The Law of the Lord

Who Are the Pharisees?

Harry Osborne

Pharisees (1): Who Were They Then?

The word "Pharisee" or a form of it is used 101 times in the New Testament. That those references are overwhelmingly negative is not news to anyone remotely familiar with the Bible. Our purpose in this study is to identify why the Pharisees were the repeated object of our Lord's condemnation. To understand that, we must not turn to secular history to give us the answer, but to the Bible.

The most detailed statement from Jesus showing the reason for His condemnation of the Pharisees is found in Matthew 15 and Mark 7. Since Mark 7 explains the background more fully, let us see what it says:

And there are gathered together unto him the Pharisees, and certain of the scribes, who had come from Jerusalem, and had seen that some of his disciples ate their bread with defiled, that is, unwashen, hands. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands diligently, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders; and when they come from the market-place, except they bathe themselves, they eat not; and many other things there are, which they have received to hold, washings of cups, and pots, and brasen vessels.) And the Pharisees and the scribes ask him, Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with defiled hands? And he said unto them, Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoreth me with their lips, But their heart is far from me. But in vain do they worship me, Teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men. Ye leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men. And he said unto them, Full well do ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your tradition. For Moses said, Honor thy father and thy mother; and, He that speaketh evil of father or mother, let him die the death: but ye say, If a man shall say to his father or his mother, That wherewith thou mightest have been profited by me is Corban, that is to say, Given to God; ye no longer suffer him to do aught for his father or his mother; making void the word of God by your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things ye do (Mark 7:1-13).

This passage makes it clear that Jesus condemned the Pharisees because of their failure to adhere to the pattern of Scripture, instead substituting "the tradition of the elders" as being on a par with God's word. The process by which they did so is made plain.

Process of Replacing Divine Law with Human Tradition

First, they left the commandments of God (v. 8). When God's commands are cast away as the absolute standard, the stage is always set for apostasy. The same thing was seen during Hosea's time (Hosea 4:6-10). They did not do as God had commanded in loving His law and letting it be their sole guide (Psalm 119:10-11, 72, 77, 103, 105, 167, et. al.). When we leave the boundary of divine teaching and doctrine, we are by definition in a way of sin and separated from God (2 John 9).

Second, Jesus notes that in the place of God's commands, the Pharisees substituted "the tradition of men." Yes, they thought that the traditions they set up through their rabbinical traditions were based upon God's command, but their focus for determining right and wrong was on human tradition rather than the Scripture. The tradition had a good intent of being a "hedge around the law" according to the rabbinical writers, but its effect was to replace God's law with man's law. However good the original intent, the effect was to negate God's teaching by turning attention to a standard other than God's word.

Third, Jesus says they rejected the commandment of God in order to keep their tradition. Of course, they would have denied this charge, but it was true. Jesus proved that by noting the conflict which came to exist between the plain command of God and their tradition. God commanded, "Honor thy father and mother" (Exodus 20:12; et. al.). The fulfillment of that command obviously involved a monetary responsibility towards one's father and mother. But the tradition to which the Pharisees held taught that one need not help their parents if he declared that the portion of income with which he would have cared for his parents was given to God. When such a conflict between human tradition and divine law occurred, which one did the Pharisees uphold? The tradition of men! Thus Jesus rightly charged that they rejected the commandments of God to keep their tradition.

Jesus summed up His condemnation of the Pharisees by saying that were guilty of "making void the word of God by [their] tradition." Jesus goes on to make it clear that His example just given was not the only case in which they made God's law of no effect by their traditions. He says, "And many such things ye do." The Pharisees practice was replete with examples of supplanting divine commands with human traditions. This passage clearly demonstrates that the Pharisees did not focus upon God's law to seek authority from His word for their actions. They did not demand "book, chapter, and verse" for all that they did. They sought for human law and tradition to authorize their actions. For this, they stood condemned by the one who had a part in authoring that rejected law.

Pharisees Fail to Judge by Proper Standard

In Matthew 12:1-8, the Pharisees see Jesus' disciples plucking grain from the field and eating it on the sabbath. Upon seeing this, the Pharisees say to Jesus, "Behold, thy disciples do that which it is not lawful to do upon the sabbath." Why do they make this charge? No principle of the law of Moses was violated by plucking corn to eat. So what could be "unlawful" about their action? Their charge was based upon their traditions and Jesus corrects such as He teaches about how to tell the difference between those who do that which is "not lawful" and those who are "guiltless" (vs. 3-8). Jesus first asks, "Have ye not read what David did?" Read where? Obviously, in God's law. The reference is to David's actions in eating the showbread (1 Samuel 21:6). Jesus says that was "unlawful." Why? Because the law which they were to read said only the priest could eat the showbread (Leviticus 24:9). The Pharisees would not condemn David in this action even though it was against the law. Then Jesus directs their attention to the law again, this time making His appeal to the actions of the priests in the temple on the sabbath. For anyone else to kindle a fire as the priests did would be to "profane the sabbath" (Exodus 35:3). Why? Because the law said so! Yet, the priest were "guiltless" when they did so. Why? Because the law authorized their actions (Numbers 28:9-10). In applying the principle to his disciples, Jesus, as "lord of the sabbath" who gave the regulations governing that day, pronounced the disciples "guiltless." Why? Because judgment according to the law showed such. Thus, Jesus shows that the Pharisees were the ones to be condemned for judging by a standard other than God's law while His disciples were justified by that standard.


