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Modern-Day Pharisees
             by                  Kim Harrington


    And when the scribes and Pharisees saw Him eating with the tax collectors and sinners, they said to His disciples, "How is it that He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?" When Jesus heard it, He said to them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance."

Mark 2:16-17

    The Pharisees were the arch-enemies of Jesus -- the bad guys -- during His earthly ministry. It seems that His brand of spirituality posed more of a threat to them than to any other segment of the Judean population. Unfortunately, nearly two thousand years later, many of the followers of Christ seem to have as much in common with the Pharisees as they do with the Lord Himself.

    What we sometimes don't realize is that the Pharisees were the religious fundamentalists of the day, the true conservatives, people who were deeply disturbed by the compromises, moral and political, that were taking place with Rome in the days of Jesus. They were totally committed to the God of the Bible, and zealous for the truths of the Word. Though hypocrisy abounded, much of it was unintentional, simply the failure to think things through to their logical conclusions. For the most part, the Pharisees were sincere, God-fearing followers of Jehovah God.

    In a few vital areas, however, they had lost their perspective. These areas affected their judgment so much that they actually rejected the Messiah they had been waiting for so long. Unfortunately, many modern evangelicals share these same traits. Let's identify them, make the necessary changes, and make sure we don't make the same deadly mistake of ultimately rejecting what God is doing in our day and age.


    First and foremost, Pharisees were Separate. Pharisee means "Separatist" in Hebrew. They took great pains to separate themselves from sinners and Gentiles. We are not of them, and they are not of us; we will not be defiled by contact with them. We are holy, they are unholy, we honor God and they don't... that was their thinking.

    The Bible teaches separation, but it is a spiritual separation, not a physical removing of oneself from people who are outside of the kingdom. Jesus said in John 17...

    "I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. "I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. "They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. "Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth. "As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. (vss.14-18)

    The world hates the true believer, but we don't hate the world--there's a big difference there between Jesus and the Pharisees. We are not of the world, but we are in it. Furthermore, Jesus sent us out into the world to be as He Himself was--eating and drinking with sinners. God calls us to spiritual sanctification.. Hence we can be with sinners, touching them, knowing them, yet motivated by something different--not the same selfishness, greed and worldliness.

    Too much of the church today has opted for physical sanctification instead. We've set up a Christian counterculture alongside of the world's: Christian television and radio, Christian business directories, Christian music and entertainment industries... fellowshipping, like the Pharisees, only with other Christians of similar persuasion. Yet the motive often remains the same--the desire for success and prosperity for me and mine, the good life, just like the world wants.


    Further, the Pharisees were characterized by Self-Righteousness, and a Judgmental Spirit. Look at the story our Lord used to illustrate this...

    "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank You that I am not like other men-- extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. 'I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.'

Luke 18:10-12

    There is no greater turn-off than a Christian who acts self-righteous and condescending, as though it's obvious he is better than you. Yet many of us act this way toward unbelievers and nominal Christians all the time. It's no wonder that they don't have time to listen to us when we try to explain some point of the Gospel to them!

    The deceptive part of this is that we really are better off than the unbeliever, for the most part we are happier, have more peace of mind, and walk in greater righteousness--we are holier than them! Nevertheless, we need to treat people with respect, give them credit for having a little dignity, even if they're bound in a self-destructive lifestyle. They're still human beings who care about their families, want to be successful and get ahead in life, people with hopes and dreams, loves and fears, just like us. They don't deserve to be treated like the Pharisee treated the publican in the parable.

    The Christian message makes sense--our values and beliefs have been tried and proven in the crucible of life for thousands of years, and are worthy of a good listen. But somehow we are perceived as bad-tempered and judgmental, and hence the unchurched world doesn't listen to us. It's not our message but our attitude that makes them hostile. They know if we really care about them, or just angry and upset about the principles we stand for... which brings us to the next point.


    The Pharisees were preoccupied with their little rules and regulations--they honored Principles over People, which according to Jesus, was not the spirit in which the rules were given...

    "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.

Matthew 23:23

    In Pharisaical religion, people serve the rules and regulations--they must conform or else. In true spirituality rules and laws serve people...

    ...The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.

Mark 2:27

    I don't have to mention how guilty the modern church can be in this area--we easily lose perspective and attack people who disagree with us. It's the principle of the matter. As we enter an election year, I cringe to think of some of the awful hate propaganda I'm going to receive in the mail from various political watch-dog groups, telling me what terrible devils all the liberal Democrats are! We need to remember that we're here to love people, serve people, and win people to the Lord. We should honor the rules--they bring blessings to us and ours. But we need to keep priorities straight--people are weightier.


    This sort of judgmental, perfectionist attitude inevitable begins to turn inward and Pharisees can be just as Critical & Condemning Towards Each Other as they are towards the outside world. Some churches in our land, in their zeal for holiness have created savage little societies where only the strong survive. An unholy spiritual rivalry develops: who is really more spiritual, more worthy, closer to God, more gifted?

