The Pharisees were probably condemned more severely than any other group of people by the Lord during His life on earth. The label of "Pharisee" has come to us as an extremely uncomplimentary label. Often it is misused by false teachers and those in sympathy with them. Let us notice some of the characteristics in Pharisees that Jesus condemned.
They were critical of Jesus for teaching sinners, but would not listen to Him themselves. The great chapter on God's attitude toward the lost and what ours should be, Luke 15, was spoken to Pharisees who murmured because Jesus associated with sinners. Their attitude was demonstrated in the elder son who stayed home, but said to his father basically what the Pharisees had said to Jesus, "This man receiveth sinners and eateth with them." They objected to Jesus receiving sinners, "but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected for themselves the counsel of God, being not baptized of him (John)" (Lk. 7:30). The Pharisaical attitude is shown by those who criticize faithful teachers for teaching the truth, while refusing to listen or teach it themselves.
The Pharisees were hypocritical because they claimed to be interested in the details of the law, but ignored it when it suited their purposes. Jesus said, "But woe unto you Pharisees! for ye tithe mint and rue and every herb, and pass over justice and the love of God: but these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Woe unto you Pharisees! for you love the chief seats. in the synagogues, and the salutations in the marketplaces" (Lk. 11:42,43). They liked to appear "righteous," but, justice and love were not part of their armor. When men today profess to be interested in God's law, but lie, refuse to pay their debts, etc., they are demonstrating Pharisaical hypocrisy.
Pharisees were long on talk and short on practice. Jesus said: "All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not after their works: for they say, and do not" (Matt. 23:3). This spirit of finding things for others to do, but not for self did not die with the first century Pharisees! "Do as I say, not as I do" may be good advice; Jesus gave it; but He did not commend the conduct of those who lived that philosophy.
They were bound by traditions. In fact, the Pharisees were very strict when it came to observing their customs, even if they contradicted the teaching of God's word (Matt. 15:1-6). Though there is nothing wrong with a practice because it has been done for a long time, there is something wrong with elevating custom to a "thus saith the Lord." There was nothing wrong with washing hands before eating food, but to make this a law of God was to elevate man's traditions to an equality with God's word. Whether we have two songs and a prayer, or two prayers and a song are matters of judgment. Whether we have the Lord's supper before the sermon or after it; close with a song or with a prayer, are all matters of liberty, but when men elevate traditions to a "thus saith the Lord" they disrespect God's word. Likewise, when men substitute sprinkling for immersion, or add instrumental music to singing, they are demonstrating the Pharisaical spirit.
Jesus told a parable to those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and set all others at nought in Luke 18:9-14. The Pharisee who had not been an "extortioner, unjust or an adultere " and had given "tithes of all" that he got was not condemned because of those characteristics, but because of his attitude toward others. This was not the only condemnation of this bad trait. Earlier, Luke had said: "And the scribes and Pharisees watched him, whether he would heal on the sabbath; that they might find how to accuse him" (Lk. 6:7). They had set their minds on finding fault, and faultfinders usually find fault!
Pharisees majored on minors. Jesus said that they "left undone the weightier matters" and "strained out the gnat, and swallowed the camel" (Matt. 23:23-25). Many misrepresent what Jesus said in this passage by saying that the little things are not important. Jesus did not say to "swallow the gnats," but He did say that those who are careful to strain out gnats and then swallow camels are inconsistent. All of God's word is important.
Not everything about Pharisees was bad. Paul said, "after the strictest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee" (Acts 26:5), and "as touching the law (he lived) a Pharisee" (Phil. 3:5). We need to strictly obey God's law, but we must avoid the bad characteristics that God condemned in the Pharisees.
Guardian of Truth XXX: 13, p. 390
July 3, 1986