When I look in the mirror, what do I see? When I ask myself the question, “How am I doing as a Christian?” What measure do I use to answer?
In Western Christian circles, the term “Pharisee” is normally used, particularly in a religious context, to describe someone as mean spirited, legalistic, and hypocritical. This is a caricature of a conservative religious group presented in the New Testament. When Pharisees are mentioned in the New Testament, the text often presents them in an unfavorable light. Jesus debates the Pharisees, rebukes the Pharisees, and warns His disciples (and everyone else) not to imitate the Pharisees.
Early in His ministry, Jesus confronted the root problem associated with Pharisaism, “You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you: ‘THIS PEOPLE HONORS ME WITH THEIR LIPS, BUT THEIR HEART IS FAR AWAY FROM ME. BUT IN VAIN DO THEY WORSHIP ME, TEACHING AS DOCTRINES THE PRECEPTS OF MEN.’ ” – (Matthew 15:7-9)
In spite of these harsh words, the Pharisees continued to interact with Jesus and His disciples. This interaction, was honest enough that a significant number of this group accepted Jesus as their Messiah and became believers. We know this because Acts 15:5 mentions them by name, “But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying ‘It is necessary to circumcise them [non-Jewish Christians], and to command them to keep the law of Moses’”.[emphases added]
This reality forces me to consider two implications. First, whatever feeds Pharisaism, in terms of mindset or worldview, survived the initial transition from Judaism to Christianity. This implies that Pharisaism is not restricted to unbelieving legalists, but is a real threat to believers today, even those who are painfully aware of their own need for grace. Peter, for example, falls prey to this influence, briefly requiring Gentile Christians to “Judaize”, live like Jews (Gal. 2:14).
Second, while Jesus linked Pharisaism to hypocrisy, that hypocrisy is inadvertent. Like Peter, most Pharisees (and “Judaizers”) are sincere in their desire to please God. This implies that Pharisaism is a deceptive error, not a willful rebellion, that causes us to act in ways contrary to the God we claim to serve.
The problem with Pharisaism is that it teaches cultural expectations as if they are God’s expectations. It encourages believers to evaluate themselves and others based on the vagaries of cultural expression instead of the “sure word” of God’s promises. It replaces conviction with social pressure and discipleship with social conformity.
So I ask again, when I look in the mirror, what do I see? If I am evaluating myself by how often I attend service, where or to whom I minister, or even how much I study scripture and pray, then I am looking at a Pharisee.