    In Pharisaical fellowships people get into a contest of holiness--and put each other under such close scrutiny that the individual is afraid to confess weakness and need--he might be ostracized. Of course, this breeds hypocrisy, as no one is truly as perfect as they're all pretending to be, and all are afraid to admit their failings.

    New believers don't feel this way--they're generally pretty humbled by their status as babes in Christ, but under such circumstances, this ugly religious spirit soon sinks into their souls as well. Soon they, too, are feeling, "I'm a little more experienced, I've been around, I'm not like those novices..." Are we taking innocent converts and turning them into twice the sons of Hell that we are, as Jesus accused the Pharisees?

    What unbeliever wants to join a club like that?


    Finally, the Pharisees were rebuked by Jesus for Honoring Traditions Over the Word of God.

    "For God commanded, saying, 'Honor your father and your mother'; and, 'He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.' But you say, 'Whoever says to his father or mother, "Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift to God"--'then he need not honor his father or mother.' Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition."

Matthew 15:4-6

    Though we don't like to admit it, every group of Christians has its extra-scriptural traditions that are sometimes enforced even more strenuously than the Bible itself. These issues may have been a battleground of the faith at one time, the very front lines of what the church was struggling with a generation or two ago, but perhaps have lost their relevance with the passing of the years.

    Dress codes are among the most common of these traditions. For example, when my wife and I were first saved in the mid 'Seventies years ago the ladies had to wear dresses in church; pants were considered immodest and unladylike (though I saw a few dresses that were more revealing than any pants my wife ever wore!) Short hair was also impermissible for the ladies, but required in the men, who also needed to dress in a sport coat and tie, if not a full dress suit.

    If you attended movies, had an occasional drink, or smoked cigarettes you could not apply for membership in the church I was saved at. Jewelry was frowned upon. The older saints would have added bowling alleys, and a handful of other prohibitions that made no sense at all to me--I was just about raised in a bowling alley!

    What do they all have in common? None are forbidden in the Bible--many, such as drinking in moderation or wearing jewelry, were practiced by godly men and women in the Scriptures. (Incidentally, in biblical days, the men wore long robes, and the women wore robes with legs--in the interests of modesty. In other words, the ladies wore the pants and the men dresses!)

    Music was another battleground back in the Seventies when the Jesus Movement hit the church world. Back then, anything modern, with any kind of back-beat or syncopation, was forbidden. Efforts were made to identify such "demonically inspired trash" with African voodoo and idolatry!

    In spite of all the efforts of the baby boomer generation over the past twenty years to modernize the church, make it more relevant, and free it from meaningless ritual, we still fight some of these battles to a degree. Some have barely been addressed at all.

    What if you saw me walking out of a bar next door to our church. It may also be a restaurant--I may have just been having dinner--but in a place like that?! Pastor, what would people say? What if I actually had a drink in there and was conversing with the regulars? That would jeopardize my ministry, and I could even be defrocked, but I'd only be doing what Jesus did all the time--eating and drinking with sinners--and what the Pharisees were so upset at him about!

    Think of it! Such a stand is more like that of the Pharisees than of Jesus. We could be resisting the very person who has the courage to go where Jesus sent all of us--into the world...

    "As You sent Me into the world [where He ate and drank with sinners], I also have sent them into the world.

John 17:18

    Jesus probably drank wine every day, but not to excess. According to the Word of God, alcoholic beverages cheer the heart of men and God, and are prescribed for comfort and medicinal purposes. Wine was an intrinsic part of biblical life, and is even used as a type of the Holy Spirit. (See Judges 9:13, Proverbs 31:6-7, Ecclesiastes 9:7-8, 1 Timothy 5:23, etc.)

    How about cigarettes? I know a man who has one or two a week, when he's pondering an especially hard problem at work. Is that moderate--or is it more moderate to withhold church membership from him?

    A few years ago I was with Sergei Timoken in St. Petersburg, Russia. He is the pastor of a large indigenous charismatic church there, and quite a personality on the Russian Christian scene. He saw my hesitance to drink actual wine as we observed the Lord's Supper together, and commented on how American Christians were often offended at their Russian brethren for drinking... and how the Russians were similarly offended at the Scandinavians for smoking, and the Australians at the Americans for hunting and not being more ecologically conscientious. My, what a nasty group of people we can be when we go further than the Word of God in our prohibitions!

    We need the courage to challenge the status quo, and begin to serve God better. The fact is, we're losing influence in our culture today because of our misguided and unscriptural resemblance to Phariseeism. Let's get out of this narrow little camp, and get firmly planted over to the side of Jesus. Let's follow Him out into the world and see if we can't save a few people before He returns to judge it.

Copyright 2000   Kim Harrington, Masterbuilder Ministries. All rights reserved.


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