Have you ever looked up the definition of a “hypocrite” in a dictionary?
When I did this past week, I found the standard definition that one might expect: “A person who indulges in hypocrisy—the practice of claiming to have beliefs to which one’s own behaviour does not conform.” What I didn’t expect to find were the synonyms: a deceiver, an imposter, or a Pharisee.
Isn’t that crazy? Even if you’ve never opened up a Bible, you would have a negative perception of Pharisees. And then, if you were to open up the Bible and see what Jesus said about them and how he interacted with them, your assumptions would be confirmed. The majority of the Pharisees were, in fact, hypocrites, but I’m not sure if everyone saw them the way Jesus saw them…
In Jesus’ day, being called a Pharisee was like being named valedictorian. People in that day didn’t see them as the hypocrites that Jesus saw them as. Instead, people saw them as being the most spiritual of spiritual leaders who were passionate and zealous for God and deeply committed to growing in their faith. They studied the Scriptures diligently and wanted to live such righteous lives that they even made up extra rules in case they missed something. The only problem is that most of the Pharisees missed the forest for the trees. They were trying so hard to live such righteous lives—so that they could be ready for the coming Savior—that most of them actually completely missed the fact that Jesus, who is the Savior, had already come and was in their midst.
So when Jesus said to his disciples and the crowd in Matthew 5:20 that unless their righteousness surpassed that of the Pharisees, they would never get into the kingdom of heaven, he wasn’t doing it to pat the Pharisees on their back. And he wasn’t saying this because he wanted anyone to be like the Pharisees. He said this precisely because he knew most people couldn’t even comprehend being as spiritual as the Pharisees. And on top of that, he wanted the Pharisees to realize that even they weren’t spiritual or righteous enough to enter the kingdom of heaven.
In other words, Jesus said what he said because he wanted to emphasize that salvation cannot be earned by our actions or our righteous deeds. No one can be saved by their works—not even the Pharisees, who supposedly had the best chance. Without Jesus, it’s impossible.
Here’s the point: unless you pay close attention to your life, your faith, and the source of your teaching, you have the potential to drift off course and end up like a Pharisee.
I’m convinced that even the Pharisees didn’t want to become “Pharisees.” It just gradually happened. Gradually, their righteousness drifted into hypocrisy, and their love drifted into legalism.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that a holy desire to be righteous and loving for God are traps to becoming a Pharisee. Far from it! It’s just when that desire drifts inward and slightly off course that you might find yourself looking a little too much like a Pharisee.
1. When Righteousness Drifts into Hypocrisy
Being and becoming righteous was the responsibility for everyone and anyone who considered themselves to be a part of God’s people. So from a young age, the Pharisees made it their calling and responsibility. After all, God said, “Be holy because, I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2 CSB). The only issue is that the Pharisees became so obsessed with looking the part, that righteousness became more about external actions than inward transformation. In other words, they were hypocrites.
Now perhaps they were hoping that their external acts of goodness would somehow seep into their hearts and souls, but Jesus made it clear that this isn’t how it works. “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and evil. Fools! Didn’t he who made the outside make the inside too? But give from what is within to the poor, and then everything is clean for you” (Luke 11:39-41 CSB).
Being and becoming righteous is something that starts from the inside. It’s about resolving to live under the rule and reign of God, no matter who is watching, because God is always with us. It’s about deciding to live for God and God alone, rather than as a way to please others or just look the part (Matthew 5:6; 6:33).
So if you find yourself acting differently when other people are around, rather than being the same person at all times, and if looking righteous has become more important than being righteous, I wonder if you’ve become more like a Pharisee than you realize?
If you find yourself acting differently when other people are around, rather than being the same person at all times, I wonder if you’ve become more like a Pharisee than you realize?
2. When Love Drifts into Legalism
The Pharisees were the ones who were supposed to love God and the Scriptures the most. Just consider what it says in the shema in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, which was one of the most important prayers for the people of God. While every Jew would’ve memorized it, and prayed it in the morning and in the evening, how much more for the Pharisees who would’ve been expected to embody this prayer in every respect! “Listen, Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5 CSB).
Yet, as we see in Luke 11:42, the Pharisees drifted. Jesus said to them, “But woe to you Pharisees! You give a tenth of mint, rue, and every kind of herb, and you bypass justice and love for God. These things you should have done without neglecting the others” (Luke 11:42 CSB).
At some point along the way, the Pharisees drifted into believing that loving the law was the same thing as loving the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, and strength. So they started tithing on herbs—thinking that this was a way to demonstrate how much they loved God. Whereas in reality, all of this was a diabolical way to keep “score” so that they could determine who loved God more based on who kept more laws and commands externally.
So if you find yourself more infatuated with the nooks and crannies of God’s word than about actually living it out, I wonder if you’ve become more like a Pharisee than you realize? I wonder if you actually love the law more than you love God?
If you find yourself more infatuated with the nooks and crannies of God’s word than about actually living it out, I wonder if you’ve become more like a Pharisee than you realize?
Friends, “there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1 CSB). So if you’ve found a little too much Pharisee in yourself to your liking, let’s approach Jesus with confidence and boldness so that we might receive mercy and find grace to help us in this time of need (Hebrews 4:16).