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Matthew 23-24: 5 Sins of the Pharisees and Not One of Them is Legalism

Interestingly, I hear all kinds of accusations about the Pharisees. Today, evangelicals and ecumenicalists are free with pointing the finger at all those awful, rotten Pharisees out there. Of course, the Pharisee accusation usually means LEGALIST. I find that interesting when we read Matthew 23. This is the most in depth rebuke of the Pharisees and yet not once does Jesus rebuke them for being legalists. Notice instead what he does actually rebuke them for.

1. Not practicing what they preach.

In Matthew 23:3-4, Jesus said the folks should do what the Pharisees taught. But not do what they did because they didn’t practice what they preached. Further, they would lay all kinds of burdens on the shoulders of other people but wouldn’t lift the finger to lift these burdens themselves. Now don’t read into this. Jesus didn’t rebuke them for laying heavy burdens on anyone. He rebuked them for not lifting the heavy burdens themselves.

2. They were self-seeking.

According to Matthew 23:5-15, Jesus says the Pharisees weren’t doing what they did out of humble service to God so that He might be glorified. They were doing things so others might see them and praise them for being so spiritual. Again, Jesus didn’t rebuke them for being legalistic about what they taught or practiced but for their motivation behind what they did and taught. This self-seeking led to some pretty awful results. First, their self-seeking caused them to lead a double life. On the one hand, they were taking advantage of widows. On the other, they were making long prayers for a pretense. The second negative consequence was their self-seeking caused them to make followers of themselves instead of followers of God. Thus, when they found a proselyte, the person did not get in a right relationship with God but became twice the child of hell as the Pharisees.

3. They were dishonest.

Perhaps Matthew 23:16-22 is where some folks find legalism. Certainly, they are drawing a bunch of lines on when to actually keep their word. But Jesus is not rebuking them for their lines. He is rebuking them for their dishonesty. He wants them to simply tell the truth, not make up rules about when they have to tell the truth. Further, notice that this issue of line drawing is not about adding burdens of greater weight about telling the truth but about trying to figure out how to get out of the real height of honesty God demands. I find it interesting that so many want to ridicule the Pharisees for making serving God harder, when here they were trying to get out of what God had commanded.

4. Disobeying the weightier matters of the law.

In Matthew 23:23-24, Jesus rebuked them for attending to minor details while they disregarded the more important parts of the law. I find this one intriguing too because many like to use the figures of speech used in these verses to claim Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for legalism. This is odd since they are actually trying to avoid keeping the law here. We should notice something pointed in these verses. Jesus did not rebuke them for keeping minor details. In fact, he says they should have done that. Rather, He rebuked them because they did not keep the weightier matters. He did not rebuke them for straining the gnats. He rebuked them for swallowing the camels. But what was Jesus’ overall complaint for them? It was not that they were getting too legalistic with God’s law. It was that they were not legalistic enough. They weren’t keeping the Law well enough.

5. Hypocrisy

In Matthew 23:25-32, Jesus got down to the major rebuke against the Pharisees. I know we expect it to finally be legalism. But, it’s not. It’s hypocrisy. In actuality, we already saw this building in the other rebukes, but now Jesus just spells it out, repeatedly calling them hypocrites. They simply worked on the outside and not on the inside. This doesn’t mean the outside doesn’t matter. Rather, Jesus explains if we get the heart right, then the outside will follow. The Pharisees, however, since they were self-seeking were only focused on whatever would make them look good, not would actually let them be good. Sadly, this hypocrisy led to one major consequence. When real men of God came in their midst, they persecuted and even killed them.

As Jesus ended this discussion, He pointed out the Pharisees would be judged. But He never mentioned legalism. In fact, I’m actually still waiting for a rebuke in the entire New Testament where the Pharisees were actually condemned or rebuked because they were legalists. Seems to me that is merely a modern statement because so many people today want to get away from being held accountable by a real system of law. They seemingly want to make Christianity a kind of free for all that says we are all allowed to do whatever we want in the name of Jesus and no one has the right to draw any lines. After all, look at how Jesus rebuked those pesky Pharisees for their legalism. Yet, I keep trying to find the passage where Jesus actually rebuked them for that. 

Can you find it? If you do, let me know. Until then…

Keep reading and keep the faith,



October 28, 2008 - Posted by | Matthew, pharisees | , , , , , , ,

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