Born a legalist, made a Pharisee
I like the Royal Navy adverts on the radio at the moment. A young (to me anyway) person describes what they do in the Navy. Then they say “Born in Stoke Poges (or wherever) made in the Navy.” The reality is that we are all born legalists but if we are not careful, we can be made into Pharisees. Spurgeon once preached, “Beloved, the legalist [in us] is a great deal older than the Christian. If I were a legalist today, I should be some fifteen or sixteen years older than I am as a Christian; for we are all born legalists.”
How is that? Well, we are born thinking that we can earn and deserve heaven. We are born to resist grace, because it says some uncomfortable things about us just before we get the free gift of eternal life. We can’t earn it, we don’t deserve it, but we get it anyway! Legalism is believing that your law-keeping and your performance is what earns favour and acceptance from God. Pharisees take it a step further; they add to legalism knowledge, tradition and superiority. But it is all on the outside, it is all outward observance, with no heart or love for God or others. As author Marshall Seagal puts it “We are born legalists. But Pharisees are informed legalists.” They are graceless in themselves and with others.
So how can we avoid becoming a 21st Century Pharisee? What are the symptoms of being a Pharisee?
1) They don’t do what they say, v.3b-12
They don’t practice what they preach. They make heavy burdens for people, neither helping them or applying them to themselves. Beware of a gap between what you say you believe and what you actually believe and do. Sure we all have ongoing sin in our lives – what excuses are you making for it, or are you putting sin to death with the help of brothers and sisters in Christ?
2) They do everything to be seen
Jesus goes on, “They do all their deeds to be seen by others” (Matthew 23:5). The Pharisees prayed to be seen by others (Matthew 6:5); they served the poor to be seen by others (Matthew 6:2); they obeyed the Scriptures to be seen by others (Matthew 6:1). Their reward was being seen by others. Jesus gives grace freely and also rewards how we live in the good of, and under, grace – “Beware of practising your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). Live for an audience of One.
3) Pharisees keep people from grace
“You shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (Matthew 23:13–15). Pharisaism is contagious – living from the head and looking down on others makes sons and daughters of hell, not heaven.
4) Adding traditions to the Word of God.
I was once told to get saved and get my hair cut by a street preacher. My reply was ‘I am saved and what’s my hair got to do with it?’ Pharisees add their biases, prejudices and traditions to what is clearly commanded to make it acceptable. Tradition can be great when it is carried on in faith. But doing it because we have always done it this way, when clearly God has moved on, is foolishness.
5) Pharisees don’t love the poor, the sick and the sinners
They may tithe their spices and herbs but ignore justice, mercy and faithfulness. They despised the people Jesus was healing, because they didn’t want to get their hands dirty. Pharisees find every little bit of the law to walk the long way around the half-dead man lying in the middle of the road right in front of them (Luke 10:31–32). Grace filled people have died to themselves, and live for the needs and interests of others, whoever God has placed in our path.
6) Pharisees cover sin instead of confessing and repenting
Jesus uses the analogy of their ritual cleaning of the cup and leaving the inside dirty, to illustrate this. It is all for outward show, not inside heart work. Peter later refuses to have his feet washed and then when Jesus insists, asks for a bath. Grace gave us a bath when we came to Christ, but sometimes we need to wash our feet when they get stinky in the world. You are forgiven, God’s wrath is turned away (propitiation), but at times you need a bit of a wash so that your conscience is cleansed (expiation). We don’t live condemned all the time – there is now no condemnation. The phrase ‘I’m feeling convicted’ is not helpful either as we are now not guilty! Sometimes the Spirit will reveal something that displeases the Lord and then we can confess and be cleansed of a bad conscience. Hallelujah! Pharisees though, like to look good, so won’t confess and that sin gets worse and becomes a worse habit!
Let’s flee from Pharisaism and its need to look good on the outside. Allow the Lord to keep filling you on the inside with His love and power to be more like Jesus.