Jesus—His Life and Message: Conflict with the Pharisees (Part 2)

November 13, 2018

by Peter Amsterdam

Throughout all four of the Gospels, we read of the Pharisees’ ongoing opposition to Jesus and His teachings. Another religious group at the time of Jesus was the Sadducees. The Sadducees tended to be wealthy, were aristocratic, and held powerful positions. The high priest was often a Sadducee, as were many of the chief priests. Generally, the Sadducees were friendlier with Rome and the Roman rulers. The Pharisees were popular among the poor and were influential in the local synagogues, while the Sadducees held more sway in the temple in Jerusalem. Just as with the Pharisees, Jesus’ relationship with the Sadducees was contentious. He called them a brood of vipers1 and warned His disciples to beware of their teaching.2 In the book of Acts we read that they were filled with jealousy and were involved in imprisoning the apostles.3

The Pharisees, as noted in Part One of this series, meticulously adhered to the written laws in the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) as well as the oral tradition—commentary and interpretation that they believed was needed to complete the Torah.

Throughout the Gospels, we read of the Pharisees disagreeing with what Jesus taught, debating His interpretation of Scripture, criticizing Him and His disciples, trying to discredit Him, attempting to trap Him into saying something which would get Him in trouble with the Roman authorities, and eventually plotting His death.

Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”4

[The Pharisees] said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.”5

They sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk.6

The Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”7

The scribes and the Pharisees watched him, to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find a reason to accuse him.8

The chief priests and Pharisees sent officers to arrest him.9

The Pharisees were critical of Jesus, and His censures of them are noted throughout the Gospels.

He began to say to his disciples first, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.”10

The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him. And he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.”11

The scribes are another group that opposed Jesus. These men were well versed in the Mosaic Law. They were literate, as opposed to many people in those times, and thus were able to write legal documents for people, such as contracts for land sales, mortgages, wills, marriage contracts, etc. In the Gospel of Luke, scribes are referred to as “lawyers.” Because they were very knowledgeable about Jewish law and tradition, they would scrutinize, question, and criticize what Jesus said. They, along with the Pharisees and Sadducees, played a role in Jesus’ crucifixion.

It was now two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him.12

Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders.13

Then those who had seized Jesus led him to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders had gathered.14

The chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself.”15

Later, in the book of Acts, we find that they were also involved in the martyrdom of Stephen.

They [certain Jews] stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him [Stephen] and seized him and brought him before the council.16

Both the scribes and Pharisees were the targets of Jesus’ strong censure and condemnation in Matthew 23, which will be covered in this and the next two articles. Within this chapter, there is a division between the first twelve verses and the rest of the chapter. In the first part, Jesus spoke about the scribes and Pharisees, and in the remaining verses He addressed them directly.

Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you—but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice.”17

While teachers generally sat when they taught, “sitting on Moses’ seat” doesn’t refer to a specific seat, but rather is an expression denoting that they taught and expounded on the Law which had been given through Moses. The scribes and Pharisees considered that they had the authority to make clear how people ought to put what Moses had commanded into practice.

Some Bible commentators understand that Jesus was telling the people that they should observe what the scribes and Pharisees taught, but shouldn’t follow what they did. Others feel that Jesus was being ironic when He said to follow what they taught, and that He was actually stating that people shouldn’t follow what they taught or what they did. In either case, He made the point that people shouldn’t follow their example, because they didn’t practice what they preached. Their behavior undermined their teaching.

He then showed specific ways in which they demanded much of the Jewish people in the way of law keeping but gave no help in coping with those demands.

They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.18

They imposed rules on people through their interpretation of the laws of Moses, and those who followed their teaching were required to perform religious duties, including those relating to ritual purity, which were especially burdensome for the average working person to implement. Yet they weren’t willing to help those who struggled on account of the rules and regulations they themselves had imposed.

In contrast to the scribes and Pharisees, who laid heavy burdens on people’s shoulders, Jesus offered to relieve us of our burdens:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.19

Jesus continued His unflattering description in Matthew 23:

They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.20

He pointed out that their religious practices were done with the intention of winning the approval of others. This echoed what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount:

Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others.21

Jesus listed phylacteries and fringes as examples of religious showmanship. Phylacteries are small leather boxes containing verses from Scripture which are worn on the forehead and arm during morning and evening prayer.

