Beware the Leaven of the Pharisees

Brent T., August 28, 2000

Matthew 16:11-12 speaks of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. These two groups can be likened to orthodox and liberals in many ways. In other places, Jesus says only to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, not mentioning the Sadducees. This paper will be concerned only with the Pharisees and will not touch on the Sadducees, although that would be a valuable study.

• The Spiritual Condition of the Pharisees
• Their Works
• Their Inverted Values
• The Fruit of Pharisaism

What is the Lord saying to His disciples here? He is saying, "Be careful, take heed, and be on the alert, because the teaching of the Pharisees has a devastating effect on your spiritual condition." Therefore, it is important that Christians take this topic very seriously. Obviously, in no way does this paper qualify as an exhaustive study of the Pharisees. I merely want to point out some observations that I have made about my own condition.

In His goodness, God has shown me that I am a Christian Pharisee and that I need Him desperately. (Throughtout this article, the word "Pharisee" capitalized refers to the Jewish sect of Bible times; "pharisee", "pharisaical" and "pharisaism" lower case are used in Webster's modern-day sense to refer to those "marked by hypocritical censorious self-righteousness.")

In the Bible, yeast, or leaven, is used to describe sin. The action of leaven on dough or fruit is highly instructive. Yeast is actually a tiny one-celled life form, somewhat akin to a mold. It can reproduce quickly and can lie dormant for years.

Yeast, or leaven, works by fermentation, which is a corruptive process. In other words, if one leaves a bowl of fruit out it will begin to spoil and ferment. Wine making, or brewing is just a refined method of fermentation, producing C02 gas and alcohol.

It is very interesting to think of sin in the same way we think of leaven. Sin, like leaven, produces copious amounts of gas and then can intoxicate and poison, all while it is corrupting its host. When the bible speaks of being puffed up, we can understand this to be due to sin, which, using the leaven analogy, inflates us with gas.

Interestingly, if one ferments wood, hay or stubble, instead of fruit, methanol is produced, which is toxic. It causes blindness and death. This leavening process is how Jesus explains the Pharisees' influence. Spiritual leaven always does its work if it is given the proper host, our hearts, and the right environment, religious association.

In the parable of the woman who hid leaven in the 3 measures of meal, the leaven corrupted the entire 3 measures. It did this even though it was very small in relation to the volume of meal, and it was totally undetectable until its action was apparent. Many churches start out with much that is good, even wonderful. But if there is also a little leaven present, even the good things will be corrupted in time.

In light of the above, our Lord warned us to be very careful about the leaven of the Pharisees. What is their leaven? It is their doctrine, their way of looking at things, their values, their practices, their character and their disciples. This is sometimes summarized as legalism and is the leaven of the Pharisees. Just a little bit of this, hidden in an otherwise pure heart will have a devastating, corrupting spiritual influence.

So, let us examine some of the corrupting influence of pharasaism, and then by God's grace, take heed and repent. We will look at the Pharisees' spiritual condition, their works, their values and their fruit.

Before even beginning it must be stressed that the solution to these problems is Jesus Christ and Him crucified. True humility, with confession and repentance will result in His perfect cleansing. Only because of His shed blood and abundant grace are we able to escape and reverse the leaven of the Pharisees. Remember, the publican who prayed "God have mercy on me, a sinner!" was justified, in contrast to the Pharisee standing nearby.

Their Spiritual Condition

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus introduces the Pharisees as hypocrites. What is a hypocrite? Quite simply, a hypocrite is an actor. A hypocrite plays a role, pretending to be someone or something. Acting is a wonderful thing in the theater, but on the stage of real-life it is universally considered despicable. The Lord called the Pharisees hypocrites, giving them the strongest possible condemnation. They were consummate professionals, the best actors the world has ever seen, appearing outwardly beautiful, but filthy within.


Where does this hypocrite live today? He lives in me, and maybe in you. If you, dear reader, immediately thought of a certain person in your church or your workplace as the hypocrite then you can be sure that the leaven of the Pharisees is at work in your heart. The Pharisees were quick to point out error and fault in others, especially in the Lord Himself.

