Defeating my inner Pharisee

PhariseeWhy do the Gospel writers use up so much ink in depicting the issues with the Pharisees?

I think the answer is that all of us have Pharisaic tendencies and there is a real danger of becoming like them. By exposing the Pharisees, the Gospel writers give us a chance to avoid their error.

The problem with Pharisees is that the motive for their behavior is inconsistent with what God desires. We are to be motivated by love (John 13:35). Pharisees are motivated by personal gain: gain in respect, notoriety orĀ  social standing. They operate by dressing up their sin nature is theological garb.

Love will get dirty and meet people where they are. Pharisaism will demand that a person clean himself up before the Pharisee will have anything to do with him. The Pharisee will not risk his reputation by associating with the wrong sort of people.

One of the big problems of Pharisaism is that it is so easy to spot in others and so difficult to spot in ourselves.That small speck of Pharisaic tendency in my neighbor is so obvious, but the beam of my own pride is often difficult to see.

After all, it seems to me that pride is the root of all Pharisaism. We Pharisees are too proud to get dirty, too proud to reach out and too proud to admit that we don’t have it all figured out.

Our danger is magnified if we find a group in which it is OK to be a Pharisee. For example, can get together with those who are proud of their understanding of prophecy and look down on those who don’t “get it.”. Another group can be proud of their understanding of God’s sovereignty and look down on those who don’t operate with such confidence. A group can be proud of its traditional or contemporary worship style and look down on those who do not worship in that style. The list of things over which we can be proud is endless.

To test to see if you have Pharisaic tendencies read Luke 18:10-14, the story of the tax gatherer and the Pharisee. In this story Jesus tells us that the Pharisee thanked God he was not like the tax gatherer. The Pharisee was proud of his own righteousness and looked down on the tax gatherer. If your inner response is, “thank God that I’m not like that Pharisee,” you test positive for Pharisaism.

That is the bad news, the good news is that there is a cure. The cure for Pharisaism is the Cross. Jesus tells us that we are to take up the cross daily (Luke 923). Our sin nature does not need to be dressed up, it needs to be killed. We have to reckon that Pharisee within us as dead and live as though he is dead.

Here are some practical questions to consider:

  • Do you come away from the sermon on Sunday with parts of you broken by conviction or do you critique the pastor for his delivery or theology?
  • Do you read Scripture to be theologically correct or to be changed by God?
  • Do you allow anyone to challenge you on your pride?
  • Are there any groups of people on which you look down?

You and I owe it to ourselves to be brutally honest in answering these questions. We cannot be what God wants us to be if we allow our inner Pharisee to determine our course.

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Mark McIntyre

A follower of Jesus Christ who shares observations about how Scripture should impact the church and the world. Mark is the original author and editor of Attempts at Honesty.
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About Mark McIntyre

A follower of Jesus Christ who shares observations about how Scripture should impact the church and the world. Mark is the original author and editor of Attempts at Honesty.


  1. Glen McGraw says:

    I stumbled across this post this morning. Wonderful reminder for a recovering Pharisee. After all, each of us has a little Pharisee in us.

    • How I wish your statement was not true. Yet to deny its truth would confirm me as a most egregious Pharisee. So the choice is between being a Pharisee or a recovering Pharisee.

  2. Brilliant!

    • Thank you. One of the benefits of leaving comments open is that someone will discover an old post and comment on it, just when I need to be reminded of the lesson in that post. Pharisaism is a constant danger.

  3. Juan Carlos says:

    Good thoughts. One of my concerns is that there are legitimate times of critiquing a sermon if the theology is off. And this doesn’t mean I’m a Pharisee but that there is a concern for what the pastor has taught that is unbiblical.

    The other is that I should read scripture to be theologically correct. Not so that I can flaunt my knowledge of scripture, but so that my life can align itself with the truth of God’s word. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” 2 Timothy 3:16.

    I do agree that we all have pharisaical tendencies but we should carefully distinct between that and concerns that are legitimate.

    Thanks for the post. Made me think!

    • Good points with which I agree. Yes, we should listen for whether the sermon agrees with Scripture; the Bereans were commended for doing this. What I had in mind are those I’ve met who spend the entirety of their listening effort on finding and error to denounce rather than listening for the Holy Spirit speaking to them during the sermon.

      As to the second point, perhaps I should have should have worded the question thus: “Do you only read Scripture to be theologically correct or, in addition, to be changed by God?” You are correct that we should strive to be theologically correct. The point I was trying to make is that we can be theologically correct and spiritually dead.

      Thanks for the feedback

      • Juan Carlos says:

        I do get phobic, not about the biblical picture of Pharisees, but how people misread genuine concern for sound doctrine as pharisaical. Which I don’t believe you are doing. It is tough to talk about a topic like this due to the climate we are in. But a great discussion to have. Especially for those who love God and His word. Which looks like what you are doing. Thanks for the feedback to my feedback! Lol. Grace and peace!

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