The Religion of the Pharisees
“Then came together unto him the Pharisees, and certain of the scribes, which came from Jerusalem. And when they saw some of his disciples eat bread with defiled, that is to say, with unwashen, hands, they found fault. For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders. And when they come from the market, except they wash, they eat not. And many other things there be, which they have received to hold, as the washing of cups, and pots, brasen vessels, and of tables. Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands? He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do. And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition. For Moses said, Honour thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death: But ye say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; he shall be free. And ye suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother; Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.”
As our Lord Jesus warns us elsewhere to “beware of false prophets,” he warns us here to beware of false religion. Nothing is more dangerous to the souls of men, and nothing more deadly than false prophets and false religion.
The Apostle Paul warns us that those who eat and drink the bread and wine of the Lord’s Table without faith in Christ eat and drink damnation to themselves. What he says about the Lord’s Table is true of and applicable to all other religious practices without faith in Christ. To profess faith without faith, to claim an interest in Christ without an interest in Christ, to be baptized without being born of God, to pretend to be a child of God while you are yet a child of the devil, all these things are eating and drinking damnation to yourself.
Our Lord Jesus warns us again and again to, “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees.” The warning is repeated often because it is needed often. Here he explains exactly what he meant by the leaven of the Pharisees. When our Lord warns us to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, he is talking about the doctrine, or the religion of the Pharisees.
What a humbling picture we have before us of apostate, human religion. Here we see, to some extent, what man is capable of doing in the perversion of truth, while clinging to the name of God. These well read, highly educated, greatly respected religious men really thought God was impressed by watching them meticulously wash their hands and their dishes in religious ceremony! There are multitudes exactly like them today. In fact, the religion of the Pharisees is the natural religion of the carnal heart. All men, by nature gravitate to it. Yet, the religion of the Pharisees, though it is naturally appealing to and universally approved of by all men, is deadly to a man’s soul and an utter abomination in the sight of God. The religion of the Pharisees is both the most ancient and the newest of all religions. In this study I will call your attention to seven things that characterize the religion of the Pharisees. As we look at these seven characteristics of it, let us ask ourselves this question: — Is my religion the religion of Christ or the religion of the Pharisees?
1. The religion of the Pharisees makes people self-righteous, critical, and judgmental.
“Then came together unto him the Pharisees, and certain of the scribes, which came from Jerusalem. And when they saw some of his disciples eat bread with defiled, that is to say, with unwashen, hands, they found fault” (vv. 1-2).
The Pharisees were always watching other people, inspecting the behavior of other people, finding fault with other people. They had a keen eye for what others did, or failed to do. Such critics and fault-finders are a penny a dozen. If you do something, anything, before you sit down, someone who never does anything will come along and find something wrong with what you have done. In natural things this is annoying; but in spiritual things it reveals a proud, unregenerate, self-righteousness, which is always the result of legalistic, works religion.
These Pharisees really thought they could tell, by observing the outward conduct of men in their daily routine of life, who was spiritual and who was carnal. We have many like them in our day. Self-righteous religionists in our day, like the Pharisees of our Lord’s day, ever justify themselves in their own minds, before others, and before God, proudly asserting, “I am not as other men” (Luke 18:11). They always justify themselves by comparing themselves with people they consider more sinful than they are. — “I am not as this publican.” Their claim to holiness is based upon what they do and what they do not do, not upon the work of Christ’s gift of God’s grace in him. Though they talk much above love, they despise others. That is manifest by their treatment of others. They are professional critics of men, who love to point out the weaknesses of others.
Here, the Pharisees and Scribes seized the opportunity to point out what they thought was a terrible evil in our Lord and his disciples. They saw them eating in public without ceremonially washing their hands beforehand. That was a breach of their religious traditions that was simply unpardonable! John Trapp tells us that, “the Pharisees deemed it as great a sin to eat with unwashen hands, as to commit fornication.”
The complaint of the Scribes and Pharisees against the disciples was not that they were evil, corrupt, covetous men, but that they did not, in keeping with Jewish traditions, wash their hands before they ate! Obviously, it is always good to wash your hands, the more often the better, as a matter of personal hygiene. But the practice of always washing one’s hands before eating, as a show of religious devotion, had become a religious tradition with them, a tradition they would never dare to break, at least not in public. They washed their hands, whether they needed washing or not, because they vainly imagined that in doing so they showed spirituality and devotion to God. Our Lord’s disciples, following his example and instruction, felt no compulsion to obey religious tradition. “They washed not their hands when they ate bread!” Why should they wash them if they were clean? Tradition had no power over their consciences.
