Today’s New Testament Christians believe that Pharisees were anything but good. That was certainly true about some, but then that is also true about some professing Christians. We all fall short of the glory of God, Romans 3:23, but our hope and goal is for us to be more Christ-like than Pharisaical in our lives and hearts.
Part of a modern Christian’s attitude about the Pharisees comes from what is written about them in the Bible. However, to be honest, it is a one-sided story and they get no opportunity to defend themselves. They were a religious community of men who considered themselves bound to follow God’s law as closely as humanly possible. The Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, in his book Antiquities of the Jews (17.2.4 ), wrote that the Pharisees “valued themselves highly upon the exact skill they had in the law of their fathers”. In War of the Jews, (2.8.14 ), he commented that Pharisees “are those who are esteemed most skillful in the exact explication of their laws”.
Still, the Bible is true and the negative comments about the Pharisees are true. There is the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, Luke 18:9-14, with the proud Pharisee, glad he wasn’t like the other lowly sinners. That pride is matched by the Pharisees who criticized Jesus for eating with tax collectors and sinners, Matthew 9:11. Repeatedly they questioned and tested Jesus because He contradicted their belief system with His message of faith. See, for example, Matthew 9:14, Matthew 9:34, Matthew 12:2, Matthew 16:1, Mark 7:1-5, Mark 10:2, Mark 12:13, John 10:1 and Matthew 16:1-12. Repeatedly their challenges failed, so they resorted to murder.
But we overlook that some Pharisees warned Jesus of Herod’s intent to kill Him, Luke 13:31. It is not certain if they were sincere or just trying to get Him to leave Jerusalem. There is little doubt about the sincerity of Nicodemus when he spoke with Jesus in John 3:1-21. He came to speak with Jesus at night, likely to protect himself from the other Pharisees. Joseph of Arimathea who gave up his gravesite for Jesus was either a Pharisee, a Sadducee or a law giver because he was a member of the Sanhedrin, Mark 15:43 and Luke 23:50-51, and he was secretly a disciple of Jesus, John 19:38.
Even though every member of the leadership and all of the Pharisees may not have been evil, we do know where the hearts of many lay:
14 The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.
Their greatest failure was in thinking their own “righteousness” would be good enough to get them to heaven. They believed they were the least of sinners, and therefore, were the closest to God. They could not handle correction from this itinerant preacher, Jesus.
20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
I do not defend the Pharisees because their choice to murder Jesus was sinful under God’s law, but consider this: If a dirty, non-seminary trained, street preacher walked into your church and denounced leadership and pastors as vigorously as Jesus criticized the leadership of the Jewish people, see Matthew 23, would you listen?
Wouldn’t he be removed and probably arrested? We have the wisdom of hindsight and two thousand years of history and reflection to enlighten us. Regardless, their plans to have Jesus killed were wrong under Jewish law as well as God’s law.
The Pharisees earned the criticism Jesus gave to them. But here’s the problem – some modern day believers tend to behave and even think similarly. Here is what I mean. We live in a world and in a society that loves, and quite possibly worships, money. As I write this there was a story in the news about a South Carolina preacher who bought his wife a $200,000 Lamborghini. Being wealthy, in itself, is not a sin, but what we do with wealth can be sin. I do not want to be judgmental about that purchase, but it is hard for me to reconcile that purchase with Colossians 3:1-2, where we are called to keep our minds focused on heavenly things and not on earthly things. But don’t stop there.
We can look at large homes in gated communities where the wealthy isolate themselves from the less fortunate, which seems hard to reconcile with Luke 14:13-14:
13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,
14 and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
We also have the problem with Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:23-24:
23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.
24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
How am I like a Pharisee?
But if I am going to comment about others, I need to examine myself. I live well in the wealthiest country in the history of the world. While I do not live in a gated community, our neighborhood is a small but very nice one. I do live miles away from what I have called “bad neighborhoods.” We are a two-person household with over 2,000 square feet of living space, a pool, and we have two very nice cars.
