Why is it that the term “Pharisee” has such a bad connotation? And what exactly does it mean to be “Pharisaical” today?
Jesus’ speech in Matthew 23 is directed at this sect, and gives us a lot of insight as to what made many Pharisees contrary to God. Jesus calls them hypocrites 7 times.
There are 2 particular elements constituting their hypocrisy, which are as follows:
1) Narcissism. They loved themselves. They loved to be noticed. They were all about appearances (Matthew 23:5-7), all while harboring secret sin in their hearts (Matthew 23:25-28). They reveled in gaining followers (Matthew 23:13,15), and they were willing to pander, lie and bribe to obtain and maintain them (Matthew 23:29-36).
2) Shallowness. Their religious practices focused largely on ritual elements, to the exclusion of the spiritual value/purpose (Matthew 23:16-24). They also bound additional laws (above God’s) on people in order to increase the stranglehold they had on the people’s necks (Matthew 23:4).
As if 613 laws weren’t enough, the Pharisees developed a culture in which it was more fearsome to break the traditions of the elders than the actual commandments of God (Matthew 15:3).
It was all for show. It is no surprise that Jesus used the Greek word for “play actor” as a description. That’s just what they were.
Now, allow me a point about “legalism.” That is not what the Pharisees were – at least, not in the way progressives define it today.
There are those today who warn the brotherhood about the legalism of the modern-day Pharisees, telling us that when we teach or preach on obedience we are committing the same error as the Pharisees of old.
Jesus was fine with the Pharisees teaching obedience to the law, but they should have taught men to respect the spirit of the law, as well as the letter (Matthew 23:23).
Jesus told his disciples to respect and obey every word the Pharisees spoke from Moses’ seat (as they read from the law of God), but not to follow them, because they were hypocrites.
Never once did Jesus encourage his followers to abandon the spirit or letter of the law, or downplay the importance of an obedience because of the threat of legalism. And that’s not to say he expected sinless conformity, either.
There has never been a time in history that God has not expected man’s obedience. The fact that we can’t obey perfectly does not nullify its necessity, it only elevates the beauty of his grace when we don’t (didn’t Paul say something like that? cf. Romans 6:1-2).
The modern Pharisee is not someone who preaches or teaches on the significance of developing an obedient heart toward God. The modern Pharisee is a hypocrite, a narcissist who pretends to be something he is not, and who expects others to do something he will not do, not someone who preaches or teaches the importance of obedience (cf. Hebrews 5:8-9).
Let’s get it right.