2013-Mar/April – Issue- Through the Eyes of the Master -Article 5
“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in” (Matthew 23:13 NASB).
Jesus’ was a ministry of good works, mercy, love, and realignment with the divine will. His was a message of service to God and love toward all. He came as a servant, with great humility. His message was in direct opposition to the spirit of the world. This was prophesied in the Old Testament and quoted by the master during his ministry.
“You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them” (Matthew 13:14,15 NIV, Isaiah 6:9,10).
The group spoken of had not been able to grasp the truth the master presented and are held in full contrast to the disciples to whom “the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given” (Matthew 13:11 NIV). God through Christ had chosen to reveal this message “to little children” and hide them from the “wise and learned” (Luke 10:21 NIV).
True servants of God, in all ways, must seek after God’s correction and direction, allowing their lives to be changed in accordance with the divine will. They must, in short, make themselves a part of the “little children” class and distance themselves from the character of the “wise and learned,” those who hear but do not understand.
Identifying the characteristics and motivation of those who do not hear the message of Christ is crucial for those who want to be his children.
The Leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees
Jesus spoke openly against “the leaven” and “hypocrisy” of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 16:11, 23:3). This criticism came from the worldly view and narrow-mindedness of both groups. Both groups were the objects of some of Jesus’ sharpest condemnations because they had taken upon themselves the mantle of religious leadership. God’s directions for his spiritual leaders included an attitude of service and humility, being examples to the flock (Micah 7:14, 1 Peter 5:2,3). The Jewish leadership had lost sight of this leadership standard.
Of these two religious groups, the Sadducees had existed longer. They were fewer in number and had become an aristocratic sect. The name Sadducee refers to Zadok, the tenth high priest of Israel, in the time of King David. The name literally means “House of Zadok.” Thus, the Sadducees of Jesus’ days traced their lineage back to the ancient high priests and their priestly families. The high priests of the first advent period were Sadducees (see Acts 5:17). They ruled the temple worship and its ceremonies.
After the Roman conquest of Israel, schools of Greek and Roman philosophy were established in the region. This caused many Jews to be led astray, both religiously and morally. The Sadducees were among those Jews. At the time Jesus was teaching in Israel, the Sadducees recognized only the books of Moses. They did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, or spirits of any kind, including angels (Acts 23:8). They worked politically with the Romans and used that connection together with their wealth to exercise a degree of power over the people.
Though the Sadducees believed in God, they had drifted away from Him. They did not see God as one who interacted with humanity. As a result, they feared no divine punishment for sin. Their main fear was that of displeasing Rome. They had lost their love of God and their desire for doing His will. Instead, they turned to worldly pursuits. As their beliefs focused less on God, they turned to selfish pursuits and began to accrue vast wealth. Despite their focus on non-religious matters, the Sadducees still exercised power through the offices of the priesthood. When Jesus cleansed the temple, it was the Sadducees who were most angered. They not only sanctioned the exorbitant selling within the temple but also profited from it. The Sadducees came to fear Jesus’ popularity. His claims of kingship would stir the Romans’ anger against them. The master’s criticism was sharp, “You are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Matthew 22:29 NASB).
The Pharisees were formed in response to the influence of Gentile philosophies. The name means “Separated Ones” and describes how the Pharisees isolated themselves from Gentile teachings, and even held themselves superior to the common Jew. The Biblical historian Paul Johnson writes about the events that started the Pharisaical schools of thinking. “In their battle against Greek education, pious Jews began, from the end of the second century BC, to develop a national system of education. To the old scribal schools were gradually added a network of local schools where, in theory at least, all Jewish boys were taught the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). This development was of great importance in the spread and consolidation of the synagogue, in the birth of Pharisaism as a movement rooted in popular education, and eventually in the rise of the rabbinate” (A History of the Jews, page 106, 1988 edition).
The Pharisees developed from a religious, moral, and social revival that promoted both the scriptures as well as the oral traditions added to them. They were an attempt to preserve their Jewish heritage and special relationship with God. The beliefs of the Pharisees were largely opposed to the Sadducees because they believed in the resurrection, angels, and a God who actively worked for his people (Acts 23:8).
The Pharisees were subdivided into two schools of thought named after their founders. The school of Shammai was very conservative, harsh, and unbending, while the school of Hillel was more liberal and open. Historical evidence points to Gamaliel, the teacher of Paul, as the grandson of Hillel. Some of Jesus’ criticisms were likely focused on the much larger and unforgiving school of Shammai. Both groups, however, followed the “traditions of the elders” as a means by which to adhere to the law more completely. These traditions included tithing and fasting (Luke 18:12), the ritualistic washing of hands (Luke 11:38), and keeping of the Sabbath, although the school of Hillel was open to good deeds on the Sabbath (John 9:16).
When Jesus preached, he was more aligned with the doctrines of the Pharisees but rejected their traditions. Some Pharisees wished to hear his message (Luke 7:36), while others did not. Because all Pharisees held to the books of Moses and the prophets, as well as the high moral standards they prescribed, Jesus criticized them as hypocrites for not living up to their professed beliefs.
