Calvary Road Baptist Church

“PHARISEES”

Matthew 3.7

Turn in your Bible to Matthew 3.1. When you find that verse in God’s Word, stand and read aloud with me as I read aloud. I will read the first, third, fifth, and seventh verses, while you read aloud the second, fourth, and sixth verses:

1      In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea,

2      And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

3      For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

4      And the same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.

5      Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan,

6      And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins.

7      But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

This is how we are introduced to a faction of Jewish society during our Lord’s earthly ministry identified as Pharisees. Numbering somewhat more than six thousand men in the first century, according to the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus,[1] the Pharisees were “the organized followers of the experts in interpreting the scriptures (scribes). It was the purpose of the Pharisees to take the pattern of a pious Israelite as established by the scribes, and to put it into practice as nearly as possible.”[2] The origins of the Pharisees are obscure, but are thought to have come into existence as far back as the second century before Christ.[3] Despite their prominence in the New Testament, for reasons I will explain, the Pharisees of our Lord Jesus Christ’s day did not enjoy the dominant role in Palestinian Judaism which one might sometimes conclude from their frequent mention in the gospels. Pharisees were not major players in the Jewish Sanhedrin (the religious court and leaders), which was firmly under the control of the Sadducees.[4] Of the identifiable groups within Jewish society in our Lord’s day, Sadducees, Herodians, Essenes, Zealots, and Pharisees, only the Pharisees survived as a major influence on Jewish people following the destruction of the Temple by the Romans and the dispersion of the Jewish people, because only the Pharisees wrote. When their culture lay in ruins, and so many of their people were enslaved and scattered, it was what the Pharisees had committing to writing, their misinterpretations and misapplications of the Hebrew scriptures, which remained to instruct the Jewish people down through the centuries.

Our introduction to the Pharisees in the New Testament comes from Matthew’s gospel, recording an encounter with John the Baptist, our Lord’s forerunner, near the Jordan River, which is a day’s foot travel to the East of Jerusalem. Notice that they are already his opponents, and they will from the beginning of the Savior’s public ministry be His opponents, as well. What a group of people these Pharisees are, rising from the catastrophe of the Babylonian captivity, never numerically overpowering, without formal or legal position in their society, without reference or authorization in the Law of Moses, yet in many ways the leaders of those who opposed the Son of God, who tried without success to oppose and entrap Him in various ways, and all the while admitting that He had worked great miracles, they still clamored for His crucifixion.

We need to understand Pharisees more than most of us do. My prayer is that this message will serve that end, as we consider four things about Pharisees:

First, WHAT PHARISEES WERE

In the Greek New Testament the word that translates the Hebrew and Aramaic word (and comes into English as Pharisee) is rarely found in Christian literature as a singular word, almost always plural, Pharisees. The word refers to “the separated ones, separatists.”[5] Of course, the problem for the Jewish person was that under the Mosaic Law, the Jewish people were physically separated from the nations by their law. Beginning with the captivity, the destruction of Solomon’s Temple, and the occupation of the Holy Land by foreign powers, that kind of separation was no longer possible. Pharisaism was, in part, an effort to recapture the notion of separation without the possibility of external separation. Therefore, the Pharisees sought to achieve an inner separation.[6] Of course, they failed because the Law of Moses dealt primarily with external practices and observance.

What the Pharisees became as a result were legalists, seeking to establish their own righteousness by adherence to the Law of Moses. In this they appeared to be among the best of men, and were acknowledged by the Lord Jesus Christ to be so, in Matthew 5.20. However, despite their attainments in comparison to other men, the Lord Jesus Christ still pronounced them to be hypocrites. Their doctrines, conduct, and example was such that they neither entered the kingdom of heaven themselves nor allowed others to enter in, Matthew 23.13. They deserved greater damnation for mistreating widows and offering up fake prayers, Matthew 23.14. They would do just about anything in their zeal to recruit followers to their cause, with the effect of enlisting followers being that he would then become twofold more the child of hell than the man who enlisted him, Matthew 23.15. The Savior pronounced woes upon them for being blind guides, giving advice to other people about spiritual matters they knew nothing about, Matthew 23.16. As well, He pronounces a woe upon the Pharisees for tithing (or giving 10%) of even small things they had received, while ignoring more important matters. Of course, they should tithe, He insists, but do not leave important matters undone, Matthew 23.23. They would strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel, Matthew 23.24. That is, they would treat small matters as very important while treating very important matters as inconsequential. They were experts at appearing to be clean on the outside, all the while on the inside they were full of excess, extortion, uncleanness, hypocrisy, and iniquity, Matthew 23.25-28. Of course, the Pharisees claimed that had they lived in the days of the Old Testament prophets they would have been their staunchest supporters, while the Savior pointed out that not only was the blood of the prophets come upon them, but what was done in the past to the prophets these same men would yet do to those our Lord would send among them, Matthew 23.29-35.

