that separation was because everyone else was inferior.

Surveying the Bible we see that the Pharisees thought of themselves as self-appointed judges. Matthew 15:1-2 – “Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees… saying, Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread.” In Mark 2 the disciples were with Christ walking through a field of ripe corn, and being hungry, they plucked a few ears and began to eat. Moses’ law taught that gleaning like this was perfectly legal. If those strangers weren’t harvesting and trying to sell another man’s crop, this was acceptable behavior. But the Pharisees saw it and took exception – not to the gleaning, but to the labor necessary to pick corn. “And the Pharisees said unto him, Behold, why do they on the sabbath day that which is not lawful?” On any other day of the week this would not have been an issue. What the disciples did was lawful, but it offended the Pharisee’s extreme definition ofWORKING on the Sabbath.” Ultimately, it boiled down to preferring to condemn the hungry disciples than to give them some of their own grain to satisfy a need. It went on to the condemnation of Christ’s miraculous healings on the Sabbath day.

In John 9 the Lord healed a man who had been born blind. The man began immediately to praise God as best he could. Because of his ruckus the Pharisees got a hold of him and began to interrogate him. They refused to recognize the miracle, despite the incontrovertible proof. The only thing they could see was that Jesus had broken their extreme interpretation of the Sabbatical law.

In Luke 5 they condemned Christ with the question: “Why do ye eat and drink with publicans and sinners?” Any association with an unclean person, a wicked person, a social outcast was grounds for condemnation in the mind of the Pharisee. Even standing in the temple when he was supposed to be in prayer, one Pharisee had to point to his neighbor, reminding God that the man was his inferior. And that man points to another problem in the Pharisee – blindness. Pharisees are expert diagnosticians when it comes to the diseases of others, but they can’t see those diseases in themselves. They love to remove the tiny motes in other’s eyes, but they ignore or deny the beams in their own eyes.

I ask you – when did a Pharisee ever bring a crippled man into Jesus’ presence, pleading for a miracle? We see them bringing a woman taken in adultery, but not the one who put her last penny in the temple’s offering box. They were, and still are, judges – not of good things, but only of their perception of unrighteousness. Never are we told that a Pharisee began to praise God for Christ – or for anything Jesus’ did. They only saw the negative in others, never the positive, and even then their eyes were crooked.

Nicodemus is one exception among the Pharisees, because he was a man whom the Lord loved and saved. The only other was Saul of Tarsus – again, someone who was saved out from under Pharisaism. But thinking of all the other references to those people – about a hundred of them in the scriptures – Can you think of one positive statement – one positive deed – done by any of them? Everything about them was negative – “You can’t do this; you can’t do that. I condemn you for that.” There is nothing uplifting in any reference to the Pharisees, except as it relates to Nicodemus and Paul. Their whole attitude can be summed up with Luke 19:39 “And some of the Pharisees from among the multitude said unto him, Master, rebuke thy disciples.”

Now, picture a semi-circular electrical dial with a needle in it – and your name is on a brass plate above it. In one corner of the dial are the words “praise,” “encouragement,” and “helpfulness.” At the other end of the dial are the words “criticism,” “condemnation,” and “Pharisaism.” When you activate your dial, to which side does the needle move? “Encouragement” or “condemnation?” Now what happens when your neighbor or a fellow church member turns on the machine? How does the needle move when the Lord looks at your dial? Does He see it differently than you do? It doesn’t have to be that way, but we all have a tendency toward Pharisaism. At this moment, who are you more like – the Pharisees or Christ Jesus?

But were not the Pharisees DOCTRINALLY CORRECT – generally speaking?

