“But I warn you—unless your goodness is greater than that of the Pharisees … you can’t get into the Kingdom of Heaven …” Matthew 5:20, Living Bible
Jesus did not fear saying very clearly, “But I warn you …” and He did it because He wants us to realize two dangerous things. First, it’s all too easy to be a Pharisee and miss heaven. Second, few intend to become a Pharisee and most who are in this group deny that they are! How many people start out wanting to be respectably religious and end up being modern-day Pharisees? How easily one slides down the slippery slope of insincerity and begins the wearing of a lily-white glove to hide a sin-stained hand! And soon, all is pretense and performance and the devil reminds us, “The show must go on!” All these Pharisees become people who are—but who really are not! “… the joy of the godless is but for a moment” (Job 20:5, RSV).
At first glance—they are a very impressive group. How are they distinguished? By an absolute commitment to be fervent and faithful. And they are, to the most minute degree. Jesus said that they “make clean” everything one can see (Luke 11:39), and they tithe “mint, rue and all manner of herbs” (Luke 11:42); that is, going legalistically overboard on the most minute matters one can imagine. Biblical scholars point out, these people studied the Bible, regularly worshipped, fasted, and they were very evangelistic! Jesus said, “… For you go to all lengths to make one convert …” (Matthew 23:15, Living Bible)
Let us fill out the long list: legalistic, evangelistic, egotistic, ritualistic, and narcissistic! By the term narcissistic I mean that they thought they were exactly what they should be. They admired themselves and even praised themselves. Oswald Chambers said, “A bad man is worse when he pretends to be a saint.” So that, very often nothing is more forcefully defended by such people as the false practice and pretended righteousness, yet that was them! And, bad became worse when we realize what Jesus full knew about them, “They do all their deeds to be noticed by men” (Matthew 23:5). So, they were egotistical and—exhibitionists. Jesus was never deceived for a moment—He knew them! “No man, for any considerable period, can wear a face to himself and another to the multitude without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true,” remarked the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne. Jesus would say, remember, these people who are highly legalistic will “strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.” (Matthew 23:24)
So it was prim and proper and polished religious behavior totally without the love of God. On one hand they would publicly pray in the streets while evicting widows from their homes. (Matthew 23:14) They stood in judgment of others as if God had given them the right to say who is and who is not in the kingdom of God. Getting so caught up in this rigid, legalistic religious system, they forgot mercy and compassion, faith and truth. In time this became so addictive and deceptive, they were totally blinded to it, and Jesus harshly condemned it and indicated a harlot would be in heaven before they!
But this was the poison in the mixture. Jesus indicated to us, if one does any religious activity for any other reason other than an expression of love to honor God and to bless people, they are all cursed by Him! Jesus believed the rule was let all be done as an expression of spontaneous gratitude and devotion to God, or do not do them at all. Any religious activity without God’s Spirit in control is deceptive, dangerous, and damning! Jesus was even more outspoken as He looked behind the scenes and saw that their outside was clean as a whistle, but their inside was as foul as sewage.
As you can see, it is incredibly easy to start as if one is following Jesus and quickly become a card-carrying Pharisee! Jude compares such people to clouds without water, counterfeit Christians; promising thick, rolling clouds yet—only emptiness and no rain. They may come with loud sounds of thunder but not a drop of life giving rain!
The Holy Spirit led Paul to enlarge on this theme for he was once on the inside of this religious system. He called it misdirected zeal for “they are trying to make themselves good enough to gain God’s favor” (Romans 10:3). They go on in blindness defending themselves. And yet God, “In the meantime, he keeps on reaching out his hands to the Jews, but they keep arguing and refusing to come.” (Romans 10:21, Living Bible)
So then we reach a point to ask: “Now, what would be the relevance of all this to people in the twenty-first century?” And the simple and straightforward answer is, because we have more Pharisees today than ever, and most of them are not Jewish! This caused the Puritan pastor to speak like a prophet saying, “A man may have the tongue of an angel and the heart of a devil.” Call it the most revolting combination. A sincere and godly person with purity of the heart is greater than the tongue can describe, but, to Jesus, a Pharisee the hypocrite has a greater tongue to describe than what is not in the heart! A pump painted silver does not guarantee that the water is clean!
At this point it must be nailed down and repeated again, the one sure mark of a Pharisee is that they maintain they are not at all guilty. And remember, our day is the day of the imitation. It is an hour of great performances and small experiences. In all of New Testament teaching nothing helps us more than when Jesus describes the massive crop being planted and in behind comes the evil one to sow seeds that were deceptive imitations of the desired crops. The point is while they were growing together, it was impossible to tell one from the other and it grew side by side—the wheat and the tares. (Matthew 13:24-30) Even the “religious experts” cannot possibly distinguish today between the authentic and the synthetic. That is exactly where we stand with many in positions of high visibility and name recognition that only seem to be what is claimed. The sound of religious activity is so impressive that it even deceives those who are deceived! And we should realize, most self-made people will worship their creator! Many there are who openly say and boldly sing, “Lord, Lord,” whose hearts are far from Him. (Matthew 7:21) Too many, it is feared, will rush headlong into deepest outer darkness quoting a verse that says Jesus is the light!
What then is our conclusion? — We flee the Pharisee not just in others but first in ourselves. Let us confess elements of it are present from time to time in all of us! Beware of saying, “Who me!” We must remember the insightful Puritan saying, “A sin is two sins when it is defended.” Robert Murray M’Cheyne of Scotland was esteemed by all. He said, “The seeds of all sins are in my heart and perhaps all the more dangerously that I do not see them.” John Wesley wrote to the most important Methodist leader in America and said to Francis Asbury, “Oh, beware! Do not seek to be something! Let me be nothing, and Christ be all in all.” May all of us mean that for our own lives as we constantly flee from the spirit of the Pharisee.
The real strength of a person’s character is that they have a knowledge of their weakness. David Brainerd helps us to admit, “Much more of true religion consists in deep humility, brokenness of heart and want of grace and holiness than most who are called Christians imagine.” Those who know themselves best will fear themselves most. We must thoroughly and sincerely deal with ourselves.
Jesus had no greater enemies than the Pharisees—from the start they despised Him. Spurgeon is right to tell us to look upon this spirit as that which crucified the Savior. Let us learn to hate it in ourselves. It should cause us at a moment’s notice by the Holy Spirit to rush to the Lord in confession and repentance. The way to avoid being a Pharisee is to refuse to tolerate any secret deceitfulness. Finally, rid me, oh Lord, of the Pharisee I sometimes see in me!