How Do I Study The Bible Without Becoming A Pharisee?

Do you fear that if you study your Bible, you will become a religious zealot? Do you sometimes believe that a concentrated injection of scripture will alter you into the very thing you hate, a self-righteous, legalistic, Holy Spirit-hating Pharisee?

Do you sometimes do the spiritual equivalent of crossing the road or sticking our fingers in your ears and singing “La-la-lalalala–la” when God tries to get your attention on this subject? Instead of absorbing yourself in the scriptures, do you go only to the Bible to proof text your positions? Or do you blindly accept the pulpit’s position on a topic believing anything you hear a preacher say. If you do, you are destined to remain in the shallow end of Christianity.


How in the world did some of us get to the place where we are afraid of studying the Bible?

Part of our predicament is due to our false and often unconscious assumption that the Spirit and the written Word of God are opposed to each other. A quick read of Psalm 119 or an examination of Jesus’ extensive knowledge of scripture exposes that false notion. Maybe it has more to do with our experiences. If you are like me, you cut your teeth on a church pew in an atmosphere filled with the second-hand smoke of scripture, rather than the fragrant incense of His presence. Week in and week out the words of the Bible, framed as religious requirements echoed in your ears. Yet it didn’t seem to produce life and power. Instead it promoted dryness and rigidity. And when God showed up in revival, the reaction of those around us was one of extreme criticism and condemnation, often “backed” by scriptures concerning the meeting being “decent” and “in order.” If bewilderment made you gun shy, you may have become afraid of becoming guilty of the same sin that wounded you.

History shows that the Scriptures often ignite and maintain spiritual awakenings.

If you equate depth in the Scriptures with religiosity and spiritual death, then you dare not open the Bible. On the other hand, history shows that the Scriptures often ignite and maintain spiritual awakenings as they did in the first century Roman world to the Josianic revival to the Reformation of the 15th and 16th centuries. So what are we to do if we need to spend time in the Scriptures, but we don’t want to become legalists?


Essentially, Pharisaism has to do with “separation” from everything unrighteous including people, objects and situations. It asks the question, “How do I make myself righteous?” It is a defensive, exclusive posture that can slip into self-righteousness. Pharisees study the Bible primarily as a religious duty, to answer questions or to find rules to follow that make them ‘safe’ and ‘in’ with God. It is an approach that looks primarily for things like right behavior, for church structure, practice and organization. It is not that these things are wrong. But if the major focus is on these, it creates a misconception that God is primarily concerned with rules, structure and correct practice. Subsequently, we become increasingly concerned with them as well. Let me offer some suggestions about how to go deeper in scripture without becoming a Pharisee.


Despite the fact that there is legal material in scripture, it is not primarily a legal (or rule-based) document.

It is primarily a relational document. It tells about the interaction between human beings and God and invites us to see ourselves in that interaction. The Bible assumes that its readers will meditate on it within a context of relationship. It introduces us to the Spirit who wrote the Scriptures and awakens in us a hunger to explore God, to call out to Him and to become transparent with Him. And it assumes that we will continue to read it with humility.

“You looked in the right place, but you missed the person.” 

We are meant to invite the Holy Spirit into our reading, to meditate on scripture interactively; to pray and contemplate and ask questions of Him and to use the words as our cries of hurt and our shouts of joy. If we base our lives on the deep study of scripture without this relationship with God, then we will miss the whole point and begin the slide into Pharisaism.

Jesus made this point many times when he said that He only did what He saw the Father doing and spoke only what He heard the Father say. He did that only out of relationship. So the lack of nurturing the relationship with God may be the reason that many schools are filled with dry, lifeless “Pharisees” who want something better but have missed the way. Perhaps Jesus’ own clash with the religious leaders speaks to this issue best. “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40). In other words, “You looked in the right place, but you missed the person.” They could not recognize Jesus because they had no relationship with the Father and had not looked for the character of the Father in the Scriptures they studied.


