Following Jesus or the Pharisees? A 10 Point Check

Posted by on Mar 9, 2018 in Blog | 6 comments

In Christian circles it is usually considered a significant insult to suggest that someone is a Pharisee. Knowing the hard time these religious leaders gave to Jesus, and the harsh words he said about them in Matthew 23 – well, who would want to be a Pharisee? Yet if the essence of being a Pharisee is being legalistic and harshly zealous about faith, quick to dismiss others as beyond the pale and even quicker to declare oneself righteous, many would suggest that there are more than a fair few Christians who fall into this category. Now obviously they couldn’t mean either you or me, but let’s explore some key differences between being a Pharisee follower and a Jesus follower. It could be that you would like to add to the list, and feel free to do so in the comments (and why not look at Carey Nieuwhof insightful piece, 7 signs that the Pharisees are running your church). 

Before we launch into an attack on the Pharisees, let’s say a word or two in their defence. Don’t forget that it required more than a little effort to become a Pharisee. To have even an outside chance of making it into their ranks, you had to be amongst the brightest (able to memorise the Pentateuch), and submit to a rigorous regime of fasting and religious rituals. It was a lot more than the occasional cold shower, and only the most zealous were up for it. Who would become a Pharisee? Realistically only those who were the most serious about their faith. There were far easier ways to make a living, and if you didn’t have the inner drive and motivation to become a Pharisee, you wouldn’t have made it.

Second word in defence of the Pharisees. They weren’t all bad, nor did all of them miss the point. Some responded thoughtfully – even favourably to Jesus, and a fair few were converted after his resurrection. But I guess they were then former Pharisees, as conversion to Christianity certainly hindered your career prospects in Judaism.

One more comment before we launch into the differences between being a Pharisee or Jesus follower. Both involve zeal. The Pharisees were not passively indifferent to the lives of their neighbours. They believed they were right – and they believed that passionately. When Saul (aka Paul) was persecuting Christians, he did so with great zeal. And he was just as zealous when he realised that God was actually calling him to convert the Gentiles to following Jesus. In short, pre and post conversion, Paul was zealous. And both Christians and Pharisees are usually zealous!

So is there some kind of self check we can do to ensure that we don’t lapse into becoming a Pharisee? Don’t underestimate the importance of the question. The kind of accusations people who are not Christians throw at Christians often sound remarkably similar to the kind of complaints Jesus made against the Pharisees and religious leaders of his day. In fact, here’s a working hypothesis that I suspect is valid: Time + religious zeal + failure to carefully monitor the heart + compassion fatigue = A Pharisee. Or we could put it more simply: Given enough time all religious people are at serious risk of becoming Pharisees. Oh – and don’t give me that old line – “yes, religious people are at risk of this, but I’m not religious, I am a Christian, and there is a big difference.” Why do I reject that line? Well listen to it… it sounds so Pharisee like (“it’s the others, not me…”)

Enough background. How can you tell if you’ve morphed into a Pharisee? What do you think of this list of 10 warning signs …

1. You are starting to take God’s grace for granted. While you’d never admit it, it no longer really moves you. Actually, in your less guarded moments you wonder if you really need it. Isn’t grace something primarily needed by others?

2. You are a little too certain about everything. No, I don’t want to elevate doubt and indecisiveness into a high virtue, but there are some kinds of certainty that are dangerous. Like the certainty that sees us refuse to listen, or to view things from a different perspective, or to contemplate that God is doing things in a somewhat different way to the one we advocate, or that sees us dismiss certain people and groups.

3. You worry a little more about how things look than about how things actually are. And don’t think that is not a real temptation. It’s a huge one…

4. You’re not interested in digging a little deeper into the ‘why’ behind your Christian convictions (or you do a Pharisee, ‘the Sabbath is the Sabbath is the Sabbath – what part of that didn’t you understand when you performed that miracle Jesus?’)

5. While you probably won’t admit it, the Spirit isn’t really necessary in your faith journey. And that could be because it is no longer a faith journey, but a comfortable embrace of the status quo with the added bonus of some religious flavouring.

6. The poor don’t really feature in your thinking – and in the event that they do, it is to note why they are the authors of their own misfortune.

7. There are some people you don’t associate with. You’re not sure when it happened, but you have started to buy into the ‘guilt by association’ lie (‘if you mix with people like that, well what does that say about you?’ or the softer version, ‘don’t fool yourself. You won’t influence them, they will influence you.’)

8. The future is a little too tightly scripted. No, it’s not wrong to plan, but don’t forget the old DV principle, where we add the little Deo Volente to all we do. ‘If (and only if) God wills it’… and God is perfectly entitled to select the ‘reject’ stamp for our current plans.

9. The plight of people no longer moves you.

10. You experience Jesus as the supporter of the status quo, rather than the disturbing radical who turned everything upside down.

Got to admit, I feel a bit of an ‘ouch’ factor with some of the list. So perhaps I should go back to number 1 and allow myself to be overwhelmed by God’s grace. After all, even if I have morphed into a bit of a Pharisee, it could be that God’s grace can deal even with that…

As always, nice chatting…


  1. Thanks Brian.
    When I read the gospels as a younger self, I can now see that young man’s deep pathetic need to judge others and place himself firmly on Jesus side.
    With the gifts of grace, the weathering of time, and the wisdom of His voice which has come to live in me, I have come to realise the shadow I once saw in others was actually my own. The truth I am finding is that those shadows recede further and further into my very soul. But in the fullness of his grace, I can also see the arms of his love reach still deeper to save me.

    Thanks again for being one of those gifts of grace.

  2. Great to read….. And reflect!
    Thank you!

  3. Thanks for the checklist, Brian. Thank God, there are things for me to work on.

    Also appreciated Steve Izett’s reflection.

  4. Good thoughts, Brian. Thanks. I think we all need to read Jesus’ criticisms of the Pharisees with the thought “Could he be talking to me?” at the front of our minds. Especially those of us who are in acknowledged positions of leadership.

    Thanks again.

  5. 11. You often use guilt to motivate people (making them feel they’re not living up to God’s expectations).

    12. You want to be in control of the the people around you.

    13. You’re not living under Jesus’ authority.

  6. Brian, very timely blog….my experience and observations tell me that being offended easily is an indicator… is that whole having to defend God thing…often in anger. Love your work.

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