March 8th, 2009 – Luke 11:37‐54

Pharisaic Opposition

Luke 11:37‐54


The Pharisees are mentioned twenty‐seven times in Luke. Luke also records three occasions in which the Pharisees ate a meal with the Lord Jesus (7:36‐39; 11:37‐54; 14:1‐24). Because of their prominence in all of the Gospels, some expanded background information will be helpful.

One distinctive feature of the Pharisees was their strong commitment to observing the law of God as it was interpreted and applied by the scribes. Although the priests had been responsible for teaching and interpreting the Law (Lev. 10:8–11; Deut. 33:8–10) in Old Testament times, many people had lost all respect for the priests because of the corruption in the Jerusalem priesthood. They looked to the scribes instead to interpret the Law for them. Some scribes were priests; many were not. Still, they lived pious, disciplined lives; and they had been trained to become experts in the Law. It was natural, then, for people to follow their leading rather than that of the priests.

The way in which the Pharisees spelled out the meaning of the Mosaic Law, the ways in which they adapted that Law to suit the needs of their day, the time‐honored customs they endorsed—all these became a part of the “tradition of the elders” (Mark 7:3). Although these traditions were not put into writing, they were passed on from one scribe to another and from the scribes to the people. From this tradition, they claimed, the Jewish people could know the way God’s law should be observed. The Pharisees agreed, and they were known for supporting and keeping the “tradition of the elders.”

The Pharisees also believed it was important to observe all the laws of God, which they taught were 613 in all. But they were especially known for their commitment to keep the laws of tithing and ritual purity.

Since Pharisees found that other Jews were not careful enough about keeping those laws, they felt it was necessary to place limits on their contacts with other Jews as well as with Gentiles. For example, they could not eat in the home of a non‐Pharisee, since they could not be sure that the food had been properly tithed and kept ritually pure.

Unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees did believe in the resurrection of the dead. On this point, they were on common ground with the early Christians (Acts 23:6–9). The scribe in Mark 12:28 who thought that Jesus had answered the Sadducees well concerning the Resurrection was probably a Pharisee.

The Pharisees and their scribes enjoyed a good deal of popular support. In one way this is surprising, since the Pharisees kept apart from other Jews. They always seemed to be ready to criticize others for not keeping the laws, and they often looked down on “sinners” who showed no interest in God’s law (Mark 2:16; Luke 7:39; 15:2; 18:11).

Still, unlike the Sadducees, who were mostly rich landowners and powerful priests, many Pharisees were ordinary people. And even though other Jews could not be bothered with observing all the details of the Law, they respected the Pharisees for making the effort. Even Paul credited unbelieving Jews with having a “zeal for God” (Rom. 10:2)—even though it was misguided. He probably was thinking primarily of the Pharisees when he wrote these words.

In the New Testament, the Pharisees appear frequently in the accounts of Jesus’ ministry and the history of the early church. In these passages a number of the typical failings of the Pharisees are evident. Of course, not all Pharisees failed in all these points—and the same failings can be found among religious people of any age.

Pharisees observed the Law carefully as far as appearances went, but their hearts were far from God. Their motives were wrong because they wanted human praise (Matt. 6:2, 5, 16; 23:5–7). They also had evil desires that were hidden by their pious show (Matt. 23:25–28). That is why Pharisees are often called hypocrites: their hearts did not match their outward appearance.

The Pharisees thought they could match God’s standards by keeping all the outward rules. Luke 18:9 says they “trusted in themselves that they were righteous.” This can easily happen when people think God’s will is the same thing as their list of what they can and cannot do. Their desire to keep all of God’s laws was commendable, but sometimes they put the emphasis on the wrong places. Minor details became a major preoccupation, and they forgot the more important things (Matt. 23:23).

Finally, because Pharisees thought they were doing their best to keep God’s laws while others were not, they often looked down on such “sinners”—especially people like tax collectors and prostitutes. Religious people need to remember that they, too, are sinners in God’s eyes, and that Christ died for everyone.1

Because the Pharisees were characterized by self‐righteousness – placing primary concern on outward conformity to the law while neglecting the motives of the heart, they often found themselves at cross purposes with our Lord – whose primary concern was the human heart. Our study today centers around one of those times of conflict.

