The Pharisees claimed to be the successors of Ezra and the early scribes. The Pharisees cherished Ezra next to Moses as the founder of Judaism. They saw themselves as responsible for preserving, interpreting and teaching the law.
But to the Pharisees the law was not just the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, but the oral law as well. In many instances the oral law, with its multitudinous and complicated precepts, is what led to the Pharisees' obsession with minutiae rather than the weightier matters.
The Pharisees controlled the centers of learning in Judea in Jesus' time, including the synagogues. Paul and Barnabas were alumni of one of their schools.
The Sadducees, the other Jewish sect mentioned in Scripture, represented the interests of the Jews in Jerusalem. Many of them were members of the Sanhedrin in good standing politically with the occupying Roman government. Their ranks included nobles and priests who dominated the temple and its ritual.
The Sadducees denied belief in the resurrection, angels and spirits and attacked the validity of the oral tradition, the unwritten law, which the Pharisees upheld.
Another group in Judaism, the Herodians, were influential Jews who supported the ruling dynasty of Herod. "Herod" was the name of several in a line of princes who in various capacities ruled all or parts of Palestine and neighboring regions from around 55 B.C. to around A.D. 93.
Herod the Great, also known as Herod I, was the father of the five Herods who ruled during New Testament times. These monarchs ruled the Jews under the Caesars of the Roman Empire. Although all nominally Jewish, none of the Herods was Jewish by blood.
(The Essenes, not mentioned in the Bible, were a part of Judaism but were apparently not among the Jewish leaders who clashed with Jesus.)
Leading and serving
One of Jesus' first teaching sessions with His disciples is reported in Matthew 5, a lesson on how to be a leader while simultaneously being a servant. Jesus taught that learning to be a servant leader meant learning to think with the mind of God, which Jesus Himself exemplified. Jesus listed some of God's thoughts in what we call the Beatitudes.
In Matthew 6, after He taught His disciples to pray to the Father, He warned them against hypocrisy--which He defined as the desire to be seen--in prayer, alms-giving and other Christian acts.
In verse 17 He spoke of the importance of God's spiritual law. When the spiritual law motivates our actions, the physical law is fulfilled. Jesus equated this fulfillment to righteousness. He contrasted the Pharisees' lack of righteousness with the righteousness we are to have.
"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," He warned (verse 20).
The Bible in many places records Jesus calling these religious leaders hypocrites and "blind guides."
The Greek word translated "hypocrisy" means play-acting. But these Pharisees went much further than just acting out their religion. Jesus implied that their hypocritical actions crossed over the line into evil.
In Matthew 23, before Jesus pronounced seven "woes" on the heads of the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, Jesus advised His followers to do whatever the Pharisees as temporal teachers of the law instructed them to do, but "do not you after their works."
The Pharisees' "works," said Jesus, were actions they took so they could be "seen of men." Their works included making broad their phylacteries and enlarging the borders of their garments.
Phylacteries were tiny pouches made of animal skin that some who were of the Jewish religion wore on their foreheads and left arms.
The head phylacteries had four small compartments, each of which contained a piece of parchment or other material on which was written one of four passages from the old Testament: Exodus 13:1-10; Exodus 13:11-16; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; or Deuteronomy 11:13-21.
The arm phylacteries had only one pocket but contained the same four passages.
Many of us read these passages from the law as meant to be taken metaphorically. But notice the part of each passage that the Pharisees took literally:
"It [the law] shall be as a sign to you on your hand and as a memorial between your eyes, that the Lord's law may be in your mouth; for with a strong hand the Lord has brought you out of Egypt" (Exodus 13:9).
"It shall be as a sign on your hand and as frontlets between your eyes, for by strength of hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt" (verse 16).
"You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes" (Deuteronomy 6:8).
"Therefore you shall lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes" (verse 18).
Jesus didn't chastise His fellow Jews for making and wearing phylacteries. I think the sin was in the misuse of the law, citing Deuteronomy 6:18 so dramatically to promote themselves, wearing these passages on their outside clothing or their body, all the while not having and living the spiritual law in their hearts.
(Some scholars think the Jews didn't began to wear phylacteries until the Maccabean era, after the return from Babylon.)
"For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly," Jesus declared. ". . . Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness" (Matthew 23:27-28).
Jesus, making use of oriental hyperbole, further showed that the Pharisees of His day missed the big picture: They took pains to ensure that they never accidentally consumed a gnat with their food while spiritually and metaphorically gulping down entire camels (verse 24).
Matthew further records in chapter 23: "Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites," he preached to these self-righteous ones. "For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith."
Luke 11's account of this discourse named the weightier matters of the law as "justice and the love of God."
If we are learning God's and Jesus' mind, if we're in training to be godly leaders for Them and wish to rule in God's Kingdom as part of the royal family, then we must make sure God's spiritual law resides in our minds.
We can do this only with the help of God's Spirit. When we do this, we will, as Jesus was wont to do, render justice and God's love in our associations and in our fellowship and to God and to our fellowman.
The Pharisees, the ultimate visual aid Jesus could not resist calling on, stood as bad examples when they attempted to burden God's people with the keeping of petty rules and regulations--traditions--that are not properly part of God's spiritual law.
Jesus wanted His disciples to have the attitude of David, a man after God's own heart, who wrote: "O how love I thy law. It's my meditation all the day long."
David knew that a human being who had made God's law a component of his very mind and heart would be a human being who would radiate justice and love.
As Jesus noticed and talked about the Pharisees' pharisaic tendencies, the Pharisees noticed, and were outraged by, Jesus' disregard for the tenets and traditions they held so dear.
In Matthew 15 the Pharisees had accused Jesus and His disciples of breaking the law when they failed to wash their hands before they ate bread.
In answer to their concerns about hand-washing, Jesus asked them about a much graver matter.
"Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition?" He asked.
He recited the requirements of God's law to honor one's father and mother. In fact, a strict reading of the law prescribes the death penalty for one who fails to esteem his parents.
So why, Jesus wanted to know, did the Pharisees follow a tradition that relieved them from the responsibility to financially support their parents by formally and ritually "dedicating" their money and goods "to the temple." As long as their estate, which they retained control of, was technically the property of the temple, they did not have to spend it to support their parents' needs.
By religiously following this tradition, said Jesus, such a one is pervertedly "released from honoring his father and mother," and "thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition. Hypocrites, well did Isaiah prophesy of you."
Jesus, our teacher, wants us to see, with the help of the Pharisees' bad example, that our human nature can rule us if we're not careful.
Caught in a trap
Let's look at a final sobering example of what happened to some who believed and understood Jesus but, because of their emotions and because of peer pressure, found themselves caught in the Pharisees' trap.
John 12 talks about "rulers" among the Pharisees who believed Jesus' words, but "because of the Pharisees they did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue."
Why worry about being disfellowshipped from the synagogue for forsaking the traditions of the Pharisees?
They worried about such shunning because "they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God" (verse 43).
Jesus didn't have the luxury of an overhead projector or PowerPoint presentation. He used real, live examples as visual aids to teach His disciples, including us, the importance of being wary of the leaven, the hypocrisy, of the Pharisees.
Jesus teaches us to let God's Spirit in us fulfill God's law when we practice the spiritual, substantive aspects of love. This is the righteousness that exceeds the "righteousness of the Pharisees." This is the righteousness that allows us to enter the Kingdom of God.
Let's study well our lessons under the greatest teacher ever known who brought the greatest message ever heard.