Watch Out for the Pharisees!
“THEN Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying: ‘The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the seat of Moses. Therefore all the things they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds, for they say but do not perform.’”—Matt. 23:1-3, NW.
These words of Jesus Christ, the Messiah and Prophet of whom Moses spoke, clearly identify the Pharisees as men who had taken authority to themselves. They had seated themselves in Moses’ seat. Jehovah God gave the Law to Moses as a guide and rule for the Israelite people. For the Pharisees to have seated themselves in the seat of Moses would mean they professed to be teachers of the Law of God, the written Law as given to Moses contained in the Hebrew Scriptures. It would mean they should have turned the Israelite people to Jehovah their God.
If the Pharisees and the people held to the Law from God, surely such a people would be blessed and be in line with Jehovah’s will and purpose. But was that the case? The facts and the Bible account show that the nation of Israel was not blessed by God under the Pharisees and their teaching. Jesus’ own words tell us that the people could not trust these professed teachers of the Law. Why not? Who were these Pharisees? How were they able to ‘seat themselves in the seat of Moses’? Why did Jesus warn the people and his disciples against following them?
A brief history of these men is in order to give us the proper setting for the action that took place between them and Jesus when he was on earth. The name Pharisee, which means separated, sounds the keynote for this body of religious men. Sometime during the second century B.C. this group came into existence as the champions of Jewish exclusiveness. They are connected by many historians with the Hasidim, who were described as being “mighty men of Israel, even all such as were voluntarily devoted to the law”. It was during the early part of the same century that Antiochus Epiphanes, a Seleucid prince of Syria having control over Palestine, proscribed Judaism, and in its place tried to force the popular Greek customs and ways upon the Jews. In fact, he prohibited the Jews, under penalty of death, from observing any and all of the religious observances ordained in the Law of Moses, even to the keeping of their sabbath. While some Jews bowed to this edict and turned to Hellenistic ways, others revolted. To this revolt, called the Maccabean wars, the strict observers of the Law joined themselves. Many of the zealous Jews died rather than break the sabbath law. Their adherence to the Law corresponded to that of the scribes of Israel who had been and were the men of influence in decisions on matters of law and on the many traditions they enjoined upon the Jewish people.
It was not until the time of the Jewish Maccabean prince John Hyrcanus, toward the last of the second century B. C., that the Pharisees came to be known by that name. The Pharisees did not agree with the Hellenizing influence that had affected so many of the Jews. They were determined that they, at least, would in no way become contaminated with Greek culture, literature and commerce. They separated themselves completely from all such influences. They became very exclusive. They took on a “better than thou” attitude, became formal and overly self-righteous. They gave minute interpretations and twists to the law. They exaggerated expectations of fulfillment of prophecy and gave literal and strictest attention to trivial acts of worship and external rites and ceremonies beyond the requirements of the law, placing the traditions of the older men of influence on an equal footing with the written inspired Scriptures. Instead of keeping with the times and speaking the international tongue of that time, Greek, they held to the Aramaic language, which the Jews had learned in Babylonish captivity many years previous.
This separateness did not make the Pharisees very popular with many of the Jews, and after the death of Hyrcanus his son Alexander Jannaeus openly persecuted them as a sect and even went so far as to put many of them to the sword. It was during his reign as a Maccabean high priest of the Jews that the people were torn by much internal strife between the two parties, the Pharisees and the opposing Sadducees. But the tide turned favorably for the Pharisees when, in 78 B.C., Alexandra, wife and successor of Alexander Jannaeus, brought the Pharisees into favor. She astutely recognized that physical force was powerless against zealous religious conviction, and so gave official recognition to them. This put the Pharisees in position to consolidate their power, and they played a major and influential part in the religious life of the people of Israel from that time forward.
The small measure of independence had by the Jews under the Maccabeans was short-lived, however. In the year 63 B. C. the Roman legions were knocking at the gates of Jerusalem, taking the city over as its conquerors. Thenceforth until the time of Jesus’ appearance on the scene the Jews simmered under their loss of political liberty. Their national pride had been hurt again. They were prone to turn from the reality of the day and dwell on the glories of the past, back to their history as a once powerful nation. They developed more and more an inward self-exaltation and spiritual pride that made them look down upon anything not Jewish or not in line with their traditional law. The Pharisees, particularly, continued to entwine the people in the morass of oral law and tradition they had evolved. Through all this the Romans who ruled them, using local governors or kings, were not interested or anxious to meddle with the Jew’s religion. They did not understand the Jew and only tried to maintain the Pax Romana or Roman peace the best they could.