Yet, they were unable to see their own hypocritical condition. They dressed, prayed, washed, read, studied, worshipped, witnessed and taught the things of God, but in their hearts they did not recognize or acknowledge their own sin, thus they did not know God. Or, if they did notice sin in their lives, they hid it from others and pretended everything was fine.

Their spiritual condition was such that they realized everyone else's sin with piercing insight, but at the same time were saying, "I have no sin", thus making Him a liar! If I find myself judging others and cataloging their sin then I can be sure that the leaven is at work in me.

Does this mean we shouldn't address in others, for example, their adultery as sin? God forbid! But if I find myself despising others, while at the same time being convinced that I am righteous then I am a hypocrite.

Galatians 6:1 says " who are spiritual, restore such a one in spirit of gentleness, each one looking to yourself, lest you too be tempted." The subtle pride that would give us license to harshly condemn a brother for failing is the very leaven that leads to our own corruption.

Hypocrites yield to the temptation to label other believers as slightly below their lofty spiritual perch. This is often a subtle mixture of truth and pride. "God's people today are worldly, they allow worldliness in the Church. Thank God we don't do that here!" Does this sound familiar? The first half of the statement may be true, but the second betrays a leavened attitude.

When "the Lord's Servant" yells, berates, humiliates and shames the sheep, instead of having a spirit of gentleness, you can be positive that pharisaic leaven is at work. The "restoration" brought about by this kind of abuse is not real, or healthy.


Closely related to hypocrisy is the practice of tradition. Traditions often carry on long after the heart has departed. The Pharisees' traditions were particularly rich because they are derived from God's Word. After centuries of diligent study, Biblical principles were developed, and traditions were born.

By development, I mean that ideas having their birth in God's Word were further developed, past what was actually written, to become additions to the Word in the form of presupposed positions and practices. From these presupposed ideas, I am able to launch out and away from a sound foundation without even realizing my mistake because I presuppose my idea to be correct.

With traditions like these I am always convinced that my position is Biblical and that I stand on the Solid Rock, because I reflexively assume my tradition is the very Word of God.

Of course, as a faithful Pharisee, I will vehemently fight when my traditions are questioned, just as my pharisaic fathers contended with the Lord Jesus. Many doctrines and systems of theology fall in to this category. The problem with tradition is that it is man made and I will often cling to it even when it contradicts or negates the will of God.

An example of Pharisaic tradition is seen in the condition of the temple when Jesus cleansed it. There were people selling, banking and carrying on other forms of commerce in the temple and its environs. Was this just some off-the-wall practice? No, it had its roots in Deut. 14:24-26. It was perfectly acceptable to bring money to the temple, buy a suitable sacrifice with it and worship with a pure heart.

However, the Pharisees further developed this Biblical practice of exchanging money for sacrifice to include profiteering and thievery. The way they stole from God's people was by examining the sacrifices the people brought and pronouncing them "defective." They then directed the worshipper to buy pre-approved livestock from one of their associate moneychangers at an inflated price.

Because the priests had total control, the people had no choice but to obey. The Pharisees were lords over God's people and were accountable to no one. Everyone else, however, was accountable to them.

In essence, the Pharisee said, "Your worship, even though it is your best, is just not good enough! Our God requires the best. We, the Pharisees, know what He wants and we have provided it here for you. Your sacrifice is not quite up to God’s high standards, but God has given us light on the matter and we have here just the right kind of sacrifices to make sure that God gets what is due Him. Many today do not know how to bring a proper sacrifice to God. However, we do! Learn of us! Praise God that He has provided!"

God addressed this tradition with violence. The Lord Jesus took a whip to the moneychangers, overturned the tables and generally created mayhem in dealing with these thieves. He then did further violence to their tradition by inviting the lame and blind, and healing them.

Lame people were, of course, not allowed in the temple. Does the thought of the Evangelical Church down the street being full of people with body piercing and tattoos offend you? It used to offend me, but these are just the sorts that Jesus invited into the temple to heal. There is no better place for sinners than in God's presence. He will heal them.

Dear reader, do you, like me, assume that you know just how God wants to be worshipped? Would you compel others to follow your traditions, teaching them as the commandments of God? Is it taught in your gathering that you have superior light on worship or church meeting style? If so, you can be sure that the leaven of the Pharisees is at work.

When The Lord Jesus cleansed the temple He drove out the intelligent ones and was worshipped by the children. These did not have superior light or intelligence. True worship is sincere, from the heart and spiritual. Therefore it is able to tread on our traditions when necessary.

You might say, "But I do have real light on worship! I do follow the New Testament pattern! How can you say that I am a Pharisee?" The Lord Jesus said, "What they say, observe...” He acknowledged that the Pharisees were correct, but their correctness did not result in worship.

The children, on the other hand, really worshipped, and were not at all concerned about correctness. They did not engage in long prayers, listing and magnifying the Names of God. They did not teach in their prayers, adopt a scholarly tone of voice or any other such pretense. No, the children simply cried out, "Hosanna to the Son of David!"

If God has indeed blessed your gathering with rich worship, humbly praise Him for it; this is truly a wonderful blessing. However, do not allow pharisaic leaven in your heart, which would cause you to despise others' worship, by labeling it shallow or worldly. Let the children come to Him; do not force them to become "adult-like" in their worship. In this I speak of literal children as well as babes in Christ.

The Blindness of the Pharisees

Another spiritual malady that comes about due to pharisaic leaven is blindness. The Lord Jesus said, "Let them alone, they are blind leaders of the blind." The book of Romans says, "I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge."

Blindness enables me to grossly disobey God, while, at the same time, I deceive myself into believing I am righteous because of my disobedience. The scriptural example is in Mat 15:3-9. God commanded His people to honor their fathers and mothers, but the Pharisees, totally blind, dishonored them in a false act of service. It was blatant and grievous, but they were too blind to see.

How many times have I publicly humiliated my wife while trying to be "leader" in our marriage? How many times have I placed a heavy burden on my brother while trying to be a "faithful" servant? Since when does a servant place the load on the one he serves? Servants are supposed to lighten the load.

Indeed, I am quite pleased to exhort and rebuke my brother, because I think I love him. However, I am just too blind to see that he often just puts up with me playing shepherd. Sometimes he finds it necessary to avoid me. I have heard many a story about how people who were struggling "went over the edge" after talking to a so-called shepherd. The shepherd did nothing more than beat them with the scriptures, not listening or understanding anything about their condition.

Unlike our Good Shepherd, who is acquainted with all our weaknesses, we Pharisees always counsel from a position of strength and superiority. Because of this, my attempts at being "spiritual leader" frequently come off as condescending and superior, even harsh.

Why? Because the leaven has produced spiritual blindness. I am unable to discern where I am going. I have a glorious end in mind, my intentions are good, but I do not see the ditch just up ahead. Others who are also blind may follow along and we will end up cursing each other when we land at the bottom of the filthy ditch.

In gatherings where this type of blindness is present, the members often betray one another. Sometimes this is done "by accident," other times it is done on purpose. I may try to remedy the situation but, because the people involved are spiritually blind, solutions seem only to lead to more problems with ever more people victimized or causing trouble.

The bottom of this ditch can best be described as polluted and toxic. All who followed me, the blind guide, will be at the bottom of the ditch laying blame on me.

True to pharisaic form, I will accuse my followers and absolve myself of guilt, blaming the situation on "the Enemy", or stubborn, stiff-necked sheep. Nothing will make sense or be provable because of the pervasive blindness of all involved.

The one thing that will never happen in this environment is my taking responsibility for my sin. My pharisaic pride is too great to allow me to admit that I did anything wrong. The bitterness and heartache felt by all is everyone else's fault. I alone have been standing for God and am now suffering for righteousness sake.

Most interesting is the result when The Good Shepherd heals someone of blindness. This one proclaims, "I see! He healed me! Jesus is the answer! We were all blind! We need to be healed of blindness!” This will create hostility and the person who sees will be blamed for telling the truth and "slandering the ministry" or "the Lord's Servant."

