How the Pharisees Got A Bad Rep

So when I write the word Pharisee, what is the first word that comes to your mind?  Probably hypocrite, maybe legalistic, but I doubt that any of you thought about the word faithful.  I have had several conversations over the last few days, some in person, some online, that prompted this post.  I think the Pharisees have got a bad reputation and I want to do my part to paint them in a more positive light.  Yeah, maybe I’m crazy for coming to their defense, but I don’t think they have been portrayed very accurately.

So who are these Pharisees anyway?  Well they are one of several religious groups that existed during the time of Jesus.  They believed in the authority of scripture. They believed in obedience to that scripture.  They believed in miracles, angels, and they believed in the resurrection of the dead.  In fact, if we were to compare what they believed to the teachings of Jesus, on most things they would line up.  So why do we view them so negatively?

The main reason is that as we read the gospels, Jesus keeps having encounters with some of the people in this religious sect that don’t go so well.  In these encounters we find them asking Jesus a lot of questions (we often interpret these as attacks, but most of the time they are not, but more on that in a later post). They ask things like “is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” and “What is the greatest command?”  We also often find Jesus calling the Pharisees out.  Jesus says things like “you brood of vipers” and he calls them hypocrites.  They just don’t seem to get along very well, and therefore we don’t like them.

But in reality, the Pharisees were one of the most respected religious groups of the day.  The people looked up to them for guidance and as an example of how to follow God faithfully.  In almost all of these interactions with Jesus, the Pharisees are questioning Jesus about how he interprets the Law.  Sure there are times when they disagree about things. The rabbis often debated about interpretation of Scripture.  And sure there were times that they were angry, and were trying to trap him, but most of the time they are debating first century rabbi style.  As for Jesus, almost always when he is criticizing the Pharisees he is not condemning the whole group, but is calling out those in the group who are hypocrites.  He denounces those who are teaching one thing, but not practicing it themselves.  He makes an example of those who are heaping burdens on the people, making it hard for their followers to be obedient, while not fulfilling the call to love their neighbor. 

Notice that he is not criticizing them for what they believe.  Theologically, he is in agreement with the Pharisees almost always.  He even tells the people in Matthew 23:2-3 that  the teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 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.” I can’t imagine that Jesus would not tell the people to obey the Pharisees if what they were teaching was incorrect.

And surely, not every Pharisee was a hypocrite.  In fact, if we examine other Jewish texts, we find that the Pharisees were very critical of the hypocrites among themselves.  They even often used the same language that Jesus used.  So why do we hold up the Pharisees as an example of what we shouldn’t be.  Because we let the actions of a few people affect how we see the entire group.   And we in the church continue to perpetuate this view because we don’t understand who the Pharisees were and what they believed.

Is it any wonder then that those outside the church view us through the actions of a few of our bad apples?  I know that there are many in the church who like the majority of the Pharisees are critical of our own.  But what can we do to make the watching world take notice of those who are faithful, those who are loving God and loving their neighbors, rather than the bad apples that get all the attention.  Because in reality, if we don’t step up and give the world something to take notice of, we will be remembered by those in the future just as we remember the Pharisees today.

All that to say, it is okay to be a Pharisee, or a Presbyterian, or a Baptist, or a Methodist, or even non-denominational.  What Jesus was critical of was not their religious beliefs, but the failure to act and to live out those beliefs in front of a watching world.  Don’t be a hypocrite. 

I know at times we all are, or at least I am hypocritical.  But we can be honest about that and ask for forgiveness from those watching rather than acting like we have it all together.  And we can hold each other accountable to not only be hearers of the word, but also to live out our beliefs.  We can bring the love of God to a waiting and watching world. We can make it easier rather than harder for them to come to God.

What are you doing to change the perception of the watching world about who God is and what His church is about?  What can you do today to make it easier for someone to come to God?




