Where Did the Pharisees Go Wrong?

Twice, in Matthew 9 & 12, Jesus specifically instructs the scribes and Pharisees to understand what it means to understand God’s desire for mercy over sacrifice. In this lesson, we are going to look at the Pharisees and see where we can identify ourselves with them – both good points and trouble areas.

In Matthew 9:9-13, Matthew quotes Hosea in telling the Pharisees to seek mercy more than their acts in context of them criticizing His eating with sinners. Again, in Matthew 12:1-7, Jesus references this passages, reproving the Pharisees for not learning what they should have.

What Happened to the Pharisees?

We think of Pharisee as a hypocrite, but this was not the intention. The roots go back to the second century BC, resisting the Hellenizing of Judaism. They were “the pious ones.” They wished to restore the old ways, and they resisted modernization of Jehovah-worship.

They deplored hypocrisy and pride and emphasized love and humility. They emphasized bringing all areas of life into subjection of God’s law, and they respected God’s word entirely. These individuals were sincere and well intentioned. Can we honestly say we wouldn’t agree with these ideals?

However, oral tradition and commentary (Mishnah and Talmud) eventually became every bit as important as the law itself. For example, carrying tools of one’s trade on the Sabbath became as wrong as doing labor. They forgot the line between the wisdom of men and the wisdom of God, defending traditions as God’s word – a mistake we can also be guilty of.

In Matthew 23, Jesus speaks of the scribes and the Pharisees. He praises their teachings, but he condemns their works. He accuses them of being what they fear most – hypocrites.  He also reproves their reliance on tradition and interpretations that hedged and possibly circumvented the law. In Matthew 23:23, Jesus accuses them of being overly focused on works while neglecting the essence of the law.

What happened to the Pharisees? They became so obsessed with doctrinal purity that they became their own standard of righteousness. They were a law unto themselves.


We want to subject ourselves to God’s law and respect that law. We want to promote humility and respect love as the fulfillment of God’s law. However, we must be careful of becoming like Pharisees in that we build a hedge around God’s word. We should not want others to tell us where to draw the line, becoming mindless followers of legalism rather than studying to develop a personal faith.

Worshiping and living scripturally is essential. While we respect God’s word and we speak where God has spoken, remaining silent where He is silent, we cannot let our sincerity lead us to become unmerciful, self-righteous, and unloving.

lesson by Tim Smelser