The Pharisees excommunicated the man who was blind from birth, and they may very well excommunicate this one who, having been healed by Jesus has found his sight. The reason the Pharisee hates those who have their sight restored is the very fact that the blind man can now see, after so many years in the congregation of the Pharisees, which points out their blatant failure to restore sight and solve problems.

The Christian loves and serves Jesus Christ. The Pharisee serves the god of "serving Jesus Christ." Their god is what they can do for God, not the God of Mercy and Grace.

Do people often accuse you of being divisive, uncaring or hypocritical? Are you blamed for leading people astray? Or, perhaps you are always accusing others of these things, looking to lay blame on someone else for your problems? You may be suffering persecution, but more likely you are, in fact, blind to your true condition.

The Christian loves and serves Jesus Christ. The Pharisee serves the god of "serving Jesus Christ." Their god is what they can do for God, not the God of Mercy and Grace. The blind guides have blind followers; neither sees the Light of The World. Ultimately, the leaven of the Pharisees produces the spiritual condition of rejecting the Lord.

These self-righteous, blind people diligently kept the Passover while at the same time they were preparing to crucify The Lamb of God out of envy. They were zealously serving their god, while simultaneously plotting to murder The True God. This is profound and awesome and should cause us to fall down before His feet in real humility.

Their Works

Because of their spiritual condition, the Pharisees were quite exercised with many works. This can be likened to the gas we spoke of earlier. In fact...

...the whole emphasis of Pharisaism is diligence, seriousness and discipline.

To summarize, Pharisees rose early in the morning, studied the Torah, tithed, prayed, witnessed, taught, advised, went to meetings dressed holy, washed, spoke holy and ate holy. Their lives were consistent models of propriety. Indeed, when the Pharisee prayed, "I thank thee that I am not like other men...." he was speaking the truth.

The Lord Jesus Himself recognized their righteousness in a sense, but He also went on to say that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisee. It is not possible to do what they did with even more zeal in order to accomplish this. If we are to exceed their righteousness it will only be through Divine enabling,* not as a result of our effort.

Burdensome Works

It would be of some profit if we examined what the Lord said about their works. First of all, Jesus said, "Do not do according to their works, for they say and do not do." Now, there were probably a few "armchair Pharisees" that only talked about tithing, while never actually giving. However, most of the Pharisees prayed and tithed a lot! They were full of works. They taught tithing, and they tithed to the extreme, even going so far as to count out seeds and herbs they may have had in the pantry. What could Jesus have meant when He said, "They say and do not do?"

Overloaded donkey The Pharisees said they were leading people to God. In reality they were leading people to their religion. They said they were helping people be more holy and pleasing to God. In reality they were laying heavy burdens of guilt and duty on poor unsuspecting souls. These unfortunate ones rebelled, or wilted under the heavy weight and led narrow, joyless lives, or they aspired to be like their masters. After paying their dues, they could now lay burdens on others and not have to lift them any longer themselves.

This sort of ambition is common among idealistic young men. The Bible warns against promoting novices to places of authority. These poor young men eagerly assume on themselves every rule and regulation handed down from the "chief priests and scribes." They volunteer and maneuver to be selected for all manner of service. Most often, the young Pharisee does this to be noticed by others, specifically those who can promote them so they can achieve their ambition and begin to lay burdens on their juniors.

The Pharisees stand very near to those who are entering the Kingdom and proclaim they are showing the way. In reality they are shutting up the way and forbidding others to enter. How do they do this? They teach that they are the way. To illustrate how they shut up the Kingdom in modern terms, they say something like this: "Our church is the way to The Kingdom. This church is where God is preparing His bride. What we are doing here is God's way and only those who do what we do, or close to it, will enter."

Am I suggesting that the narrow way Christ spoke of is now somehow broader and includes all sorts of liberal, worldly beliefs and practices? Certainly not! Jesus said, "I am The Way, The Truth and The Life. No one comes to The Father except through Me." He is The Way. Leaven corrupts this simple truth like this: Jesus is The Way.... we are following Him.... therefore...we are also The Way." Almost all cults say exactly this.

