By Ada Nicholson Brownell
Sunday, August 23, 2015
WHAT WAS WRONG WITH THE PHARISEES’ RELIGION?
The woman’s lungs burned from the run. The painful grip of many hands now held her even though every muscle strained toward freedom.
“Teacher, we caught this woman in the act of adultery!” shouted the exquisitely dressed religious leader, huffing from the chase and trying to be heard above her hysterical weeping. “Shall we stone her?”
Jesus bent and wrote in the dirt while the Pharisees shouted accusations. When Jesus stood, revealing what he’d written, perhaps hidden sins of the accusers, talking ceased. Rough hands clutching her dropped. Quietly, the Pharisees slipped away.
Jesus looked at the woman. “Go. And sin no more.”
Not long afterward, shock jolted the Pharisees when Jesus healed a man blind from birth.
Instead of rejoicing because of the miracle, the Pharisees said, “Get this man out of here! Don’t you know he’s a sinner? His blindness proved it.”
Then they verbally attacked Jesus. “You can’t be from from God, for you don’t keep the Sabbath.”
Such actions are why Jesus called the Pharisees a bunch of poisonous snakes. The Pharisees accused Jesus of being demon possessed. They tried to stop Jesus from healing a man with a withered arm on the Sabbath. They condemned Jesus for forgiving the sins of a paralyzed man as the man jumped up, able to walk, before their eyes.
When Lazarus walked out of the tomb, the Pharisees didn’t think about a man dead four days living again. Instead, they feared people would believe Jesus was the Messiah, and the Romans would take away their temple and nation. That propelled the pharisees to the Sanhedrin with a more aggressive plot to kill Jesus.
The Pharisees tried to arrest Jesus long before the scene in the garden, and sought to kill Him. Pharisees killed some of the Messiah’s followers, such as Stephen, the evangelist.
People still practice religion similar to that of the Pharisees. They craft extreme rules and regulations--admittedly sometimes based on twisted scripture—showing compassion to few, and watching out for their own purses, welfare and self.
Sincere Christians have trouble understanding exactly what was wrong with the Pharisees, other than the way they paraded around acting holy all the time. Few understand why Jesus’ teaching targeted the Pharisees’ wickedness, and their antics fill the gospels and go into the Book of Acts.
After being a panelist at a Christian university on how my generation viewed legalism and how that affects us today, I discovered even some theologians don't understand the real wickedness of the Pharisees and often laugh at people focused on following Jesus after being born again.. I knew there was more and went back and studied every word in the New Testament about the Pharisees.
This is what I found.
1. Although they claimed to be observers of God’s law, the Pharisees in essence broke all the commandments because they did not love God or others
When Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” He added, “This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
That’s easy to understand. The first four commandments are about loving and respecting God; the last six about loving yourself and others because if you break a commandment, you hurt yourself or somebody else.
Jesus pointed out the Pharisees’ lack of love for God when he said, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”.
On another occasion Jesus said, “You pass over love. For you 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.”
He attacked their lack of love for others when he pointed to the grievous burdens they put on people, and yet wouldn’t lift a finger to share their burdens.
2. Even if the Pharisees would have obeyed the commandments, the law alone wasn’t a means of salvation.
This is today’s biggest argument against legalism, and it’s correct. It is not by works of righteousness that we have done, but by His mercy through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit He saves us.
God demands righteousness and we only can attain it His way.
Yet, Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them…Until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the lest stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” Then he added, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven
The problem: What is righteousness? Some say it’s “right standing with God.” What does that mean? How do we attain righteousness?
Isaiah tells us our own righteousness is like filthy rags. The Apostle Paul wrote, “There is none righteous, no not one.” Paul continues, “...No one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin…. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all that believe...For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.”
The law can make me aware of my sin, but the law can do nothing about it.
Because sin is so terrible, blood was required to atone for it from the beginning. Old Testament sacrifices satisfied the need for blood only because of the promised Redeemer, Jesus Christ, once offered for the sins of many. 
Even in Old Testament days, the sacrifices and keeping the law were accepted because of people’s faith in God and the Promised Redeemer. For instance, Abraham’s obedience and faith caused him to be declared righteous. And without faith, it is impossible to please God.
Salvation is achieved only through admitting we are sinners and, with faith, accepting Christ’s sacrifice for our sin. After that, to live righteously we have to do what Jesus told the rich young ruler to do: “Come. Follow me.”
That’s when we have to live our lives loving God and others, which means we’re walking in obedience to Him.
3. The gospel has its legal aspects, but quite unlike the legalism of the Pharisees.
A legal system permeates the Bible: Crime (sin); defendant (every person); laws (written in the Word); Judge (God); Attorney (Jesus); conviction; punishment for the unrighteous; capital punishment for the Redeemer (already done and conquered at Calvary); justice; pardon and reward.
It is appointed unto man once to die, and after this, the judgment.
Anyone who stands before a judge is fortunate that “guilty” is not the only verdict. “Not guilty” also is possible. The prophet told us of Jesus: “He was wounded for our transgressions.... All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way; And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.”
That makes those made righteous through His blood “Not Guilty.”
Yes, I read of punishment for the guilty: “The cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”
4. Judgment can be good news!
Nearly every judgment Bible passage also talks about reward for those whose sins are blotted out. The list in 1 Corinthians 16:9 of sinners to be judged ends with, “And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus.” “The wages of sin is death” ends with “but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Jesus’ warning to fear him that can cast the soul into hell ends with, “Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God? For even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows.”
The best part of God’s legal system is the “pardon.” Romans 8:1 (KJ) tells us, “There is therefore no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.”
By studying the Word, we understand the Pharisees didn’t actually keep the commandments because they put power and prestige over love for God, and they didn’t have a clue about the wonderful things God has reserved for those who love Him.
Lack of love for God and others was what was wrong with the Pharisees religion, and many of them died in their sins lost and without hope.
In contrast, genuine love for God with all our mind, soul and strength and loving others as ourselves carries the gospel around the world after more than 2,000 years–and will bring these individuals into eternal life.
Ada Nicholson Brownell is a retired journalist and author of more than 350 articles in Christian publications and six books.
Her Amazon page is https://www.amazon.com/author/adabrownell.