"You brood of vipers!"
"You’re of your father the DEVIL!"
While Jesus was affectionate with children, gentle with the discouraged, and an uplifter of the broken, he was not afraid to correct—and he reserved his harshest criticisms for the Pharisees.
The Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes were the official leaders of Judaism and the authoritative interpreters of the Old Testament books.
Why was Jesus so harsh toward them?
His focus was specifically on the system that these leaders upheld and promoted.
What was wrong with their system? A lot! But here’s three that are replicated today.
1. Content Over Compliance
“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat,” Jesus admitted, “so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice.” (Mt. 23:3).
They were the expounders of Moses’ instructions (the Law), and as such, they should be listened to, yet they were not examples to replicate because they did not live out what they were teaching.
God’s word is beautifully written with a timeless application. It’s fascinating, fun, and has been an obsession since its inception. The problem is when we become students and teachers of the Bible, but not practitioners of it.
The Pharisees did this by focusing on instructing others but not living out those instructions.
We do this too when we focus on:
Theology over practicality
Theory over obedience
Teaching over living
The content of God’s word over compliance to it
Like the Greek philosophers who influenced the later church, ideologies have become the center of Christianity for many.
This is the opposite of the first Christians who saw their faith as a life to live, not just a creed to believe.
Like Pharisaism, the modern system encourages people to be:
Quick to worship the Bible but slow to submit to it
Quick to adore it but slow to follow it
Quick to read it but slow to live it
Quick to explain it but slow to display it
Quick to know it but slow to act on it
We’ve turned God’s word into a self-centered book of facts used to prove personal theories and beat down our “heretical” opponents, instead of what it is: God-breathed instructions for living out the life-giving presence of God to a lifeless world.
We. Do. This. All. The. Time.
We may be doing it right now through this blog—if it doesn’t change our habits of relating to people as Jesus would.
If we were in the world inside the LEGO® Movie with an instruction manual on how to build God’s kingdom, we would be those who adore the manual. Just like they do, we would:
Theorize about it
And then we’d show others how to study and explain it as well as we have.
In the meantime, the ingenious vision that God intended would be nothing. He’d come back to find not his kingdom built according to his design, but words and books about the words in his book.
He would not be pleased.
So with us, if he came back now, would he find a system centered around Jesus healing the wounds of the needy, or a system centered around ideological musings, ignoring the wounds of the needy—or worse, deepening them?
2. Religion Over Relationships
“Why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” Jesus answered the Pharisees who confronted his disciples for breaking “the tradition of the elders” (Matt. 15:2-3).
Tradition is just a collection of social or religious habits, which can be good or bad.
The Pharisees followed their predecessors in striving to keep God’s word, but it turned into a tradition that contradicted God’s word. It started good but ended badly.
Jesus reminded the Pharisees that “God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die’” (Matt. 15:3).
He advocated for caring for one’s elderly parents.
This is what they did instead.
“But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God” (Matt 15:4–6).
Did you notice it?
They gave money to the temple funds (which was done publicly by the way - Lk. 21:1) so they had nothing left for helpless mom and dad. Then they told others to do the same.
In other words, they put religion before relationships—"religion" meaning the non-relational aspects of one’s faith.
People were supposed to give to the temple to take care of the priests (relationships), but not to the neglect of the needy (relationships), especially one’s family (1 Tim. 5:8).
We do this too when we:
Read the Bible but ignore our lonely neighbor
Listen to sermons but not the cries of the needy
Pray often but avoid talking to awkward people
Serve at church but neglect time with our families
Give tithes but don’t speak out against injustices
The church system of today does this whenever God’s word is used for anything but loving people.
You can find this in every denomination of churchgoers because each one has a theological tradition, or emphasis, that they feel is supreme enough to keep you out if you don’t agree.
Anyone who sees differently in these systems is considered a non-Christian, or a less-than Christian—that’s why they’ve walled themselves off as a separate denomination, lest they be defiled by outside contaminants.
This is self-serving and self-exalting, not other-serving and God-exalting.
Like Pharisaism, the modern system promotes people to be:
Quick to teach but slow to love
Quick to instruct but slow to accept
Quick to correct but slow to be kind
Quick to condemn but slow to put other’s needs first
If you disagree with or even question a non-essential teaching that they value, they respond with hostility and fear by exiling or muting you.
This is a Pharisaical system.
3. Rules Over Righteousness
“Why are you picking grain on the Sabbath?” the Pharisees snarled at Jesus’ crew.
I love this: “Have you actually read your Bible?” He retorts.
“God Himself told the priests to work on the Sabbath. What do you make of that? But if you understood what God said, ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices,’ you wouldn’t have condemned My innocent disciples” (paraphrase of Matthew 12:1-8).
Then He immediately healed a man to show what He meant.
The Sabbath was one of the most contentious points between Jesus and the disciples.
The Pharisees were obsessed with guarding the commands of God so they could enjoy the covenant promises (see Deuteronomy 28).
But they missed the point!
God’s laws urge us to love him by loving others, not to make us law-followers with no other outcome but submission.
God cares about people over rules, so rules are made for people to help people love people.
But the Pharisees acted like God made people for the purpose of obeying rules, so Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
The Sabbath was made to promote philanthropy (see my article What Does Mercy Have to Do with the Sabbath?), not to enslave humanity with restrictions. The same is true of everything God says.
We do this too whenever benefiting others isn’t our goal.
Our churches do this when kindness to the neediest isn’t the goal.
We do this when we value content over compliance, rituals over relationships, or rules over righteousness.
This doesn’t mean we don’t need theology, traditions, or rules.
It means these things aren’t central.
It means we keep Jesus and living his life out central.
It means we keep relationships and helping the needy our goal, because:
God requires relationships
Relationships require sacrifice
Sacrifice requires authentic trust in God to empower us
Without these, we’re just creating a self-serving Pharisaical religion that appears godly, but lacks the power and Spirit of God.
It’s a beautiful golden calf with a hollow core.