However, many groups that aren't yet fully leavened say something similar: "We are more like what God wants than most of God's people," or, "We are what God is doing today!" The sincere seeker meets these Pharisees and is bewitched into thinking that association with the corrupt system is actually a way to God.

If you, dear reader, are involved in a group that puts emphasis on another way, apart from or in addition to Jesus The Way, you can be sure that pharisaic leaven is at work. He is The Only Way. If we climb up some other way, Jesus says we are thieves and robbers. This is precisely what He called the Pharisees.

Pharisaic Christians say that if we would follow them we will acquire a deeper walk with The Lord. In reality, legalism produces a bankrupt spiritual life that is described by the Apostle Paul as a second childhood. The Pharisee says, "Yes, yes we are initially saved by grace through faith, but if you want to really get on with the Lord and get past just merely being saved and get on to a real spiritual life you must do what we say." What they say is often: Attend more! Pray more! Serve more! Be less independent! Be more believing! (Code for don't question leaders), Deny self more! Be in fellowship at a more correct church! Be more holy!" Etc. They teach that we begin in The Spirit, but we are made perfect only by real effort, self-denial and commitment.

This is exactly what Paul condemned in the Epistle to the Galatians. Of course, the real way we grow in Christ is through a loving response to His Will, because we have a love relationship with Him. Faith works through love; there are no legalistic shortcuts, as nice as they may sound. When we get to know Him, we learn to love Him. This relationship occurs in different ways and at different times for all believers.

To compel people to serve when they are not yet at a point to choose the service for themselves, out of sincere love for Christ, is to do them great harm. They have entered the path of legalism and are bound to perform the service out of a sense of duty, or loyalty to someone or something other than Jesus Christ.

If the service is successful, they have a false sense of righteousness. If, as is more often the case, they fail to live up to their obligation, they have false guilt. There is no way to escape this horrible treadmill except total deliverance and a new start, with simple love for Christ being the value, not another "way" to grow. Faith does not work, except through love.


The Pharisees said they were winning souls to God. They traveled land and sea to win one disciple. Outreach was a serious endeavor that could be very costly. Surely this dedication is proof that the Pharisees really cared! The reality was that they fashioned their new proselyte into a Pharisee, teaching the poor soul to serve the system they had constructed. The Lord Jesus said the new converts were "twice as much a son of Hell as yourselves."

If the leaven is at work in your heart, or in your gathering, then you will be compelled to "outreach." I do not mean that we should not share the Good News. Anyone who loves the Lord will naturally want to share Christ with others. The type of outreach the Pharisees did was more like recruiting, for the end was not that the victim sees Jesus, but that they commit to the cause, or system.

The book of Galatians describes this sort of outreach in Chapter 4, verse 17. The Judaizers wanted the converts to be zealous towards them, the Judaizers. Gal 6:13 says that their motivation to circumcise new believers was so that they, the Pharisee-Christian, could boast in their flesh. In other words, outreach was more about meeting the need of the "preacher" to have followers instead of the sinner's need to have peace with God.

Instead of the simplicity in Jesus Christ, there is an underlying motive to procure followers. Because God doesn't bless this corrupt outreach, it will entail much hard work and sacrifice. Many gatherings that are leavened institute rules and demand outreach attendance. If someone in these gatherings is not outreaching constantly it is because they "don't have a burden for souls."

It takes great courage to state that the reason for not going on outreach is because, "I don't feel comfortable inviting someone to this gathering." Many do not have this courage. Therefore, guilt will drive them to preach in the street and knock on doors.

Instead of reaping a harvest, the outreach endeavor will take on the character of telemarketing. It becomes a numbers game, the more people I can "share The Gospel with," the greater chance of finding someone to "come out."

Bait and switch tactics and innovative methods abound. Instead of befriending my neighbors, or the parents of my children's classmates, I knock on 500 doors and hope to see 1 or 2 people visit. The leaven corrupts to the point where sharing my faith becomes a chore, not a joyful conversation. Praise God that our Lord cries out, "Come unto Me all you that are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest."