These words that I command you today shall be on your heart. … You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. …. You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.22

Some commentators believe that Jesus meant that either the boxes or the leather straps which fasten them to the forehead or arm were made broader and therefore more conspicuous, thus drawing attention to the wearer. Other commentators think that Jesus was referring to them being worn more frequently than only during the designated morning and evening prayers. Either way, the phylacteries were meant to glorify God, but some apparently used them as a means of drawing attention to themselves.

The fringes Jesus referred to are tassels attached to one’s outer garment. God told Moses:

Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner. And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the LORD, to do them.23

Jesus wore such fringes on His garment, as described in the accounts of people being healed by touching them.

A woman who had suffered from a discharge of blood for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment … Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well.24

When the men of that place recognized him, they sent around to all that region and brought to him all who were sick and implored him that they might only touch the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well.25

The tassels were meant to be a spiritual visual aid, but lengthening them, as the scribes and Pharisees apparently did, was a way to draw attention to themselves. It was an attempt to broadcast one’s supposed piety, to advertise that the wearer took God’s commandments seriously.

Jesus pointed out that these men loved the places of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.26 They sought out opportunities to be given honor.

At banquets, the host would sit at the head of the table, and honored guests would recline on couches on either side of him. The closer to the host one was seated, the greater the honor. While the seating arrangements in synagogues during Jesus’ time are not fully known, some seats were apparently considered the best, and the people who sat in them were deemed to be prominent. Some commentators mention that there was a platform from which Scripture was read and sermons were given, and there may have been some seats located on this platform on which people of prominence were seated. Apparently the scribes and Pharisees coveted such seats, so they would be seen as being honored.

They also loved being greeted in marketplaces. The marketplace was where people gathered in any town or village. Jesus was most likely referring to some elaborate form of greeting that conveyed the idea that the greeted person was someone of importance.27 The title “rabbi” was used to address a teacher, as well as to acknowledge the person being addressed as superior. It was like calling the person “my master.”

But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers.28

Jesus’ disciples were not supposed to be like the scribes and Pharisees. They were to avoid honorific titles such as rabbi. Jesus was the disciples’ teacher, and the disciples were brothers; as such, there was not to be a ranking system among them where some were greater than others.

And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.29

Jesus wasn’t disallowing a son from calling his physical parent “father.” However, since He had emphasized the disciples’ relationship with God as their “heavenly Father,” they should not use the term for other people. Bible commentators point out that some of the great and venerated Jewish teachers were referred to as “fathers” and that Jesus taught His disciples not to address fellow believers as “father.”

Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ.30

The Greek word translated as instructor (master in the KJV and leader or teacher in other Bible versions) was used for those who showed others the way intellectually or spiritually.31 The disciples’ only teacher was the Messiah (Christ). In the synoptic Gospels,32 Jesus only used this title twice—here and in Mark 9:41: Truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward. Earlier in this Gospel, He had forbidden the disciples from using that term to describe Him: He strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.33

The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.34

In making this statement, Jesus turned the thinking of the day upside-down. The Pharisees thought of themselves as being important and exalted, but Jesus declared that the humble will be honored.

Jesus called His disciples to be humble several times within the Gospels.

The disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”35

Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave.36

Jesus spoke against pride and self-importance, against seeking popularity and exaltation, and called for humility in His followers. The scribes and Pharisees sought places of honor, the best seats, greetings in the marketplace, and being treated as persons of honor and prestige. Jesus said that in God’s kingdom, roles are reversed. Those who possess humility and lowliness, who aren’t seeking personal gain, will be blessed by God. According to Jesus, humility is vital in the kingdom of God.

(Continued in Part Three.)


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

General Bibliography

Bailey, Kenneth E. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008.

Biven, David. New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus. Holland: En-Gedi Resource Center, 2007.

Bock, Darrell L. Jesus According to Scripture. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002.

Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 1: 1:1–9:50. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994.

Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 2: 9:51–24:53. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996.

Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Carson, D. A. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1987.

Charlesworth, James H., ed. Jesus’ Jewishness, Exploring the Place of Jesus Within Early Judaism. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997.

Chilton, Bruce, and Craig A. Evans, eds. Authenticating the Activities of Jesus. Boston: Koninklijke Brill, 1999.

Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Updated Edition. Hendrickson Publishers, 1993.

Elwell, Walter A., ed. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988.

Elwell, Walter A., and Robert W. Yarbrough. Encountering the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.

Evans, Craig A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:27–16:20. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000.

Evans, Craig A., and N. T. Wright. Jesus, the Final Days: What Really Happened. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Flusser, David. Jesus. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1998.

Flusser, David, and R. Steven Notely. The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.

France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.

Gnilka, Joachim. Jesus of Nazareth: Message and History. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997.

Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.

Green, Joel B., and Scot McKnight, eds. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 2000.

Guelich, Robert A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 1–8:26. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1989.

Jeremias, Joachim. The Eucharistic Words of Jesus. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1996.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jesus and the Message of the New Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.

Jeremias, Joachim. New Testament Theology. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971.

Jeremias, Joachim. The Prayers of Jesus. Norwich: SCM Press, 1977.

Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Volume 1. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.

Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Volume 2. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.

Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009.

Lewis, Gordon R., and Bruce A. Demarest. Integrative Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976.

Manson, T. W. The Sayings of Jesus. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1957.

Manson, T. W. The Teaching of Jesus. Cambridge: University Press, 1967.

McKnight, Scot. Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013.

Michaels, J. Ramsey. The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.

Milne, Bruce. The Message of John. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.

Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992.

Morris, Leon. Luke. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988.

Ott, Ludwig. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. Rockford: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1960.

Pentecost, J. Dwight. The Words & Works of Jesus Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981.

Sanders, E. P. Jesus and Judaism. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.

Sheen, Fulton J. Life of Christ. New York: Doubleday, 1958.

Spangler, Ann, and Lois Tverberg. Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.

Stassen, Glen H., and David P. Gushee. Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2003.

Stein, Robert H. Jesus the Messiah. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Stein, Robert H. Mark. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008.

Stein, Robert H. The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.

Stott, John R. W. The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1978.

Talbert, Charles H. Reading the Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004.

Williams, J. Rodman. Renewal Theology: Systematic Theology from a Charismatic Perspective. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

Witherington, Ben, III. The Christology of Jesus. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990.

Witherington, Ben, III. The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001.

Wood, D. R. W., I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, and D. J. Wiseman, eds. New Bible Dictionary. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Wright, N. T. After You Believe. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2010.

Wright, N. T. Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.

Wright, N. T. Matthew for Everyone, Part 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.

Yancey, Philip. The Jesus I Never Knew. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995.

Young, Brad H. Jesus the Jewish Theologian. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995.

1 Matthew 3:7.

2 Matthew 16:12.

3 Acts 5:17–18.

4 Mark 10:2.

5 Matthew 12:2.

6 Mark 12:13.

7 Luke 15:2.

8 Luke 6:7.

9 John 7:32.

10 Luke 12:1.

11 Luke 16:14–15.

12 Mark 14:1.

13 Mark 14:43.

14 Matthew 26:57.

15 Matthew 27:41–42.

16 Acts 6:12–13.

17 Matthew 23:1–3.

18 Matthew 23:4.

19 Matthew 11:28–30.

20 Matthew 23:5–7.

21 Matthew 6:1–2.

22 Deuteronomy 6:6, 8; 11:18.

23 Numbers 15:38–39.

24 Matthew 9:20, 22.

25 Matthew 14:35–36.

26 Matthew 23:6–7.

27 Morris, The Gospel According to John, 575–76.

28 Matthew 23:8.

29 Matthew 23:9.

30 Matthew 23:10.

31 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 864.

32 Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

33 Matthew 16:20.

34 Matthew 23:11–12.

35 Matthew 18:1–4.

36 Matthew 20:26–27.