The failure of the Pharisees to appeal to the Scripture as the absolute standard for their conduct was at the root of many other problems for which they were condemned. Their rejection of Jesus for doing miracles on the sabbath was a result of that false concept. Their attempts to trap Jesus in speech were not the result of a close investigation of His conduct in light of Messianic prophecy, but because He violated their traditions and so posed a threat to their authority. Their self-righteousness and pride was a result of their looking to their traditions as the standard for judgment, rather than God's law. Their failure to understand the weighty matters of the law came, not as a result of carefully scrutinizing the law, but from a failure to put their focus on that law sufficiently. Jesus said they should have paid close attention to even small matters of the law, but not to the exclusion of the principles which should have been seen as foundational to that law (Matthew 23:23). The Pharisees pretentious prayers, permitted by their traditions, were an abomination to God and the true, quiet reverence demanded of His people (Matthew 23:13-14; 6:5-8). Their hypocrisy so strongly condemned by Jesus in Matthew 23 was the result of leaving the commandments of God and holding fast to human tradition. Pharisees never came under condemnation of Jesus for holding too closely to the provisions of God's law. No one ever did! The condemnation of the Pharisees came, simply put, from a failure to seek authority from God for all that they did. Book, chapter and verse preaching would have helped!

Pharisees (2): Who Are They Now?

Above, we examined several passages which dealt with the Pharisees and with Jesus' condemnation of them. The Bible plainly shows that the central error of the Pharisees was their supplanting of God's word with their human traditions. If you have not read the above article dealing with this subject, please do so before continuing this study. Now, we will examine some claims being made in our time regarding modern "Pharisaism" keeping in mind the principles learned on the subject from the Scripture in our previous study. Who are the Pharisees today?

The charge of "Pharisaism" is commonly made towards those who try to live strictly by the commands of God as recorded in the Bible. As we noted last week, the Pharisees rejected the commands of God to walk in their own traditions (Mark 7:8-13; Matthew 15:3-9; et. al.). Despite that fact as declared in God's word, those standing upon book, chapter and verse teaching and practice have been called "Pharisees" by every advocate of error. Supporters of institutionalism commonly labeled as "Pharisees" those brethren holding to the pattern of truth. Leroy Garrett and Carl Ketcherside charged brethren who opposed their "unity-in-diversity" concepts with Pharisaism. Others did the same during the "Grace-Unity Movement" of the 1970's. In October of 1982 through March of 1983, Darwin Chandler wrote a series of 7 articles in Gospel Anchor entitled "Neo-Pharisaism" in which he made such charges against brethren who were simply holding to a "thus saith the Lord" while he was in the process of rejecting it. Those who were members of this congregation during that time remember with sadness the souls led into apostasy through that fallacious, emotional charge. Ultimately, it led the teacher and many followers into acceptance of the charismatic world of "anything goes" in the name of religion. Ultimately, the destiny of those who reject God's will for their own is made clear by God (Matthew 7:21-23).

It has gotten to the point that one of the identifying marks of apostasy is such a false charge of "Pharisaism" made towards brethren who are holding to the old paths. Thus, it should not be surprising that such false accusations can be heard in many quarters today. Over the past few weeks, I have been reading an excellent example of such misrepresentation in a book by David Chadwell, Beware of the Leaven of the Pharisees. The book makes it clear that Mr. Chadwell is not only a supporter of institutionalism, but is among the number calling for a "New Hermeneutics" which would justify things that even many liberal brethren call "liberal." Though it is almost expected from those who left Bible authority behind a generation ago, it is sad to see the bitter misrepresentations and cunning defense of apostasy present in such a book. Far more distressing, however, is the fact that some among our own brethren have encouraged the reading and acceptance of such a book containing rank error. As a means of dealing with the false charges of "Pharisaism" made towards faithful brethren, I would like to note a few of the more glaring problems found in Mr. Chadwell's book which is appropriately encased within the label Beware of the Leaven of the Pharisees both on the front and back cover.

Pharisaism and a False Premise

One of the time honored methods of turning people away from the truth is to start from a false premise. If the false teacher is allowed a false premise, he can prove almost anything. Much of Chadwell's introductory material depends upon non-biblical sources and assumptions to "prove" his premise, rather than letting the word of God define the issue. He assumes that if he asserts several likenesses between the strictness of brethren demanding Bible authority for their actions and the strictness of the Pharisees, then both can be condemned alike. I wonder if he would think his status as an air-breathing mammal with two eyes and two ears in likeness to a donkey makes all statements about donkeys also true about David Chadwell. He would recognize that significant differences need to be considered as well which would establish that the two are not fairly viewed as synonymous.

