In Acts 15:5 Luke mentions the sect of the Pharisees implying that at least some believed. How should we understand this? I have to admit that I am very unwilling to account these Jews as unbelievers when the text says they are among those who believed. Yet, they are not presented in a very good light in the Gospel narratives, and I am coming to understand that neither does Luke present the sect in a good light in the Book of Acts.
It seems that Luke wants us to see the Jerusalem Council in a similar light as that of the meeting of the Sanhedrin in Acts 5:34-40. There a Pharisee named Gamaliel rose up in what at first might appear as a defense of the Messianic position, but, if one looks deeper, it would be understood very differently. For example, although the Pharisees believed in the resurrection, Gamaliel shows no indication here that he believed in Jesus’ resurrection, and even likened the Jesus Movement to that of earlier fallen Jewish leaders whose followers (disciples) scattered and were no longer a threat to the peace. In other words, let the Apostles alone and their influence among the people will fade away soon enough.
It is a bit of irony that it was Peter on both occasions who addressed the Pharisaic lack of faith. In Acts 5:29 Peter asked if it was more righteous to obey God or men. There Peter stood on his faith in Christ, but the High Council of the Sanhedrin obeyed the voice of a man—Gamaliel. In the present circumstance, the Pharisees again challenge the work of faith which God had accomplished through Barnabas and Paul by saying the gentiles cannot be saved without being circumcised! Again, Peter rose to the occasion by showing the position the Pharisees had taken was nothing less than testing God (Acts 15:10).
Finally, James rose up to offer his verdict of the proceedings after Barnabas and Paul witnessed to the church what God had been doing through them with respect to the gentiles. What is surprising in James’ statement is that Luke has him using a negative particle with the present infinitive in the Greek for “we trouble not them” (KJV). A better rendering might be as is found in Jonathan Mitchell’s translation: “not to continue to be making it more difficult”, for it shows something that is an on-going matter. And, this seems to agree with the fact that James wrote not only to gentiles in Antioch, but also in Cilicia (Acts 15:23) and Paul took the same letters to Galatia (Acts 16:4).
The Greek verb James uses is parenochleō (G3926), and is used in the Septuagint at Judges 14:17 for Delilah pestering Samson. It is also used in 1Maccabees 10:35 in an edict by King Demetrius of Syria that no man should molest the Jews during their celebration of the Sabbath or the annual Holy Days. The sense in James’ verdict seems to be that some of those in Jerusalem, with the implication being the Pharisees that believed, were making a nuisance of themselves by seeking to put the new believing gentiles under the Law of Moses. James characterized their behavior as harassment and intends, through his verdict, to have it stopped.
These Pharisees, by and large in my opinion, should be seen as false brethren. I don’t see any implication by Luke or the other Gospel writers to have us see this any differently. The fact that they are called believers in the text perhaps means that they believe in Jesus’ resurrection, but they certainly seem to be fighting the work of God in both Jesus ministry and in that of the nascent church. Since they ‘believed’ in the doctrine of resurrection already, this may have made them appear more ready to accept Jesus as their Savior, but they seemed to have merely ‘added’ the belief of the ‘resurrected Jesus’ to the other beliefs they already had about the Law etc, without changing anything to conform with what God was doing among his people. Pharisees like Paul and Nicodemus changed, and how Paul could later claim he was yet a Pharisee escapes my understanding at the present, but these Pharisees in Luke and Acts don’t seem to have changed at all and seem to be the “false brethren” Paul refers to in Galatians and elsewhere.