Pharisees in the Bible: 6 Lessons for Modern Leaders

When I think about the Scribes and Pharisees in the Bible, I tend to think of them as the villains of the story. It’s easy for us to do this because we mostly see them arguing with Jesus and playing a pivotal role in his crucifixion.

It is important to remember, however, that the Scribes and Pharisees were actually the religious leaders during the time of Jesus.

They were respected by their communities and people looked to them for advice on scripture, the law, and politics.

The beliefs and actions of the Scribes and Pharisees were not unique to their time. In fact, I would argue that pharisaical leadership habits are rampant in the world today, and this includes the church.

Jesus, however, offered a radically different model of leadership. As leaders seeking to imitate Jesus today, we must take care not to become like modern day Pharisees.

In today’s article, we will take a look at Matthew 23 and discover 6 lessons we can learn from Jesus’s teachings about the Scribes and Pharisees in the Bible. We will then apply those lessons to modern leadership, and seek to understand how we can lead well.

Contents:

Who Were the Scribes and Pharisees in the Bible?

It is important to understand the context of who the Scribes and Pharisees were in the Bible. Brittanica explains the difference well:

In the 1st century, Scribes and Pharisees were two largely distinct groups, though presumably some Scribes were Pharisees. Scribes had knowledge of the law and could draft legal documents (contracts for marriage, divorce, loans, inheritance, mortgages, the sale of land, and the like). Every village had at least one scribe. Pharisees were members of a party that believed in resurrection and in following legal traditions that were ascribed not to the Bible but to “the traditions of the fathers.” Like the scribes, they were also well-known legal experts: hence the partial overlap of membership of the two groups.
Scribes and Pharisees

In other words, the Scribes and Pharisees did not try to be the villains of the New Testament. In fact, they believed quite strongly that they were honoring God and doing the right thing.

Christianity.com puts it this way, “They were the holy men who kept the law; they pursued purity with a passion and wanted nothing more than to live lives that pleased God. They were sincere, albeit sincerely misguided.

People looked up to the pharisees in the Bible. They listened to their teaching, sought their advice, and attempted to imitate them.

Despite their status and their efforts, Jesus found plenty to criticize about these men in power.

Today, Christians everywhere struggle with the same issues as the pharisees. In fact, a study by the Barna institute found that 86% of Christians today imitate pharisaical actions, attitudes, or both!

Source: Barna Institute

How do we stop ourselves from imitating the pharisees in the bible?

Let’s jump in.

Pharisees Don’t Practice What They Preach

It’s really easy to tell others to do the right thing, but it can be hard to do the right thing yourself. Here is what Jesus had to say in Matthew 23:2-3,

The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice.

This one really doesn’t need a lot of explanation. Nobody likes a hypocrite (and Jesus calls the pharisees hypocrites 8 times in this passage).

Unfortunately, many of us are hypocrites. We know the right thing, but struggle to do it. Rather than repent and lean into the gospel, our tendency is to cover up sin or make excuses for why it isn’t actually bad.

All of us are sinners – the difference between a religious hypocrite and a follower of Jesus is repentance.

All of us are sinners - the difference between a religious hypocrite and a follower of Jesus is repentance. Click To Tweet

Pharisees Build Up Their Own Righteousness

When you refuse to acknowledge your sin and repent, you need some ways to cover it all up.

The Pharisees in the Bible could not admit their own sin, so instead they worked to impress everyone with their righteousness.

In verse 5, Jesus says “They do all their deeds to be seen by others.” In other words, they are not interested in doing what is right, they just want to impress people.

pharisees in the bible - dirty cups

One of the woes against the Pharisees explains the issue well in verses 25-26:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.

It’s easy to appear righteous on the outside, but this is meaningless when your heart is corrupt. In order to avoid this trap, we must continually repent and rely on the work of Jesus. He is the one who sanctifies us and makes us clean.

When we trust in him and his work, we do not need to worry about building up our own righteousness.

Pharisees Protect Their Own Power

In verse 6-7, Jesus said the Pharisees and scribes,

“love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.”

Power feels good, and frankly it can be addicting.

Who wouldn’t want the place of honor? After all, it’s important to have believers in positions of power –  we want them influencing other leaders right?

The problem, of course, is how quickly we make that power an idol. We hurt others to keep the power, and point to our good deeds or policies in an effort to excuse sinful behavior.

Jesus does not call us to pursue power or greatness, however. Instead, he calls us to serve in verses 11-12:

The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

If you want to avoid being a modern day Pharisee, then you must frequently pursue service, even if it costs you your own status and power.

Pharisees Neglect the Weightier Matters of the Law

What would you say are the weightier matters of the law? What is important to God? Jesus tells us in Matthew 23:23,

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.