Filed under Discipleship, History, Israel

16 responses to “How the Pharisees Got A Bad Rep

  1. Great insight into the mirror of pharisees and believers in the Christian walk! I think that those unchurched, dechurched, or disenfranchised, much less the nay-sayers on the outside, will see us through the “stain glassed mirrors” and I don’t think we as followers of Christ can stand for all of Christendom. (Though some have successfully done so unknowingly, and some have knowingly – and failed. Notice the heart’s intent there?) I, we, can’t be the end all be all representation of the church, which most see as the “brick and mortar”. That would point to us not Him. All I can do is strive to be broken. The attempt is to flesh out our faith to the best of our ability, and make a conscious attempt to do that 24/7. I too, as you stated, am hypocritical at times. All believers will be. That’s why we are to pursue holiness, constantly, and attempt it consistently. All I think that we can do to change the perception is to attempt to be as honest and earnest as we can. To strive to reflect Christ in my actions and what I say. Will I be inconsistent? Of course. Will I have a knowledge of my inconsistency? I would hope with the conviction of the Holy Spirit. Will I be humble enough to acknowledge to those who watch, that I am just an finite unholy man? I pray so. It’s a tough thing. I think if we can reflect a relationship with Christ and not be religious then that will make the difference. God doesn’t desire religious men, He desires . . . commands . . . a relationship with His children. What is man’s chief end? To glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Man, that word “glorify” is in and of itself a bible study for the ages! LOL! When others see us, do they see us glorifying the flesh, or the Most Holy God? Man . . . I hate conviction! Down with conviction! I can see it now . . . we could stand outside of our local churches with picket signs saying “Conviction is for Prisoners!” (Enter the there is therefore now no condemnation scripture here! LOL!)

  2. Chris Admire

    Great words Jeff. I too have looked both sides of this and it’s amazingly summed up in the three-fold parable in Luke 15, where Christ is speaking to Jews about Gentiles. I heard Haddon Robinson once speak 2 messages on it. You walk away first with the idea God: Values the lost (the coin), Pities the lost (coin), and loves unconditionally (the sons). Then looking at it again, you get the whole story how both son’s were lost, outright sin and judgement. God loved them both; both had great qualities, both down deep had to come to the realization of His ultimate love for them. It is so important that we realize as the church our criticisms can fuel major hurts, but at the same time we can compromise to the point that there is nothing left for people to believe in. It is such a tight rope we walk in faith; may we always show the love of God. May we always seek Him & grow in His Word! Lord change us!!

  3. Thanks for the post Jeff, its great insight. I will however, take it a step further, and say that we are ALL guilty of the same things that the Pharisees were guilty of. In fact, our current generation of Pastors and other Christian leaders are viewed in the same way that the Pharisees were viewed in the time of Christ. By both those in the church and those outside of it. And it includes the positive and the negative views that people have about our Christian leaders. We can tell others how they need to live in order to receive eternal life, but we struggle to live it out in our own lives.

    We readily see the hypocrisy in others but we are blind to our own hypocrisy! If we could just see ourselves in the way that God does we would be humbled. Perhaps the old rock song from the 60’s “Oh, Well” would sum it up best. “Now when I talk to God, I know that He’ll understand. He’ll say sit by me and I’ll be your guiding hand. But don’t ask me what I think of you, I might not give the answers that you want me to.”

  4. Jeff, I think I understand what you’re saying, but it seems you’ve overlooked the most obvious point. The Pharisees were one of the most respected religious groups. They were very religious. And their teachings were mostly true, but they were only partly true. Because, clearly, Jesus wasn’t only about being religious. The whole point of Jesus is that we can’t be religious enough.

    So while their hypocrisy is a problem, the bigger problem for me is that they refused to recognize Jesus as the Christ and seemed to believe they could be righteous enough on their own to please God.

    As I read through the gospels, I see Jesus going against the customs and traditions of the Pharisees — healing those the Pharisees would never associate with, eating and socializing with those the religious people would never share a meal with, healing on the Sabbath. And I see the Pharisees getting upset and accusing Jesus of getting power from a demon. I see the Pharisees growing jealous that people are following Jesus rather than them. I see the Pharisees growing angry and plotting to destroy Jesus — so much so that Jesus warns his followers not to talk too much about Him yet because it’s not time, so much so that Jesus escapes their earlier attempts to kill Him because it is not yet time.

    When the Pharisees question Jesus or ask for a sign, I see Jesus rebuke them for not recognizing the signs God had already given them, for not recognizing how He fulfilled the prophecies for the Messiah.

    When I think of Pharisees, I think of a proud people who clung to their own traditions and beliefs and thought they could earn God’s favor, a people who lacked love and compassion and were overly impressed with themselves. When I think of Pharisees, I think of a group of people who hated Jesus and what He taught, hated Him so much they broke their own rules to get Him executed.