When Paul was ripped out of the hands of the mob in the temple, he was first set before the Jewish council. Acts 23:6 says, “When Paul perceived that the one part were Sadducees, and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question. And when he had so said, there arose a dissension between the Pharisees and the Sadducees: and the multitude was divided. For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit: but the Pharisees confess both.” Unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees began with a literal interpretation of God’s Word. They understood Genesis to be an actual history book – just as we do. They poured over the books of the prophets as if they were all written by Pharisees. They had hope in a literal millennium with the son of David sitting upon the throne. They believed in the sovereignty of God, whereas the Sadducees emphasized the free-will of man. And when it came to the law they parsed every verb and put a magnifying glass on every noun and adjective. Two of their cardinal tenants were tithing and purification – both subjects found in the law. You might say they were the “fundamentalists” of their day. The Sadducees were the liberals, the Essenes were mystics, but the Pharisees were the fundamentalists.

But there are problems inherent with any kind of fundamentalism – exaggeration, traditionalism and sectarianism. Doctrine can be cookie-cutter, or calculating, or calloused and cold – if not regulated with love and faith. In Matthew 23, what does the Lord suggest by saying they are “whited sepulchres with a beautiful outward appearance?” Verse 27 – “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness”? The Pharisees gave the appearance of order, even of beauty, but underneath lay the stench of sin and death. Just because a man has his theological ducks in a row, it doesn’t mean his heart is perfect toward God. In Luke 11:44, the Lord changes the illustration just slightly – “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are as graves which appear not, and the men that walk over them are not aware of them.” The cold deadness of the Pharisaical heart isn’t apparent until the neighbors are either infected by it or affected by it. Numbers19:16 – “Whosoever toucheth one that is slain with a sword in the open fields, or a dead body, or a bone of a man, or a grave, shall be unclean seven days.” Contact with Pharisaism renders a man unclean before God.

Pharisees are by nature HYPOCRITES.

That is not just my opinion; I heard that verdict from the lips of the Lord Jesus. If you think about it, some of the things Jesus mentioned in Matthew 23 could have been good – blessings to mankind. Compassing sea and land for a convert would be a good thing for us – would it not? Isn’t tithing something we should willing do for the glory of the Lord and for the extension of His Kingdom? Sadly, of the dozen or more things mentioned in that chapter, not one is put into a positive light. “But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in. “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation. “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.”

The thing to keep in mind with in Matthew 23 is a proper definition of “hypocrite.” The word is a transliteration rather than a translation. “Hupokrites” (hoop-ok-ree-tace’) translates as “actor,” “impersonator”– “pretender.” It is the tendency of the Pharisee to become a pretender – a hollow shell, if not an actual liar. The facade of obedience and godliness is there, but the heart and love which should drive him are missing.

The Pharisees in Jesus’ day lacked love; we see it in a lack of emphathy for people in need. They couldn’t recognize that God often dealt with needy people with grace and divine kindness. The Pharisees didn’t and they still don’t. They have little love for their neighbors because they have an improper love for the Lord.

One particularly revealing scripture is found in John 7. Please turn to John 7:37. On the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, the Jews were debating among themselves about our Saviour. He had said, “If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.” Verse 40 – “Many of the people therefore, when they heard this saying, said, Of a truth this is the Prophet. Others said, This is the Christ. But some said, Shall Christ come out of Galilee? So there was a division among the people because of him. And some of them would have taken him, but no man laid hands on him. Then came the officers to the chief priests and Pharisees; and they said unto them, Why have ye not brought him? The officers answered, Never man spake like this man. Then answered them the Pharisees, Are ye also deceived? Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed on him? But this people who knoweth not the law are cursed.” This is a revealing scripture because it links “people who knoweth not the law are cursed” and “have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed on him?” Just because a man says he knows the law, or he knows God’s Word that doesn’t necessarily mean he knows the Lord.

One of the most serious problems with the Pharisees is their swamp of traditions mixed with men’s opinions. Turn to Matthew 15:1 – “Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees, which were of Jerusalem, saying, Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread. But he answered and said unto them, Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition? For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death. But ye say, Whosoever shall say to his father or his mother, It is a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; And honour not his father or his mother, he shall be free. Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition.”