We are very isolated from those “bad neighborhoods” and only drive through them when we have to. I am retired and it most assuredly is not just Social Security I am living on. We have traveled internationally for years and will continue to take what many consider fabulous trips.
I have to ask myself if my lifestyle reflects that I love money too much. Is my lifestyle too important to me? Would I be a better witness if I lived out my faith in a “bad neighborhood” or a smaller home? Could what I have be put to better serve God’s kingdom now rather than after I die? Do I have more than I need? Am I hoarding money due to an uncertain world or due to a lack of faith in God? Do I really believe Matthew 6:33-34?
33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
I feel the pull of marketing telling me I can afford a larger, newer and smarter flat screen TV, a newer car, maybe even a $200,000 Lamborghini, and the newest and most up-to-date tech gadgets available. The pull of man-toys is remarkably strong.
Even as I write this I am struggling with the wealth inequalities in the world and even in this country and I am admiring the early church. 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 are a masterpiece of financial exposition by the apostle Paul. His words include the following:
2 Corinthians 8:13-15
13 Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality.
14 At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality,
15 as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.”
Equality! Our world of conspicuous consumption and the urge to have the latest everything with the most features put on display the antithesis of equality.
And how about the sharing and generosity of Acts 4?
32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.
33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all
34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales
35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”),
37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.
It is one thing to be generous; it is another thing altogether to be that radically generous. What happened in Acts 4 is not a command, but those who gave were commended for their generosity.
I know these passages are not teaching that everyone should sell everything and give it to the church or the poor. These are examples of radical generosity, not a commandment to give everything. But Joseph, the Levite from Cypress in Acts 4, is a picture of a man who loved people more than money. Do I? I have sung the words, “All to Jesus I surrender” but I struggle with whether I am lying as I sing those words.
Maybe my American dream has a fundamental problem. Maybe making my money all about me is a flawed way of thinking. Maybe my way of looking at the money I have earned is not Biblical and not Christ-like. Maybe I am as big a hypocrite as the Pharisees.
23 Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.
24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
So, how do I get away with what I do?
Explanations and justifications and a flaw in our thinking
I have lots of explanations and justifications, perhaps also referred to as rationalization or excuses, none of them valid:
It takes money to make money.
I am able to give more because of what I have.
I have obligations to my wife.
I do tithe and more than tithe.
I give generously because of the money I do have.
I serve as a volunteer in several roles, another form of giving back to God.
My service encourages more people to give more.
God gave me the ability to earn and have this wealth, so it must be good.
My wife and I worked hard, were frugal, and we earned every cent of what we have.
But those excuses are little satisfaction to a child starving to death in Africa – or here in the US for that matter. And it isn’t getting the gospel out to anyone while it is sitting in my investment account.
There is another reason why I do what I do, and I offer this as a criticism of myself and the church and not as a justification or valid reason for what I do – we all think this way and nobody says otherwise. I have thoroughly enjoyed a video by Alan Barnhart on his circumstances and life and how he avoided the lure of wealth that is far beyond mine. One illustration he gives strikes me especially hard. He refers to what would happen in his church if he openly sinned and bragged about cheating on his wife or doing drugs. He said that some of the people in his church would come to him and help him get back on track.
But in the area of money, if he were to sin in the area of money and take more for himself and consume more than he should, instead of rebuking him, people of his church would congratulate him. I encourage you to watch this short video and hear his entire amazing story.
Being wealthy is not a sin, but what about showing off your wealth with ostentatious displays and purchases? Some would say that is not a sin, but as I commented earlier, it is difficult if not impossible to reconcile displays of wealth and the cry of God for the poor and distressed. See Proverbs 28:27. There is no clear point where someone crosses the line and is enjoying wealth too much.
So, what can we do?
