The loyalty of the Pharisees was to God's law and their concern was for personal holiness. During the time of Ezra and Nehemiah they contended for God's law of separation, especially in barring heathen from the rebuilt temple and opposing intermarriage with pagans. In fact, the name Pharisee means "the separated ones."
During the intertestimental period when Jerusalem was under Greek control, many Jews went along with the pagan program. Through the practice of the Jewish religion was outlawed, the Pharisees resisted even if it meant their death.
However, over a period of four hundred years the Pharisees went from being heroes to hypocrites. How did it happen?
At first the Pharisees emphasized piety and devotion to God. Gradually they developed their own distinctives. They were so careful to avoid breaking God's commandments that they built a fence around them. They added 248 commandments and 365 prohibitions to insure they did not even approach the original ten.
They did not demand that everyone adopt their personal convictions, but in time a narrowness developed. They began to feel their way was best. In time this led to an unbalance. They came to believe their way was not only best; it was the only way.
Their traditions became laws. Gradually there was a shift away from the spirit of God's law to the letter of their law. Godliness was now measured by external compliance to their rules. Those who did not conform were not accepted within the sect.
The Pharisees put the emphasis on externals. They wore special clothing to attract attention to themselves. Jesus declared that everything they did was for show (Matthew 23:5). They were proud of their spirituality (Luke 18:11) and rigid in their positions. A loss of reality developed. Jesus said they strained at gnats and swallowed camels (Matthew 23:24). They emphasized nonessentials, making the Sabbath a burden instead of a delight. They counted out the herbs of their garden in order to pay tithe, but actually they were very materialistic. Jesus knew that they loved their money (Luke 16:14). It was best not to get involved in a business deal with them.
In fact the strongest language Jesus ever used was directed against the Pharisees. He said they were hypocrites not practicing what they preached (Matthew 23:3). Jesus was not impressed with their strictness. In their zeal to keep their rules they were breaking God's law (Matthew 15:3).
What was once a movement toward holy living had become a dead institution. By the days of Jesus, the Pharisees were the scribes; the professional religious people of that day. They probably did not number over 6000. The perception of the day was that they were holy people, but the common people felt it was impossible to live that strict and be part of the real world. It was an option open only to the clergy. Their legalism became a barrier that actually led to the damnation of those who fell under their influence (Matthew 23:15). While the people of Palestine could be divided into six or seven religious denominations, 90% of the people did not identify with any group.
Jesus never broke the law of God, but He made no effort to observe the traditions of the Pharisees. It was the Pharisees who cried out, "We have a law" (John 19:7). Their law crucified the Messiah. The spirit of legalism will always kill spiritual life.
The eighteenth century Wesleyan revival was a revival of piety and godliness. However, Wesley said
Nor do we desire to be distinguished by actions, customs, or usages of an indifferent nature. Our religion does not lie in doing what God has not enjoined or abstaining from what God has not forbidden.
Wesley went on to say a Christian is one who has the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost given unto him. The kingdom of God is not meat and drink, which were concerns of Jewish legalism. Christianity is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17).
In time, however, holiness became institutionalized. In the late nineteenth century Beverly Caradine observed
No one can recall the gentleness, patience, long suffering, humility, sweetness, and perfect love which characterized the Holiness Movement some years back and now see what is preached in numerous quarters and by many individuals and churches. There was not a division that we recall among them. There was no strife about non-essential doctrines; no breaking into sets and cliques with watchwords, modes of worship and exclusive ways and teachings peculiar to some school or following. There was no ugly spirit nor unkind speech over honest differences of opinion upon matters that do not effect the soul's salvation and entrance into heaven.
As we look around today and see the splits and divisions and the lack of brotherly love among professors of holiness, we feel forced to say, as the dying mother of Israel said, "The glory is departed" [quoted by J. M. Hames, The Glory Departed].
Today they gather in conventions to brag upon themselves. They refer to themselves as "God's choice saints," but their hypocrisy is a barrier to the salvation of their children. They emphasize the tradition they are committed to keeping, but they have little grasp of Church history.
Certainly we should respect the creeds of the early church councils. We should be humbled and challenged by the tradition passed on to us by martyrs, missionaries, scholars, pastors, and evangelists. This does not mean, however, that we are under any obligation to perpetuate the idiosyncracies of a small subculture.
At one time in America, Methodism was the dominant religion. During a 17 year period around the time of the founding of the United States our population increased 75%. During that same period Methodism grew 5500%. Today the entire holiness movement in America amounts to about 1% of the population. The conservative holiness movement of today represents about 0.6% of the larger holiness movement or 0.0075% of the American population.
While they continue to subdivide and separate from each other they are making no impact upon American society.
Make no mistake, we are to keep God's commandments. This obedience is a mark of salvation (1 John 5:2). However, His commandments are not burdensome (1 John 5:3). It is possible to maintain all the rules of the modern Pharisees and yet not be born again. We are still saved by grace through faith. Ultimately it is not what we do, but what He has done that justifies us.
A. J. Smith went to China as a missionary and while there experienced the new birth. In 1953 he wrote in Bible Holiness and the Modern, Popular, Spurious
You may not go to the show, but you have fits of anger, that shows you are unsaved no matter what you profess. You don't go to the ball games, but you slander your neighbor and speak evil of others. You do not drink, smoke or clew, but you have idols in your heart, which shows God is not first in your life. You do not curse, but are mean and ugly to wife, husband, or children. You do not use "make up" but you make up for it by being proud over your plain clothes and more so than others who make no such a high profession over their latest styles. It is possible that you are more proud over the fact that you do not wear a necktie, than others are who wear them. You do not gamble, but talk mean about your pastor behind his back.
Sometimes people become ultra-conservative in one area of their life to compensate for their defeat in another area. Here are three guidelines that will help maintain the Pharisaical tradition: