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ADD TO YOUR LEARNING - The Philippine Teaching Ministry


Jay Schmidt - San Francisco Church of Christ


"Be careful," Jesus warned them. "Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod." Mark 8:15

Jesus' warning to his disciples 2000 years ago still applies to us today. The yeast of the Pharisees created both critical and hypocritical hearts that Jesus ardently opposed. He confronted the Pharisees time and again to show them that their merit-based system of thought and their complete dedication to fulfill every detail of the law had become an end in itself and was in fact preventing them and others from entering the kingdom of God.

A Pharisee was a member of the sect of the Pharisees. This sect seemingly began shortly after the Jewish captives returned from exile. The Pharisees recognized the books of the Old Testament as well as an oral tradition which was passed down through the centuries.

The Semitic word for Pharisee literally means "separated ones" or "separatists." Several explanations for this are possible, the most plausible being that the Pharisees were determined to separate themselves from the rest of the nation as pious people who followed the exact prescriptions of the law. They separated themselves from those lawless - and therefore godless - people who did not follow the law in exactitude. Their strict observance of the law led them to believe that they were the true people of God who were preparing themselves for the coming Messiah. In fact they strove to distance themselves from the rest of the nation. It is from this separation that the sect is said to have derived its name.

The Pharisees sought for recognition and praise by displaying an outward form of piety and by basing their righteousness on good works. They were nationalistic and opposed the imposition of the Romans while steadfastly upholding their ideals of a theocracy. They were bitterly opposed to Jesus and were the recipients of many rebukes from Him.

I. Mercy or Sacrifice?

In Matthew 9:13 and Matthew 12:7, Jesus quoted a portion of Hosea 6:6 which says, "For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings." This passage clearly unfurls the emphasis that God desires for our lives as opposed to what the Pharisees thought was necessary. The verse shows that God desires love, self-abandonment, compassion and heart. He does not seek ritualistic observances, rote knowledge, unfeeling prayer, robotic giving and hard-hearted piety. God is moved by relationship not religion. The Pharisees focused themselves so much on ritualistic cleansing and purity that they stopped associating with the average Jew. It was easier to remain separated and ritually clean than it was to mingle and be constantly concerned with purification. Separation was a way of life for the Pharisee.

II. The Outside of the Cup

One of the great passages in the Bible on Pharisaism is found in Matthew 23. In the "Seven Woes" speech, Jesus unloaded on the Pharisees with both barrels. One special passage of note is verses Matthew 23: 25-27. Jesus castigated the Pharisees for their emphasis on outward appearance. Everything they did was for attention and respect. They normally did not deal with their hearts because the heart was not something that could be seen. Yet one of the threads of Jesus teaching throughout the Bible is that what is done, said or even thought is merely a manifestation of what the heart is really like. Jesus drove this point home in Matthew 5:27-30 in His teaching on adultery and Matthew 7:15-23 in His teaching on a tree and its fruit.

"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence." Matthew 23:25

Focusing on the outside of the cup will not cleanse the inside of it. What sense does it make to only clean the outside of the cup which is only seen and not clean the inside of the cup which is to be used. If the inside is not clean, it will pollute whatever comes inside of it. If we focus on actions instead of the heart, the actions will change. The heart will not. This is the difference between behavior modification and repentance. Their hypocrisy lies in the fact that they trumpeted their outward piety while generally ignoring the heart, which only God could see. The Pharisees did not put their hearts in check. While all appeared to be under control on the outside, sin was running rampant in their hearts. They indulged themselves in their hearts and then kept their hearts to themselves. They were unrelatable and, not surprisingly, ineffective.

Often a person who is "pharisaical" is a graceless individual. Rigidity and legalism are often associated with a pharisaical heart. Certainly this is buttressed by the fact that a person who is not dealing with their heart on a consistent basis will not experience the deep cleansing of God's mercy and forgiveness and will not be able to extend that same grace and forgiveness to others. Grace experienced is grace given.

"Woe to you, teacher of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean." Matthew 23:27

Jesus also called the Pharisees whitewashed tombs. This one really hurt them. It was customary on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Adar to chalkmark graves lest those who stumbled on them incur ritual pollution before Passover. These chalked graves were referred to as whitewashed tombs. Jesus calls the Pharisees "whitewashed tombs" for two reasons. First, a whitewashed tomb looked good on the outside. It was something easily noticed and even admired. But there was no life in it. Only dead men's bones.

