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What does it mean to be pharisaical?

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The adjective pharisaical literally means “similar to the Pharisees.” In common usage, though, the word pharisaical is employed to describe someone who is hypocritical and/or self-righteous, traits that the Pharisees in the New Testament were known for.

The Pharisees often received harsh rebukes from Jesus. In Matthew 23, in the seven woes, Jesus describes the Pharisees as those who do not practice what they preach (Matthew 23:3); lay heavy burdens on people (Matthew 23:4); do their deeds to be seen by others (Matthew 23:5); love the seat of honor (Matthew 23:6); shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces (Matthew 23:13); make their followers twice as much a child of hell as they are themselves (Matthew 23:15); and are rightly called blind guides (Matthew 23:16), blind fools (Matthew 23:17), hypocrites (Matthew 23:25), whitewashed tombs (Matthew 23:27), and a brood of vipers (Matthew 23:33).

The Pharisees placed burdens on people that God never intended and then hypocritically exempted themselves from the very rules they taught. Biblically speaking, that is what it means to be pharisaical. The Pharisees thought that, since they obeyed the letter of the law, they were right with God. Jesus strongly disagreed (Matthew 15:8; cf. Isaiah 29:13). The Pharisees believed that adding rules to God’s law was necessary. God’s Word says otherwise (1 Corinthians 4:6; Revelation 22:18–19).

To avoid being pharisaical today, we should practice what we preach, not attempt to improve upon God’s Word (Isaiah 55:11; 2 Timothy 3:16–17; Hebrews 4:12), and observe true righteousness (Galatians 6:2; Matthew 5:21–30; James 1:27).

The Pharisees were the ultimate hypocrites, claiming nearness to God yet rejecting the Son of God who stood right in front of them. While we cannot completely avoid hypocrisy in that we preach an impossible standard (1 Peter 1:16), we must be humble and repentant when we fall short of that goal.

The Pharisees elevated their own traditions to the level of Scripture. While not denying the value of some traditions, we should make sure we hold to our traditions lightly while we have an iron grip on God’s Word.

The Pharisees pretended to be passionate for God while their hearts were far from Him. We should strive to obey the law of Christ and urge others to do the same, declaring God’s truth with compassionate love (Ephesians 4:15).

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This page last updated: January 4, 2022