False Worship

Pharisaic leaven results in much worship. The Pharisees had a habit of praying long, beautiful prayers. They could probably make you weep with their eloquence. However, the reality was what Jesus said, "These people draw near to me with their lips, but their heart is far from me."

That statement used to make me angry. Just like Cain, who became angry when God did not accept his sacrifice, so I became angry when I thought that someone had the gall to tell me that my wonderful prayer was not acceptable to God. The fact is, God will be pleased with the smallest, simplest prayer if it comes from a thankful heart.

Sadly, the Pharisee only had thankful lips. His heart was corrupted by leaven and was fixated on how others perceived him, how much his contribution was helping to advance the cause, and how much better he was than many. Of course, he gave all the glory to God for this benefit of being better than others.

Their Inverted Values

The corrupting influence of leaven works contrary to the Spirit of God. Therefore, I can assume that if I am leavened, my values will be corrupt. This is quite true of the Pharisees and their modern descendants.

In Matthew 23 we get a clear picture of what one author, David Johnson, in his book, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, has called Inverted Values. To the Pharisee, the temple was not as important as the gold inside. The gnat was worse than the camel, the outside was more important than the inside, etc.

I have to chuckle when I imagine a proper Pharisee skimming a gnat out his beverage while a camel floats at the bottom of the glass. I agree with him in the sense that I don't want to swallow a gnat either, but I rather like to think I might do something about the camel.

How are these inverted values seen among Christians today? One area is over emphasis on church pattern and service, at the expense of relationships and freedom. The way we do things becomes more important than who we are. To be specific, I have observed people who have 2 hours of free worship, singing and ministry on Sunday morning, yet in the other 99% of their lives they are extremely regimented and pre-planned.

Is God more concerned about the structure of church meetings or our souls? Many say that The Holy Spirit should lead the worship. This is quite true, and until Sunday noon the Spirit has complete control. Doesn't God want this in the rest of our lives as well?

If it is wrong to plan ahead of time what songs to sing and who will speak then why is it perfectly fine to have the rest of my life so completely planned that I have no time to help a brother in need or to spend time developing friendships. Long weekends with family are almost impossible due to many a pre-planned event that requires my attendance.

If I forego the church event and take a vacation I earn the disapproval of the leaders. My choice shows a pharisaic leader that I am more concerned with the world's things and recreation than with the things of God. According to Pharisees, my family’s precious souls are not to be as important as "things."

The same people who say worship should be Spirit led may be dictating what everyone should do for the rest of the week. As a young Christian, one of the first things I was taught as a tool to be "faithful" was a schedule. The schedule was not so that I would not forget the dental appointment next month or some other normal use of a schedule, but it was so that I could account for every hour of my day and organize things so that I could attend the maximal amount of meetings.

I always had to have my schedule "gone over" by someone after I had arranged it. If everything was approved, well and good, but more often than not I was told to change a few areas to "help" me. At any given time during the week I could tell you exactly where I was supposed to be and who I was supposed to be talking to! This, of course, was only true if I was "faithful" to my schedule.

Unfortunately, the schedule often took the place of God's will and Christian freedom. If I broke my schedule, I was likely to incur a "consequence" for being unfaithful. Yes, our lives do have practical needs, but our inverted values would lead us to live like workaholics Monday through Saturday, and have freedom for a few hours on Sunday.

Conversely, if someone walks in real joy and freedom, praising and serving God all week long and then attends a church where the meeting is "programmed" are they not giving God more glory than the other? God knows, but the point is that Pharisees believe that Christians should serve meetings, not that meetings should serve Christians. Church meetings should help us throw off the shackles and serve in the new man 24 hours a day.

The leaven corrupts and inverts this value so that we labor and strive all week long to see that the institution, not the person, is built up. The sheep exist for the shepherd's benefit, instead of the shepherd laying his life down for the sheep. Relationships suffer, while service increases.

Pharisaic values can be detected in the way I relate to other people. Instead of taking time to befriend someone, then learning first hand how to pray for them, I take immediate action. I size people up spiritually within minutes and then begin to look for ways to "encourage" them. I may persuade them to break up with their boyfriend or girlfriend, wear more modest clothes and attend meetings. As long as they are complying with my encouragement, I rejoice!