    So while some of their theology is correct, the vital part is missing. They refused to humbly see their own need of a Savior and they refused to recognize Jesus as that Savior. I think the Pharisees earned their bad rap.

    • jeffabel


      First, thanks for the comments sis.

      I understand what you are saying, but have to disagree. I think in fact that you are proving my point, that the actions of a few have colored our perspective of the whole. The examples you give are not indicative of all Pharisees, but of the ones Jesus calls out and makes an example of. And the examples you give are exactly what I was referring to when I said that though their beliefs may have been theologically correct, they didn’t act them out – i.e. associating with the unclean, the poor, etc. Also, to say that all of the Pharisees rejected Jesus just is not accurate. Many believed, including a guy named Nicodemus and another named Paul, who referred to himself as a Pharisee, not a former Pharisee. Paul continued to hold his Pharisaic beliefs after following Jesus and I think this is important for us to understand. Paul did not consider being a Pharisee a bad thing, something that he had to give up to follow Christ. Why is that? This is not a rhetorical question – please leave comments and thoughts.

  5. Ok, some of the Pharisees came to Jesus and believed. If the records of the gospels are an accurate indication, very few did. We know for sure two did before the crucifixion — Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea.

    The majority of the ruling Pharisees clearly fit the examples I gave. And many think that Nicodemus’ coming to Jesus at night indicates how his Pharisee and Sanhedrin associates would have felt about his genuine interest in Jesus’ teachings.

    In the gospels, Jesus does correct some of the Pharisees’ teachings, not only their hypocrisy. He corrects their teaching about the Sabbath (Matthew 12). All of Matthew 5 is an extension of the Pharisee’s teaching to include the motivations and attitudes of the heart, rather than only the outward appearance. This, of course, shows everyone that earning favor with God just is not possible, for who can always have pure attitudes and motives and thoughts? In Matthew 15, Jesus corrected their teaching about defilement and the traditions of hand-washing and explained how they had distorted God’s word with their traditions and greed.

    In Matthew 16, Jesus warns His followers about the Pharisees and Sadducees. I don’t read that Jesus warned them about a few Pharisees. In verse 12, it clearly says Jesus’ disciples finally understood that Jesus warned them about the DOCTRINE of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

    Even in the Matthew 23 passage you quoted and the following verses, Jesus is warning the multitudes and His disciples about the Pharisees. Their teachings may have originally been rooted in truth, in the Old Testament scriptures, but they had distorted that truth and added onto it because of their great pride and selfishness. Again, Jesus does not clarify that He is speaking about a small segment of the Pharisees. Jesus speaks broadly about the whole group, presumably because the vast majority of the Pharisees had become corrupt.

    After Jesus’ resurrection, there does appear to be a whole sect of Pharisees who believed. We can read about them in Acts. In Acts 15, it is these believing Pharisees who rose up saying the Gentiles needed to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses in order to really be part of the church. So it appears their Pharisaical training and deeply-held beliefs about adding works to faith persisted, even after becoming followers of Christ. And though Paul referred to himself as a Pharisee, he (by the leading of the Holy Spirit) had much to say about trusting in one’s own works for salvation.

    So perhaps the original beliefs of the Pharisees were based on Old Testament scriptures. But based on everything Jesus says about them, it seems their teachings had been warped by traditions and add-ons and pride and selfishness and greed.

    Finally, Paul does refer to himself as a Pharisee. He is before the Sanhedrin and he declares he is a Pharisee and the son of a Pharisee and that the Sadducees on the council are judging him because of his belief in the resurrection — of course, he meant but didn’t say, specifically Jesus’ resurrection. And of course he knew that the Pharisees and Sadducees vehemently disagreed about the belief in a bodily resurrection. I don’t think he proclaimed himself to be a Pharisee out of some pride for their teachings in this instance.

    Elsewhere, Paul identifies himself as a Pharisee because he is speaking to religious Jews. Remember, Paul was a firm believer in serving all men — to the Jews becoming as a Jew, to those who were not under the law as without the law, to the weak as weak. (1 Cor. 9) He did this to win as many as possible to Christ. I don’t think Paul held his Pharisaic beliefs, at least not in the way the Pharisees we encounter in the gospels did. Paul became as a Gentile to the Gentiles — because for Paul, being a Pharisee was not pre-eminent; Jesus was pre-eminent.

