Have you ever been called a “Pharisee”? I hope not—it’s a term deeply associated with arrogance, legalism, and hypocrisy. It’s one of the harshest insults you can throw at a Christian, because it implies that in their obsession with being holy, they’ve failed to grasp Christianity’s most basic teachings.
But at one time in history, the word “Pharisee” wasn’t an insult; it was high praise! When Jesus criticized the Pharisees, he was challenging people’s core concept of what holiness and faithfulness looked like. In this devotional from Slice of Infinity, Jill Carattini imagines how Jesus’ words about hypocrisy might play out in the modern world:
Ironically, the description “pharisaical” would once have been a great compliment. The Pharisees were highly regarded guardians of the strict interpretation and application of Jewish Law. They were known for their zeal and for their uncompromising ways of following the God of their fathers. It is likely that the apostle Paul was a Pharisee, and it is suggested that much of his Christian theology owes something to the shape and content of this earlier training. In other words, to be a Pharisee was not an easy life riddled with loopholes and duplicities, like we might assume. The Pharisees were so certain there was a right way to follow God that they sought to follow Him to that very letter with all of their lives.
In this light, Jesus’s words seem a little harsher, his tone a little crueler, and perhaps his warnings a little closer to home. In the Pharisees, Jesus scolded the very best of the religious crowd, those who dedicated everything, and cared the deepest about following God. If Jesus came today into churches and singled out the ministers who work the hardest, the youth who are most involved, and the families who serve most consistently and called them a brood of vipers, we would be hurt and confused and even defensive. This is exactly what happened amongst the Pharisees.
Imagine the jarring effect Jesus’ words must have had—it would be like seeing the most dedicated and earnest members of your church criticized for being hypocrites! But Jesus’ message was not just a condemnation—it was a call to change. While most of the Pharisees resisted that call, at least one of them—Nicodemus—realized that even a life lived in pursuit of holiness could go astray, and sought out Jesus.
Have you ever felt convicted of being a modern-day Pharisee, finding yourself spiritually astray despite your devotion to church and religion? How did God deliver that message to you, and how did you respond?