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The Blue Letter Bible
Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The World into Which Jesus Came

Don Stewart :: Who Were the Pharisees?

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Who Were the Pharisees?

The World Into Which Jesus Came – Question 10

The group which probably had most confrontations with Jesus during His earthly ministry was the Pharisees. Since they are prominent in the New Testament, it is important that we know something about them.

The word Pharisee is derived from an Aramaic word meaning, “separated.” From the New Testament we learn the following about them.

1. They Believed in a Future Life

The Pharisees were a group that held to the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the dead, and punishment in future life. These people believed that punishment was based upon how one behaved in this life. The souls of the wicked would be in prison forever under the earth. Those who were righteous would live again. In the Book of Acts some of the differences between the Pharisees and Sadducees is explained to us. It says,

The Sadducees do not believe in angels or spirits or that the dead will rise to life. But the Pharisees believe in all of these, and so there was a lot of shouting. Some of the teachers of the Law of Moses were Pharisees. Finally, they became angry and said, “We don’t find anything wrong with this man. Maybe a spirit or an angel really did speak to him.” (Acts 23:8, 9 CEV)

They had a hope in a future resurrection.

2. They Added Tradition to Scripture

In Jesus’ day the Pharisees practiced righteousness externally. In other words, they were more concerned with the outward appearance than the inward feeling. For example, in obeying the commandments of God, the Pharisees added an enormous amount of traditional material that was passed down from one generation to the next. They considered this tradition as authoritative as Scripture. They asked Jesus,

“Why do your disciples disobey our age-old traditions?” they demanded. “They ignore our tradition of ceremonial hand washing before they eat.” Jesus replied, “And why do you, by your traditions, violate the direct commandments of God? For instance, God says, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks evil of father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say, ‘You don’t need to honor your parents by caring for their needs if you give the money to God instead.’ And so, by your own tradition, you nullify the direct commandment of God. (Matthew 15:2-6 NLT)

Note that Jesus strongly denounced their traditions. Indeed, He said that they were opposed to the truths of God’s Word. Indeed, we find that these people were the worst persecutors of Jesus and the objects of His strongest criticism.

3. They Appeared at John’s Baptism

Earlier, we find them at the baptism of John the Baptist where they were met with stern words from John. The Bible records the following:

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7 NRSV)

John recognized their hypocrisy and was not afraid to point it out.

4. The Pharisees Accused Jesus of Demonic Practice

When these religious rulers saw the miracles of Jesus they could not deny them. Instead of attributing these miracles to God the Pharisees actually accused Jesus of demonic practices. We read their response in Matthew:

But the Pharisees said, “He can cast out demons because he is empowered by the prince of demons.” (Matthew 9:34 NLT)

They did not acknowledge where His power came from. Instead they claimed His power was from a demonic source.

5. The Pharisees Intimidated People Who Believed in Jesus

The New Testament says that the Pharisees would personally intimidate anyone who believed in Jesus. John wrote,

Nevertheless many, even of the authorities, believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they did not confess it, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue. (John 12:42 NRSV)

These religious leaders could not tolerate anyone who believed in Jesus. Therefore, they would make certain those who followed the Lord were put out of the synagogue.

6. The Pharisees Plotted Jesus’ Death

The Pharisees are the ones who plotted the death of Jesus over His breaking of the Sabbath. Matthew writes about their decision to kill Jesus after He broke their human-made rules. He explained it this way:

The Pharisees left and started making plans to kill Jesus. (Matthew 12:14 CEV)

Their plans would eventually come to pass. However, Jesus’ death would be in God’s timing, not theirs.

We also read about how they plotted to catch Him saying something that could lead to His arrest. Matthew again writes,

Then the Pharisees went and plotted how they might entangle Him in His talk. (Matthew 22:15 NKJV)

They were set on silencing Jesus. Yet they could not.

7. Jesus Condemned the Pharisees in the Strongest of Terms

Not surprisingly, Jesus’ strongest words of condemnation were aimed at these hypocritical Pharisees. He said the following to His disciples about these religious hypocrites:

How horrible it will be for you, scribes and Pharisees! You hypocrites! You lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. You don’t enter it yourselves, and you don’t permit others to enter when they try. (Matthew 23:13 God’s Word)

Their behavior clearly demonstrated what happens when people are only outwardly righteous, but inwardly hypocritical. They have an outward form of godliness but are lifeless on the inside. Jesus had very harsh words of judgment directed toward them.

8. They Persecuted Jesus’ Followers after His Death

They continued the persecution of Jesus’ followers. Jesus’ disciples continued to preach the message of Jesus against the direct order of the Sanhedrin (which included the Pharisees). The Sanhedrin wanted Peter and John put to death. We read in the Book of Acts:

When the council members heard this, they became so angry that they wanted to kill the apostles. (Acts 5:33 CEV)

They were not satisfied with simply killing Jesus; they wanted everyone dead who was associated with Him.

In sum, the Pharisees, the ones who were supposed to be the guardians of the truth of God, were actually the one stopping people from believing. They had this outward form of godly living but inside they were spiritually dead. Therefore, it is not surprising that Jesus had His harshest words of judgment aimed at them.

Summary – Question 10
Who Were the Pharisees?

The main opposition to Jesus Christ and His ministry came from a group of people known as the Pharisees. The Pharisees were the religious conservatives. They believed in an afterlife and a final judgment. They were at odds with other groups such as Sadducees, and the Herodians.

However, they all joined together against their common enemy, Jesus. From the four gospels, we find that these Pharisees were Jesus’ chief persecutors. They rejected His claims to be the Messiah and were the ones who plotted to have Him killed. In fact, the Jewish leaders who believed in Jesus were afraid to come forward because of the intimidation of the Pharisees.

We find that Jesus’ strongest words of condemnation were aimed at these religious hypocrites. He actually called them “children of the devil.”

The Book of Acts tells us that the Pharisees continued to persecute Jesus’ disciples after His death, resurrection, and ascension. However, like every other group, they miserably failed in their attempt to stop the message of Jesus or silence those who proclaimed it. Indeed, nothing can stop His Word from going forth.

Who Were the Scribes? ← Prior Section
Who Were the Sadducees? Next Section →
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