Pharisees, Hypocrites, and Us

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How did the Pharisees hear Jesus’ call to perfection?

The Pharisees believed that their best would be good enough for God – especially if they adorned their religion with as many carefully crafted ceremonies and rituals as possible. That’s where all their trust and all their hope for Heaven lay. They of course formally recognized that they, too, were imperfect, but they minimized their own imperfections and covered them with public exhibitions of piety. They were convinced that would be good enough for God, mainly because it made them seem so much better than everyone else.

Yet any Pharisee who may have been in the audience for the Sermon on the Mount would have understood Jesus’ message plainly enough: Their righteousness, with all its stress on pomp and circumcision, simply did not meet the divine standard.

They weren’t really any better than the tax collectors. And God would not accept their imperfect righteousness. Jesus was as direct as possible about that.

Did Jesus specifically address the Pharisees’ futile practice of their man-made religion?

Practically all of Matthew 6 continues with a hammering, point-by-point critique of the most visible traits of Pharisaism. Jesus was contrasting the religious exhibitionism of the Pharisees with the authentic faith He had described in the Beatitudes.

Faith has its primary impact on the heart of the believer.

The Pharisees’ religion, by contrast, was mainly for show, “to be seen” by others (Matthew 6:1). True saving faith inevitably produces good works, because it expresses itself in love (Galatians 5:6); but the superficial displays of “charity” in works-religion are not even truly charitable. Because Pharisee-style religion is motivated mainly by a craving for the praise of men, it is inherently self-aggrandizing, making it the very antithesis of authentic charity.

In addition to His teaching about the Sabbath, what are some specific practices of the Pharisees that Jesus spoke to?

Jesus rebuked the hypocrisy of loud, long public prayers (a specialty of the Pharisees), again saying that the earthly attention such a practice garners is its only reward (Matthew 6:5). At this point He first gave the model prayer that has become known as the Lord’s Prayer. That prayer’s brevity, simplicity, and Godward focus set it apart from the Pharisees’ style of praying.

Jesus also commented on the Pharisees’ fasting. It was all a charade – a thin veneer that barely covered their totally selfish motives. Legitimate fasting is supposed to help us set aside worldly concerns in order to focus on prayer and spiritual things. The Pharisees instead had turned their fasting into another means of parading their piety in public, proving once more that they could not have cared less about heavenly things. What they really cared for was worldly applause. All their fasting had the exact opposite effect of what a fast should do; it drew attention to them, rather than eliminating things that distract. Jesus exposed the hypocrisy of it.

Why didn’t the Pharisees want to change their ways?

All of the Pharisees’ animosity toward Jesus was driven by their fear that if He came to power as Messiah, they would lose their status, their means of wealth, and all their earthly advantages (John 11:48).

Despite all their pious pretenses, those things meant more to them than righteousness.

So when Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:33), He was teaching yet another truth that directly assaulted the Pharisees’ value system.

Excerpted with permission from The Jesus Answer Book by John MacAuthor, copyright Thomas Nelson, 2014.

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Your Turn

When you learn more about the Pharisees, doesn’t it convict you? It convicts me! Today, let’s set aside the public show and authentically seek Jesus. Him first, Him alone. Come join the conversation on our blog! We would love to hear from you! ~ Devotionals Daily

John MacArthur

John MacArthur is the pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, president of the Master’s College and Seminary, and featured teacher with the Grace to You media ministry. In more than four decades of ministry, John has written dozens of bestselling books, including The MacArthur Study Bible, The Gospel According to Jesus, and Slave. He and his wife, Patricia, have four married children and fifteen grandchildren.

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