Tag Archives: Pharisees

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.

There are a lot of people today who feel the same way that  Charlie Anderson, the character played by Jimmy Stewart, did in this movie. They really don’t understand why they should give God the credit when everything they have, they feel that they earned. If they wanted anything, they went out and made it happen. This same type of person often believes the idea that we human beings created God, rather than believe that God created us. They feel that they have done it all, and they think it foolish when some of us Christians have decided to give God the credit for all that is good in our lives.  As Paul stated in I Corinthians 1:18, they don’t understand  the preaching of the cross, and they believe it is foolishness. As we will learn in this study of I Corinthians 1:18-31, we will see that perhaps it is the scoffers who actually are the foolish ones.

In verse twenty of the passage Paul questions why the philosophers and religious leaders were not able to wrap their minds around this good news.

If you have ever taken a philosophy class, one of the first things that you learn is that it is easy to disprove something, but impossible to prove it. One small misstep and you’ve lost the debate through one of the many fallacies that can occur. Philosophy as we know it was originated by the Greeks and in Paul’s day, the Greeks were the philosophy experts. The philosophers had followers like rock stars of today have groupies. Every ideology came under scrutiny, and the new religion Christianity was a new one for them to examine. The problem was, the crucifixion did not make sense to their understanding so therefore they rejected it. It just wasn’t logical.The logic of philosophy comes short of  realizing that God knows all truth.

The Jewish religious groups, despite their piety, did not get it either.

The first century Jewish society contained many sects and schools. There were, of course, the Essenes who separated themselves because they thought they were the only ones who knew the truth. Another group, the Pharisees are more a more familiar group to us because Jesus opposed them. The Pharisees were a scholarly group  of Jews who, as Josephus the historian said, had a reputation for claiming expertise understanding the Torah (First Five Books of the Old Testament) and the observance of the laws. The Sadducees, on the other hand, did not believe in the authoritative nature of these ancestral laws.They however, had a following among the well-to-do. They denied the  resurrection of the dead, a belief  the Pharisees espoused. These groups were at odds among one another about who was right and who was wrong, neither espousing to the possibility that they were both wrong.

I Corinthians 1:21 says that it pleased God to confuse the wise men of that day by preaching of a crucified Christ. The Jews would not have him because they expected the Messiah to come as a mighty  conqueror. When he came to be crucified they stumbled at Him. The Gentiles could see no reason for salvation by a crucified malefactor of Judea. To those of both classes who would believe, Christ was the power and the wisdom of God.

Have you ever noticed that God always chooses to do things differently than humans do? Perhaps we need to change that to say that we choose to think differently than God thinks). God chooses to make:

  • Foolish things to confound the wise.
  • Weak things to confound mighty
  • Base things to humble the exalted
  • Despised things to humble the noble
  • Powerless things to bring to defeat the things that are powerful

God did not choose the things that make men feel important because that is not what he wants for mankind. He wants no flesh to glory in his presence. He wants Jesus Christ to be our Glory, our wisdom, our righteousness, our sanctification and our redeemer. He wants us to reach the point where when we can only glory in what Jesus Christ has done for us. He wants us to become smart enough to know we need his help.

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