At first glance, Jesus should have loved the Pharisees: they were trying to live holy lives, and they were trying to get other people to live holy lives too. They were faithful to pray. They were givers, tithing religiously. They were evangelists, working hard to make converts. They seemed to be doing everything right. But Jesus couldn’t stand them, and He adamantly detested their focus on the Law.
Look at the intensity with which Jesus chastises the Pharisees in Matthew 23:1-38. He says “Woe to you” eight times to the Pharisees. Six times He calls them “hypocrites” because, while they taught the Law, they did not do it themselves. Five times He calls them “blind guides” or “blind fools.” Jesus ridicules their focus on the Law, calling it “straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel.” He says they are like a cup that is clean on the outside but filthy on the inside. He likens them to a whitewashed tomb, outwardly beautiful, but inside full of dead men’s bones. He names them “serpents and a brood of vipers.” Jesus condemned the Pharisees and teachers of the Law in the strongest terms possible: “How can you escape the condemnation of hell” (Matthew 28:33). After all these insults, is it any wonder the Pharisees wanted to crucify Jesus?
But wanting Jesus dead was only adding more fuel to the flames of His rebukes. At one point He said to them, “Did not Moses give you the Law, and yet none of you carries out the Law? Why do you seek to kill Me?” (John 7:19). One of the Ten Commandants is, “Thou shalt not kill.” The very ones accusing Jesus of breaking the Law were themselves breaking the Law by wanting to kill Him.
In every encounter with them, Jesus showed the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees the utter ridiculousness of their efforts to keep the Law. He told the people, Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). Jesus’ listeners would instantly have despaired of hope. If they had to be more holy than the holiest among them, how could anyone ever enter heaven?