Paul writes that the law was our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ (Galatians 3:24). As spiritual leaders, the Pharisees should have been a group to whom Jesus’ message would have special and deep meaning. However, the
Pharisees had gone too far in following the letter of the law and were ignoring the spirit in which it was given. Jesus saw to the heart of the matter when he said, “You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:24 NASB). The master could see that the Pharisees had gone astray and that their pursuit of righteousness had been warped. Their strict adherence to the law and the traditions led many to seek self-glory. “Righteousness” was being used as a status symbol, a means by which to lift themselves above others and to claim spiritual authority (Luke 18:11). This pride had in turn caused the Pharisees to seek the most honored seats and recognition (Matthew 23:5-7).
Jesus, on the other hand, displayed humble service to others. He showed that in God’s estimation, humility was of paramount importance. His words were, “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). “Whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant” (Matthew 20:27). These principles were contrary to the fleshly tendencies of the Pharisees. Jesus warned his followers to guard against pride and being judgmental when he posed the question, “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye” (Matthew 7:3 NASB)?
The numerous faults of the Pharisees, described in Matthew 23, are the result of their lacking love, a primary component of our master’s message. Most of them could not accept the message he offered because love had been replaced by rules. The Apostle Paul wrote, “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). Because their hearts were hardened, most Pharisees could not accept Jesus’ words. Jesus said, “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach” (Matthew 23:2,3 NIV).
Both groups had become truly misguided. The lack of love for others, and the disproportional love of self, led the Pharisees not only to reject the message that the master shared but to actively oppose its spread. Leadership within the Pharisees worked constantly to discourage the acceptance of Jesus among the people (Matthew 23:13).
The Sadducee leadership opposed Jesus mostly at the end of his ministry, when they perceived that his popularity was a threat to their influence and the political stability of the nation. These small groups bear special blame in the death of the Lord. In their minds it was important to remove any man who threatened the status quo. But that was exactly what Jesus came to do. He came to correct the downward slide of humanity and bring life back to a dying and sin-sick world.
However, not all Pharisees or Sadducees were deceived. Nicodemus came in the night to learn from Jesus (John 3). He showed his noble character again when he and Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the master’s body (John 19:38,39). Some among the Pharisees eventually became Christians (Acts 15:5). Joseph of Arimathea was probably a Sadducee.
Lesson from the Pharisees and Sadducees
Typically, the Sadducees and Pharisees were strongly opposed to one another. Yet when it came to dealing with Jesus, they found common ground in their desire to put an end to him and his message. But Jesus did not come to preach to those who would not listen. He sought those with open hearts and minds.
The lesson we can learn from the Pharisees and Sadducees is to rid ourselves of personal ambition. This makes it possible to be filled with the ambition for God.
The Jewish leadership had the savior in their midst, the only one who could deliver them from evil and give true righteousness. All they had to do was to honestly accept him, consider his criticisms, and work to correct their hearts. Though this would be a daunting task, it could certainly be accomplished with God’s help.
Despite their opposition, Jesus did not hate them, for love was inherent in his character. “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20 NASB). “You have heard that it was said, ‘love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44 NIV).
The flaws of the Pharisees and Sadducees are a danger for Christians today. Those who know the teachings of God and feel that they are God’s special people can become proud of their special place. Christian traditions can also get in the way of discerning God’s will. Humility is a quality that must be dearly sought along with an attitude of service and self-sacrifice to God and others. Guarding the heart from pride and self-seeking must be a constant endeavor for each of us.
The Lord was looking for a group that possessed an innocent spirit and that was eager to please. There was one group that embodied these characteristics and had been present at many of Jesus’ sermons. It was the children.
“At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, and said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me. But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea’” (Matthew 18:1-6).
Is there any question why Jesus enjoyed the company of children? As he spoke to them he likely told simple stories that they could grasp. How thrilled he was when they understood and jumped to answer a question. How he loved their gleaming eyes as they absorbed his every word. He also loved their trusting innocence. He was refreshed by their laughter and joy of life. He saw that they lived in the moment and did not worry about tomorrow. This brought a natural optimism to their lives. As he set them up as examples to the disciples, he wanted the adults to realize just how important these qualities were. The heart of the children was the heart attitude sought by God.
Children are not obsessed with money or power. They do not care about how to have more influence in the world. Children look to parents for their needs. All of these qualities offer simple, and yet profound lessons for us. Christians should, likewise, look to their Heavenly Father to supply their needs. Jesus implied that the true disciple should strive for a guileless open mind, a loving disposition, and a humble character. These are child-like qualities that he values. Such a character is always open to God’s will.
Like children, we too should have an urgent desire to please our Father. Learning at the feet of Jesus should bring us joy and even a child-like sparkle to the eye as we learn new truths. He would not have us go around sullen and depressed, for we have so much to rejoice over. If our hope is real, it will bring a child-like joy that others may not be able to understand. Remember always the sentiments of Mark 10:15. “Verily I say unto you, whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.”
Those who truly become as a little child can be assured that verse 16 will be a personal reality. “And he took them up in his arms, put his hands upon them, and blessed them.”