If everything is outwardly correct then I think all is well. Yet, because no real friendship has been forged, spiritual development is hindered by the shallow relationship and I remain blind to real issues. Later, when these people fail in my estimation, I often remind them of the "choices" they made for God. I refuse to believe that these "choices" may have merely been an effort to comply with my wishes and counsel, and were outward conformity, not sincere heart-choices for God.

The proverb says that "As iron sharpens iron, so does a man the countenance of his friend." This presupposes friendship. The leaven of the Pharisees makes me value people, not for who they are, but for what they are able to do. True friendship is not always achieved. Instead, a religious association forms where we admire, envy or despise one another, depending on where we perceive ourselves in the social order.

Pharisees would have me believe that it is sin to criticize a leader. This inverted value enables the Pharisee to condemn those who criticize him, while at the same time he feels free to slander others. Indeed, The Pharisees slapped the Apostle Paul for speaking slightly improperly to a priest, yet they had no problem slandering and mocking the Son of God.

In modern times, many leaders warn the people not to speak out against "the Lord's Servant." But these same leaders have no problem speaking out against the Lord's people and "the Lord's servants" of other groups besides their own. Is it common to hear speakers in your gathering denounce, criticize or make little of others of God's people? If so, it is a sure sign that the leaven of the Pharisees is working its corrupting influence.

My inverted values may tell me, for example, that it is wrong for married women to work full time. I denounce it as worldly; women should be content in the role of wife and mother. There is some sound and Biblical advice in this opinion, but on the other hand I am hesitant to talk about, let alone address, physical abuse in the home of a leader. Because of my inverted value system it is a worse offense to have a working wife than a bruised one.

I love to sing about God's Mercy and Grace, but I will "apply the rod" to my child for minor infractions. God has abundant mercy towards me, but I will be exacting towards my children. This is upside down and backwards.

One of the most malignant pharisaic values is that somehow, the group, or "the Church," is of greater worth than the individual. In other words, it is very important that the whole "ministry" look good. If individuals struggle, or drop off, I forget about them and forge ahead.

The group becomes an entity in itself and its needs outweigh any individual member's needs. If people are having problems I keep quiet about it. I certainly don't talk to them about it, unless their problems have the possibility of discrediting the ministry. In this case I will admonish them to keep quiet about the matter, and to not “spread seeds of discord.”

If I give too much voice to these problems, it might tarnish the group's reputation. If these problems might be "mistaken" as legitimate concerns about the group's practices, the people talking about the problems, not the problems themselves, are labeled divisive and in this case I will squelch these people promptly. In this way, a Pharisee inverts the problem, calling the actual act of sin and abuse minor. On the other hand, the person who tells the truth, and exposes the sinful behavior, is demonized, called divisive and a “railer.”

My inverted values lead me to talk to third parties about others, rather than to talk to them myself. Before "dealing" with a brother, I must get a consensus from the leadership on how to proceed. Always, what is best for the group is paramount, as opposed to what might be best for the struggling member. Things must look good, even if they aren't.

If a person should sin and then return in repentance, they may not be restored like the prodigal son if doing so will, in any way, make the ministry look bad. Their sin may be denounced, or they may be disowned in some way, to make a statement in order to keep up appearances. I, the Pharisee certainly do not want my church associated with wrong behavior from the members.

Conversely, if a leader is sinning, everything is kept quiet and behind closed doors. This is done so that the ministry is not damaged. No thought is given to how this may injure members who know about the leader's sin and are frustrated with the double standard. Somehow I seem to forget that the leader's hidden sin is really far more damaging to the spiritual health of the group than if the leader publicly repents.

This is totally wrong. Christ Jesus died to save sinners. These are people with names and faces, individuals. We rightly call Him our personal Lord and Savior. He did not die for a group or a cause; His Church is made up of people. To pervert this by making a "ministry" more important than people is a gross error.

Leaven causes me to believe that people are only worth what they are able or willing to contribute, when in fact their souls are priceless. This thinking leads to all manner of excess and abuse, where confidences are betrayed and friendships are abruptly ended in order to give the group proper service. Anyone, except perhaps the chief priests and scribes, may be sacrificed for the good of the system/cause.

