Correctly Understanding Jesus’ Condemnation of the Pharisees

We should not be misled, unnerved, or defensive when adversaries of Biblical faith condemn traditional Christians as Pharisaical.

A common idea that people have is that a morally pure person who condemns the impure is self-righteous. To the contrary, such a person would have been made pure by God. If one is in fact impure, but condemns impurity in others, then that of course is hypocrisy, and indeed was what Jesus was condemning in the Gospels. But condemning impurity, even condemning impurity in others, is not necessarily Pharisaical or self-righteous.


Biblical Christianity faces numerous threats in our day, but one of the greatest is the common incorrect understanding of Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees. It may not be the first threat believers think of, as rationalistic attacks, appealing to science and reason, have intensified in the last generation, as have legal threats against the right to practice Christianity. Yet the claim that orthodox Christianity has misunderstood Jesus’ gospel, and that His condemnation of the Pharisees is really a condemnation of “religion” (understood to mean rules and regulations of a supernatural origin), and is thus a condemnation of Christian orthodoxy, is one of the most central charges, and arguably the most insidious, brought by today’s adversaries of the Christian faith.

This misunderstanding is increasingly heard in parts of the Evangelical world. A recent (2013) Barna study that found Evangelicals tending toward Pharisaical actions and attitudes included some mistaken criteria of what such actions and attitudes are (“I like to point out those who do not have the right theology or doctrine” – but Jesus did, against both the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matt. 16:6-12, 22:23-46), or condemning those who reject “Christian values” (which Jesus said are not to be rejected (Matt. 5:17-20)).

Jesus indeed had much to say about the pretense of virtue by pious people, and about how they are wrong to condemn others for transgressing rules which they themselves do not actually follow. He showed concern for the sufferings and needs of people generally thought of as sinners (who of course in fact were sinners) and responded to the faith that they showed in God by healing them. The Sermon on the Mount emphasizes faith in God and humility, while at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ reading from the Book of Isaiah to the Nazareth synagogue set out a gospel of deliverance of those oppressed in various ways from their suffering (Lk 4:14-20). Perhaps most provocatively, He said that religious rules and regulations could be set aside to meet human need (Matt. 12:1-14). Throughout the gospels, Jesus is seen in a ministry of addressing human need and condemning those who were considered religious exemplars, and were thought of as superior to ordinary people, and certainly to exemplary sinners.

Yet Jesus message was not fundamentally different from the faith of the Old Testament, for which holiness, obedience, and sacrifice for sin were central. Both at the beginning of John the Baptist’s proclamation of good news from God (Matt. 3:2), and Jesus proclamation of good news (Matt. 4:17) there is an admonition to “repent.” Jesus’ pronouncement of salvation to people on their showing of faith at times announced forgiveness, at times healing, and Jesus specifically said that one pronouncement amounted to the same thing as the other (Matt. 9:5-7, Mk. 2:9-12).

In saying that He did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Matt. 9:13), He is telling us that the sinners were in fact sinners, not (or not merely) victims in need of deliverance. What about the first part of this verse, so often favored by liberals, saying “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice?”

It appears again in chapter 12 of the Gospel of Matthew, and there it is in the context of Jesus as the Servant of the Lord, gently attending to those who are suffering, eschewing the quarrelsomeness characteristic of militant believers, and telling the Pharisees that religious rules and regulations may be set aside to meet human need. But it has to be noted that just prior to this, at the end of chapter 11, Jesus warns the Galilean cities of damnation for their failure to repent.

How is this consistent with Christ as the gentle Servant of the Lord? In between these passages, at the end of chapter 11, He says He reveals the Father to whomever He wishes (Matt. 11:27). We know from the abundant testimony both the Old and New Testaments that God’s nature is holiness and love. It is this that the Son of God reveals, not in an intellectual way, as a doctrine of God, but in a convictional way, persuading and moving those to whom the Father is revealed. Such persons are elsewhere (John chapter 3) identified as being “born from above.”

All persons who “labor and are heavy laden” are then invited to come to Him to find the joy of salvation. Jesus’ ministry as the saving Servant of the Lord was directed at such people, to penitent sinners desiring salvation from sin and the suffering that sin has brought into the world. To the impenitent, Jesus’ condemnation in chapter 11 of the Gospel of Matthew remains (Matt. 11:20-24), and it remains for us, as imitators of Christ, to proclaim.

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