Chadwell's argument for greater tolerance of those teaching diverse doctrines and those in some sinful practices rests upon a false premise as well. He says, "One can accept Scripture as authority, but be unable to determine the true meaning of Scripture" (p. 27). That will come as shocking news to the apostle Paul and the Holy Spirit who inspired him to write, "Wherefore be ye not foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is" (Eph. 5:17). Chadwell continues the same theme by repeatedly claiming that much instruction found in Scripture lacks sufficient "clarity" for us to understand and apply it. He terms such "gray areas" (p. 81). This false assertion forms the premise upon which much of his argument is made for tolerance of those teaching diverse doctrines and practicing some sins. Failure to accept such diversity is labeled "Pharisaism" despite the fact that the Pharisees in Bile times made the same claim that the law was not clear in some points, thus, paving the way for their binding of human tradition in rejection of God's law.

A false premise is also established by misrepresenting his opposition and assuming that which he must prove. Chadwell claims that faithful brethren "commonly" recognize "no area of opinion today" (p. 75). Were you aware of that? He goes on to claim that "many congregations" would regard "as a model Christian" a man "who does not drink, who does not smoke, who forbids his wife and children to wear brief or tight apparel, and who faithfully attends the weekly assemblies" and yet "his covetousness is accepted without comment" (p. 75). He says it is "frequently" the case that "knowledge of the Word, personal faith, and personal understanding have nothing to do with personal righteousness" among faithful brethren (p. 75). At one point, Chadwell says, "There are even those who have concluded that unless a person responds during the invitation song his conversion is suspect" (p. 101). Really? Who says such? After such misrepresentations of his opposition, is it any wonder that those blindly accepting his assertions will look with suspicion on such unloving and ungodly straw men? Of course, such is easier for Mr. Chadwell than a serious discussion of the real issues.

Pharisaism and Autonomy

One of Chadwell's specific charges of "Pharisaism" is hurled at brethren who have opposed the sponsoring church arrangement, misnamed "cooperation" by our liberal brethren. They refer to us as the "anti-cooperation movement" because we have shown that there is no Bible authority for the elders in one congregation to oversee the work, in part or whole, of another congregation. Peter instructs elders to "tend the flock of God which is among you, exercising the oversight thereof" (1 Pet. 5:2). That is what the Bible teaches about the autonomy of the local church, but here is what Mr. Chadwell says,

It would be interesting to have Mr. Chadwell list the thousand laws made by brethren opposing the unauthorized sponsoring church arrangement. Who made a new law when the elders of the Highlands church in Abilene took it upon themselves to oversee a national program called "The Herald of Truth" and called for all churches to subordinate themselves to that work by sending funds from autonomous churches to be overseen by the Highlands elders? Who made a new law when the Prestoncrest church in Dallas called upon all churches to work under their oversight in taking the Gospel to Eastern Europe? Who made a new law when a board of directors set up the "World Bible School" to oversee evangelism by correspondence courses throughout the world and called upon churches everywhere to work under that oversight? It would indeed be interesting to have Mr. Chadwell explain how the one who simply holds to the truth in teaching and practice that elders are to "tend the flock of God which is among [them], exercising the oversight thereof" is the modern parallel to the Pharisees binding human tradition. In fact, when I read further in his book, it is hard for me to believe that Mr. Chadwell has even read passages like 1 Peter 5:2, Acts 20:28 and Acts 14:23. Consider his words as follows:

Amazing! Whether one calls it "autonomy" or not, the principle of limited oversight of a congregation by the elders of that flock is plainly stated in Scripture. How much plainer could it get? The fact that those elders may only oversee that one congregation is explicitly stated. Though Mr. Chadwell misrepresents faithful brethren of believing a congregation is a group of Christians meeting in the same building (I know of no one who says they are any less a congregation if they meet in the open air as many do in the Phillipines), he could surely understand that a congregation is a group of Christians who agree to work and worship together in a given locality (1 Cor. 1:2; 11:18). Mr. Chadwell's "gray area" regarding autonomy is the result of his smokescreen rather than a lack of "clarity" in Scripture.

Pharisaism & New Hermeneutics

After much preparation, Mr. Chadwell gets to his real agenda in chapter 12. He says, "With deeper study, it became apparent that those perceptions of scriptural authority were flawed" (p. 99). He proposes to reject approved examples and necessary inferences as means of God expressing His binding authority. No replacement approach other than an ever widening tolerance is suggested. Through whatever hermeneutic Chadwell now uses, he tells us that Romans 14 will allow for us to differ in "ethical questions" like drinking alcohol, dancing and immodest dress (p. 99). His method of interpretation also allows him to include us with the Christian Church in the "restoration church," whatever that is. And many other things he would have us receive (Mark 7:4). Now, who are the Pharisees today?

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