The Pharisees and Sadducees: Jesus’ warnings for us today
At the crucifixion, the chief priests—probably both Pharisees and Sadducees—insisted that the sign over Jesus’ head that said “The King of the Jews” should say “This man claimed to be King of the Jews.” These two groups play a very large part in the story of the gospel. Who were they and what did they believe? Why did Jesus confront them so strongly? And can we learn anything from this history? Are there any groups today who think and act in the same way?
The Pharisees lived during the Second Temple period (between 516 BCE and 70 CE)¹. Theologically, they were the conservatives, believing in a resurrection, an afterlife, angels, and a final judgment. Associating with the common people made them the “blue collar” religious leaders. They viewed Moses as the supreme leader of their religion. Holding to a high view of written Scripture, they believed that God blessed those who kept his law (Torah). But they also believed that alongside the written Torah, Moses received a commentary on it, or “Oral Torah.” The Pharisees thus claimed only their interpretations of the law were correct as they were from Moses himself. This commentary now called the Mishna, which explained the meaning behind the written law.
The Pharisees are the spiritual fathers of modern-day Judaism. Their traditions and influence continued well after the 70 A.D. destruction of the temple. Their oral traditions and commentaries were eventually compiled into what the Jewish people call the Talmud.
Pharisees of Jesus’ time
In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees focused on the law of Moses and the traditions, but not much on the character of God. Out of their zeal, they added their traditions to Scripture, loading more requirements on people than those in the written law. In some cases, these loads were unbearable (Matthew 23:4). Their insistence of not doing anything that even resembled work on the Sabbath is noted many times in the gospels.
They were legalists, focusing on the letter of the law and leaving little room for God’s grace. As such, they often treated people with a notable lack of kindness or compassion. The Pharisees were the ones who brought the woman caught in adultery before Jesus to condemn her (John 8:3-11). The word Pharisee has now come to be known as another word for an intolerant self-righteous religious person.
Not all Pharisees met these descriptions or were strict legalists. There were some, such as Nicodemus, who sincerely sought God (John 3:1-12). He became a follower of Jesus and helped with the burial of his body after he died (John 19:38-42). There were undoubtedly many other Pharisees of godly character.
Jesus confronts the Pharisees
Jesus had regular confrontations (too many to cite here) with the Pharisees and their close associates, the teachers of the law. He warned them about their desire to be honored by men but not God (Matthew 23:5-7) and of God’s coming judgment if they didn’t repent. He purposely healed the sick and picked grain on the Sabbath day to counter their extreme views about the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-8). Jesus firmly rebuked them for elevating their human traditions above God’s Word:
Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:1-3)
In a stinging rebuke, he confronted them for focusing on unimportant details of the law but neglecting the most important:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. (Matthew 23:23)
Lacking justice and mercy, they condemned the innocent for not complying with very minor points in their laws and traditions. And he rebuked them for their hypocrisy:
… on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. (Matthew 23:28)
The Sadducees were a Jewish sect from the second century BC to about 70 AD¹. They typically belonged to the upper social class of Judean society—the elites. Most were wealthy, from the aristocratic segment of Jewish society. They were also the ruling class—they aspired to and attained high positions of authority. Many were priests, responsible for performing sacrifices and caring for the temple, a respected position in Jewish society.
They rejected the Pharisees’ traditions and Oral Torah and adhered only to the written law (Torah). However, they used the Torah, usually not to know the heart of God but for political power. The Jerusalem temple was the center for the political and governmental leadership of Israel as well as much of Jewish life. The Sadducees worked hard to maintain political power. Their focus on the written law was in part to maintain control of the temple and the sacrifices.
They were the ones who acted against the apostle Peter and had him arrested to be tried (Acts 5:17-18). They were upset that people were listening to Peter’s teaching, which threatened their power. Both the Pharisees and the Essenes viewed the Sadducees as corrupt, impious, and abusers of their political power, and had major disagreements with them. The Sadducees as a sect did not survive after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple.
