“The Pharisee Trap”

Categories: Bulletin Articles, M. W. Bassford

The devil has been hard at work for millennia, so he knows the best way to tempt any kind of person, even religious people.  We see his handiwork plainly in the Pharisees of the New Testament.  Even though many who accuse Christians of Pharisaism don’t know what they’re talking about, we still need to pay attention to the true characteristics of the Pharisees so that we don’t end up like them ourselves. 

First, Pharisees care more about appearances than the heart.  In Luke 11:39-41, Jesus accuses them of washing the outside of dishes while leaving the inside filthy.  How about us?  It’s easy to show up for Sunday-morning services looking like the picture of a saint, while our hearts are filled with evil desires that we spend the rest of the week living out.  Other Christians might be impressed, but God won’t be.

Second, Pharisees major in minors and ignore majors.  As Jesus points out in vs. 42, they tithed garden herbs (paying attention to a tiny detail of the Law of Moses) while neglecting justice and the love of God.  We can pride ourselves on going to the “right” church, but if we aren’t here because we love Jesus and long to serve Him, it won’t do us any good.

Third, Pharisees like impressing others.  Luke 11:43 reveals that they loved prominent seats and respectful greetings.  They viewed that as their due for their spiritual attainments.  Even though the practice of Christianity doesn’t have the same status in our larger society, self-interest still can creep into our faith.  Let’s imagine that we’ve worked really hard on something for the church, but nobody compliments us on it or notices that we’ve done it.  The Pharisee will be bothered by that, but the disciple won’t care.  They weren’t doing it for other people in the first place.

Fourth, the Pharisee leads others astray.  In v. 44, Jesus compares them to unmarked tombs.  This is another reference to the Law.  According to Numbers 19:16, anyone who touched a grave became unclean for seven days.  Thus, the Jews customarily whitewashed tombs so that other Jews would know not to touch them.  By contrast, an unmarked grave could spread uncleanness to those who did not know that they had been contaminated.

By extension, then, the Pharisees spread corruption to others who didn’t realize it—by teaching them to be Pharisaical instead of holy.  When we practice a hypocritical, checklist-based, lifeless version of Christianity, our teaching will be flawed too.  Rather than teaching others to become like Jesus, we will teach them to become like us.

Sadly, Pharisaism always will be a problem among God’s people.  With the devil’s help, we can turn even faith in Christ into a tool of self-promotion.  We only can guard against it by keeping our eyes focused on Him.  When we seek Him in humility, devotion, and love, the temptation to hypocrisy can find no root in our hearts.  That won’t make Satan very happy, but it will please the Lord.