The Religion of the Pharisees (Part 5)
Have you ever been judged and sentenced by a fellow Christian (well, maybe they were a Christian) as they glanced down and saw that NIV or ESV in your hand? Ted was a member of a real fundamental baptist church (I’m a baptist, so it’s ok for me to say that). I met him in the prairies of eastern Montana on an antelope hunt (yes, I hunt. I keep a nice big bear hide on my office wall to test newcomers’ graciousness to us of the sportsman’s persuasion). Riding in Ted’s old Ford truck out across the prairie, I was listening to Ted rattle on about the KJV of the Bible. He had seen my NASB back at camp and felt compelled by the spirit of ________, whatever to convert me. On and on he went until judgment came from above. Ted was so hyped about the Authorized Version that he drove smack into a ditch. No way was it coming out of there without another truck. I left him there and wandered off to find a buck on my own. Ted’s gospel was a tradition. Ted’s religion was that of the Pharisees. And it wasn’t pleasant.
The spirit of Ted is common and it is cruel. It enslaves and oppresses. And its leaven has spread throughout the conservative, Bible-believing church. We are setting out to do what we can in this series of articles to expose it for what it is – the traditions of men that have usurped the Word of God. Here is a great quote from J.C. Ryle (read the whole article from Ryle’s book, Warnings to the Churches – here) –
Let us try to understand what we mean when we speak of the "doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees." (a) The doctrine of the Pharisees may be summed up in three words: they were formalists, tradition-worshippers, and self-righteous. They attached such weight to the traditions of men that they practically regarded them of more importance than the inspired writings of the Old Testament. They valued themselves on excessive strictness in their attention to all the ceremonial requirements of the Mosaic law. They thought much of being descended from Abraham, and said in their hearts, "We have Abraham for our father." They fancied themselves because they had Abraham for their father that they were not in danger of hell like other men, and that their descent from him was a kind of title to heaven. They attached great value to washings and ceremonial purifyings of the body, and believed that the very touching of the dead body of a fly or gnat would defile them. They made a great deal about the outward parts of religion, and such things that could be seen by men. They made broad their phylacteries, and enlarged the fringes of their garments. They prided themselves on paying great honor to dead saints, and garnishing the graves of the righteous. They were very zealous to make converts. They prided themselves in having power, rank, and preeminence, and of being called by men, "Teacher, Teacher." These things, and many things like these, the Pharisees did. Every well-informed Christian can find these things in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark (See Matthew 15 and 23; Mark 7). Remember, all this time, they did not formally deny any part of the Old Testament Scripture. But they brought in, over and above it, so much of human invention, that they virtually put Scripture aside, and buried it under their own traditions. This is the sort of religion, of which our Lord says to the Apostles, "Be careful and be on your guard.
Who were the Sadduccees? They were a rival priestly party, opposed in many ways to the Pharisees. They were open to cooperation with non-jewish rulers such as the Greeks and the Romans, something that the Pharisees staunchly opposed. While the Pharisees, as we have seen, embraced a non-written and orally-transmitted “tradition of the elders” handed down supposedly from Moses, the Sadducees rejected that notion. Unlike the Pharisees, the Sadducees rejected the doctrine of the resurrection, the immortality of the soul, and the existence of angels. The Pharisees were much more popular with the common mass of the people than the Sadducees because the former refused to yield to foreign ruling powers.
Ryle describes their theology:
The doctrine of the Sadducees, on the other hand, may be summed up in three words: free-thinking, skepticism, and rationalism. Their creed was far less popular than that of the Pharisees, and, therefore, we find them mentioned less often in the New Testament Scriptures. So far as we can judge from the New Testament, they appear to have held the doctrine of degrees of inspiration; at all times they attached greater value to the Pentateuch [first five Books of the Old Testament] above all the other parts of the Old Testament, if indeed they did not altogether ignore the latter. They believed that there was no resurrection, no angels, and no spirits, and tried to laugh men out ot their belief in these things, by bringing forward difficult questions. We have an instance of their mode of argument in the case which they propounded to our Lord of the woman who had had seven husbands, when they asked, "At the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven?" And in this way they probably hoped, by rendering religion absurd, and its chief doctrines ridiculous, to make men altogether give up the faith they had received from the Scriptures. Remember, all this time, we cannot say that the Sadducees were downright infidels: this they were not. We may not say they denied revelation altogether: this they did not do. They observed the law of Moses. Many of them were found among the priests in the times described in the Acts of the Apostles. Caiaphas who condemned our Lord was a Sadducee. But the practical effect of their teaching was to shake men's faith in any revelation, and to throw a cloud of doubt over men's minds, which was only one degree better than infidelity. And of all such kind of doctrine: free thinking, skepticism, rationalism, our Lord says, "Be careful and be on your guard.
Finally, we need to consider another group that we meet in Scripture – the scribes. (There were other groups as well such as the Essenes a Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, but they are not mentioned in Scripture). There is reference to scribes even in the Old Testament, and it isn’t in a good context –
Jeremiah 8:8 ESV How can you say, ‘We are wise, and the law of the LORD is with us’? But behold, the lying pen of the scribes has made it into a lie.
The scribes in the New Testament are often mentioned in the company of the Pharisees or the priests. They were lawyers – experts on the Law, or so they thought. One very telling insight into their mentality appears in Matthew –
Matthew 7:28-29 ESV And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.
Just as lawyers today wrangle over the meaning of the law, leaving us to wonder what is the right application, so it seems it was with these scribes. Jesus, in contrast, taught with remarkable and noticeable clarity – “I say unto you….” that was definitive and left no doubt of His teaching. The people sensed it. He taught as one with authority within Himself.
Matthew 3 still awaits. This is enough for now.
Go to Part 4 of this series
Go to Part 6 of this series