The New Testament records many interactions between Jesus and the Pharisees and it’s clear the two did not get along. In fact, clashes between Jesus and the Pharisees took place quite frequently. So, let’s take a look at the Pharisees and discover why there was constant conflict between them and Jesus.
At the time of Christ, there were three prominent parties of Judaism; the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. Out of these three, the Pharisees were the most influential. They were everywhere in Palestine — not just in Jerusalem — and were easily recognized by others. Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, numbered the Pharisees at more than 6,000 at the height of their popularity.
The job of the Pharisee was to know God and to help others know him but their hearts were in the wrong place. They believed the way to please God was by meticulously following religious rules and regulations.
The foundation for these rules and regulations come from Mosaic Law — the law God gave the people through Moses. Today, these laws are commonly known as the Ten Commandments and are just 10 of the 613 commandments given by God in Exodus 20.
Over time, Jewish leaders began to add to these 613 laws with the intent of interpreting and clarifying the original Mosaic Law. In doing so, they ended up adding many complicated rules and regulations — literally, thousands of them. In fact, they added so many commandments ordinary people found following God too heavy of a burden.
While most Jewish persons didn’t even try to follow all the additions to the original law, the Pharisees did. They meticulously — and proudly — followed both the Mosaic Law and these additional man-made rules and regulations. But this only produced an external religion, one concerned more with appearance than true morality.
Jesus confronts the hypocrisy of the Pharisees in Matthew 23. He points out that although the Pharisees taught the law, they did not practice some of the important parts of the law, like justice, mercy, and faithfulness to God (Matthew 23:23-24). He also points out how they presented an outward appearance of being clean, while hiding their true hearts — hearts full of greed, self-indulgence and worldly desires (Matthew 23:25-26).
In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus emphasizes the true intent of the law. He teaches the spirit of the law requires more than just obedient outward action — it involves an attitude of the mind. The apostle Paul refers to this as “circumcision of the heart” (Romans 2:28-29).
For example, Jesus agreed that refraining from adultery is obedience to the law (Matthew 5:27-28). However, he went further and taught that a person must not even lust after someone, thereby teaching obedience isn’t just an outward action; it’s also what we harbor in our hearts.
While it’s easy for believers to point fingers at the Pharisees and call them hypocrites, we, too, can make a show of our good deeds while harboring wrong motives in our hearts. For example, do we draw attention to ourselves about how much money we give the church to impress others? Do we flaunt our knowledge of Scripture just to look better in the eyes of those around us? In other words, have we given Jesus any reason to call us hypocrites?
Believers should evaluate their true motives when performing religious acts in public because those who seek attention and applause have “received their reward in full” (Matthew 6:2). These believers will receive admiration and praise from men — but not from God.
And that’s some dangerous territory.
Award winning Christian author and columnist Donna Hughey lives in Crescent City.