    When I read the New Testament I do not see many favorable mentions of the Pharisees. I see Jesus broadly condemning what their teachings had become. I see Jesus warning people about their hypocrisy and their doctrines and their mistreatment of others. I see Paul, literally in the Spirit of Jesus, rewording and expounding on those same sorts of warnings about pride in one’s own righteousness.

    Thanks for this discussion. 🙂

  6. Pingback: Are We Unfair To The Pharisees? « My Derbe

  7. jeffabel

    MyDerbe, thanks for continuing the discussion.

    I was going to respond in the comment section, but realized that to address everything would be impossible in this space. Over the next few days I will be blogging about some of the points you raised, agreeing with you at some points, and trying to put a historical context in place to better explain what I believe are some misunderstandings about the Pharisees. I’m not saying they are to be held up as the ideal, but simply that they were trying to be faithful obedient followers of God with what information had been given to them, and that I think the church has misrepresented them because of a lack of understanding about the culture Jesus lived in. More to come . . .

    If you have additional thoughts, concerns, objections or questions, please feel free to share them here – in an edifying manner. I will try to address those comments, but I don’t intend for this space to become a place to argue theology, but to find practical ways to walk out our faith, together.

    The bottom line of the post was that there were some Pharisees, and there are some Christians that are more worried about being right, and appearing to have it all together than they are about doing the things Jesus told us to do – like loving each other, caring for the poor, the orphan, and the widow. What good does it do us to be “right” in our theology if it doesn’t make us obedient? It is easy for me to fall into that category – that is part of my struggle and the main reason I wrote the post. Forgive me if any of my comments have come across in that manner. That is not my intention.

  8. Gary Patton

    Hey Jeff;

    Following the discussion between you and MyDerbe is more fun than going to my Church home and listening to a sermon.

    Thanks to both of you. (I particularity appreciate you both documenting your positions from Scripture. )

    I’ll look forward to your follow-up posts on this subject, Jeff, because right now I’m leaning more towards MyDerbe’s position than yours. (Nonetheless, you have given me a new perspective on the Jesus/Pharisee exchanges.)

    You could help me, if you’re willing, by clarifying your Scriptural basis for what I understand is a key part of your thesis i.e. that Jesus was calling down only “some Pharisees”.

    What I read in John 5:33-47 is that Jesus was rejecting everyone who did not believe He was God and leading the ordinary people down the ‘garden path’ to a Godless eternity.

    John 5:39 seems to make the group Jesus was rejecting clear, I believe.

    Blessings, my Brother! Keep up the good work.

    In Christ,
    @GaryFPatton in Toronto

  9. Jeff, there is so much I could say, so much I want to say, but this isn’t the best time for me to do so sir.
    I do want to say that I absoloutly agree with your understanding of the Phaeisees as I can see you have a good grasp of the historical background of this sect as well as biblical understanding.
    I hope to add more later.

  10. Jeff, I am right with you on the idea that so many people study theology and have “right” theology but don’t live out the loving God and neighbor part.

    When I heard Sara Groves speak in 2007, she put it this way — we Christians, here in the US especially, keep grooming our faith and grooming our faith, but to what end? We study and study and study, but what do we do with all our knowledge?

    Our home-church pastor said it this way — we have knowledge far beyond our obedience.

  11. Jeff, I haven’t met you yet, but I hope to some day. I left my short take on Jen’s blog.

    I can agree with you that generally speaking for the Pharisees as a whole, they were definitely faithful. But they were so “faithful” to their Law and their other additions to the Law that they missed the Messiah. The whole reason for their faithfulness was to get to Heaven. But God came to them as the scriptures had promised, and they failed to realize it because they had their eyes upon themselves – as most all of us do at points in our lives, if not all the time. Thanks for writing this. It made me look to Him today, and less at myself. I needed that.
    Happy New Year!

  12. Pingback: The Pharisees: Where did they come from and why does it matter? « Wandering in the Wilderness

  13. The discussion down here is almost more thought-provoking than the post itself (in some ways, maybe it is).

    I stumbled it.

    Marshall Jones, Jr.

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  15. Pingback: The Pharisees: If you’ve seen one, that doesn’t mean you’ve seen them all. « Wandering in the Wilderness