Index by Subject


During Jesus’ ministry, there were three main sects of the Jews that influenced Jewish politics and culture. The Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes.

Interestingly, the Essenes are not mentioned in the New Testament writings. Perhaps their tendencies toward asceticism and monasticism separated them from the common Jew, and limited their influence upon Jewish culture. (Note: It is believed that it was an Essene community, Qumran, that was responsible for the penning of the Dead Sea Scrolls).

The Sadducees were characteristically liberal and secular in their outlook. They were political animals, often affluent, and held the highest political offices among the Jews. “They were a political party, of priestly and aristocratic tendency, as against the more religious and democratic Pharisees” (ISBE, Vol. IV, pg. 2659).

The Pharisees were, as noted above, more religious. In fact, at least in outward form, the Pharisee seemed to mirror most closely the teaching and philosophy of our Lord. For example:

  1. The Pharisee contended for the importance of separating himself from ungodly and worldly influences.
  2. The Pharisee was very attentive to the Law of God, and careful in his exposition of its teaching.
  3. The Pharisee emphasized the importance of diligent obedience to the Law of God.
  4. The Pharisee was eager to convert others to his beliefs, and was active in proselytizing.
  5. The Pharisee was very active religiously, and many saw the expressions of his faith.

Each of these five points carry a surface similarity to principles established by our Lord and his disciples. (Contrary to popular thought, Jesus did not have a problem with the expressions of religion). He was diligent in His own keeping of the law (doing so perfectly), and continually taught men to be diligent in their observance of the laws of God.

However, Jesus reserved his strongest words of condemnation for the sect of the Pharisees. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.  Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:27-28).

You will note in the above text the Lord indicated that the Pharisee was “full of hypocrisy.” This is the real and significant difference between the Lord’s expression of religion, and that of Pharisaism. His expressions came from the heart, while theirs was a ceremonial observance. In emphasizing the ceremony they distorted the true expression of faith. Take for example the five characteristics of the Pharisees mentioned earlier.

  1. The Pharisee’s desire to separate himself from ungodly and worldly influences led him to despise those who were not of his sect. Concerning the multitude who listened to Jesus, the Pharisees arrogantly said, “But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed” (John 7:49). In contrast, the faithful Christian recognizes his own sinfulness and that his salvation is an undeserved gift of God.
  2. The Pharisee was very attentive to the law of God, even tithing “mint and anise and cummin” (Matthew 23:23). However, he also was guilty in imposing his own traditions upon men, adding to the requirements of the law. In this he felt superior. “The Pharisaic theory of tradition was that these additions to the written law and interpretations of it had been given by Moses to the elders and by them had been transmitted orally down through the ages” (ISBE, pg. 2363). In effect, the Pharisee was exalting the traditions of men as equal to the written (inspired) law of God. In contrast, the faithful Christian recognizes his responsibility to keep the whole counsel of God, but that he has no right to bind his preferences upon others.
  3. The Pharisee was fanatical in his obedience, and arrogant in his dismissal of those who he considered less careful. In his proud prayer to God the Pharisee said, “I thank you that I am not like other men … I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all I possess” (Luke 18:12). Such an attitude is self-exalting, and contrary to the way of Christ. Too, in that they were binding their own traditions, they distorted the law of God. (cf. Matthew 15:9). In contrast, as the faithful Christian serves God, he feels himself to be a “debtor both to Greeks and barbarians, both to wise and unwise” (cf. Romans 1:14).
  4. The Pharisee was eager to convert others to his way, but as his way exalted the traditions of men and hypocrisy, the Lord said, “…you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you yourselves” (Matthew 23:15).  In contrast, the faithful Christian is eager to “preach the gospel to every creature” (cf. Mark 16:15). He does not want to convert people to his way, rather to God’s way.
  5. The Pharisee was religiously active, but his service did not reach his heart. He did what he did to be “seen of men”, and as such he had his “reward” in receiving praise from the same (cf. Matthew 6:5).  In contrast, the faithful Christian’s service to God emanates from the heart, with a sincere desire to serve His God. He worships in “spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).

When we emphasize the necessity of obedience and fidelity to God’s word, a world that looks only superficially will sometimes call us Pharisees. The resemblance is only superficial. However, it is certainly possible for Christians to become Pharisaical in our attitudes and actions. This we must continually guard against. We must “humble [ourselves} therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt [us] in due time” (cf. 1 Peter 5:6).