Jesus rebukes the Sadducees
The Sadducees didn’t accept major portions of the Scripture, rejecting the prophets and denying the resurrection of the dead, the existence of spirits and angels, and any miracles of God. They believed God gave humans free will. But they didn’t believe in a final judgment with rewards and penalties after death, since these are not clearly explained in the Torah.
The Sadducees tried to trap Jesus with questions they thought were too difficult for him or they thought would get him in trouble. After their trap question about marriage at the resurrection, Jesus rebuked them:
Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. (Matthew 22:29)
Their view of Scripture was low, and they refused to accept that God’s power could ever be at work in their day. Ignorance and arrogance are a bad combination, and the Sadducees had both.
Jesus confronts the most crucial issues
Jesus didn’t fall into either extreme of the Pharisees or Sadducees. He lived a life of both holiness and compassion, without hypocrisy. Stressing the heart of God’s law, his love for God the Father was paramount, and his love for people was undeniable. Jesus demonstrated holiness, justice, and mercy in abundance throughout his ministry. But he didn’t compromise by excusing sin—repentance was essential. As he said to the woman caught in adultery: “Go and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11).
Why was Jesus so angry with both the Pharisees and the Sadducees? Because they misrepresented God and used his name to advance themselves. And they misused the Scriptures: the Pharisees added to them with their traditions, and the Sadducees took away from them, excluding large portions of God’s Word. Their study of God’s law didn’t lead them to a love for God or for others. Their teachings obscured the grace and goodness of God from people that needed to know him. They misled people and destroyed the work God was doing in their lives.
One of Jesus’ strongest rebukes of the religious leaders (collectively called “the Jews” in John’s gospel) is found in John 5:
You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (John 5:39-40)
Their study didn’t affect them where it counted the most—faith in the Savior. Both parties officially rejected Jesus as Messiah, denying themselves eternal salvation. And both conspired to have him killed—the Pharisees because he challenged their view of God’s law, and the Sadducees because he challenged their authority.
History repeats itself
We may not think the Pharisees and Sadducees exist anymore. But the truth is that human nature hasn’t changed. We find sin, bias, self-righteousness, arrogance, and abuse of power in every society. History has repeated itself over the years since Jesus’ time. These dynamics have been played out in church history by groups with similar beliefs. Conservatives, liberals, legalists, and libertines have existed in society and in Christian churches and other major religions throughout history.
Pharisees of the 1900’s
The Pharisees of the 1900’s were those who prohibited dancing of any type, drinking alcohol in any amount, all movies, and attending fun events outside the church. They read into God’s commands far beyond what Scripture actually said. The thinking was: “If a little abstinence is good, then a lot of abstinence is much better.” When I was growing up, my parents made fun of these people, and used them as an excuse not to embrace the Christian faith.
The Pharisee of the 1900’s is largely mocked by the American culture today. Now, very few Christians would ever want to be described this way. This type of religion may still be present in other countries, but it has become a rarity in the United States.
Pharisees of today
Who are the Pharisees of today? Although not a perfect comparison, it would be those Christians who ignore God’s greatest commands for the sake of lesser teachings, church doctrines, and theologies. They doggedly defend their disputable doctrines, causing conflicts within their church and with believers of other churches. Some churches encourage this by elevating their church teachings, catechisms, and commentaries to that of Scripture.
Many of the Muslim faith who interpret and enforce the Quran to the letter of the law also fit the description of the Pharisee. Their extremist views lead them to harsh treatment and persecution of others who disagree with their interpretations.
Scripture as an end in itself
There is another group of modern-day Pharisees. They focus only on Bible knowledge, but not on knowing Christ or cultivating a love relationship with God. They obsess themselves with studying Scripture, but as an end in itself without concern for its application. Their pride of having correct doctrine contrasts starkly with their lack of love for God and for other people. They view the Bible almost as a legal document containing extra-precise words and strict rules for living. Ironically, they don’t know Scripture as well as they would like us to think, as they neglect the two most important commands in Scripture. To them, loving God only means reading the Bible (or Quran) and attending religious services. And they limit loving others to loving those that agree with their religion.