You may think, “What does that have to do with me? How does this apply to anyone today” There are multitudes who do much of what they do purely out of religious tradition, only to be seen of men, so that they will appear to others to be true Christians, spiritually minded, and devoted to Christ. How often have you heard people say, or said yourself, “I do that to show people that I am a Christian. I want people to know that I love the Lord”? The one thing our Lord Jesus tells us plainly that we are never to do is to try, by our dress, our public appearance, or our public behavior, to show that we are Christians. Read Matthew 6:3-18. You may say, “But I want people to see Jesus in me.” Lost, unbelieving people did not see Jesus in Jesus. They certainly are not going to see him in you and me.
Let us take care that we live as men and women who trust and worship the Lord Jesus Christ in honesty, in labor, in conversation, in modesty, in love, and in patience. “Adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Titus 2:10). But do nothing to be seen of men. Several years ago, I was in the company of several pastors in a restaurant. When his meal was served, the senior pastor among us began eating his meal without bowing to give thanks first (without publicly washing his hands). One of the younger men objected to his conduct, saying, “I could never do that. I always give thanks before I eat, especially in a public place.” When my older friend asked, “Why,” he said, “I want people to know that I’m a Christian.” The older, wiser pastor smiled and said, “If you want people to know you’re a Christian, leave the waitress a good tip.”
No man has any more right to institute a new religious duty in the kingdom of God than to neglect an old one. The issuing of commands is for the King alone. Yet these religionists wanted to know why the Lord’s disciples broke a law, which was never established by God as a law. Lost religionists in all ages love to invent traditions and then rest their souls upon them. Going about to establish their own righteousness, they refuse to submit themselves to the righteousness of God in Christ. They refuse to trust Christ alone for righteousness before God. They have a form of godliness, which they cherish, but deny the power of true godliness, which is the gospel of God’s free, saving grace in Christ (Romans 1:16-17). That which our Savior said to the Pharisees of his day is yet true. — “Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15).
The washing of hands, like all other religious tradition, is nothing. “Faith which worketh by love” is everything. “The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us from all sin.” All those things that men do to make themselves righteous in will worship “is abomination in the sight of God.”
2. The religion of the Pharisees is a religion which has apostatized and departed from the Word of God.
“For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders. And when they come from the market, except they wash, they eat not. And many other things there be, which they have received to hold, as the washing of cups, and pots, brasen vessels, and of tables. Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands? He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do. And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition” (vv. 7:3-9).
Never was there a nation of men raised so high and fallen so low as the nation of Israel. Never was there a people given such great privileges and opportunities, only to cast them aside, as the Jews. Israel was the nation to whom God gave his law, his ordinances, his priests, his tabernacle, his temple, his altar, his mercy-seat, and his prophets. These are the people to whom Moses, Samuel, and Isaiah prophesied. This is the people who sprung from Abraham’s lions, who descended from David’s kingdom, and wore Israel’s name. These are the people who once trembled before the ark of the covenant. How they have fallen! Here are Abraham’s sons. Here are men who claim Moses name, though they had long ago rejected his doctrine, who consider the ceremonial washing of hands, cups, saucers, and pots and pans an evidence of spirituality! In their opinion, the person who paid the most rigid attention to the external observance of man-made religious customs was the most holy among them.
Let us be warned. Once a church, a denomination, or an individual leaves the King’s highway of truth, we must not be surprised to see them washing pots and calling it godliness! Multitudes today are just like the Pharisees. They wear the names of God’s prophets and claim identification with them; but have long since forsaken the truth of God’s Word in utter apostasy. Today’s religion places great emphasis on getting people into church, but none on getting them into Christ. Multitudes who pass by the doctrine of the cross proudly wear a cross around their necks. In churches everywhere, people sing “Amazing Grace,” though they despise the doctrine of grace. People everywhere make a big show of outward religion, but ignore righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. They have a form of godliness, but despise the gospel of Christ, which is the power of God. Pharisees in all generations are great washers of the outside. But formal, ritualistic, ceremonial, outward religion, without heart faith, is empty, useless religion.
3. The Pharisees religion is outward, lip-service religion.
“He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (v. 6).