No wonder the Pharisees joined with the chief priests to conspire for my Lord Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, John 18.3. Should it be a surprise to anyone, then, that the Apostle Paul, when referring to his former life prior to his conversion, when he was an unsaved Pharisee, described himself as well as every unsaved person as God’s enemy?[7] So you see, the Pharisees were in some respects among the best of men, while at the same time in other respects being among the worst of men, with an outward appearance of righteousness and conformity to the Law, while inwardly they were rotten and thoroughly corrupt. I am reminded at this point of what God said to the prophet Samuel, who was sure he had selected the son of Jesse God wanted him to anoint as the next king of Israel and the successor to King Saul: “But the LORD said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the LORD seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart.” Oh, how good the Pharisees looked, to themselves and to their fellow man. However, to God and to the Son of God they were defiled and unclean.

Next, WHAT PHARISEES ARE

Please recognize that no one you know is a modern day Pharisee in the sense that he is a Jewish man who is particular in his observance of the Law of Moses and is sincere in his efforts to establish his own righteousness by doing works of the Law. Such men do not exist outside the Jewish community these days. However, you would not deny that application can be made from then to today, from those Pharisees of Christ’s day to the same kind of religious hypocrisy existing today.

After all, there is precedent in scripture. Consider Paul’s statement in First Corinthians 10.6, where he used the example of Jewish people during their wilderness wanderings to teach a lesson to Gentile Christians in Corinth, by writing, “Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted.” Additionally, we have Second Timothy 3.16: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” Surely, then, no one would begrudge me the application of the conduct and beliefs of the Pharisees of Christ’s day to those who exhibit similar characteristics in our day. To do so would be to tear out significant portions of the gospel record as being of no use to us today.

I submit to you that we have, for all intents and purposes, 21st century Pharisees in our churches, men, women, and young people who exhibit similar characteristics to the Pharisees of old. In Christ’s day, Pharisees were a distinct group of people who felt themselves, and who were held by most of their day, to be righteousness and quite unlike most Jewish people, who freely admitted to themselves and to others (because they were not Pharisees) that they were sinners.[8] Therefore, no one who is not a scrupulous church attender, who is not outwardly a good (or improving) person, who is not a faithful and regular giver (remember, Pharisees were scrupulous tithers).

Who would be like a Pharisee? Let me suggest that a modern day Pharisee is someone who is first a hypocrite, since that was our Lord’s most pointed description of them. However, a hypocrite is not someone who is inconsistent, but rather someone who pretends to be what he is not. In addition to that, consider these characteristics of the Pharisees of Christ’s day: Like their ancient counterparts, modern-day Pharisees would hold to doctrines, display conduct, and serve as examples to others that suggest they neither entered the kingdom of heaven themselves nor encourage others to enter in, reminiscent of Matthew 23.13. Like their ancient counterparts, modern-day Pharisees certainly deserve greater damnation for their refusal to treat widows properly, and (more obviously) their unwillingness to offering up prayers at all or if they do pray to offer up fake prayers, reminiscent of Matthew 23.14. Like their ancient counterparts, modern-day Pharisees will do just about anything to recruit followers (something Paul warned about in Acts 20.30), with the effect that their followers would then become twofold more the child of hell than the one who enlisted him, reminiscent of Matthew 23.15. The Savior pronounced woes upon them for being blind guides, giving advice to other people about spiritual matters they knew nothing about, Matthew 23.16. Modern-day Pharisees are oftentimes more than willing to offer advice to people who are foolish enough to ask them for it, even though James 3.1 warns against unqualified people presuming to teach others and give advice. Modern-day Pharisees could well be tithers, though just those of olden times, they ignore more important matters, such as evangelism, and kindness, and the unity of the Spirit. Matthew 23.23. Pharisees of all ages strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel, Matthew 23.24, treating small matters as very important while treating very important matters as inconsequential. Offending the little ones and the spiritually immature is very important, while disappointing a very experienced Christian is a small thing that the spiritually mature know how to take in stride. Modern-day Pharisees are experts at appearing to be clean on the outside, all the while on the inside they are full of excess, extortion, uncleanness, hypocrisy, and iniquity, just as in Matthew 23.25-28. In Christ’s day, the Pharisees claimed that had they lived in the days of the Old Testament prophets they would have been their staunchest supporters, while the Savior pointed out that not only was the blood of the prophets come upon them, but what was done in the past to the prophets these same men would yet do to those our Lord would send among them, Matthew 23.29-35. In our day, Pharisees pretend to be advocates of preachers and preaching. So you see, there are always Pharisees. They are lost people, and can be teens in a youth group, college-age young men and women, young married couples, or even more seasoned folks. The most important thing to remember about hypocrites, however, is that even when they were making nice to the Savior they were not His allies.[9] No lost person can be an ally or a friend of the Savior.