I have been a Christian for 50 years and have attended many churches throughout my life. The great majority of Christians I have known are kind and compassionate, and don’t condemn others for their wayward lifestyles. And I have met very few believers that meet the description of the self-righteous Pharisee. I believe that in U.S. churches there are now far more people that are excessively permissive than legalistic.
Sadducees of today
Modern-day Sadducees definitely exist in the church today. Who are they? Again, this isn’t a perfect comparison, but they are the theological liberals who have a low view of Scripture. They reject much of the Bible as God’s Word, especially the portions that conflict with popular moral and social beliefs. Some (not all) of the “religious left” fit the description of the Sadducee.
These people use only a small selection of Bible verses when expressing their religious views and faith. They preach love, but exclude repentance, God’s holiness, and the final judgment. Their concept of love is not only acceptance of sinful people but affirming their behavior as well. They have an elitist mentality and think that those who believe God can perform miracles today are backward and uneducated.
But the same rebuke Jesus gave to the Sadducees of his day applies to these people: “… you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.”
The Bible used as a political tool
Today’s Sadducees are well-connected socially and politically. To persuade others of their views, they quote (and often misquote) a very limited selection of Bible verses. Many use the Bible only as a tool to coerce others to accept their social and political beliefs. Some get involved in the church, not because they sincerely believe the gospel, but to exert influence on an institution they think needs to change.
These people are good at virtue signaling, publicly announcing their progressive beliefs and lifestyles to gain admiration and advance their causes. Their compassion is displayed for show but lacks any substance. They make exaggerated claims of helping the poor and working toward justice and equity. But they ignore God’s commands of personal holiness, excusing their own sins and those of the people they claim to be helping. They condemn others that don’t agree with their positions on social justice, and gender and racial equality, especially Christians who hold to absolute moral values. But like the Pharisaical Christians they disdain, they are quite self-righteous themselves.
Paul abandons all for Christ and his gospel
The apostle Paul in his younger years was a Pharisee. After coming to faith in Christ, he realized the error of their beliefs and practices, and abandoned his life as a Pharisee:
But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ… (Philippians 3:7-8)
After serving as an apostle, Paul became aware of people who claimed to be of the faith but were not. Some legalistic Jews strongly believed the Gentiles needed to observe the Jewish ceremonial laws to be saved. At one point, they insisted that the new Gentile believers conform to the Jewish rite of circumcision, so Paul confronted them.
This matter arose because some false believers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you. (Galatians 2:4-5)
The gospel of grace was of the utmost importance to Paul. He fought hard against the legalists to ensure it was preserved and preached. And God has preserved this gospel of grace for us today so we can respond to it ourselves.
The Pharisees and Sadducees are portrayed in this post as two extremes. In reality, not all Pharisees or Sadducees met these descriptions, but most did. Likewise, very few of us are on either extreme. But they represent false teaching that can keep us from a close relationship with God, or even from eternal salvation.
We all have the tendency to read about the Pharisees and Sadducees and say: “I know people who are like that.” But the purpose of this post is first to examine our own lives in light of God’s Word. Ask yourself:
- Are my attitudes and religious beliefs keeping me from loving God and other people?
- Is my adherence to church traditions keeping me from trusting and knowing Christ?
- Am I devoted to the Bible but not Christ?
- Do I try to impress others with my own goodness but not God’s goodness?
- Do I ignore or exclude large portions of Scripture?
- Do I pride myself in not being like “those other people” that I disagree with?
- Am I using my stated beliefs about social issues to excuse my own moral failures?
- Am I attending fellowship or using the Bible to promote my own agenda and not Christ’s?
If you answer yes to any of these, consider confessing your sin to God and turning to him in truth and sincerity. And lastly, keep your spiritual eyes open and avoid those groups that fall into these errors. Jesus warns us:
“Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees” …. Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (Matt. 16: 6, 12)
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