In Mark 7 we have a different perspective of the Lord’s argument with the Pharisees. “He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do. And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.”

I suppose that most people enjoy a few good traditions – there may be nothing wrong with tradition. For example, you might celebrate Thanksgiving Day with a number of family traditions. But eventually the question becomes: is this really a day of thanksgiving or is it a day of family tradition? Similarly, there is no question that God established a weekly day of rest from work – a day of worship. And perhaps years ago, your family began gathering for a special meal at grandma’s house after attending church together, worshiping the Lord and singing hymns of praise to His name. But at what point did the meal become more important than first attending the house of God? How many children wouldn’t miss grandma’s fried chicken, but find excuses for skirting the morning’s worship of the Lord? This is, in effect, the way of the Pharisee.

And it points to the fact that Christians can display the characteristics of Pharisees.

The church in Jerusalem, the mother church of all churches, suffered with Pharisaism. Acts 15:1 – “And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question. And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren. And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them. But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed (they were believers in Christ), saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.” We can see all the characteristics of the Jewish Pharisee in these Christians. They were legalists; they were judgmental; they demanded their way or the highway. They might have professed to have a love for the Gentile converts, but they didn’t show it. Fortunately we don’t have the same problem that Acts 15 exposes. It’s no longer about circumcision. No, we have a host of other doctrines, practices and traditions which reveal our Pharisaism.

I got an email request two weeks ago from a missionary, asking for permission to visit and present his burden. There is no doubt that the Lord has commanded the evangelization of the world. But I replied, telling the man not to come, because he said he was going through a para-church missionary organization rather than the church of which he is a member. Missionary boards are a popular Baptist tradition, but they are Pharisaical in that they have reached beyond the scripture and stolen, or at least altered, the commission which God gave to his church. It is not just our tradition to support only church-sponsored and church-sent missionaries; that is the scriptural method of evangelism. He might accuse me of being Pharisaical, but in reality it is the other way around, because he is operating on tradition, and I upon the Word of God.

But what about some of the more specific details of our missions and evangelism? I discovered last August that Baptists have a variety of traditions when it comes to ordaining ministers. For example some churches back east keep the ministerial candidate cloistered during his interrogation. Out west we let the church witness the questioning of the man, so that there might be some congregational edification. At some ordinations, when hands are laid on the head of the candidate, there may be open and public prayers or other comments for all to hear – but sometimes they are just whispered between the man and the candidate. Should the man be seated or must he stand the whole time? Generally speaking, those differences are nothing; they are just regional traditions. Is it Pharisaic to ordain men to the ministry and to send them out to start churches? Of course not. But it is Pharisaic when we demand that unless our tradition is implemented the ordination is not valid.

We can be Pharisaic when we insist that every mission be just like the one through which we were started. The mission meeting place has to be just like ours was 40 years ago. The mission can’t have their own local bank account, because we didn’t have one until we were organized. Since they don’t have a permanent, settled missionary, they aren’t really a “proper” mission. Every decision affecting the mission must be made by the sponsoring church. None of these things are specified in the Word of God, so these things are nothing more than tradition. The questions ought to be: is this work being done according the clear pattern found in the Word? Is there anything being done which is contrary to the clear pattern found in the Word? If our demands are not authenticated or substantiated by the Bible, then we are behaving like Pharisees. “If these professing Christians are not circumcised as we were, then we will not fellowship with them.”

The moment we demand the implementation of our traditions on others, we have become Pharisaical. When we judge others, not by God’s Word, but by the opinions of men – the writings of men – no matter how ancient, we have become Pharisees. When we move from generally supportive to more and more condemning of other people’s ministries without due cause, we are becoming Pharisaical. When we are guided by self-designed laws, even if they appear close to Biblical law, and love and faith are not a part of the equation, we have become Pharisees. And as Jesus said, “Woe unto you Pharisees, hypocrites.”