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Modern Day Pharisees and Sadducees

Updated on April 25, 2017
Life along the flowing river
Life along the flowing river

Did you ever wonder what Jesus would say if He were on earth today? I think that He would find people essentially the same as they were when He walked in Palestine long ago. As Solomon said 3,000 years ago: “That which has been is that which will be, And that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecc 1:9).

Sure, today we are different in many ways, but I think our core nature remains the same. We all manifest three basic patterns when we come to God and His word. I will show you in this lesson that Pharisees and Sadducees are still all around us, and Jesus’ word from of old is still needed in order to guide us all into the Truth.

A Pharisee

While both the Sadducees and Pharisees were a varied social, political, and religious class of leaders at Jesus’ time, the Gospels zero in on the most essential aspect of their world view. The Pharisees represented those who believed the Word of God. They took God at His word, and were strict in obeying what it said to do. Saul of Tarsus was such a one, zealously endeavoring to wipe out the new sect of Christians due to his passionate belief in the Word of God. Who are Pharisees today? In the United States, we have many conservative, fundamentalist, evangelical believers in the Word of God, who believe the Scripture provides spiritual guidance in all decisions of life, and is relevant to all people at all times, regardless of their culture. They believe we should adjust ourselves to the Word of God.

A Sadducee

Sadducees represented the liberal elite of the time, and they discounted the Word of God, not taking it literally. They did not believe in resurrection, in angels or in the spiritual realm (Acts 23:8). They denied that there was any existence after death, and thus focused on politics more than religious matters of the Law that the Pharisees concerned themselves with. Of course, there are many Sadducees on earth today, dismissive of both the Scriptures as well as any people who try to follow it. They consider the Bible to be merely words of white males, who gave their opinions about religious matters, and those writings have little or no bearing to us today, since they were speaking out from their own culture that is different than ours. They believe we should reason our way to moral decisions, trusting in our own views to guide our life, adjusting it to our own culture and beliefs.

Three Basic Paths

The Path of Hypocrisy

Based on these core beliefs, there are three options for mankind, three ways to live our lives, with three outcomes. We can see these three ways from the Scripture. In Matthew 23, Jesus has a confrontation with Pharisees that was explosive in His condemnation of their life. Jesus delivered to them an “eight fold woe” related to their hypocrisy. This is one way to live our life. If you position your soul with the attitude that the Bible is the Word of God, and then try to do it, to obey it in your life, there is only one possibility. You will fail. No one can keep the high standard of the Law of God. That is a simple fact. But the Pharisees were not condemned by Jesus for their conservative belief in the Word of God, nor for their failing to keep it, but for pretending to succeed, and by condemning those who were not. This hypocrisy gave them both the feeling and the position of superiority, from which they lived a comfortable life. Many Christians live this life today. They accept the Bible as the Word of God, and they condemn all those who don’t, believing that they themselves are approved by God. “God Hates Gays!” is a typical statement from a modern day Pharisee. Again, notice that Jesus did not condemn the Pharisees for believing the Word of God. Jesus also believed the Word of God. He was no liberal in that sense. Not only did He believe the Word of God, He was the only man who completely lived it, and in fact one of His many names is The Word of God (Rev. 19:13; John 1:1). His condemnation was for their hypocrisy:

““Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matt. 23:27-28)

This is one path: the path of hypocrisy. It is the only way for people who believe the Bible is the Word of God, but are not willing to admit their own inability to obey it and fulfill it. They must convince themselves that they are doing it, and that they are better than those who are not.