This second key to studying the Bible without becoming pharisaical is closely related to the first in that relationship with God is deepened when we focus on the character of God. Who is he? What is he like? What does he think and feel about things? How does he interact with people? When we approach scripture this way, our misconceptions are challenged. Let me give you an example. Genesis 3 describes how God expelled Adam and Eve from Eden because of their disobedience.

If you leave it there, with a point-by-point teaching on how Satan tempts us to fall and how we suffer the consequences of sin, then you have missed some of the most important elements about the character of God and draw conclusions that are not there. For example, did you notice that when they ate the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, God did not strike them down with a thunderbolt immediately? If you hold to the popular notion that God is a “big cop in the sky,” this fact may surprise you.

I see in God’s actions a strange concern over the dignity and feelings of these children.

Or did you notice that when God saw what happened, He took the time to “find” Adam and Eve and bring them out of hiding. The way God talked with them is the same way a loving parent talks to a child who has wrecked his bike and tried to hide it. The parent knows, but wants to hear the child out, to hear their thinking and feeling. While there must be consequences, God wants respect and relationship to remain in tact.

Then God makes chic leather jackets and pants for the man and woman so they do not have to creep around in their birthday suits. Maybe I exaggerated a bit there, but I see in God’s actions a strange concern over the dignity and feelings of these children who have just set the world on a collision course with Armageddon. Reading this scripture with a true concept of God now births an entirely different feeling about who God is.

And it orients us differently to everyone around us. Now we don’t have to kick someone out or be harsh to those who don’t measure up. Instead, because we are getting a sense of God’s heart, it allows us to interact quite differently when our children, employees, students or parishioners blow it. As you study scripture with this perspective, you will acquire a much different picture of God. He is the one who has lunch with Abraham and invites him to change his mind about Sodom and Gomorrah, perhaps the wickedest cities that ever existed. He takes that low life, Jacob, and spends a lifetime wrestling with him to bring him into his true destiny. He develops a friendship with Moses, the murderer. He pulls his hair out over the waywardness of his people. Jesus weeps over the death of his friend Lazarus. He “does dinner” with the bottom-feeders of society. This way of interacting with scripture allows us to relate to people and situations with grace instead of a legalistic, Pharisaical fashion because we are now coming to know and take on God’s heart.


In one of His many Sabbath encounters with the Pharisees, Jesus exposed a terminal flaw in their study and application of scripture. “You tithe your spices: mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matt 23:23, my paraphrase). How could they have missed it so badly? They did so, in part, because they got caught up in the details and failed to focus on the big picture. This kind of tunnel vision leads us away from God’s heart. It makes us rigid and inflexible. However, if we step back and look at the things that are really important we become like God’s children, taking on His character exhibiting love and grace. You come to recognize the major emphasis of the Holy Spirit by reading the Scripture in big blocks and by focusing on what seem to be God’s core statements and ideas.


The Scriptures are meant to involve us, challenge us, inspire us and sift us.

Scriptures, especially narratives, are meant to be used interactively. God means for us to ask the questions, “Where am I in this story?” “Is this like me in any way?” “How do I need to make adjustments?” So, for example, in Luke 15, we are meant to find ways in which we are the younger son or older brother or even the father. And it can then go further. Have I failed to communicate to a child that everything I have is for them? Is one of my children becoming a prodigal? Do I need to tell them that they can return? If yes, then what proactive steps should I make to take them down a healthier road? How do I respond to my rebellious son?

The Scriptures are meant to involve us, challenge us, inspire us and sift us. Involving yourself with both God and His word also helps you to take the “log” out of our own eye before you do ophthalmic surgery on others. It fosters grace and mercy. It grows humility, all the qualities that are contrary to Pharisaism. The heart that absorbs itself in God’s word grows and matures rather than withers and stagnates.

So isn’t it time to stop letting your fear of Pharisaism keep you from the very Scriptures that will make you spiritually healthy? By looking at scripture through the lens of relationship with a lovable God, studying the scriptures will move you away from becoming legalistic perfectionism and open the way to personal and corporate revival.