These Pharisees were the ones, then, that had seated themselves in Moses’ seat. They knew the law. They were men of influence, some of their number being found in the High Court of the Jews, the Sanhedrin. (Acts 23:6, NW) Many of the learned men of the time were in their ranks and were held in high esteem by the people: “But a certain man rose in the Sanhedrin, a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a Law teacher esteemed by all the people.” (Acts 5:34, NW) Being in such a prominent position as the Pharisees were, and having the confidence of the people as they had, they were in an excellent position to teach the people the Word of Jehovah. But rather than doing so, they strayed far from the truth; so far, indeed, that when Jehovah God’s time came to send his messenger, John the Baptist, to prepare the way for the Greater than Moses, Christ Jesus, they rejected Jehovah’s warning and counsel. “But the Pharisees and those versed in the law disregarded the counsel of God to them and were not baptized by him [John].” (Luke 7:30, NW) Small wonder, then, that Jesus told his disciples later: “For I say to you that if your righteousness does not abound more than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter into the kingdom of the heavens.”—Matt. 5:20, NW.
Exactly why the Pharisees disregarded God’s counsel is aptly illustrated at Mark 7:1-13: “Now the Pharisees and some of the scribes that had come from Jerusalem gathered before him. And when they saw some of his disciples eat their meal with defiled hands, that is, unwashed ones—For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands up to the elbow, observing the tradition of the older men of influence, and, when back from market, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves by sprinkling; and there are many other traditions that they have received to observe: baptisms of cups and pitchers and copper vessels;—so these Pharisees and scribes asked him: ‘Why is it your disciples do not conduct themselves according to the tradition of the older men of influence, but they take their meal with defiled hands?’ He said to them: ‘Isaiah aptly prophesied about you hypocrites, as it is written: “This people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far removed from me. It is in vain that they pay respect to me, because they teach as doctrines commands of men.” Letting go the commandment of God you observe the tradition of men.’”
Certainly there is no law in the Law of Moses that stated that a man had to wash his hands before he ate. That was strictly a tradition or commandment of the Pharisees’ religion, not a law of Jehovah God. Then, to show how the religious Pharisees had pushed God’s law aside for their own doctrine, Jesus went on to say: “Adroitly you set aside the commandment of God in order to retain your tradition. For example, Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Let him that reviles father or mother end up in death.’ But you men say, ‘If a man says to his father or his mother, “Whatever I have by which you may get help from me is corban, (that is, a gift dedicated to God,)” you men no longer let him do a single thing for his father or his mother,’ and thus you shove the word of God aside for your tradition which you handed down. And many such maxims you do.”—NW.
It is evident from the above words of Jesus that the Pharisees were interested in the “gift” that was dedicated to God (that is, to the temple of the Pharisees). The Bible speaks of these men as money lovers; and this, too, brought on occasion for Jesus to tell the Pharisees in no uncertain terms: “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is under obligation.’ Fools and blind ones! Which, in fact, is greater, the gold or the temple that has sanctified the gold?”—Matt. 23:16, 17; Luke 16:14, NW.
In the matter of judgment and faithfulness Jehovah’s Word required that those professing to be leaders and teachers should be just and true. The Pharisees were sadly lacking in such things, and Jesus took them to task for it. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you give the tenth of the mint and the dill and the cummin, but you have disregarded the weightier matters of the Law, namely, judgment and mercy and faithfulness.”—Matt. 23:23, NW.
In view of these things disclosed by Jesus and the many other things revealed by him regarding the Pharisees, what result had their course effected upon the people in general? Jesus further answered this: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you shut up the kingdom of the heavens before mankind; for you yourselves do not go in, neither do you permit those on their way in to go in.” (Matt. 23:13, NW) Even some of the rulers believed on Jesus and what he had to say, but they were in fear of the Pharisees, who could make or break them socially. “All the same, many even of the rulers actually put faith in him, but because of the Pharisees they would not confess him in order not to be expelled from the congregation; for they loved the glory of men more than even the glory of God.”—John 12:42, 43, NW.
From the evidence given in the Bible concerning the Pharisees one can only deduce that they were dangerous. Dangerous because not only did they prevent themselves from having Jehovah God’s favor, but also they were turning thousands upon thousands of people into the way of destruction. The Pharisees said they were teaching the truth. Jesus Christ said that what they were teaching was wrong and that it was death-dealing. (Matt. 23:27, 28, 33, NW) Hence Jesus warned his apostles and disciples: “Be on the alert and watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” When the disciples failed at first to comprehend just what he meant, the Master clarified it for them. “Then they grasped that he said to watch out, not for the yeast of the loaves, but for the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”—Matt. 16:6, 12, NW.
To this day there are many men who have taken upon themselves to be professed teachers of God’s Word, and yet who teach exactly contrary to the truth. There is only one way to determine those who have God’s interests in mind. It is recorded at Isaiah 8:20, AS: “To the law and to the testimony! if they speak not according to this word, surely there is no morning for them.” If men today do not teach Jehovah God’s promised new world of righteousness as mankind’s only hope; if they do not expose this present system of things as of Satan the Devil, its god, nor warn all righteously disposed persons to flee from it to God’s organization, then they are not teaching truth and light. Watch out for them and their teaching. Remaining with such blind guides can only lead to death and destruction.—Matt. 15:14, NW.