The passage our Lord referred to is Isaiah 29:13. I wonder if we will ever learn that God Almighty is not impressed with the way we comb our hair, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, or the show we make in our pretense of piety and godliness. — “The Lord looketh on the heart!” God says, “My son, give me thine heart.” “Keep thy heart with all diligence.” Let us remember the heart is the principle thing in faith, in private worship, in public worship, at the Lord’s Table, in prayer, and in all things spiritual.
The heart is the principle thing in the relationship of a husband and wife, parents and children, friend and friend. And in our relationship with, service to, and worship of our God the matter of chief concern is our hearts (Isaiah 29:13; Ezekiel 33:31; Romans 10:13; 14:17).
What must we have to be saved? – A New Heart! What sacrifice does God require from us? – A Broken and Contrite Heart! What is true circumcision? – Heart Circumcision! What does God call for from his sons? – “My son, give me thine heart!” Where does Christ dwell? – In Our Hearts! J. C. Ryle wrote, “The bended knee, the bowed head, the loud Amen, the daily chapter, the regular attendance at the Lord’s Table, are all useless and unprofitable, so long as our affections are nailed to sin, or pleasure, or money or the world.”
4. The religion of the Pharisee is a religion which uses the pretense of piety as a covering and excuse for irresponsibility.
“For Moses said, Honour thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death: But ye say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; he shall be free. And ye suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother” (vv. 10-12).
While true religion, true spirituality is a very practical thing. False, empty religion will allow a man or woman to neglect and despise the most common duties of life. True religion, true Christianity causes people to cherish and faithfully perform the most common duties of everyday life for the glory of God.
The Lord Jesus declares (Matthew 15:5-8) that if a person refuses to take care of his parents, trying to excuse his selfishness, by saying that the only money he has has been devoted as a gift to God, he nullifies the Word of God, and proves himself a religious hypocrite. The worship of God causes a believer to honor his parents, causes a father and husband to provide for his family, causes a believer to be a diligent employee, causes a Christian to be a faithful employer, and causes a woman to be a good wife and mother. Rowland Hill once said, “When a man comes to know the Lord, even his dog and cat and farm animals will be the better for it.” It was William Jay who wrote, “A person, when he comes to Christ, will be better in every relationship. He is a better husband, father, master, worker, and friend than before or else his religion is not genuine.”
5. The religion of the Pharisee is a religion which rejects and makes of non-effect the Word of God, supplanting it with the customs, creeds, and confessions of men.
Three times our Lord lays this charge at the feet of these pompous, self-content, self righteous religionists. You lay aside the Word of God, holding the traditions of men (v. 8). “Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition” (v. 9). You make the Word of God of none effect through your tradition (v. 13). First, they added their traditions to the Scriptures. Next, they made their traditions equal with the Word of God. In the end, they rejected the Word of God altogether and held to their traditions!
The religion of the Pharisees is religion that supplants the Word of God with the doctrines and traditions of men. Instead of teaching the doctrine of Holy Scripture, the gospel of Christ, salvation by his blood, righteousness, and grace alone, it teaches religious morality. Instead of teaching people to observe our Savior’s ordinances of worship (Believer’s Immersion and the Lord’s Supper), it teaches duties and ceremonies of purely human invention (The Sprinkling of Infants, The Observance of Lent, and Religious Pageantry). Such religion, though practiced with great devotion and ceremonial gaudiness, is an utterly vain thing, an empty show, void of life, power, and spirituality. It is unacceptable to God and of no benefit to man. The practice of it is eating and drinking damnation to one’s own soul!
6. The religion of the Pharisee is a religion of legalism, works, and asceticism.
The Pharisees thought they would defile themselves by touching or using things and people they considered unclean. Multitudes today follow their example. Entire systems of works based religion have been established and gained popular acceptance by inventing extra-biblical taboos for “Christians.” Adventism is a classic example. All men by nature are legalists and love legal religion, any religion that gives them something to do or not to do, by which they can distinguish themselves from others and make themselves “holier” than others. That religion which says, “touch not, taste not, handle not,” no matter what denominational name it wears, is nothing but “a show of wisdom in will-worship” (Colossians 2:21-23). I personally know people who question the spirituality of anyone who enjoys boxing, horse races, baseball, basketball, or football, of anyone who eats pork, red meat, or catfish, and of anyone who drinks coffee, tea, or Coca-Cola! I am not exaggerating. I really do know such people.