Can a Christian also exhibit Pharisaical tendencies? Oh, my, yes. When Paul pointed out to the Galatian Christians that they had fallen from grace, in Galatians 5.4, he was not suggesting they had lost their salvation. Rather, they had slipped from living the Christian life by means of God’s abundant grace through faith in Christ, to a subtle system of rules-keeping as a means of advancing in the Christian life. Of course, it was not real advancement in the Christian life at all, to trade grace for rules, but a subtle slide into a form of Pharisaism.

Third, WHAT PHARISEES NEED

Understanding that the Pharisees, both then and now are essentially legalists, who see themselves as righteous in their own eyes because of their supposed good deeds, because they grant that their lifestyles are superior to those they regard as sinners, because they regard outward conduct rather than inward heart condition, who seek to establish the righteousness which is by works of the law, either the Law of Moses in ancient days or some type of modern-day set of rules for the contemporary Pharisee, what is desperately needed is the salvation which is by God’s grace to the most undeserving of sinners.

Be it an ancient Pharisee of Christ’s day or some modern-day Pharisee, the best example of someone who tried to establish his own goodness, his own righteousness, his own merit by doing good deeds, was without question the man known before his conversion as Saul of Tarsus. Consider his qualifications, recorded in Philippians 3.5-6:

5      Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee;

6      Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.

If Paul when he was known as Saul was such a righteous guy, why did he then become a Christian? Because the righteousness which is in the law is simply not good enough. No matter how good you think you become by keeping rules, even the best rules, you are still a sinful, spiritually dead person trying to keep rules. What those who attempt to keep the Law need, what those who try their best to be good need, what those who are now so much better in their own eyes than they think they used to be need, is the one thing they do not have, eternal life in Jesus Christ, whom to know is life eternal. That is why Paul, in his letter to the Philippians discussing his imprisonment and upcoming trial for his life, could write, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”[10] What every Pharisee needs, whether then or now, is the one thing no Pharisee has, a relationship with Jesus Christ that is established and maintained by faith.

Finally, HOW SOME PHARISEES WERE SAVED

We know from Acts 15.5 that a number of Pharisees were saved from their sins by God’s wonderful grace, but I would like to bring to your attention two whose names you will immediately recognize. Each of their encounters with the Savior illustrates just how someone whose tendency is to think he is capable of being good enough to deserve God’s favor so that he can earn his way to heaven can come to grips with the reality that “There is none righteous, no, not one,” and that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God”:[11]

Our first Pharisee is a man whose name was Nicodemus, whose encounter with the Savior is recorded in John chapter 3, and whose defense of the Lord Jesus Christ before the Sanhedrin and whose willingness to help with the preparation of His body after His crucifixion persuades that his encounter with the Lord led to his own salvation. Please turn to John chapter three:

1      There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:

2      The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.

To this Bible scholar and leading teacher among the Jewish people, the Lord Jesus Christ insisted, “Ye must be born again,” John 3.3 and 7. Additionally, the Savior insisted that Nicodemus’ needed experience was something over which he could have absolutely no control, John 3.8:

“The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.”

It is in John 3.16 that we are provided with the involvement of the sinner in this matter of salvation:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Thus, we see that a strict keeper of the Law, a Pharisee, a man who was the principle Bible teacher in all of Israel, verse 10, could engage in no deeds and could produce no obedience to the Law as a means of not perishing, but coming to possess everlasting life. He must believe in Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of the living God, the God of Israel who surprisingly loved not only the Jewish people (and in particular those who tried so hard to be good, the Pharisees), but also the world. Apparently, at some point, that is exactly what he did.

