Pharisaic Hypocrisy

The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you — but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice” (vv. 2–3).  

- Matthew 23:1–4

Since most Jews esteem the Pharisees, Jesus knows that the crowds face spiritual peril if they follow these teachers in their actions. He therefore continues to confront the Pharisees after poking holes in their understanding of Psalm 110 (Matt. 22:41–45). Seeing that the people are hanging upon His every word (v. 46), Jesus begins warning them to steer clear of Pharisaic hypocrisy.

Christ actually had more in common with the Pharisees than any other first-century Jews, and He does not condemn all they hold dear in Matthew 23. Like Jesus, the Pharisees affirmed the existence of angels, the resurrection, and they taught from the full Old Testament canon. Furthermore, Matthew 23 does not rebuke all Pharisees. Our Savior may have had good rapport with some of them (for example, John 18:38–40), and one or more Pharisees likely became disciples (Matt. 8:18–20; most scribes were also Pharisees).

Yet Jesus did not endorse the man-made rules many Pharisees added to God’s law (15:1–9), not to mention the pride that often attended Pharisaic separatism. Thus, Christ is not approving every aspect of Pharisaic teaching in 23:1–3. These verses are difficult to interpret. John Calvin says that Jesus is exhorting “the people to obey the scribes, only so far as they adhere to the pure and simple exposition of the Law.” This meaning fits well with “sit in Moses’ seat,” as to sit in someone’s seat is to hold his authority (Ps. 132:11–12), and Mosaic authority is rooted in the right interpretation of the Law. Or, Jesus’ words are dripping with irony in Matthew 23:2, which can be translated “the scribes and Pharisees have sat themselves in Moses’ seat.” If so, Jesus would be implying that even the words of the Pharisees carried little weight since they stole Moses’ authority.

Either way, Christ, in the rest of Matthew 23, plainly condemns the Pharisees for not practicing the laws that they preach. As legal experts, they should know to help their fellow Jews (Lev. 19:18), but many Pharisees are more concerned with appearances and will not aid those who fail in trying to keep the Pharisaic traditions (Matt. 23:4). Why would they help people get back on the straight and narrow if others’ failures made the Pharisees look better in comparison?

Coram Deo

As we have seen, many Pharisees had an inflated view of their own goodness and were unaware of their own need for mercy (Luke 18:9–14). Yet the truly pious, “being conscious of their own weakness…kindly forgive the weak,” as John Calvin comments. One way our Christian profession is validated is in our willingness to help others find forgiveness and salvation in the Gospel. Can fallen people count on you to help them follow Jesus completely?

Passages for Further Study

Deut. 10:12–22
Prov. 11:24
Luke 10:25–37
Philippians 3:1–11

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