Today many churches teach that the Pharisees were condemned by Jesus for being legalistic. But what does it mean to be legalistic? The term comes from the word “legalism.” This word is not found in the bible, but is usually used as a pejorative term to describe the doctrinal position of salvation by works. Wikipedia defines legalism as “any doctrine which states salvation comes strictly from adherence to the law.”[1] One online dictionary, called thefreedictionary.com, defines legalism as a “strict, literal adherence to the law or to a particular code, as of religion or morality.”[2] In other words, to be legalistic meant a firm devotion and obedience to God’s written Law.

Jesus rebuked the Pharisees and scribes for NOT obeying the Law (of Moses). The law states, “you shall not kill,” yet they tried to kill Lazarus (Exodus 20:13; John 12:10). The Pharisees, chief priests, scribes, and the elders of the people along with the high priest, Caiaphas, had also tried to kill Jesus (Matthew 25:3-4). They even brought in false witnesses to bring false accusations against Jesus to put him to death thereby violating the commandment, “you shall not to bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16; Matthew 26:59).

Exodus 20:13
13 Thou shalt not kill. (KJV)

John 12:10
10 But the chief priests consulted that they might put Lazarus also to death; (KJV)

Matthew 25:3-4
3 Then assembled together the chief priests, and the scribes, and the elders of the people, unto the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas,
4 And consulted that they might take Jesus by subtilty, and kill him. (KJV)

Exodus 20:16
16 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour (KJV)

Matthew 26:59
59 Now the chief priests, and elders, and all the council, sought false witness against Jesus, to put him to death; (KJV)

Luke tells us the Pharisees were also covetous. We can conclude from this that the Pharisees did not obey the tenth commandment, “you shall not covet anything that is your neighbors” (Exodus 20:17; Luke 16:14). They also afflicted widows, which the mosaic law preached against and Jesus declared they will receive greater damnation for this sin (Exodus 22:22; Matthew 23:14).

Exodus 20:17
17 Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s. (KJV)

Luke 16:14
14 And the Pharisees also, who were covetous, heard all these things: and they derided him. (KJV)

Exodus 22:22
22 Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child. (KJV)

Matthew 23:14
14 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation. (KJV)

Jesus blasted the religious leadership for hypocrisy and mentioned their neglect of the important parts of the Mosaic law. They neglected judgment and justice, mercy, faith and the love of God (Matthew 23:23; Luke 11:42).

Matthew 23:23
23 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. (KJV)

Luke 11:42
42 But woe unto you, Pharisees! for ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass over judgment and the love of God: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. (KJV)

Jesus also condemned the Jewish leadership for going one step further in disobeying God’s laws. They enacted man-made traditions which nullified the sacred commandments. The Messiah rebuked them for crafting a tradition that allowed them to offer a gift to parents that absolved them from further responsibility to care for and honor their parents. This man-made teaching rejected God’s commandment to honor the father or mother (Matthew 15:3-9). There were also many other such new teachings and profane traditions created like the washing of pots and cups (Mark 7:7-9) which were given priority over God’s laws. There is one Pharisee, the most famous Pharisee of all, whose teachings reject God’s sacred commandments. He is the Pharisee from Tarsus; his name is Saul.

Matthew 15:3-9
3 But he answered and said unto them, Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?
4 For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death.
5 But ye say, Whosoever shall say to his father or his mother, It is a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me;
6 And honour not his father or his mother, he shall be free. Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition.
7 Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying,
8 This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me.
9 But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. (KJV)

Mark 7:7-9
7 Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.
8 For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do.
9 And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition. (KJV)

The Pharisees and scribes were extremely proud of the position and authority they held. They loved to make a show of how religious they were, and adored the recognition they received from men (Matthew 23:5-6; Mark 12:38-39; Luke 11:43, 20:46) and disregarded what scripture taught about being humble (Deuteronomy 8:2, 16; 2 Chronicles 7:14, 34:27; Job 22:29). This is the only time the word “love” is associated with the Pharisees and scribes.

Matthew 23:5-6
5 But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments,
6 And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, (KJV)

Deuteronomy 8:2
2 And thou shalt remember all the way which the LORD thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments, or no. (KJV)

The very “letters of the Law” teaches an individual to love God first and foremost (Deuteronomy 6:4-6), and also to love one’s neighbor (Leviticus 19:34; Deuteronomy 10:18-19). Jesus reminded his Jewish audience of this by quoting from it (Matthew 22:37-40). When he was asked by the lawyer, “what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answered him by instructing him to obey the Law, and he illustrated the love for neighbor in a parable of a compassionate Samaritan. The Master lived his life in accordance to the Torah and would time and time again quote and teach from it. Clearly, if the Pharisees had obeyed the very letters of the written Law in Deuteronomy 6:4-6, Jesus would not have condemned them for having no love for God (John 5:42). If they were obeying the Law of Moses then they weren’t doing a very good job of it.

Deuteronomy 6:4-6
4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD:
5 And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.
6 And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: (KJV)

Leviticus 19:34
34 But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. (KJV)

John 5:42
42 But I know you, that ye have not the love of God in you. (KJV)

The Pharisees and scribes proved that though they may have known the Law, it didn’t necessarily mean they kept it (John 7:19).

John 7:19
19 Did not Moses give you the law, and yet none of you keepeth the law? Why go ye about to kill me? (KJV)



[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legalism_(theology)

[2] http://www.thefreedictionary.com/legalism

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