A Christian view of money
The Bible never directly says that money is an idol. But indirectly, we are told repeatedly that money can be an idol. See Matthew 6:19-21 and Luke 16:13 just to mention two. God and money are in a competition for our loyalty and affection. All too often, money wins and God gets a passing glance at best.
In America we have been given incredible wealth and opportunity. Yes, Americans have worked hard for it and arguably have earned in through hard work and amazing genius and creativity. But just because we have a lot, does not give us license to coast and ignore God.
48b From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.
To me in my circumstances, that almost sounds like a test, and I am not sure how I am going to score. One of the most troubling parables to me is the parable of the shrewd manager at Luke 16:1-15. Jesus appears to commend a dishonest servant who was about to be fired. He went to those who owed his master money and gave the debtors large discounts if they paid the discounted amount right away. It was a clever although dishonest way of making friends. It is the master’s reaction as reported by Jesus that is troublesome, depending upon how you look at this parable.
8 “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.
9 I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
Jesus was not indicating He approved of the way the servant cheated his master for his own benefit. Instead Jesus used this to illustrate how people who live with both feet and their heart in the world are shrewd. Then He closed the parable with two thoughts. First, Jesus indicated we should use what we have to gain friends, but second, we are to keep our eyes on the kingdom where we will spend eternity.
I believe Jesus was saying that having wealth isn’t wrong or a sin, but we should use that wealth to be a positive influence for the kingdom of God.
The other parable that is troubling to me is the shortest of all the parables, one verse.
44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
That one verse parable is a huge step when you consider the implications of the parable’s meaning. Am I ready to sell all that I have to buy that field? Am I sold out for Jesus?
How Can I Be Like Jesus?
“I can’t,” is the short answer. But the even simpler answer is that if I let go of my self-interests and just love people, I can come a lot closer to being Christ-like than I ever could by my own effort. It really is a dying to self.
20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
The old self is “put off” meaning taken off and thrown away. We have a new self and a new nature. What we really need to do is get our sinful self out of the way.
22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires;
23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds;
24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
Romans 6:4 is the verse said during baptisms at Idlewild. It means that baptism symbolizes our salvation as we die to our self and are buried with Jesus, only to have our new self rise with Christ.
4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.
6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—
7 because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.
8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.
There is a denial of self. What I want doesn’t matter; what He wants matters a lot.
23 Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.
The practical aspect as opposed to the theological process, is that Jesus came as a servant even though He is a ruler, Matthew 20:25-28. He gave of His labor and time as He walked in the heat and the cold. He gave and still gives through intercession with the Father. He left His riches to come for us. 2 Corinthians 8:9. In every sense of the word, Jesus came to give to us. Ultimately, He gave His own life to ransom us from sin. Then, to complete the setting for the church age, He gave us the Holy Spirit to maintain us in this difficult world. John 14:15-17. In fact, since God owns everything and we are only stewards, all that we have is a gift from God. 1 Peter 4:10 (ESV).
And as Jesus gave, He also made it possible for us to serve alongside Him. He gave us the ability to walk with Him and He enlightened us to be stewards of His grace. 1 Peter 4:10. Through our willing, joyful and selfless service, we walk with Him in His mission of restoration and salvation for those who do not know Christ and to glorify God.
It has been said by Pastor Rick Warren that we are never more like God than when we are giving. I have no objective way to measure that comparison, but it is likely true. Thanks to my position as Executive Director of The Idlewild Foundation, I have experienced the greatest joy of my Christian life through being generous to others, and by motivating, educating and facilitating stewardship and generosity. I look forward to the remaining time God has in store for me on earth as God and I together continue the transformation of me into a more Christ-like disciple of Jesus.
Join me as a former Pharisee.
About the Author
John Campbell has retired from a 40-year legal practice as a trial attorney in Tampa. He has served in multiple volunteer roles at Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, Florida, where he met Jesus. He began serving as the Executive Director of the Idlewild Foundation in 2016. He has been married to the love of his life, Mona Puckett Campbell, since 1972.