Our second Pharisee is a man whose given name was Saul, originally from the city of Tarsus. His encounter with the Savior is recorded in Acts chapter nine, some years after Christ’s resurrection and ascension to the Father’s right hand on high.[12] A vicious zealot of a Pharisee who persecuted Christians wherever they could be found, Saul was traveling to Damascus (after he had already been complicit in the death of Stephen the first Christian martyr)[13], when he was overcome by a glorious appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ.[14] I am in the minority when I assert that Saul of Tarsus was not saved at this time, but three days later in Damascus. However, my reasons are threefold: First, addressing the Lord Jesus Christ as Lord is not sufficient to insist that he was saved at this point, since any Jewish man overwhelmed by someone suddenly appearing in a blinding light would address that person as Lord. Second, according to verse 5, Saul did not know who was speaking to him (something he would no doubt reflect on while continuing on to Damascus). And third, when Saul asked the glorious Lord Jesus Christ what he should do, he was not then told to trust Christ or to repent of his sins, but to meet a man in Damascus who would tell him what to do. Blinded by the vision, and without food or liquids for three days until his arrival in Damascus, what do you think Saul of Tarsus thought about?[15] Do you think he reflected on the fact that the resurrection and ascension to glory of the Lord Jesus Christ could no longer be denied, at least not by him? Do you think he weighed the fact that this One who was obviously the Lord of glory was unknown to him, and that all of his Pharisaical good deeds and zeal counted for nothing in the presence of the glorified Savior? For three days he thought, reflected, considered, evaluated, reviewed his obviously erroneous and misguided understanding of God’s Word. However, what I think he reflected on the most was the fact that he was wrong, wrong about everything, totally and completely wrong, and without Christ. So, what happened when he arrived in Damascus and spoke to Ananias? Luke does not record the entire conversation, but how could it have been all that different with respect to the specifics from what he said to the Philippian jailor some years later who asked him, “What must I do to be saved?” “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.”[16]

Two Pharisees from so long ago, living their lives in strict adherence to the Mosaic Law in failed attempts to be good enough to please God. Both of them had encounters with the Lord Jesus Christ, though I think neither of them were saved at the precise time of each of their encounters. Why not? Two reasons: First, the texts that record their experiences do not provide persuasive evidence that either man was saved at the time they met the Savior. I think what they were confronted with was in both cases too astounding, and both men were so completely wrong that it took time for them to process the truth and come to realize how profoundly wrong they were. Second, the very nature of faith is such that it has to do with that which is not seen. Thus, I think both men came to faith in Christ not in the physical presence of Christ, because faith is the evidence of things not seen. That is good for you if you are a modern-day Pharisee, since if they were saved through faith in Christ when He was not physically where they were, you can be saved in exactly the same way. Reflect on their experiences and conclude as they concluded that your good deeds will not, cannot, make you righteous in the sight of God, or establish for you a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Nicodemus was the preeminent Bible teacher among his people . . . and he was still lost and without Christ. Paul was the most zealous of all Pharisees . . . and he was still lost and without Christ. Therefore, how can you not be lost and without Christ? Won’t you please do what they did? Won’t you please believe in Jesus Christ and be saved?



[1] David L. Turner, Matthew, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2008), page 111.

[2] Bauer, Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), page 1049.

[3] Gerhard Friedrich, Editor, Theological Dictionary Of The New Testament, Vol IX, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), page 13.

[4] Ibid., page 37.

[5] Bauer, page 1049

[6] Friedrich, page 15.

[7] Romans 5.10

[8] Luke 7.37, 39; 18.13; 19.7; John 9.16, 24

[9] Luke 7.36-39

[10] Philippians 1.21

[11] Romans 3.10, 23

[12] Psalm 110.1; Matthew 26.64; Mark 12.36; 14.62; 16.19; Luke 20.42; Luke 22.69; Acts 2.33, 34; 7.55, 56; Romans 8.34; Ephesians 1.20; Colossians 3.1; Hebrews 1.3, 13; 8.1; 10.12; 12.2; 1 Peter 3.22; Revelation 5.6

[13] Acts 7.51-60

[14] Acts 9.1-4; 22.4-7; 26.9-14

[15] Acts 9.8-9

[16] Acts 16.30-31



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