The First Thing You Notice about Pharisees

I have lately taken up the study of Pharisee watching.

It started when a twenty-something gushed over advice I’d provided and referred to me as “wise” (old). It was further inspired when another staffer asked how old someone born in 1978 would be and the reply was forty.

Forty? Really. Forty? I left high school for early admission to college after my junior year in 1978. So, that forty is still working its way past my frontal cortex. The part of my brain that encourages denial keeps fending it off from settling anywhere permanent. It cannot possibly be forty years since I completed high school.

But, you’re wondering about the Pharisees. You see, I began following Jesus even earlier than 1978, in the early sixties when I was only a child, so that means I’ve been shadowing His sandaled-footsteps for over fifty years.

What makes the difference, I wonder into my mirror, between maturing in Christ and hardening one’s soul-arteries into inflexible religiosity?

How does one walk with Jesus for five decades without joining the religious establishment? So, because I’d like to recognize a Pharisee should one show-up in my reflection, I decided to see if I could learn what to beware of by watching them in the gospel stories.

The first thing I notice about Pharisees is that they do show up. John the Baptist is preparing the way for Jesus by proclaiming a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins. He’s drawing crowds and with these crowds gathered at the river are Pharisees.

You’ll notice these guys are everywhere in the gospels. They apparently love to be where everything is happening. They like to be seen. The go through the motions. They show up.

Maybe, it’s hard for them to be alone, or to rest with only the attention of their families. Do they crave constant affirmation or attention? Do they hunger to be in the know? Do they fear missing out and being excluded from the happenings? Do they struggle with personal depth, and so they rely on the constant validation of the crowds, their peers, and the sinners they’ve bullied into believing that Pharisees have it all together?

(Yeah, now I’ve gone from preaching to meddling, I know.)

Certainly, there must have been some Pharisees who were there out of genuine concern for shepherding the flock of Israel. According to, Josephus, an ancient historian, refers to Pharisees this way: “Josephus says the Pharisees maintained a simple lifestyle (Ant18.1.3 [12]), were affectionate and harmonious in their dealings with others (War 2.8.14 [166]), especially respectful to their elders (Ant18.13 [12]), and quite influential throughout the land of Israel.” I don’t know, that sounds kind of nice, right?

That’s what makes this Pharisee-business so tricky. Pharisees appear to start out as sincere seekers wanting to please God. But, then we come to the second thing you notice about Pharisees.

The second thing you notice about Pharisees is that John (and Jesus) speak to them differently than they do to the crowds. If I were proclaiming the baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins, I think I’d be thrilled that the religious leaders of the area had arrived to partake.

Not John. He wants to know who invited them to the river! He calls them a brood of vipers, which I’m sure isn’t flattering even in the original Greek so I didn’t bother to look it up. He tells them to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” which certainly implies that’s not what he’s seeing from them.

The word John (and Jesus) use for repentance translated metanoia, in the Greek, which according to Strong’s means, “a change of mind, as it appears to one who repents, of a purpose he has formed or of something he has done.”

A change of mind as opposed to a change of mouth. John and Jesus call us to change our minds about what we’ve been doing or purposing to do and not just say “Sorry” and move on.

Anyone who has dealt with children knows the difference between repentance and “sorry.” Apparently, Pharisees were a sorry lot, but not in a way that produced a true change representative of repentance.

The third thing I noticed today is that Pharisees tend to defend themselves by referencing their associations or their lineage. “We are children of Abraham.” “I come from a long line of Baptist ministers.” “I’ve been a church-goer since I was a child.” “I’ve always believed this way.” “I been giving to this church for forty years.” “I’ve been the head of this ministry for two decades.”

John tells them straight out that if their minds have been changed by repentance and the receipt of forgiveness, their lives will testify by fruit, not by lineage or association.

So today, I ask the Lord to instruct me and to flush out my inner Pharisee. Am I content to be in my own company? Is my family’s attention enough? Am I restless alone with God worried I’ll miss out on something important? Do I only exist if others verify or validate my existence?

Am I moved to repentance by the presence of sin in my life or have I become a sorry Christian? Is my mind changed about my sin or am I just sorry to be caught?

Does the fruit of my life testify to the active work of Jesus on my soul or am I referring to my history to stake a claim to the present work of the kingdom?

I’m not done Pharisee-watching and I invite you to take a peek into the gospels with me. Just trying to keep it real, loved ones, and as fresh as new life every day, all the way, until we are home. Thoughts?

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    The Conversation

  1. Bruce says:

    Looking at our own lives and motives, rather than those of others, certainly requires “truth in the inward parts”, and a well oiled, finely tuned humility, because we are in fact very fallible.
    Someone has said, “anyone that has no one to whom they are accountable is an accident waiting to happen”.
    I like to keep people around me that are loving and mature, that I purposely ask to speak into my life and keep me from being a hypocrite.
    Also, I’ve found that our Father loves us enough to let us get into situations that require us to choose between what we say we believe, and what our flesh wants to believe.
    Appreciate you Lori!

  2. Jann Butts says:

    Another excellent blog, Lori!

    I graduated in 1978, as well. I’m 57 years old. (How/When did THAT happen?!) I, too, have been a believer since childhood.

    It can be difficult to grow as a Christian and not grow bored/disillusioned with church and the various personalities who make up a congregation. We all fail and fall down. We should support one another, help each other be accountable for our behaviors.

    It’s hard to look in the mirror at times. Who wants to acknowledge we’re becoming people we don’t like? Only with God’s help can we continue to repent and turn back to Him.

    Thank you very much for your insight!

    • Craig Britton says:

      Spot-on, Jann. Funny-I’ll hit 57 in August. The years aren’t any more visible in my rear-view mirror than they are with you, I’m sure. Wonderful thoughts. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Bethany says:

    Great message Lori. Pharisees do always show up, and are no doubt members of just about every church. They don’t belong but they don’t know it. What bothers me most is that they are encouraged to be there instead of being dissuaded. Believers need to be more discerning of who’s who. Do they even pray for discernment? Having the mind of Christ means having discernment and correct assessment of a situation.

    I hope to hear more to follow.

  4. Craig Britton says:

    We’re always called to be aware of all the messages we here and those who offer them. Pharisee watching can become an industry, but true discernment is God’s gift and the church MUST be willing to call out those who manifest false messages, motives or fruit. That being said, I always need to ask the Lord as you have written, to flush out my inner-Pharisee. You know, it’s the old speck/log in the eye issue. Hunger for true obedience is never the mark of the Pharisee. But let’s together hunger to live out a life where we can always see the false among the genuine.

  5. Sid says:

    During our weekly group Bible study this past week, we got into a discussion of the subtle side of legalism and how it can sneakily influence our perspectives before we even recognize it. We talked about the “Lord’s Day Act” (in Canada) and how the established church of the day (1920s) imposed its rules upon those who didn’t follow the same Lord and manipulated the law of the land to decree that no one could work on Sunday. How is that different from the Pharisees? We agreed that many among us could call ourselves “recovering Pharisees”.

  6. Donna Richmond says:

    Lots of things to think about, love your blog

  7. Michelle says:

    Another wonderful article, Lori. In the short time that I have been following your writings, I have been truly blessed by them. The Holy Spirit has used them to both convict and encourage me in my own walk with Jesus. While reading this article, I was reminded of 2 Cor 13:5 “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves…”. We must always be on guard and examine ourselves daily and pray for God to help us to stay on the straight and narrow path and to keep us from, among other things, becoming like the Pharisees in our thinking as we mature in Christ.