The chief priests and the elders came to Jesus. … And Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you that the tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you.” Matthew 21:23-32
Last week I shared about my personal realization that I was a Closet Pharisee. Though I had a true love for Jesus, my pursuit of holiness took a slight wrong turn and a hidden and insidious pride began to grow in my heart. If you grew up in church like me, you must be careful to discern your heart in this matter. You may know certain truths in your head that your heart does not yet believe. I knew that “all had sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” I knew that “the wages of sin is death.” I could tell you that I deserved hell for my sins and that I was saved “by grace alone through faith and that not of myself or works so that no one may boast.” Yet, in my heart and my actions, I believed I was good enough on my own apart from Jesus. As you read this, I invite you to check your heart and motives. Just because you have a genuine love for God and aren’t aware of any sin in your heart, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
The Danger of Self-righteousness
The Pharisees were the religious leaders in Jesus’s day. They were very moral and religious people who were often in the temple, studying the Law and making sacrifices. And ironically, they receive the harshest words of judgment from Jesus during his time on earth. Why is this? Because they looked to their own good works and good deeds to save them. Therefore, they didn’t have the ability to relate to Jesus as a savior, because they were looking to themselves for that. They were self-righteous, looking for righteousness within themselves. Comparatively, this is why the prostitutes and tax collectors, who knew they had no righteousness and no hope of salvation in themselves, were able to receive Jesus as savior. As our pastor said earlier this month, “The Pharisees good behavior is more dangerous and more damning than the sin of tax collectors and prostitutes.”
Just as in Jesus’s day, a self-righteous heart is still the premier enemy of the Gospel of Jesus today. It is the self-righteous ones that are in the most danger of missing salvation. So what does it mean to be self-righteous? Self-righteousness is relating to God based on your performance for God. This manifests in both feeling good about yourself when you are doing well and feeling discouraged when you are battling sin. Both are performance-based ways to relate to God.
If Jesus’s harshest words of judgment are to the Pharisees, then it would serve us well to be quick to identify our inclinations toward self-righteousness and repent quickly of our pharisaical ways. Jesus himself, speaking of the scribes and Pharisees, said “Do not do according to their deeds.” (Matt 23:3)
Four Marks of a Pharisee
What does it mean to be a Pharisee? How do we avoid their condemnable way of life? Here are a few identifying characteristics of these self-righteous, religious, anti-Jesus people.
They trusted in themselves for their righteousness & viewed others with contempt.
And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed other with contempt: Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ … I tell you, this man was not justified.” Luke 18:9-14
It can be hard to truly discern if we are trusting in ourselves for righteousness when we know all the right Christian answers. But there are a few side effects of trusting in yourself that we see from this text. The first is that you view others with contempt. Contempt means the feeling that a person is beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving scorn. This means that in your heart you tend to look down on others who you perceive to be “worse sinners” than yourself. This may be that sorority girl who sleeps around and gets drunk on the weekends, or the gay barista that you see every week at Starbucks or the Christian mom who divorced her husband and now puts her children in day care to go to work. As soon as you stray away from the worldview that we are ALL sinners in desperate need of the grace of God for ANY good to be accomplished in our lives, you are following the prideful way of the Pharisee.
Secondly, you feel confident before God because of what you have done for Him. It’s one thing to desire to honor God with your life because He has saved you. It’s another thing when your good deeds become the reason you feel that God can accept you and be pleased with you. If any of your confidence is found in how good you are, then like the Pharisees you have believed the lie that you can be good apart from God. Consequently, this will cause you to feel as if the world is falling apart when you are struggling with outward sin.
- Do you feel comforted by the thought that you are a “better person” or “better Christian” than others in your life?
- Are there certain people you find it hard to have compassion on?
- When you think about how your spiritual life is going, do you immediately look to what you have done for God?
- Do you feel comforted and confident after you’ve had a long quiet time? Or when you have given a lot of money? Or shared the gospel a certain number of times?
- Do you feel like you can’t approach God when you aren’t meeting your own standards of righteousness?
They do everything to be noticed by others and love to have the outward signs of holiness.
They do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. Matthew 23:5
First of all, what is a phylactery? These were small cases containing scripture worn on the left arm and forehead for religious purposes in Jewish culture. These and the tassels of their garments were outward signs of spirituality that the Pharisees made sure others could see. We may not wear scripture on our foreheads and arms, but that doesn’t mean we don’t magnify and “broaden” our own outward signs of holiness in our American Christian culture. Some of these signs may include: abstinence from alcohol, not dating around or sleeping around, not spending money frivolously, sharing the Gospel, not going to the wrong parties, etc. None of these are bad things in and of themselves. In fact, these can all be good things that honor God when done with the right heart. The problem is when we do these things with the purpose to be seen by others and to make ourselves look good.
