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Your Inner Pharisee is Showing: 4 Ways to Diagnose and Dismantle the Burden

“Everything they do is done for people to see.” - Matthew 23:5

The Pharisees would have loved social media.

The opportunity to carefully curate an idealized version of their life would fit perfectly with Jesus' evaluation in Matthew 23:5, "Everything they do is done for people to see."

If you had asked someone in this sect of religious Jews during the period of Jesus' earthly ministry about their life's purpose, they likely would have responded, "To obey God's law."

Fervently committed to projecting an image of outwardly righteous conduct, their public display of "law-keeping" garnered them respect among their contemporaries, solidifying their status as profoundly devout religious men.

But if the Pharisees were as righteous as they appeared, why did Jesus refer to them as "whitewashed tombs," beautiful on the outside but internally filled with death?

What could Jesus see that others couldn't?

The New Testament recounts numerous confrontations between Jesus and the Pharisees. While Jesus extended words of invitation and forgiveness to those marginalized and labeled as 'sinners,' he directed severe criticism towards the religious elite who appeared pious and holy in their strict adherence to religious standards.

This stark contrast raises a critical question. Why did Jesus respond so differently to the Pharisees?

Upon closer examination, we find that Pharisees' fixation on their moral practices was not driven by their love for God, but rather by love for self. For a Pharisee, public display of righteous acts (such as praying, giving, teaching, etc.) was a means to gain human admiration, as public acclaim formed the very essence of their identity.

In other words, a Pharisee’s religious reputation was his functional righteousness.

Their pursuit of righteousness, based on the approval and praise of others, was akin to a treasure chest filled with worthless currency. In their relentless pursuit of self-righteousness, they exhibited their spiritual blindness and emptiness, failing to recognize Jesus for who He truly was and falling far short of genuine obedience to God's law.

Jesus saw through their hypocrisy.

Their real ambition wasn't to glorify God but to glorify themselves.

But isn't this a battle we all face? I certainly do. When I delve into the New Testament narratives featuring self-righteous Pharisees who cast judgment on those they deemed less virtuous, I don't scorn them. I empathize with them because I relate to their hypocrisy.

The unspoken desire of the Pharisee was, "Look at me!"

  • Look at my right theology. And be wowed.
  • Look at my moral behavior. And be amazed.
  • Look at my position of leadership. And be impressed.

We get it because we do the same things. Look at my awards. Look at my house. Look at my bank account. Look at my children. Look at my team's record. Look at my physique. Look at who I know. Look at my speaking calendar. Look at my latest book.

Wow. Amazing. I'm impressed!

See what I mean?

When good things become ultimate things, they become idolatrous things. And idolatrous things are the forbidden fruits of Pharisaism. As soon as I take a bite, I'm infected with the poison.

This is why every follower of Jesus would do well to war against the Pharisee-like tendencies that dwell within our flesh, and especially within the "religious" flesh. This is the aspect of our sinful nature that manipulates religion. Much like a broker capitalizes on market trends to amass wealth, the religious flesh capitalizes on how spiritual devotion can be leveraged as a means of self-glory.

Indeed, the root of the first sin lies in the pursuit of self-glory. It's the same temptation that Satan continues to dangle before us today. It's a lure that promises the praise that rightfully belongs to God. In addition to a lure, Pharisaism is a path, or way of life, that leads to hypocrisy, a loss of joy, and a lack of love.

How can you know if you've been infected with Pharisaical poison?

Just ask some simple diagnostic questions.

1) Motive Questions

What drives me? Why do I do what I do? Are my actions primarily driven by an authentic love for God and neighbor, or am I more concerned about peer opinions and maintaining an outward image?

2) Elevation Questions

What is my knee-jerk response when someone fails or falls? Do you look down upon them with contempt from a place of moral high ground or with compassion as a fellow sinner who lives moment to moment by God’s grace?

3) Entitlement Questions

How do I react when things do not go my way? Do I feel entitled to specific outcomes because my comparative goodness deserves God's favor and blessing?

4) Joy & Gratitude Questions

Do I tend to be more joyful, hopeful, and grateful or angry, bitter, and resentful?

Combating Pharisee-like tendencies requires a degree of self-awareness that involves an honest evaluation not only of our actions but also (and more significantly) our motives. The journey toward self-awareness may not be easy, as it will expose things we don't want to admit about the flesh. But the process is deeply rewarding, leading us to a place of life-giving repentance and peace-granting faith, where we can more deeply experience the renewal afforded by the riches of God's grace in Jesus.

Jesus offers us freedom from the burden of Pharisaism.

It's not hard to see how Pharisaism is a massive burden that weighs us down with a burden of false pretenses that we must uphold at all costs. Because for the Pharisee, image is everything.

But keeping up appearances not only is exhausting, but it isn't possible. Even if our friends can't see through the facade, Jesus can.

And he offers us freedom.

This freedom from the burden is found at the cross, where God's grace liberates us from the need to justify ourselves with a carefully curated religious resumé. Instead of earning righteousness, we receive righteousness—the perfect righteousness of Jesus (his moral resumé!). This is a grace that paves the way for the freedom to live with a renewed sense of gospel joy.

What are some practical steps to experiencing this freedom?

Step 1: Confess your inner Pharisee.

This involves acknowledging that we, like the Pharisees, are prone to self-righteousness and hypocrisy. As we grow in our understanding of God's grace, we will find more and more areas in our lives that need to be confessed and surrendered to God. A practice of continual confession keeps us freshly dependent on God's grace, helping to keep us from falling back into the trap of self-righteousness.

Step 2: Embrace the present value of Jesus' blood.

While the sin of Pharisaism is uniquely heinous, as it seeks to steal God's glory, stand without the need for mercy, and reign as sovereign, moral judge, the cross saves not only the younger, irreligious brother, it saves the hard-hearted Pharisee, too. Jesus' blood is not just for the past or future but right now in this very moment.

Step 3: Stop striving and start resting.

We rest in the finished work of Christ on the cross when we stop striving to earn God's favor or prove our worth. Instead, we savor the assurance that our standing before God is not dependent on our obedience and sacrifice, but on the obedience and sacrifice of Jesus. We no longer have to hide or pretend to be self-righteous. Instead, we may openly confess our need for mercy while extending the same mercy to others by magnifying not ourselves but the cross of our risen and reigning Savior.

Step 4: Savor the glory of Jesus' gift-righteousness.

As we embrace the freedom offered by the gospel and let go of our self-righteousness, we are invited to savor the beauty of Jesus' gift-righteousness, boasting not in self but in the cross.

So, will you join me at the foot of that cross to examine our hearts, confess our sins, and surrender our self-righteousness that we may rejoice in the grace that saves us, lean on the grace that sustains us, and grow in the grace that sanctifies us?

For it is in the shadow of the cross that we find true life, true righteousness, and true joy.

Learn more about the freedom of the gospel in our free, 8-lesson ebook with discussion guide, The Grade Exchange: An Introduction to the Gospel.


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