The Problem of Organized Religion

In Matthew 3:7-12 John the Baptist sees a group of religious leaders–Pharisees and Sadducees  among the group of people who came to see him. John the Baptist called them out and told them how much he despised what they represented. He called them fruitless. He called them echidna (King James translates viper). Echidna were poisonous asps or adders.The common ones were about 4 inches in length, and no thicker than a power cord. they lurked under stones, in the desert sands, and in cracks in walls. they were very aggressive and deadly.  He said that they needed the evidence (fruit) that they had repented. (To know what repented means in this passage refer to previous post).

He told them that being born of Abraham physically wasn’t enough. God could raise rocks up to be the children of God if that was what he wanted. (He may also have been using a metaphor in saying that they were stubborn like rocks in that they were unyielding to God.) He told them the time had come to cut down trees that gave no fruit. Because he had called them fruitless just a few sentences earlier, he was warning them that if they did not repent, they were coming down along with the religious system that they represented.

Who were the Pharisees, and who were the Sadducees and why did John the Baptist find them so poisonous? Historically, all we knew about them came from the works of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus; the early rabbinical writings (200 CE and later); and the New Testament. However, recently discovered in the  Dead Sea Scrolls references are found regarding these two groups

It has been widely believed that the Sadducees were named after Zadok, a priest in the time of King David and King Solomon. Another less accepted theory claims their name came from a later Zadok who lived in the 2nd century BCE. Still others believe the name “Sadducee” comes from the Hebrew tsadiq, which means “righteous.” Prior to the rise of King Herod the Great, the Sadducees were the priests in control of the temple because the high priests came through them. However, King Herod, because he knew that as a half-Jew he could not be both king and priest set up the system whereby King Herod elected the High Priest. This broke the custom of the high priesthood being attached to a particular family or that the high priest would hold the position for life. this very much reduced the power of the Sadducees at the time of Christ. This group was  a rationalistic sect who denied the supernatural (angels, demons, and resurrections). They were like many people today who try to apply logic to the spiritual. They believed that if you can’t see it, touch it, hear it, smell it, or taste it, with your physical senses, it didn’t exist. What people like this fail to realize is that the spiritual transcends the physical, not the other way around.

The name Pharisee either comes from the Hebrew word perusim, meaning “separated ones or from the Hebrew parosim, meaning “specifier,” since they sought to specify the correct meaning of God’s law to the people. They held to the letter of their own interpretation of the law and to their own traditions, regardless to whether they nullified the Word of God or not.. To provide an education separate from the Greek influence set up by their Roman dictators, the Pharisees set up local Jewish schools so that all Jewish boys could read the Torah. They were a dominant religious group in the affairs of the Temple as early as the Maccabean period. Because they came from the middle class, the Pharisees emerged as a significant force in Jewish affairs because of their influence with the common people. The Pharisees however were not just laymen because many held lower level seats in the Sanhedrin. Recent evidence found in the Dead Sea Scrolls indicates that the Pharisees dominated the Jewish Temple at the time of Christ. To John the Baptist, they represented a system that offered only bondage a political human system to be manipulated so that they could stay in power.

We see much of the same problems with our religious system today. Religious organizations are trying to jockey for position and power within the political system that is in place, rather than learning that they must transcend that political system. Through veiled political sermons, (they can’t come out and tell us directly that they are for a certain political party because if they did, they would lose their government tax exempt status), they poison us by lobbying us to believe that one political party is better than the other. The sermons they give us are not to help lead us to Christ, but to help them secure their own lives and positions.

Like the Pharisees and Sadducees of John the Baptist’s day, there is an ax to the tree. Already the religious system that dominates is falling.

According to the US Religious Landscape Survey put out by Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life:

More than one-quarter of American adults (28%) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion – or no religion at all. If change in affiliation from one type of Protestantism to another is included, 44% of adults have either switched religious affiliation, moved from being unaffiliated with any religion to being affiliated with a particular faith, or dropped any connection to a specific religious tradition altogether.

Just as John the Baptist called for repentance of the religious leaders of his day, so am I now calling for repentance of the religious leaders of today. We must all recognize our sin and despise that sin with every fiber of our being. Like John the Baptist we need to be looking for that something more, something that transcends our physical lives and gives real meaning to our faith. That something comes in the baptism of the name of Jesus Christ.

  1. Interestingly enough, a great percentage of the Pharisees, like Paul, became Christians. They also, many times, became thorns in Paul’s side after their conversions.

  2. True, another example was Nicodemus. He was a Pharisee and one of Jesus’ followers. (John 3:1-21 ;7:50; 19:39). I guess it doesn’t really matter where we start out, what matters is how we finish.

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