- Do you take pride in areas of outward holiness? Do you often compare yourself to others in these areas?
- Do you forsake the unseen spiritual disciplines in your life (prayer, serving your family or roommates, self-discipline while you are alone)?
- Do you often think about how others will view you if you do or don’t do something?
- Do you look for moments in conversation to tell others about your spiritual disciplines (prayer, fasting, giving, sharing the gospel, etc)? Or do you regularly share about these things on social media?
- Do you spend more time seeking God (in prayer, Bible reading, worshipping, etc) when you are with others than when you are alone?
They loved being honored and elevated above others.
[The Pharisees] love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men. Matthew 23:6-7
This may be a hard characteristic to discern in yourself. You may even read that statement and think to yourself, “That’s not me. I don’t need to be honored or elevated.” But often a truer test of our hearts is how we respond when others are honored and elevated, especially those close to us or those we deem as less spiritual.
Before traveling with Jimmy, I never would have thought I desired honor and elevation. Then, I found myself with him at concerts every weekend where he was often recognized and praised publicly. All of the sudden, I was consumed with thoughts of, “What about me? Does anyone see how spiritual I am?” My true desires were revealed that I loved honor. I loved recognition.
- Is it hard for you to be truly happy for others when they are honored and praised?
- When someone else is honored, do you immediately compare yourself to him or her or wonder why no one has said that of you yet?
- Do you go above and beyond with the secret hope that those around you will notice and publicly praise you?
- When someone “less spiritual” or younger than you is honored, are you eaten up with jealousy?
- Do you long to be a teacher, pastor, worship leader, or in full time ministry so that you can be looked up to or have people underneath you?
- Would you be content if you knew God had called you to a lifetime of service behind the scenes or would you secretly always want something more?
They feel compelled to justify themselves to men to keep up appearances.
And Jesus said to [the Pharisees], “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God.” Luke 16:15
This will look different for everyone depending on the image you are trying to protect. For most Jesus followers, myself included, we take pride in different aspects of being a “good Christian.” This could be how you dress and how much makeup you wear, how you eat, who and how you date, how you spend your time, or what you read. I tend to take pride in being a conservative spender and a generous giver. So when something happened that could disrupt my image, I sought to justify myself before others. For example, my dad bought me a very expensive and nice piece of jewelry for my wedding. When others complimented me, I couldn’t just say thank you. I felt compelled to explain that it was a gift from my dad to make sure everyone knew I didn’t spend that much money on myself. Likewise, if I was complimented on a new outfit, I just had to explain how great of a deal I got and all the coupons I used and “can you believe all the proceeds go to charity?!” Sadly, this revealed a desire to be seen as holy and good before others more than a desire to see God glorified in my heart and my actions.
- Do you feel compelled to explain yourself and your motives to others?
- Do you have a hard time receiving compliments about certain things without explaining yourself?
- Do you look for moments in conversation to tell others why you do what you do?
While these are only a few distinguishing marks of the Pharisees (you can read about more in Matthew 23, Luke 13:10-17, 14:12-14), ultimately all these things boil down to pride. Of all the offensive things to God, there is none greater than pride (Prov 6:16-18, 8:13, Ps 101:5). For “everyone who is proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord;
Assuredly, he will not be unpunished.”(Proverbs 16:5)
For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; You are not pleased with burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; A broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise. Psalm 51:16-17
Even as I write this list I am overwhelmed with brokenness as I consider how great a sinner I am. This list has far too often described me. I am as the one to whom Jesus said “Woe to you, hypocrite! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of self-indulgence. Woe to you! For you are like a whitewashed tomb which on the outside appears beautiful, but inside is full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matt 23:25-28) Of all types of sinners, I am the worst. I belittle the work of Jesus on the cross with my arrogant confidence in myself and yet say all the right things on the outside to appear holy to protect my own reputation. Yet praise be to God that He has not dealt with me according to my sins or rewarded me according to my iniquity but instead has justified me as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Jesus! (Ps 103:10, Rom 3:24)
If you read the above list and found yourself identifying with these anti-Jesus religious people, then let the first response be one of sincere brokenness. More than good deeds and longer quiet times, God desires a broken and contrite heart that is humble and repentant before him. If you need to, get on your knees now and repent before God for allowing the despicable sin of pride to dwell in your heart. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)
After confession and repentance, there are four practical ways that I regularly fight pharisaical pride in my heart. I will discuss those in my next blog.