Secondly, a whitewashed tomb was to be avoided at all costs. No one wanted to become unclean before the Passover. Spiritually speaking, association with Pharisees was harmful. There was a heartlessness that, like yeast, worked its way through those around it.

Having grown up steeped in religiosity, I know how easy it is to be heartless. It is easy not to love people, even God. Religion teaches us what to do, not who to be. That is why after four years of Bible college, I could know much about the Bible but be no closer to God. Heartlessness creates an anxiousness to please but not a desire to love. In Mark 2:16, the Pharisees demanded to know why Jesus was eating with tax collectors and "sinners." Their works-based righteousness disallowed them from associating with "lesser" people and therefore precluded them from understanding what compassion and, ultimately, mercy was. I am constantly aware of the battle I fight everyday to love people. Religiosity does not lend itself to compassion and mercy, yet to excel in these areas is to participate in the ministry of Jesus.

III. Caring or Method

He said to them, "You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God's sight." Luke 16:15

Finally, the Pharisees' approach to God and men was a methods-based approach. To be justified before God, the Pharisees prescribed an almost fanatical compliance to the law. Loving God became a series of steps instead of a heart condition. They were constantly looking for new ways to follow the law more closely and new ways to alleviate the gnawing fear that they may have overlooked something crucial. This approach to salvation leaves little room for God's mercy and depends almost exclusively on individual effort. It creates the distress of never quite being able to please and of never being good enough for God.

My heart is always looking for The One Thing To Do that will help me get closer to God. I hope if I pray this prayer, do a longer quiet time, or read a certain book that I will get over the hump and become all that God has surely intended me to be. As Isaiah so bluntly explained, the Bible then becomes for me, "Do and do, do and do, rule on rule, rule on rule; a little here, a little there" (Isaiah 28:13). Jesus was merely concerned with caring about people. This is difficult to do for a Pharisee because the primary focus has always been self.

IV. The Motives of the Pharisee

The first part of Matthew 23:5 sums up what drives the heart of a Pharisee: "Everything is done for men to see." Gaining approval, affirmation and respect is at the core of the Pharisee. Theirs is not a heart quick to please God. Their motives reflect a heart condition which is primarily focused on winning approval, however begrudgingly given.

Verses five through seven of Matthew 23 give a glimpse of what specifically motivates the heart of the Pharisee.

1. The Outward Show of Piety

Verse five states that they make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long. Phylacteries were little scrolls of parchment or paper. On these slips of paper were written with great precision the following four paragraphs of the law: Exod. 13:2-11; 13:11-16; Deut. 6:4-9; 11:13-21. These little rolls were sewn up in leather and worn on the forehead and left arms. The Pharisees sought to widen these phylacteries so as to appear more holy and zealous for the law. Real holiness though, can never be displayed by outward adornment.
Secondly, they made their tassels long. God told the Jews in Numbers 15:38 to make garments with carefully appointed fringe to remind them that they were a special people. Naturally the Pharisees wanted longer tassels to indicate how much more special they really were.

2. The Desire for Position

The Pharisees loved to be the center of attention. Surely at a banquet someone must sit in the place of honor. It was not the place of honor that was the problem. It was the love of position. The love of having to be noticed. The lack of humility and the unabashed glory seeking. Moreover, this was being done in synagogues where the focus was supposed to be on God, not on men. The Pharisees had fallen in love with themselves and had fallen out love with God.

3. The Desire for Role

Finally, they craved the public respect that came to them. It was not just respect in and of itself. The greetings and the title of Rabbi was desired by the Pharisees but what they really enjoyed was to have that attention given to them in a public forum. It was the fact that it was done in the marketplace for all to see. The market place was not just the center of commerce in the ancient world. It was also the social center as well. People came there to commune, to fellowship, to learn. The Pharisees loved to be publicly mentioned. It helped make their austere life worth living.


Pharisaism is a heart condition. It affects the hearts of older disciples who have been around for a while whose joy and zeal have been replaced with pessimism and sterile repetition. It affects young disciples who grew up in religious environs where tradition held primacy over the Bible. It is yeast that works it way into the lives of people causing us to believe that it is more important to perform for people than to have passion for God.

God wants us to need Him. He wants us to understand that He continually showers us with His mercy and love. The more we understand this, the greater this mercy and love will emanate from our hearts to those around us. The sacrifice naturally follows.

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