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The Pharisees is the name of a Jewish religious party in biblical times. They were both religious leaders and involved in national politics. The Pharisees held seats in the Jewish ruling council called the Sanhedrin.
The Pharisees were teachers and pastors, what the Jewish people today call Rabbis. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, they received the backing and goodwill of the common people. Jesus agreed with some of what they taught. Mark 12:28-34 gives an example.
The word Pharisee means separated. During the historical period between the Old and New Testaments (about 400 years), some Jewish priests, scribes, and teachers who became known as Pharisees were against assimilating with non-Jewish people or even being friends with them. They developed codes of ethics (things you can and cannot do) and wrote them out in literature that became known as the “Tradition of the Elders.”
There is nothing wrong with trying your best to be faithful to the Lord’s instructions in the Bible. Some Pharisees, however, separated themselves too much. These Pharisees took some biblical teachings and added their own thoughts and lifestyle ideas to them. These often got so complicated that the Pharisees themselves couldn’t practice their own rules and regulations.
Jesus opposed “some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else” (Luke 18:9 NIV). They developed an attitude we call hypocrisy — saying one thing and doing something different.
Jesus told a story about how one Pharisee acted: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector [a Roman government employee]. 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” (Luke 18:10-13).
That Pharisee did some things right:
But he also did some things wrong:
It was these wrong attitudes that Jesus denounced. Jesus picked up on some specific problems caused by what we call today “pharisaical attitudes.” Matthew 23 has a list.
There were some Pharisees who became followers of Jesus. The most well-known are Nicodemus (John 3) and Joseph of Arimathea who provided a gravesite for Jesus (Mark 15:32).
Hypocrisy is never the way to go. Some people judge others for what they wear, what they drive, what church they go to, how often they pray, what version of the Bible they read, and with who they associate. Remember, being perfect on the outside and flawed on the inside gets you nowhere with the Lord!