The Pharisees were great at following the rituals and impressing people with their righteousness. Jesus has no issues with tithing, and he calls us at times to follow spiritual discipline and ritual.

scribes and pharisees in the bible

But we cannot ignore justice, mercy, and faithfulness. There are some christian leaders today who would argue that things like “justice” are a dangerous distraction from the gospel, but Jesus demands we seek it.

In addition, Jesus does not see them as conflicting or distracting from each other. “These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.”

If you want to avoid being like a pharisee today, than make sure you are working for justice and mercy for the people in your community and beyond.

Pharisees Never Admit They Were Wrong

Humans have a really hard time admitting they could be wrong. For instance, there was a really insightful story in The Atlantic about Cognitive Dissonance. It started with this:

Members of Heaven’s Gate, a religious cult, believed that as the Hale-Bopp comet passed by Earth in 1997, a spaceship would be traveling in its wake—ready to take true believers aboard. Several members of the group bought an expensive, high-powered telescope so that they might get a clearer view of the comet. They quickly brought it back and asked for a refund. When the manager asked why, they complained that the telescope was defective, that it didn’t show the spaceship following the comet.

Instead of recognizing that they were wrong about their religious belief, the Members of Heaven’s Gate blamed everything on a faulty telescope.

The Pharisees in the Bible were champions at following the letter of the law but missing the spirit of the law. They were really smart, and they established all kinds of rules with exacting precision to protect people from breaking the law.

Unfortunately, this didn’t stop Jesus from calling them “blind fools” and “blind men” in vs 17 and 19 for completely missing the point of the temple and heaven.

Not only that, but they developed their own moral code and set it up as equal to God’s, but in reality it was extra Biblical and placed “heavy burdens…on people’s shoulders.”

When Jesus pointed out their faults or mistakes, they didn’t consider what he said. Instead, they became furious.

Pharisees in the Bible Lack Humility

We do this today as well in many arenas of life, but religion is near the top of the list. Once we interpret a passage of Scripture, we assume we have got it right and others have got it wrong. We highlight minor issues in the Bible and proclaim that they are essential to salvation.

But what if we’re missing the point?

I remember Steve Brown, a pastor and president of the Key Life network, once asked the question, “if you were wrong about everything in the Bible except Jesus, would you be ok with that?”

The truth is, the older I get, the more I realize I don’t know and don’t understand. It’s scary how confident I used to be on certain issues, but I also believe that embracing theological and epistemic humility has made me a stronger believer – it has forced me to rely more on Christ than on my own intellect.

If you want to grow in this area, start by recognizing that all of your knowledge is a drop of water in God’s ocean of wisdom and understanding.

All of your knowledge is a drop of water in God's ocean of wisdom and understanding. Click To Tweet

Cultivate a desire to learn. Seek out people who think differently than you or who have had different experiences. Meditate on scripture day and night, and never reach a place of complacency. Check out these 9 principles for discerning truth.

And every once in awhile, you might just need to recognize you were wrong.

Jesus has said, “I am the truth,” so we should never be afraid to learn. We will never “know it all,” so we can continue to seek him and the truth all the days of our lives.

Pharisees Think Everyone Else is the Actual Pharisee

Most of us look back at the Pharisees in the Bible and think, “if only I would have been there, things would have been different!”

Ironically, the Pharisees did the exact same thing. In Matthew 23:29-30, Jesus says,

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’

The Pharisees were convinced they would have honored God’s prophets, but then they failed to recognize the greatest Prophet and gladly took part in shedding his blood.

The thing that scares me the most about modern day pharisees is this: we never think we’re the problem. We think if Jesus were walking the earth today we would be right there beside him, but would we? Or would we be like the religious leaders of the Bible who were constantly annoyed and offended by Jesus?

We always see pharisaical problems in others, but never ourselves. We see the speck that in our brother’s eye, but do not notice the log in our own eye.

How do we fight this? Be quick to repentance.

It is also important to have accountability in your life – people you trust who will push you towards truth. When those people call you out for sin or hypocrisy, everything in you will want to fight their allegations. But listen, consider, and pray through what they have said. Take it to the cross, and repent of anything that may need it.

Conclusion

The defining characteristic of the Scribes and Pharisees in the Bible was their hypocrisy.

They often followed the letter of the law, but ignored the spirit of the law. They cleaned the outside of the cup, but the inside was dirty. They judged others and ignored their own sin.

In the end, the thing that separates us from becoming like pharisees is a simple thing: repentance. Jesus illustrates this concept well with the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18:

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Want to avoid becoming like a Pharisee? Humble yourself, confess your sins, seek forgiveness, and rest in the work of Jesus.

The good news of the gospel is this: even pharisees can find forgiveness and eternal life in Jesus.

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