The Path of Disbelief

There is another path. Many people start with the belief that the Bible is not the Word of God, so they are under no obligation to follow it. They can choose their own path of morality that conforms to their own feeling and reasoning about life. For example, the Bible says clearly that fornication, which is sex outside the commitment of marriage , is wrong. A modern day Sadducee would deny that, saying “What is wrong with sex? That is just a 2,000 year old precept that has no bearing on my life today.” This attitude not only allows any type of behavior, depending on the feeling of the particular modern-day Sadducee, but it also does away with any feeling of guilt. I’m OK, and you’re OK too. While you would think that such a liberal position would do away with judging others, typical liberals of this persuasion hypocritically condemn the fundamentalist believers in the Bible, for they are not OK. Taking the Bible literally is a ridiculous thing to a liberal. When Jesus confronted some Sadducees in Matthew 22:23-33, the Sadducees tried to convince both the conservative Pharisees as well as the conservative Jesus that the Bible is not to be trusted. They gave Jesus a “what if” scenario, in which a man had seven wives in his life, since the one he married kept dying off. Thinking that they had trapped the conservatives with their superior reasoning, they asked Jesus about the resurrection: “whose wife of the seven will she be? For they all had married her.” While the Pharisees typically boast in their moral superiority, the Sadducees boast in their superior mental analysis, thinking they can easily prove the Bible is not to be trusted.

Jesus exposed their fictions:

“But Jesus answered and said to them, “You are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” Modern day liberal Sadducees are mistaken about nearly everything. The core base of their error is rejecting the Bible as the word of God. They do not understand what the Bible is about. They do not understand the power that is in God. They think they are smarter than God, and they do not need God’s power, as they believe they are quite capable in themselves to live a good life. This is a second path: the path of unbelief.

The Path of Honesty

There is a third way. This path does away with the moral superiority of the conservative Pharisees as well as the mental superiority of the liberal Sadducees. It abolishes the pride of the hyprocrital and religulous Pharisees and their condemnation of others, as well as the pride of the Sadducees and their condescending attitude to the fundamentalists. This way is the way of both admitting that the Bible is the Word of God, as well as admitting that we are incapable of fulfilling it, obeying it, or conforming to it. This is the only God-approved path. It is the path of humility. It is the path of honesty. It is the path of therapeutic guilt. It is the path that leads directly to a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. Here are a few examples from the Scripture, which is the Word of God.

There is a path of freedom
There is a path of freedom

Saul of Tarsus

As I said, Saul was a Pharisee. Listen to his own description of himself: "If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Philip. 3:4-6). And again in Acts he speaks about himself to the Jewish leaders that “they have known about me for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that I lived as a Pharisee according to the strictest sect of our religion.” (Acts 26:5) What kind of Pharisee was Saul? Did he take the path of hypocrisy? Absolutely not. He tried his best to obey and conform himself to the eternal and trustworthy word of God. Yet he failed. Read his own testimony:

“For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.

I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members.” (Romans 7:14-23)

What was the outcome of this struggle, which was based on his belief in the Word of God? He did not dismiss the Bible so as to do away with his guilt and shame. He did not assume the Bible is outdated and that it does not apply to him. He tried. And he failed. He continues:

“Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25)

This path, the path of honesty, leads you directly to the only One who can both save you from the guilt and condemnation of sin, as well as give you the resurrection power to live a life in accordance with the Word and will of God. That One is Jesus, the crucified and risen Savior, who can now indwell us as the Spirit, bringing us the ability to fulfill the Word of God:

“Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Romans 8:1-4)

The Two Men in the Temple

Another short example of this third path, the path of honesty that leads us to the Savior, is found in a parable Jesus told in Luke 18. In it we can see the path of pride and hypocrisy, as well as the path of honesty and humility:

“And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector,standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

Your Choice

You have three paths to take. Which one will you choose? Will you take the path of hypocrisy, resting in the delusion that somehow you are “making it” since you think that you are better than everyone else? Will you cover up your sins, your failures, and your utter and complete inability to fulfill the requirements of a righteous and holy God? Or will you take the path of unbelief, carefully dissecting and critiquing the Bible for any perceived errors and inconsistencies, crafting and building a house of straw built on sand from which to live your smug life of superiority? Or will you take the path of honesty, honestly admitting that the Bible is the Word of God, and that you are simply incapable of fulfilling, by your own effort and power, the righteous requirements found in it? This path alone brings you to the feet of a meek and compassionate Savior named Jesus, who died for your sins to release you from your guilt, and in resurrection is willing and able to supply you with His own virtue and glory to fulfill His standard according to His Life. Open to this One today!


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