Every servant of God, each child of God stands or falls before his own Master. We have absolutely no business in trying to govern the lives of God’s children. That is the work of God the Holy Spirit. Perhaps you are thinking – “If we do not, by some means, try to regulate people’s lives, what is there to prevent them from drunkenness, lasciviousness, fornication, and adultery?” That is the thinking of every legalist. Because he must be governed by rules, he presumes that everyone else must be. The believer is governed and constrained by the love of Christ, seeks to honor God in all things, and endeavors to mold his life to the Word of God.
Our energies and efforts would be far better spent if we would seek to love and serve one another, rather than rule and judge one another. I ask the reader to weigh these thoughts by only one criteria: — Are they or are they not in total compliance with both the spirit and the letter of the New Testament?
7. In its essence, at its core, the religion of the Pharisee is a religion that denies the need of grace and redemption, because it denies the utter, total depravity of man (vv. 14-23).
“And when he had called all the people unto him, he said unto them, Hearken unto me every one of you, and understand: There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man. If any man have ears to hear, let him hear. And when he was entered into the house from the people, his disciples asked him concerning the parable. And he saith unto them, Are ye so without understanding also? Do ye not perceive, that whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, it cannot defile him; Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats? And he said, That which cometh out of the man, that defileth the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: All these evil things come from within, and defile the man” (vv. 14-23).
All human religion, like the religion of the Pharisees, operates on the assumption that the defilement and corruption of a person’s soul comes from without, from the things we come into contact with in this world. But the Lord Jesus shows us that the defilement and corruption of our souls arises from within us. He shows us that our hearts are polluted, defiled, corrupt, and depraved. We are all by nature corrupt at heart, in need of God’s free, saving grace, and Christ’s precious blood atonement.
The Pharisees of old, like the religionists of our day, taught that holiness, righteousness, and godliness depended upon abstaining from certain meats and drinks and carefully observing religious ceremonies of washing and purification. Our Savior overthrows this doctrine by declaring three things.
· It is not what you put in your body that defiles you, but what comes out of your heart (Romans 14:17).
Material things cannot defile your soul by using them. And material ceremonies cannot cleanse your soul by enduring them. Carnal things can neither corrupt nor cleanse the soul. If we would worship and serve God, we must have something more than a separated life and a form of godliness. We must have a heart that is clean and upright before God, a clean heart and a right spirit. Such a heart is the gift of God’s grace, the work of his Spirit in the new birth.
· All sin and defilement originates in and springs from the heart. It is not our environment that corrupts us, or our company, or our education, but our hearts.
“From within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness.” — What a list! What must that heart be out of which so many evils pour forth! If these are the bees, what must the hive be? “Evil thoughts,” evil devisings such as the Pharisees displayed, come from the heart. “Murders” begin not with the dagger, but with malice in the soul. “Adulteries” and “fornications” are committed in the heart,before they are performed by the body. The heart is the cage from which every unclean bird flies forth into the world. “Thefts” are born in the covetousness of the heart. No man steals what he does not first covet. “False witness,” lying and slander, is venom in the heart that is spewed out of the mouth. “Blasphemies” are the enmity of the heart expressed by the vile speech of the tongue. All these, and all other evils, ooze from the vile cesspool inside fallen man called, “the heart.”
“All these evil things come from within, and defile the man.” — It is the corruption of the heart that makes fallen man unfit for communion with God, not failure to pour water on your hands before you eat, or failure to observe religious duties. The heart of man is abominable before God. The evils gushing from the heart make fallen man loathsome and revolting before God and expose all to shame and ruin. It is only the blood of Christ that can cleanse us from the pollution and guilt of our corrupt hearts and save us from the wrath of God, which we so fully deserve. Yet, those who know nothing of the corruption of their hearts, know nothing of God’s saving grace, know nothing of repentance and faith in Christ, are horrified when they see one who worships God in Spirit and in truth neglecting the religious traditions by which their blind leaders lead them into hell.
· God looks on the heart; but we prefer outward things, because we are able to perform them and they call attention to us.
Few are able to grasp such elementary, but vital truths, because they are turned away from the simplicity that is in Christ by self-righteous, works religion. There is a vast difference between physical and spiritual defilement. What we eat and drink does not touch the soul. It passes through the body; but it does not reach our hearts. Material things cannot defile a person. That which is eaten is material substance, and cannot make anyone spiritually, or morally unclean. That fact is so obvious that no one would ever imagine otherwise, were it not for the man made dogmas of false religion.
The only hope for your soul and mine is that God might be pleased to save us from ourselves. I have no hope but Christ. He alone is all my Wisdom, Righteousness, Sanctification, and Redemption. May God make him yours.
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