When Jesus walked this earth, he spent a seemingly inordinate amount of time in verbal combat with the various religious leaders of the Jewish faith, the Scribes, Pharisees, and the Sadducees. Most often, though, we see Jesus rebuking the Pharisees for what seems to be their strict interpretation and detailed adherence to the law of Moses.
But was that really the case?
In the modern Evangelical Church, we constantly hear from church leaders and pastors that there are certain “pharisaical” groups in the Church who are obsessed with doctrinal integrity and biblical soundness. Those people, they say, are divisive and are far more concerned with strict adherence to Scripture than they are with unity of the body or loving people. They are the modern-day “legalists.”
It’s church leaders like Tim Keller who often make these subtle comparisons of these people to the Pharisees that Christ often rebuked:
It’s easy to get carried away in the rhetoric of people like Keller, thinking that strict adherence to the Scripture is “legalistic” or like the Pharisees. But we need to understand that Jesus never actually rebuked the Pharisees for actually following the law, he rebuked them for being false teachers who did not properly understand the law or its purpose. He rebuked them for honoring them with their lips but not their hearts, and for creating and following the commandments of men rather than God. (Matthew 16:11–12; 15:1–9; Mark 7:6–13, etc.)
The “religious people of His day” that Keller refers to here were not Bible-believers—they were Bible-twisters. Jesus himself never referred to those who obeyed His commandments as Pharisees the way the religious leaders of today, like Tim Keller, do. In fact, he called these people his “disciples.”
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples… —John 8:31
And the Scriptures tell us in 1 John 5:3 that keeping God’s commandments is the love of God:
For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.
And that keeping Jesus’ commandments is evidence that we love Him.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. —John 14:15
The Apostle Paul clearly warns us in Colossians 2:8 to be on guard against those who reject doctrinal purity and instead attempt to infect our hearts and minds with things that are not true:
See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.
So it’s clear that Jesus definitely did not take issue with the Pharisees because they were trying to be doctrinally pure or true to the Bible—these were false teachers who had a false way of salvation. The Pharisees taught a form of godliness but it lacked the power to save. Their gospel was a gospel of works that did not include grace. In fact, their gospel wholeheartedly rejected the grace of God found in Christ alone. This is why Jesus rebuked the Pharisees.
To suggest that the Pharisees were “Bible-believing religious people” is, in and of itself, false teaching, which makes men who propagate that lie false teachers. It makes Tim Keller more like the Pharisees than those he is trying to paint as Pharisees. By this definition, these people would call Jesus Himself a Pharisee.
If you don’t care about right doctrine or correcting false doctrine, that makes you the Pharisee.