The Pharisees often get painted as sticklers for the law; legalists. Some think that they missed the spirit of the law because of their slavish adherence to the letter. I disagree. It was not attending to the letter that caused the Pharisees that Jesus rebuked and criticized to miss the spirit. Their problem wasn’t keeping the law, which is decidedly good, but rather substituting a standard of their own for the law. Too many workarounds; too much attending to the minutia while neglecting the weightier matters.

Someone said on Twitter the other day that legalism is lowering the bar and acting as if you’ve raised it (or something to that effect). That seems like an apt description of the Pharisees that Jesus rebuked (and I’m careful to single them out since there were plenty of Pharisees in the first century who were okay; think Joseph of Arimathea). So keeping the law was never an issue; hypocrisy was. That’s why we have a text like Matthew 7 where Jesus rebukes them for judging according to a standard that they do not live according to themselves.



4 thoughts on “Pharisees

  1. I don’t know. I still think the Spirit vs Letter distinction works pretty well. It seems to make better sense of the motivation behind what the Pharisees were doing. If God said not to do something they wanted to make sure there was no way of doing it to avoid punishment like they did with the exile.Therefore they were looking to define the law down to the letter. This seems to make sense of their conflict with Jesus where he was purposely doing stuff to provoke them because of their trying to follow the law of no work on the Sabbath to the letter while missing the Spirit behind that law otherwise they wouldn’t have gotten mad at Jesus healing or telling people he just healed to carry their mat.
    I think it’s easier to understand the motivation behind the Pharisees if you remember the history of Israel and see their strict adherence to the letter of the law in that light. It seems to humanize them more for me.

  2. What I see in the Pharisees is an unwillingness to care about people. They were prepared to sacrifice people’s well-being for the sake of their interpretation of the law. The woman caught in adultery should be stoned. Later, Stephen WAS stoned and Saul (a Pharisee) approved.

    The Pharisees also wanted everyone to see their ‘good’ example – praying on street corners, making a show of charitable giving.

    It’s the lack of love, compassion and mercy and the puffed up pride that brought them under criticism by Jesus.

    Jesus separates the sheep from the goats on the basis of cups of water for the thirsty and prison visiting.

  3. That’s an astute observation, Nick. I’m always amazed at people’s inability to see the real issue Jesus had with the Pharisees. I think it’s because people want to paint them as their own contemporary opponents. Since our culture tends to be liberal, they get painted as the conservative, strict adherents to the law (i.e., the legalists who want to obey Scripture to the extreme). Of course, Christ Himself tells us why He took issue with them that defeats this narrative (e.g., “you nullify the Word of God for the sake of your traditions”). All one needs to do is understand the entire SoM in order to see what the problem is, since it’s a contrast between biblical righteousness, which does not limit the applications of the law to all of life, with Pharisaical righteousness, which works to obey the technicalities but still live in rebellion toward God’s full righteousness and His kingdom/dominion over all of life. I wrote a post that seems relevant awhile back on this topic:

  4. Bryan: Maybe that was the case initially, but by Jesus’ time, they had made the word of God ineffective through their traditions. They replaced the letter with another letter and completely missed the spirit. Even if they had the right motivation they missed the mark by a long shot.

    I can relate because I was like that early on in my salvation (that’s what humanizes them for me). I elevated peripheral things to the status of law because I thought that’s what God was requiring of me. You know how legalism goes. But legalism wasn’t following the letter (i.e., what the Scriptures said); it was swapping something out for that. It was through intensively reading the Bible and getting into studying it that I was able to break out of my thinking. Thank God!

    Chris: Agreed. And that’s central to my point. All of those things they missed; the things that are at the heart of the spirit of the law, are all explicitly commanded in the letter of the law. Love, compassion, mercy, selflessness, etc. was all commanded by God prior to Jesus becoming incarnate. By neglecting the letter they neglected the spirit.

    Hodge: I’m always amazed at how similar our thinking is on such matters. Great thoughts as usual.

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