During His time on earth, Jesus Christ had a lot of things to say about the Pharisees.
They weren’t kind things.
Because they sat “in Moses’ seat” (Matthew 23:2), they were responsible for the spiritual guidance and development of the people they served—and yet, over and over, Jesus took them to task for their continual failure to perform that role. He warned His followers, “They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do to be seen by men” (Matthew 23:4-5).
It’s pretty clear that Jesus didn’t intend for the Pharisees to be a modern-day Christian’s role model, but their example is important all the same. By taking a look at where they went wrong, we can learn a lot about how God expects us to approach our calling—a subject that’s especially relevant as we approach this coming Passover.
So let’s get started. What can the Pharisees teach us about preparing for Passover?
1. It’s not about how others see you
The Pharisees were masters of presentation. Christ said so Himself: “All their works they do to be seen by men.” Everything they did was designed to draw attention to themselves—to show the world how impressive and pious they were.
When they did something charitable, they would sound a trumpet “in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men” (Matthew 6:2). When they prayed, it was “standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men” (Matthew 6:5). And when they fasted, they did so “with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting” (Matthew 6:16).
In their desire to be seen and admired, the Pharisees began to value the motions more than the meaning behind the motions. The point of doing a good deed is to help someone. The point of praying is to bring ourselves into communication with God. The point of fasting is to humble ourselves and bring ourselves in accordance with God’s will. None of those things require an audience.
In His most scalding oration, Christ compared the Pharisees to dishes which appear clean on the outside, “but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence” (Matthew 23:25) and whitewashed tombs “which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:27-28).
The Pharisees were so focused on how they looked in the eyes of their audience that they neglected the most important parts of themselves—the parts no one else could see. But Christ could see through the whitewashed exterior, and what He saw was spiritual filth.
2. It’s not about your rules
Another thing the Pharisees had a knack for was redefining what it means to obey God. When they “found fault” with Jesus because His disciples did not “walk according to the tradition of the elders” (Mark 7:2, 5), Jesus fired back, “All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition” (Mark 7:9).
The Pharisees had extra rules about what vows counted and what vows didn’t (Matthew 23:16-22), they had loopholes for how to avoid providing for their parents (Matthew 15:4-6), they had extra restrictions for what was acceptable on the Sabbath (Luke 6:6-11), along with “many other things which they have received and hold” (Mark 7:4). And they were good at following those rules.
When Christ told the multitudes, “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven,” (Matthew 5:20), it must have sounded completely impossible. More righteous than the Pharisees? How could anyone do that? The Pharisees wrote the book on righteousness.
And that was the problem, really. The Pharisees were using their own book and their own rules when they should have been using God’s. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” Jesus told them. “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. Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:23-24).
The Pharisees were so focused on doing things the way they thought they should be done, they completely neglected the things that really mattered to God. And that points us toward the most important pre-Passover lesson we can learn from the Pharisees:
3. It’s about who you are in the eyes of God
Jesus knew the hearts of the Pharisees—He knew what was important to them, He knew how they looked at themselves, and He knew how they looked at others.
Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: “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.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The Pharisee came to God to brag about how great he was, but the tax collector was not quite so disillusioned. He knew who he was in the eyes of God, and he came before God accordingly. His prayer—a plea for mercy—carried far more weight with God than the prayer of the man who could only see his own greatness.
As we prepare for Passover, which one are we? Are we the Pharisee—or the tax collector? Are we focused on how righteous we appear to others and how we measure up to our own standards—or are we analyzing ourselves in light of God’s Word and holding ourselves up to His standards?
It’s fine to be doing better in certain areas than we were last year. In fact, if we’re living the way we’re supposed to, we ought to be better Christians than we were last year. God doesn’t expect us to ignore our strengths or pretend they don’t exist—but He also doesn’t expect us to be so focused on those strengths that we stop seeing where we need to improve.
It would be a mistake to look at the example of the Pharisees and just roll our eyes at all their foibles. Especially with Passover right around the corner, we have a lot to gain when we realize that the Pharisees’ mistakes can easily become our mistakes. We can fall into the trap of putting on a show for others, we can start putting our own rulebook above God’s, and we can miss the weightier matters of the law in the process.
Instead, let’s make an effort to be more like the tax collector in Christ’s parable—to strive to see ourselves for who we are in the eyes of our Creator. He sees through our facades and down into the core of our being—and the more we learn to see ourselves the same way, the more opportunities we’ll have to grow. And the more of those opportunities we take advantage of, the better our upcoming Passover will be.
Turns out the Pharisees have a lot to teach us after all.
Until next time,