The word “Pharisaical” refers to people with “judgmental” attitudes, a no-no in “enlightened” Western culture and one that the church has wrongly adopted. However, Christians must learn to judge or discern between true and false, right and wrong, good and evil, sheep and wolf. We can’t think everyone is honest. We must learn to discern people so we won’t be deceived.
Jesus righteously judged people using two guidelines. First, “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34), meaning our words betray our thoughts and desires. Second, “a tree is known by its fruit,” its words and actions (12:33; cf 7:16-20). If we, in the Spirit’s power, listen to people’s words and watch their actions, then we’ll know if they’re converted. Jesus used these guidelines with the Pharisees, a Jewish religious and political sect that is synonymous with hypocrisy today. He often rebuked them for it (15:7, 16:3, 22:18, 23:13-29). However, all sinners are guilty of hypocrisy. Only Christians walking in the Spirit are morally transparent.
Contrary to what most people believe, the Pharisees were “the best of the best” in first-century Israel. They were zealous for God in a pagan culture, rightly taught his Word, and didn’t flagrantly sin. Jesus, himself a rabbi, told his disciples to “do as they say” (Matthew 23:3). When he also told them that the Pharisees were sinners, they must have quaked in their sandals! In her theology and cultural standing, the Protestant church resembles the Pharisees more than any other first-century Jewish sect. Sadly, too few Christians today are like them. Morally, they’re not “the best of the best.” No good Pharisee would do what some “Christians” are doing. Homosexuality, adultery, fornication, pornography, and murder top the list. I’m not sure the Pharisees were guilty of greed either.
No, the Pharisees had other problems. First, they didn’t practice what they preached (Matthew 23:3). Unmerciful and proud, the Pharisees refused to acknowledge their sinful state; instead, they trusted in outer religion and their connection to Abraham (3:9, 6:2-16; 23:5-7, 25-28; Luke 18:9-13, John 8:33, 39, 53). He was their biological father, but Satan was their spiritual one. Unlike Abraham, the Pharisees had no living faith in God. Their fruit betrayed this fact and Jesus righteously judged them for it (Matthew 23:13-15, John 8:39-44).
Like unfaithful prophets, priests, and kings before them, the Pharisees also had less excuse for their sin. Likewise, the church has less excuse than the world when she sins. Why? Those given spiritual light through God’s Word should be more aware of sin and more eager for holiness. They should know the true nature of a sinful heart prone to self-deception (Jeremiah 17:9).
When people are confronted with their sin and God’s righteous judgment, they either repent of sin or ignore it. Repentance leads to salvation, holiness, and heaven. Ignorance leads to hypocrisy, self-deception, and hell. Guilt without repentance always leads to hell. But those who know better and still sin will be judged more harshly than those who don’t (Matthew 24:48-51, Romans 1:32, Hebrews 10:26-31). Enlightened people have less excuse.
God righteously judged many heathen people but he reserved his greatest wrath for Israel, just as Jesus reserved his greatest wrath for the Pharisees. Why? God disciplines his children, chastizing those he loves (Hebrews 12:5). Israel had entered into a binding covenant with God. She had his Word from Mount Sinai too. She’d been exposed to the light of righteousness and therefore had less excuse for her sin. The priest Eli and his descendants died, Saul lost his kingdom, Israel went captive into Assyria, and Judah went captive into Babylon because God righteously judged his covenant bride Israel, a special group of people with less excuse.
We ridicule Pharisees for all the wrong reasons, when we’re too much like them. Because we’ve been given the light of Christ, as they were given the light of Moses, we’ll be held to the same righteous standard. Disobedience will receive greater punishment. Therefore, we must know ourselves, the evil lurking in our sinful hearts. We must also confess and repent of sin when we find it. Only then will we avoid self-deception, hypocrisy, and hell.