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This topic is adapted from the PursueGOD Community YouTube channel.

The Pharisees were a group of zealous Jewish leaders who took their faith seriously. They believed that the way they would please God and make it to Heaven was by meticulously following a long list of religious rules and regulations. Here’s a breakdown:

[Related: What Is the Story of the Old Testament?]

The Mosaic Law

The foundation of the Pharisaical rules was the Mosaic Law – the law that God gave through Moses to the Jewish people of the Old Testament. The most famous part of the Mosaic Law is the 10 Commandments, but these are actually just 10 of a total of 613 commandments given to the OT people.

The Midrash

While following 613 commandments would be hard enough, over time Jewish leaders began to slowly add to these laws in the Midrash. This additional teaching is basically an ongoing compilation of sermons and sayings by Jewish Rabbis meant to interpret the original Mosaic Law. The original intent of these additions was to clarify the law, but it ended up adding many layers of complicated regulations. This Midrash was already lengthy in Jesus’ day and continues to grow to this day. So for the Pharisees, they not only tried to follow the 613 commandments of the Mosaic Law, but the literally thousands of new commandments that were created to clarify the original 613 commandments.

For example, in the Mosaic Law, one of the commandments is to keep the Sabbath holy, which means that Jews were not supposed to work on Saturdays. But to clarify this, the Jewish scholars created 39 separate categories of what “work” means, and within those 39 categories there are many sub-categories. So to follow the rule of not working on the Sabbath, there are literally thousands of sub-rules to follow, including how many steps you can take, and how many letters you can write on the Sabbath.

The Problem of the Pharisees

While most average Jews in Jesus day, and still today, didn’t even attempt to follow all of these additions to the original Law, the Pharisees did. They prided themselves on following not just the letter of the Mosaic Law, but even the letter of the man-made rules designed to clarify the Law. Most notably, the Pharisees sought to abide by the external laws that distinguished the Jewish people from all of the other nations – the laws that made them outwardly distinct. These included laws about what to eat, what to wear, circumcision, how to pray out loud, etc. Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees was that they were legalistic – only concerned with the external appearance of keeping the Law rather than the inward spirit of the Law.

Matthew 23:27-28 “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.

For Christians today, we should take care not to fall into the trap of Pharisaism – caring more about the letter of the law than the true meaning and power behind it.

[Related: Hebrew Word Study: Shalom – “Peace”]

Discussion Questions:

  1. Watch the video together or invite someone to summarize the topic.
  2. What is your initial reaction to this video? Do you disagree with any of it? What jumped out at you?
  3. Try to list as many of the 10 Commandments as you can. (See Exodus 20)
  4. Why do people find legalism and rule-following appealing?
  5. In your opinion, who are modern-day Pharisees? Explain your answer.
  6. What is the “spirit” of the law of the Sabbath? Do you keep it? Explain.
  7. Write a personal action step based on this conversation.

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