Jesus and the Pharisees
Being the religious leaders of Israel, the Pharisees had a most holy responsibility in leading people to God. But sadly, they had major shortcomings that Jesus clearly called them to correct. The Pharisees were guilty of hypocrisy. They acted to appear before people as righteous but they in reality lacked the purity of motives that springs from love to God and man (Matthew 23:4-7,25-28).
The Pharisees seemed to forget that God looks upon the heart and that if He should examine their hearts, He might find nothing there to commend them as obedient sons. Their conduct was regulated by what they anticipated men would think of them more than by love for God. Also, the scribes and Pharisees professed absolute loyalty to the Scriptures, but failed to practice its principles. Their good deeds consisted in meticulous attention to ceremony and ritual requirements rather than to the “weightier matters of the law” (Matthew 9:13; 23:23).
Jesus referred to this tendency as straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel (Matthew 23:24). They gave great emphasis to man-made ordinances and to the external forms of law observance (Mark 7:3–13), but forgot almost completely the true spirit of the law itself, which is “Justice and mercy and faith” (Matthew 23:23).
Further, the spiritual leaders esteemed their own traditions as important as the Word of God (Matthew 5:17-48), and even enforced their teachings on the people (Matthew 15:1-9; Mark 7:1-13). This tended to set up human authority in place of God’s Word. Jesus taught His followers not to look to men, but to God and to His will as set forth in the Scriptures. These rabbinical requirements brought trouble and discouragement to those who tried to observe them.
These religious leaders were not condemned by the Lord because they were too zealous about strict obedience to God’s will. They were condemned because “they say, and do not” (Matthew 23:3). Jesus taught that those who obey the law are those that really and truly love Him (John 14:15; 15:14). Many who speak against the rigid obedience to the law and avoid being “legalistic” are actually being unfaithful to God.
The scriptures define righteousness as right doing (1 John 3:7). The apostle James taught that the faithful believer is the one who actually obeys God’s will (James 2:17-26). Bible patriarchs illustrated true obedience in their life: Abraham (Genesis 26:5), Moses (Deuteronomy 4:2), John (1 John 5:3), and Paul (Romans 6:16). And their obedient actions demonstrated their faith in God.
Jesus extended His love and grace to the religious leaders, but they sadly rejected His calls. So, He said to them, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” (Matthew 23:27).
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In His service,