Freeing the Church from Pharisee Influence

phariseesThe Pharisees meant well—they truly did. And yet, they struggled against Christ at nearly every step.

And while there were Pharisees, like Nicodemus, who sincerely desired to understand Jesus, he still publicly called them out over their practices and blind spots.

The warning he gave to us was to be on our guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and Saducees. Because:

Their behavior is an occupational hazard for any child of God
Like leaven, it only takes a little bit to affect an entire loaf of bread

Here are some areas we need to be on guard against:

The Pharisees separated themselves from disreputable people.
Jesus intentionally sought them out.

For the Pharisees, purity was about separating yourself from impure things like non kosher food and notorious people. When Jesus’ feet are being washed by the immodest women in Luke 7, Simon suggests that Jesus isn’t really a prophet. If he was, he wouldn’t let this unsavory woman near him.

That’s not how Jesus worked. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” The point was, we’re all sick. But the nice thing about those on the lower rung of the social ladder is that they don’t have to put on airs. They don’t have to keep up appearances.

The Pharisees judged people by the company they kept.
Jesus judged people by the individuals they ignored.

The reputation that Jesus received for being a friend to tax gatherers and sinners was damning. Think about it as the equivalent of being considered a “n****r lover” in  the pre-civil rights south.

It’s a natural progression from the previous point. Sinners were human garbage, and not only were you condoning their lifestyle by befriending them, you were damaging your important reputation.

Jesus judges people based on who they ignored. The poor. The motherless. The widow. The man lying bleeding on the side of the road. The person who couldn’t repay you for your kindness. In Christ’s economy, loving too frugally is infinitely more dangerous than loving too liberally.

Let’s be honest, if the religious people around us aren’t clicking their tongues at some of our scandalous friends, we might be doing Christianity wrong.

Pharisees prioritized the law over people.
Jesus summed up the law in how you treat people.

Remember how unglued the Pharisees came when they saw that Jesus healed a person on the Sabbath (Mark 3)? To the religious spirit, rules matter more than people.

How did Jesus sum up God’s law? Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.

Bonus question: Who’s your neighbor? That’s right: everyone.

When Pharisees saw a sinner, they saw a social issue.
When Jesus saw a sinner, he saw a person of value.

This is a big one. Religious spirits are quick to conceptualize problems into large issues and forget the stories of the people behind the sin.

The Pharisees saw prostitutes not necessarily women. They saw a social ill ruining Jerusalem. Jesus was never trying to solve the prostitute problem. He was too busy trying to touch the lives of women who were prostitutes.

Incidentally . . . that’s how you solve the prostitute problem.

The Pharisees searched the Scriptures for life.
Jesus expected the Scriptures to lead us to him.

This is an actual criticism that Jesus leveled at the Pharisees. “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life.”

This happens too often when we elevate our interpretation of Scripture above the spiritual illumination which should enable us to be transformed into his image.

The Pharisees did charitable acts and prayed publicly for attention.
Jesus prayed in solitary places and asked miracle recipients to tell no one.

The Pharisees turned their religious practice into performance. Guess who’s going to applaud you for parading your spirituality? That’s right, other religious people.

Jesus is healing people and telling them, “Tell no one.” There’s definitely a strategy behind asking others to keep a lid on his miracles. But when you consider that Jesus went to secluded places to pray and refused the temptation to promote himself with his miracles, it’s obvious that there’s power in private, quiet acts of devotion and service.

Jesus did them with correct motives and out of an overflow of relationship with God.

The Pharisees expected uniformity.
Jesus was inclusive.

The Pharisees expected homogeneous behavior from the faithful. They’ll look a certain way, behave in an expected fashion, and share the same convictions. That makes deciding who’s in and who’s out a cinch.

As I stated in a previous post, the very fact that Jesus was willing to invite Matthew the tax gatherer and Levi the zealot into his tight-knit group means that Jesus didn’t expect uniformity out of people. On top of that, his larger collection of followers included people from every background—including some Pharisees.

The Pharisees labeled people based on their behavior.
Jesus named people based on their potential.

Like a carpenter pointing out types of wood: birch, pine, oak, maple, Pharisees looked for simple labels to put on people: whore, alcoholic, thief, etc.

Jesus never labeled people, he renamed them based on the potential he saw in them. He changes Cephas into Peter (the rock), not because of Peter’s regular, solid behavior, but because he saw Peter’s steadfast potential.

In fact, recognizing and naming someone’s potential is probably the most powerful thing you can do to empower them.

Most people know where their weaknesses lie. They don’t need to be beat up with them; they need people who can recognize and call out their strengths.

Pharisees attributed behavior they couldn’t understand to Satan.
Jesus suggested that wisdom was vindicated by an action’s outcome.

The Pharisees didn’t understand why John the Baptist was so severe and such an ascetic so they decided that he must have a demon. They didn’t understand how Jesus was healing people so they decided he must be doing it by the power of Satan.

When you feel the need to make immediate judgments, you’re inevitably going to make a wrong one.

Jesus says that the outcome reveals the wisdom in an action. Sometimes it’s worth waiting to pass judgement because things aren’t always as they appear.

The Pharisees were willing to kill to protect their culture.
Jesus was willing to die to inaugurate his.

Christianity isn’t about what you’re willing to do to maintain the status quo; it’s about what you’re willing to sacrifice to see the kingdom realized.

Jesus’ message was to love and pray for our enemies—to  turn the other cheek and be a peacemaker.

In the end, it’s Christ’s example that’s going to assist in God’s plan to redeem the world to himself.


I received a tweet telling me that “a friend of a friend was writing a response to your Pharisee post.” My initial response was, “Well, I probably won’t read it.” I mean, a response blog is not going to be positive and is probably going to be entitled, Open Letter to the Dummy: Jayson D. Bradley.

My curiosity got the best of me and I read James Prather’s post Reclaiming the Reputation of the Pharisees, and I really liked it. It was intelligent, thoughtfully presented, and (most importantly) kind.

So, if you’re interested in an academic and positive look at the Pharisee’s influence, you should check it out.

James: I understand how you walked away from this post with the frustration you had, but it wasn’t my intention. There is nothing in me that desires to make the Pharisees into villains. I think that the weaknesses of the Pharisees are many of the same weaknesses you find in people of every faith. They were struggling to be obedient in a trying time. And in many ways, if it wasn’t for the Pharisees, Judaism may not have survived Rome.

My #1 point in this post was to talk about the Pharisees weaknesses (as I see them) and hold them up as a mirror to some of those who, because of their desire to be obedient may be out of step with Christ.

I appreciated your tone more than you know.


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