Sadly, many times when I had sinned against someone in the above manner I was totally unaware of what I was doing to the person. I was so fixated on the lofty goal that I lost sight of the precious souls. The hireling has his mind set on his wages, what he will get out of feeding the sheep, his reward. The Good Shepherd is taken up with the sheep, to the point of giving His own Life. His concern is towards the sheep, not the sheepfold or the wages He earns.

The Fruit of Phariseeism

Finally, we examine the fruit of the Pharisee, or the final product of the leavening process. I may be deceived when the leaven is hidden at the outset, but eventually I will know them by their fruit.

The Pharisees searched the scripture diligently. They rightly concluded that, "No prophet is to rise from Galilee." This, of course, was in reference to some who claimed that Jesus was the Christ. The Pharisees knew that Messiah was to be from Bethlehem, not Nazareth. Yes, they were absolutely correct, The Christ was not to be from Nazareth. However, they were wrong on two counts: first, the prophets Jonah and Hosea were from Galilee.

Secondly, the awesome reality is that they totally failed to recognize the Lord, who by the way was born in Bethlehem, when he was standing right in front of them! They did not bother to inquire where He was from; they just stood on their supposedly correct view of the scripture.

There was no argument possible, they were convinced they were right in every way. They could quote the scripture using chapter and verse, proving to themselves that they were correct. If I continue on in the way of the Pharisee, I will be correct on a great many points, yet I will certainly miss the Lord, even when He is right in front of me.

Even more sobering is how the Pharisees promised they would not have stoned the prophets like their fathers of old. While they were saying this they were making plans on how they could kill the King of Kings! More damage has been done to Christians by the leaven of the Pharisees then by all the atheist professors, rock musicians and eastern cults combined. It was not the pagan priests who wanted to crucify Jesus, but the Pharisees.

Yes, it is a very serious thing to have a pharisaic spirit in my heart. Legalism is not just some undesirable character flaw that errs on the side of safety, but is deadly poison that intoxicates as it corrupts. It is especially damaging when it comes from a leader, because those who accept the leader's teaching will not escape its deadly influence in their own hearts.

What was the final thing the Lord had to say to the Pharisee? "See, your house is left to you desolate." God no longer recognized the temple as His house, but gave it over to them, who had been so falsely zealous for it. Why? Because they were corrupted by leaven, sin, and legalism. No, Jesus did not call the Pharisees children of God, or children of Abraham, but children of the devil. This is very serious indeed.

The God of all Mercy and Grace has provided every answer to this dilemma, through our Lord Jesus. Many of the Pharisees followed Him and were washed and cleansed from this sin. The apostle Paul is just one notable example. Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law.

The leaven of the Pharisees is simply legalism, keeping a form of law in an attempt to establish self-righteousness. To do so brings a curse, corruption and decay. If we would simply believe Him and confess our sin in humility He would cleanse us and pour out His Grace on us. This will start a wonderful fountain of life within that will soon change my whole being from a Pharisee to a child of God. What do we need to do? Humble ourselves and repent; that is all.

I might also add that if you, the reader, are involved in a group where the leaven of the Pharisee is no longer hidden, but is fully at work, take heed to Matt 15:14. The Lord said "Let them alone!" This is not symbolic language, or suggestive, it is in the emphatic imperative, the strongest possible command tense. Yes, The Lord Jesus tells us, concerning Pharisees, Leave them! Get out now! He also adds, "Follow Me."

We must remember that quite a few of the Pharisees who followed Him were responsible for bringing many to Christ. May you follow God with a pure heart and know the true freedom, for which Christ set us free.

For more on how to get beyond Pharisaism  Righteousness for the Unrighteous shows the Biblical corrective for the self-righteousness of trying hard to please God by rules and regulations.

* Ed. note: We assume the author means here that our righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees only because the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us, a fact which is the case for all true believers, but not for "pretend" believers like the Pharisees, who are really trusting in themselves, not in God who saves sinners.

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