The Pharisees were the spiritual leaders of the Jewish people, responsible for teaching the people the commands of God (John 3:10). Throughout Jesus’ lifetime, the Pharisees were His most vocal adversaries, and Jesus spent much of His ministry refuting and preaching against the teachings of the Pharisees, beginning with His first public sermon, the Sermon on the Mount. Even before Christ’s ministry, the Pharisees were a primary target for Jesus’ herald, John the Baptist. John dedicated part of his sermon on repentance in Matthew 3 to explicitly calling out the Pharisees as a “brood of vipers”. (v.7) Both John and Jesus warned the Jews, using the Pharisees as an example, of the “wrath to come”. To avoid becoming modern-day Pharisees, we need to understand what they believed about salvation.
Christianity is predominantly evangelical, and the majority of Christianity’s theology comes from the Reformation in the 16th century. To understand what Christians commonly believe about the Pharisees, it makes logical sense to consider the teachings of the ‘Father of the Reformation’, Martin Luther. Luther discusses the Pharisees in his commentary of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. He states:
Here you see how [Christ] plunges in and antagonizes not ordinary people, but the very best in the whole nation, who were the true kernel and quintessence, and shone before the rest like the sun, so that there was no more highly esteemed class nor more honorable name among the people than that of the Pharisees and Scribes; and if one wanted to name a holy man, he would have to name a Pharisee.
Martin Luther (Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, emphasis mine)
“[Christ] rebukes also not certain evil practices or sins, but their righteousness and holy living; so completely, indeed, that he denies and closes the kingdom of heaven against them, and condemns them at once to hell fire.”
ibid (emphasis mine)
That is now one thing that he acknowledges, that they have a righteousness, and lead a correct, honorable life; and yet [Christ] so completely rejects it, that if it be not better than that, it is already condemned, and all is lost that one can accomplish by it.
ibid (emphasis mine)
Evangelicals view the Pharisees very similarly. They claim that the “Pharisees were the ultimate religious people among the Jews”, intent “not to break any of God’s laws” but rather viewed “the Scriptures of the Old Testament as a set of rules that must be kept at all costs.”1. Additionally, they believe that “as a general rule, the Pharisees were self-righteous and smug in their delusion that they were pleasing to God because they kept the Law—or parts of it, at least.”2
What is clear from the teaching of Luther and modern-day Christians is that they believe that the Pharisees were condemned to hell for “their righteousness and holy living” and not because of their “certain evil practices or sins”.3 So, is the evangelical understanding of what the Pharisees believed true and Biblical? Were the Pharisees condemned for trying to obey God’s law?
Let’s look at this question from the perspective of the “founder” (Heb 12:2) of the Christian faith, Jesus. Though Jesus says in Matthew 5:20 that the only way to enter the kingdom of heaven is by having a “righteousness that exceeds the scribes and Pharisees”, what else Jesus says about the Pharisees makes this less of an obstacle than one might think.
Jesus taught the Jewish people that the Pharisees were hypocrites. They were the classic example of someone who preaches one thing yet practices another. Hence the reason in Matthew 23, Jesus tells the crowds to “do and observe whatever [the Pharisees] tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice.” (vv. 2-3). Six times in chapter 23, Jesus refers to them as “hypocrites” (vv. 13, 15, 23, 25, 27, and 29), claiming also that they are “full of hypocrisy” (v. 28). Hardly were they the “true kernel and quintessence” of God’s people or holiness. Neither were they characterized by trying to obey God’s law. This becomes abundantly clear from Jesus’s condemnation in verse 23:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.
And again, in verses 27 and 28,
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
According to Jesus, the Pharisees were condemned not because they kept the law, but rather the antithesis. The Pharisees were condemned because they did not obey God’s Law. Though preaching to the crowds comprehensive obedience, they themselves were selective and secretly disobedient to those portions most weighty (v. 4).4
In addition, the Pharisees were also known at times to preach against the law. Loopholes in God’s commands were created. Traditions and the doctrines of man replaced God’s commands when it served them. This is most especially true when money was involved (Mat 15:1-9; Mar 7:6-12; Luke 16:14-15).
So were the Pharisees what we see commonly preached in Evangelical pulpits today? Were they just a bunch of self-righteous, smug individuals, puffed up by their meticulous efforts to obey God’s law?
Not according to Jesus. Jesus exposed the Pharisees as hypocritical antinomians. The Pharisees were in it for show and excuses. They cared nothing about being truly obedient to God. Although they posed as law-keeping sons of Abraham, the Devil was their daddy (Joh 8:44). The Pharisees, therefore, pose no problem to Jesus’ requirement of righteousness in Matthew 5 or the obligation of obedience required by the gospel. The problem exists only in the false teaching of Martin Luther and the Evangelical Church.