The term “woe” that appears in the text means deep sorrow, grief, or affliction. The word is often used by the Old Testament prophets, as an exclamation expressing dismay or misfortune (Is. 3:9, 11; 5:8‐23; Jer. 10:19; Amos 5:18). In the New Testament Jesus pronounced woes on the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida (Matt. 11:21), on the scribes, Pharisees, and lawyers (Luke 11:42–44), and on the one who betrayed Him (Mark 14:21).2

Our Study of the Text

  1. THE PHARISEES (11:37‐44).When Jesus joined the Pharisee for lunch, the Pharisee’s concern was whether or not Jesus would conform to the external ritual of washing His hands before eating. Jesus, on the other hand, was more interested in the internal greed of the Pharisee. Our Lord seizes the opportunity to address the issue of pharisaical externalism. “Woe to you,” He would announce!
    1. First Woe.
      “But woe to you Pharisees! You give a tenth of your mint, rue, and every herb, yet you neglect justice and love for God! But you should have done these things without neglecting the others.” (11:42 NET)
    2. Second Woe.
      Woe to you Pharisees! You love the best seats in the synagogues and elaborate greetings in the marketplaces!” (11:43 NET)
    3. Third Woe.
      Woe to you! You are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realizing it!” (11:44 NET)
  2. THE SCRIBES (11:45‐52)
    In later times, after the Captivity, when the nation lost its independence, the scribes turned their attention to the law, gaining for themselves distinction by their intimate acquaintance with its contents. On them fell the duty of multiplying copies of the law and of teaching it to others (Ezra 7:6, 10–12; Neh. 8:1, 4, 9, and 13). It is evident that in New Testament times the scribes belonged to the sect of the Pharisees, who supplemented the ancient written law by their traditions (Matt. 23), thereby obscuring it and rendering it of none effect. The titles “scribes” and “lawyers” are used in the Gospels interchangeably (Matt. 22:35; Mark 12:28; Luke 20:39, etc.). They were in the time of our Lord the public teachers of the people, and frequently came into collision with him. Many of them afterwards showed themselves greatly hostile to the apostles (Acts 4:5; 6:12). Some of the scribes, however, were men of a different spirit, and showed themselves friendly to the gospel and its preachers. Thus Gamaliel advised the Sanhedrin, when the apostles were before them charged with “teaching in this name,” to “refrain from these men and let them alone” (Acts 5:34–39; comp. 23:9).3

    Because the scribes were a sub‐set of the sect of the Pharisees – and the ones charged primarily with the task of teaching the Law, Jesus pronounced woes upon them as well.

    1. First Woe.
      “Woe to you experts in religious law as well! You load people down with burdens difficult to bear, yet you yourselves refuse to touch the burdens with even one of your fingers! (11:46 NET)
    2. Second Woe.
      Woe to you! You build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. (11:47 NET)
    3. Third Woe.
      Woe to you experts in religious law! You have taken away the key to knowledge! You did not go in yourselves, and you hindered those who were going in.” (11:52 NET)
    It is obvious from the text that the scribes and Pharisees maintained a fierce opposition to our Lord, trying desperately to catch Him in something He might say, so they could bring charges against Him – even more, to do away with Him!
    • Take a close look at your own heart: do you trust in your own external conformity to “rules of conduct” in order to gain a sense of right standing before God?
    • Remember, people and circumstances do not create your spirit, they only reveal it!

1Youngblood, R. F. (1997, c1995). Nelson’s new illustrated Bible dictionary: An authoritative one‐volume reference work on the Bible with full color illustrations (F. Bruce, Ed.) (electronic ed. of the revised ed. of Nelson’s illustrated Bible dictionary). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
3Easton, M. (1996, c1897). Easton’s Bible dictionary. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

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