Several years ago I did an in-depth study on the Pharisees, the religious leaders in Jesus’ day. If you aren't familiar with this group of people, they were very moral, very religious men who were often in the temple, studying the Law and making sacrifices. Yet when Jesus’ ministry begins, they were so offended by Him that they almost immediately began to plot to kill Him.
The most pressing question this study raises is why. Why were the Pharisees wrong, why did they hate Jesus, why is their way of living one to be avoided? Isn't it good to try to be good?
The Danger of Self-Righteousness
The chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him. . . . Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.” (Matt. 21:23, 31)
The Pharisees had a problem with self-righteousness. They thought that righteousness could be found within themselves and consequently had no need for Jesus as Savior. They were doing fine on their own, thank you very much. Comparatively, the prostitutes and tax collectors felt desperate for someone to save them from their hopeless and sin-stained condition. They understood that it would take a miracle (namely a Savior) to make them right with God. This is why Jesus made it clear in the above passage that self-righteousness will keep you out of the kingdom of God much sooner than lots of outward sin.
So how can we avoid falling into the well-worn pattern of self-righteousness today? Let’s begin by identifying five marks of a modern-day Pharisee.
1. Having a Performance-Based Relationship with God
He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other.” (Luke 18:9–14)
Like in the parable Jesus told, the Pharisee will always be the one who relates to God based on what he has done, not based on what God has done. He feels good when he is doing well and feels discouraged when he is battling sin.
- When you think about how your spiritual life is going, do you immediately look to what you have done for God?
- Do you feel confident after you’ve had a long quiet time? Or when you have given a lot of money? Or shared the gospel a certain number of times?
- Do you feel like you can’t approach God when you aren’t meeting your own standards of goodness?
- Do you regularly compare your spirituality to others in your life to see how well you are doing?
2. Looking Down on Others
[The Pharisees] . . . trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt. (Luke 18:9)
Do you tend to look down on those you perceive to be “worse sinners” than yourself? This may be that university girl who sleeps around and gets drunk on the weekends, or the transgender worker that you see every week at Starbucks, or the woman on her fourth marriage. As soon as you stray away from the truth that we are all sinners in desperate need of the grace of God for any good to be manifested in our lives, you are following the prideful way of the Pharisee.
- Do you feel comforted by the thought that you are a “better person” or “better Christian” than others in your life?
- Are there certain people you find it hard to have compassion for?
- Do you often think, I would never do that! or What kind of person could do such a thing?
3. Loving Outward Signs of Holiness
“[The Pharisees] do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.” (Matt. 23:5)
Phylacteries are small cases containing Scripture worn on the left arm and forehead for religious purposes in Jewish culture. These and the tassels of their garments were outward signs of spirituality that the Pharisees made sure others could see. We may not wear Scripture on our foreheads and arms, but that doesn’t mean we don't “broaden” our own outward signs of holiness in our American Christian culture.
- Do you take pride in areas of visible “holiness”? Do you often compare yourself to others in these areas?
- Do you forsake the unseen spiritual disciplines in your life (prayer, serving your family or roommates, self-discipline, etc.) when you are alone?
- Do you often think about how others will view you if you do or don’t do something?
- Do you look for moments in conversation to tell others about your spiritual disciplines (prayer, fasting, giving, sharing the gospel, etc.)? Or do you regularly share about these things on social media?
- Do you spend more time seeking God (in prayer, Bible reading, worshipping, etc.) when you are with others than when you are alone?
4. Loving Honor and Recognition
“[The Pharisees] love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.” (Matt. 23:6–7)
Even if you don't think this one applies to you, the truest test of our hearts is how we respond when others are honored and elevated, especially those close to us or those we deem as less spiritual.
Before traveling with my husband, Jimmy, I never would have thought I desired honor and elevation. Then I found myself with him at concerts every weekend where he was often recognized and praised publicly. All of a sudden, I was consumed with thoughts of, What about me? Does anyone see how spiritual I am? The honor someone else was receiving revealed my true desires: I loved honor; I loved recognition.
- Is it hard for you to be happy for others when they are honored and praised?
- When someone else is honored, do you immediately compare yourself to him or her or wonder why no one has said that about you yet?
- Do you go above and beyond with the secret hope that those around you will notice and publicly praise you?
- When someone “less spiritual” or younger than you is honored, are you eaten up with jealousy?
- Do you long to be a teacher, pastor, worship leader, or in full-time ministry so you can be looked up to or have people underneath you?
- Would you be content if you knew God had called you to a lifetime of service behind the scenes, or would you always want something more?
5. Always Needing to Justify Yourself
“You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.” (Luke 16:15)
This will look different for everyone depending on the image you are trying to protect. For most Christians, myself included, we tend to take pride in different aspects of being a “good Christian.” This could be how you dress and how much makeup you wear, how you eat, who and how you date, how you spend your time, or what you read.
For example, if you take pride in being a conservative spender, do you often feel the need to share how little you spent on things? If you take pride in “being okay without makeup,” do you feel the need to explain yourself on the days you are wearing it? A burning desire to justify yourself shows you love the esteem of others more than the esteem of God.
Do you feel compelled to explain your motives to others?
- Do you have a hard time receiving compliments about certain things without explaining yourself?
- Do you look for moments in conversation to tell others why you do what you do?
- Do you have a hard time doing things that might look “less spiritual” than you believe you are?
For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Ps. 51:16–17)
I found that I am just like the Pharisees. I spent a large part of my life looking inward for righteousness and feeling fairly confident I could find it there. My sin of pride was not one that others could see because it hid behind a cloud of spiritual disciplines. But learning that I most identified with the group of people who sought to kill Jesus is pretty humbling.
If you identify with these anti-Jesus religious people, let your first response be one of sincere brokenness. More than good deeds and longer quiet times, God desires a broken and humble heart. He asks us to repent of our attempts to be righteous without Him and to acknowledge that Christ alone is good enough to be counted as righteous before God. Let us repent of self-righteousness and cling to Jesus who has become for us our righteousness, our Savior (1 Cor. 1:30).