More than Just Conservative (14)

The Corruption of the Pharisees   

Jesus was going through all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness. Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd (Mat.9:35-36).

Apart from Jesus and John the Baptist, there was a total absence of quality religious leadership in Israel, before the church was born. Who else was there? This partially explains the phenomenal reception Jesus received.

The people “were distressed and dispirited.” Why? The Pharisees had no solutions for them; in fact, they were a part of the problem. They began to show they were a part of the problem, when they excommunicated the man who Jesus healed from blindness (Jn.9:34). Then they really showed it when they had Jesus crucified.

But when the Good Shepherd (Jn.10:14) came along, things began to radically change. The Bible says that when He began to teach, “they were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as one of the scribes” (Mk.1:22). And when He cast out demons, that was an even more powerful demonstration of His authority.

There was a significant difference between the faith delivered to the Old Testament saints, and the religious beliefs of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. The Pharisees purported to be faithful to the Old Testament revelation, but this was a sham. They held to Judaism, which was a humanistic corruption of Old Testament faith. We know that they had no commitment to justice because before Jesus’ last Passover,

…they plotted together to seize Jesus by stealth and kill Him. But they were saying, ‘not during the festival, otherwise a riot might occur among the people’ (Mat.26:4-5).

As Rushdoony points out,

The Pharisees, professing to be champions of God’s word, were in fact its enemies and perverters.[1]

It is commonly asserted today that the Pharisees were theological conservatives, but this is nonsense. The Pharisees’ commitment was merely to a hypocritical outward observance, rather than inward obedience. This is shown clearly in Jesus’ commentary on the Jews in Jn.5:45-47:

Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; the one who accuses you is Moses, in whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would have believed Me, for He wrote of Me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?

The Pharisees didn’t believe Moses’ writings, and so they didn’t believe Jesus’ words either. While they may have purported to be conservatives they were essentially revisionists, attempting to turn the Mosaic law into a document that would suit their agenda. Matthew 23 attests to their fundamental hypocrisy, while Jesus earlier had made the serious accusation that the Pharisees “…condemned the innocent” (Mat.12:7).

In recognising the significance of Israel’s religion to the nation, the Romans had acted very shrewdly. They permitted a continuation of the high-priest’s very lucrative monopoly on the sale of sacrificial animals, along with the money-changing in the temple, on the condition that he be replaced every year. That way, they maintained a control of the nation’s religious leaders; the two groups in an unholy coalition, needed and used each other to maintain their political and religious power bases.[2]

The evidence that Israel’s religious leaders were politically compromised, self-serving and corrupt is evident in many passages in John’s gospel. After Lazarus’ resurrection,

the chief priests and the Pharisees convened a council, and were saying, ‘What are we doing? For this man is performing many signs. If we let Him go on like this, all men will come and believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.’ But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all, nor do you take into account that it is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish’  (Jn.11:47-50).

Caiaphas as high priest, was utterly indifferent to the fact that Jesus was an innocent man. Already he is indicating that Jesus’ death would be necessary, to protect the political/religious power relationship (of which he was a direct beneficiary), which had evolved under Roman rule.

The issue, said Caiaphas, is this: who should live, this man, or us and our power over the nation? Someone is going to die: either Jesus, or us and our rule over the nation. Take your choice. No moral question is raised. The issue is seen as one of power and control. When faced with this choice, there was no longer any hesitation… They were now self-consciously planning the death of the One who had revealed Himself to be God’s Son and the Messiah. [3]


Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees in Matthew 23 is one of the strongest denunciations of any individual or group found in historical literature, but it something much more. It is a warning from the Son of God to anyone who aspires to any form of leadership: be faithful.


[1] Rousas Rushdoony, “The Institutes of Biblical Law,” 1973, p.706.

[2] See Rousas Rushdoony, “The Gospel of John,” 2000, p.153, 154.

[3] Rushdoony, ibid, p.154.