Our Lord Jesus reserves his harshest criticisms for the Pharisees. The Pharisees were a conservative sect in Judaism whose mission statement was to live pure lives before God and to keep Jews separated from the world by their conformity to God’s Law. The problem was that although the Pharisees knew a lot of the Law of God, they were in fact lawless (Matt. 23:28). They merely kept the Laws of God externally, and they sought by their traditional interpretations of God’s Law to make them “do-able”, not realizing that one of the purposes of the Law of God was to reveal to them their need for Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:15-28; Rom. 2:21-29).
And so while they spoke of God and His Word, their hearts were in fact far from God (Matt. 15:7-9). Although these professors claimed to know God’s Word, they actually did not really know it; they were described by Jesus as those who: “preach but do not practice” and those who made “void the Word of God for their traditions” (Matt. 15:3-6). Jesus said to them that they were religious posers—they were hypocrites, and the condemnation of God awaited these Christ-less, religious men if they did not repent and receive the Lord Jesus as Savior and Lord (Matt. 23:24-28). Jesus clearly revealed that He was the only righteous person acceptable before a Holy God. Only Jesus Christ had perfectly kept the Law of God that required perfection (Matt. 5:48).
A popular notion today is that those who seek to be holy and live out God’s law are ‘Pharisees’ but this is incorrect and very unfair. Sure, there will always be those who try to live out the Law of God through their own self-righteous efforts, rejecting Christ (Rom. 10:3; Gal. 1:6), and these will be damned (Matt. 7:23). But those in Christ, who seek to uphold the Law of God through obedience because of Christ’s love and grace extended to them (Rom. 6:17), should not be called Pharisees. This is very unfair.
How can we be “phunctional Pharisees” then? We can intentionally and unintentionally “shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces” in our carelessness as Christians (Matt. 23:13). We can send a message to our community that what is most important to us is not the Gospel and seeking and saving the lost, but our need to stay free from contamination, to categorize those we think are safe and unsafe, or those we think might respond to the Gospel and those who will not, and to subtly make our convictions commands that others are to follow.
I think there are three ways that this is revealed in to us in Scripture as we look at the practices of the Pharisees: (1) Thinking unbelievers are “contagious” in their sins; (2) Unfairly categorizing people; and (3) Making our convictions commands for others to follow.
“Sinner: Are you contagious?” The Pharisees would not fellowship and show compassion to folks lost in sin. They thought that folks like tax collectors and prostitutes were “too far gone” to be recipients of God’s grace (with which they themselves were unfamiliar). They thought if they got too close to notorious sinners, then they would be contaminated. One of their interpretations of God’s Word (which was contrary to the mercy and steadfast love of God in Christ) was that if they got too close to sinners, then they would be made unclean before God, so they tried to keep themselves, their family, and their synagogues “sin free” merely in this external way.
Isn’t this how we can behave, too, if we are not careful?! Yes, we must be wise in our interaction with sinful people, and there may be some people and places that would prove too much of a temptation for us, but do our hearts deceive us into thinking that we cannot get near sinful people? Do we not even pray for them? Our commission by our loving and merciful Lord is “Go…making disciples…teaching…” (Matt. 28:18ff). As we learn in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (and throughout Luke 15), we are to imitate Jesus in His grace by “seeking and saving the lost…” by bringing the healing Gospel of the Great Physician to sinners who are sick (Mark 2:17). Have we extended a hand of friendship, or an invitation to table fellowship (Mark 2:13-17), or even an invitation to worship to a notorious sinner in the community lately? Could it be we think that they will contaminate our families, our congregations, etc.? Be honest about this.
We can also unfairly categorize people. We inevitably must use categories, but do our categories that we make of others place them in conditions that we functionally believe they are “too hardened” or “too far gone” for redemption? Remember the parable of the tax collector and Pharisee in Luke 18? The Pharisee refers to, or categorizes other men as “extortioners, prostitutes, adulterers, tax collectors,” etc. He looked on them with “contempt”. This is sinful man’s way of playing God and seeking to do his own way of “electing” sinners. In other words, he placed the category of his own making as a priority over the power and grace of God in Christ toward men (don’t we do this with the gay and lesbian community particularly?!). The Pharisees referred to the “unchurched” or those who didn’t live according to their interpretations as “sinners”. We are all sinners, but this was a special category of “sinners” that implied that they were what we might call “hopeless cases”. Do we categorize people and think that we are better merely because of the things we have been enabled by God’s Spirit to do for Christ? Have we forgotten mercy? Don’t we talk like this? Those “Hollywood people” or “those lawyers” or “those ___________” insinuating that these folks are too far gone, and outside any reach of God’s power and grace revealed in Christ.
Making our convictions commands for others to follow. We can make our convictions commands for others, and imply that those who might disagree with us are not welcome, and so we unnecessarily place a stumbling block in the way of sinners who might seek salvation in Christ. Do we shut up the Kingdom of Heaven in men’s faces, too?! (Matt. 23:13). If we make issues of Christian liberty, like ways we school our children, or political parties we belong to, or our conviction about whether one should drink alcohol or not drink alcohol, we can be functional Pharisees. Why? Because we are adding to God’s Law, and adding to God’s Word which is always prohibited. The Pharisees did not keep God’s Word. They make up additional laws (some 613, I understand!) that were to be followed if one wanted to be in fellowship with them. If we are making our convictions that have been informed by God’s Word (legitimately) and we are implicitly (or explicitly) saying to others that you must be of the same mind as me on this, or sending the message that another is unacceptable to me, my family or my church, this too, can be a way of being a “phunctional Pharisee”.
We must follow our consciences. We must seek God’s wisdom on important issues of schooling our children, how we vote, and whether we are going to drink or not, but our convictions are not to become measures by which we judge others, or boundary lines to keep from fellowship. Think of how subtle this is, and yet how real this can be in a local congregation of God’s people. Rather than acknowledging the liberty God grants to His people, we insist that everyone live by our convictions. The outside world of sinful people can think a particular congregation would not welcome them because they do not live specifically as those inside, and functionally something other than the Gospel becomes what separates those who might have “inquired within”. It is true that people will be offended by Christians if the Gospel is preached. But let those from outside the congregation be offended by the Gospel, and not our “phunctional Pharisaism”.
Let us repent of this “phunctional pharisaism”. Let us beat our breast as former tax collectors and sinners, and ask God to have mercy upon us! Let us be thankful for the completed work of Christ and His perfect law-keeping that has been imputed to us by faith. Let us befriend sinners, like our Lord Jesus has befriended us! Let us live with holy hearts and holy compassion as our Lord Jesus displayed to us.
In Christ’s love,
Pastor Charles R. Biggs