Beware Modern Scribes and Pharisees. (And Sadducees, too.)
Phil Miglioratti • The ReimagineFORUM
I remember in my teens my Pastor's sermons warning us (rightly so) to "Beware of the Scribes and the Pharisees." He taught this passionately because he wanted us to be on our guard that unless our "righteousness surpasses that of the Scribes and Pharisees, (we) will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:20)
As I matured in my faith, the warning of this scripture shifted from fear-prompting to guidance-seeking, from reactive to proactive. Since then, I have been attuned to anything that appeared to be lifeless ritual, banal routine in worship, mindless rote in discipleship, or simplistic repetition in prayer.
IMHO, Jesus would repeat today what he proclaimed loudly to those following him from countryside to the Temple. This is a call to be true followers, a challenge to constantly remember the DNA that makes Christianity distinct from all religion. And to reimagine how to apply biblical teachings to our contemporary context.
Which we pursue by being filled anew every day, any moment, with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:18), so that we might eschew lifeless conformity and pursue the ongoing transformation of our minds, our motivations, our ministries. (see Romans 12:2)
Decades of personal success and failure have led me to utilize these Hebrew leadership groups by remembering their purpose and why Jesus was so harsh when he spoke to them. A categorical perspective of how the biblical teaching regarding the Scribes and Pharisees, and the Sadducees who were influential in the power-wielding Sanhedrin, relates to the Church (and me personally) today. These three ministry groupings provide us with a template, an easy to remember format, that equips us to assess if we are exceeding or if we have succumbed to the Pharisees' version of righteousness.
* * *
Within earshot of all the people, Jesus warned his disciples, Don’t follow the example of these pretentious experts of the law!
They love to parade around in their religious garments so that people honor them wherever they go.
They like to sit right up front in every meeting and push their way to the head table at every banquet. And for an offering they will pray long religious prayers at the homes of widows,[*] cheating them out of their very livelihood. Beware of them all, because one day the Judge will strip them of honor and judge them severely.”
Luke 20:45-47 The Passion Translation
[*] Translated from the Aramaic. The implication is that the religious leaders would go and pray at the homes of widows, then intimidate them and ask for offerings.
* * *
While each group is presented as negative examples of faithfulness in the Gospels, it is important to remember (and seek to reclaim) the original purpose of their focus and function.
•SCRIBES had several functions (such as transacting official business) but their primary purpose was to guard the accuracy of Holy Scripture by making precise, exact copies of the text.
Scribes were scholars commissioned to protect the veracity of the text...but their esteemed position produced an arrogant, above-the-law posture.
•SADDUCEES controlled the Temple and forged political connections, but most notably held to a specific theological system that did not believe in the supernatural (including resurrection from death). Their statement or faith set direction for their decisions. They were driven (and diverted) by the doctrines produced by their theology.
Sadducees had the potential to advocate for the people of God in a hostile culture...but their truncated theology diverted their focus.
PHARISEES were "middle class" businessmen, leaders of the synagogues, who considered themselves stewards of the traditions of the faith, which they sought to protect by emphasizing personal piety.
Pharisees sought to guard the holiness of the people of God by demanding adherence to traditions, rituals and customs that had been taught for centuries as expressions of faith and belief but they ruled legalistically and spoke harshly to any deviance frm not only scripture but traditions and customs.
History repeats itself is an often-used statement to link the actions of people in the past to the challenges we face in the present. And without this perspective, we are prone to the same serious mistakes.
Today, we too have teachers-preachers-leaders who claim a calling to protect the text or are driven by a statement of faith delineating their theology or seek to protect a time-honored tradition. While each has intrinsic value, all three are intended to connect us to a greater reality. Truth.
"Jesus explained, 'I am the Way, I am the Truth ["the True Reality"] and I am the Life.
No one comes next to the Father except through union with me.'" John 14:6
To fully know and bear an authentic witness to the One of God who is Truth-incarnate; the living embodiment of truth (see John 1:1-4 text and notes below) . . .
- Our use of the Text must solely be to reveal to the hearer or reader, Jesus, the One of God, as the Truth-incarnate. If our favorite translation ("King James Only" anyone?) becomes our focus or our fight, then Jesus, Truth-incarnate, takes a back seat.
"Your word is the truth. So let this truth make them completely yours.” John 17:17
- All Theology must teach and propel us to be disciples (learners) of Jesus who not only taught truth but is Truth-incarnate. Statements of faith must not be granted equal standing with Holy Scripture. This is how we've ended up with hundreds of denominations, each with their own statement of faith.
"Pilate responded, “Oh, so then you are a king?” "You are right," Jesus said,
“I was born a King, and I have come into this world to prove what truth really is.l
And everyone who loves the truth will receive my words.” John 18:37
- Every Tradition must invite the people of God to experience, to worship, to serve, Jesus the Truth-incarnate. Grace or Legalism? Romans Road or Social Justice? High Church or Low Church? Sabbath? Evangelism or Discipleship? Written or Spontaneous Praying? Pulpit or Music Stand? (Did someone say, "Just give me Jesus?")
I f you have really experienced the Anointed One, and heard his truth, it will be seen in your life; for we know that the ultimate reality [or learning] is embodied in Jesus! Ephesians 4:21
Truth is "that which corresponds to reality." Christians believe Jesus is ultimate reality. Text, Theology, Tradition must proclaim, point to, present, the One of God; Truth-incarnate.
But . . .
- We can be well intentioned "scribes" but unaware of how easy it is to elevate our translation, interpretation or explanation of the text rather than employing it as revelation of Jesus, the Word of Truth (John 1:1; 17:17; Revelation 19:13: "The rider wore a robe that was covered with blood, and he was known as “The Word of God.”).
- We are capable of being "Sadducees" who emphasize theological doctrines or systems to teach biblical information rather than equip learners to experience those truths in their walk/life with the risen Truth. And equip them with the tools to discern human understanding from spiritual illumination.
- We too easily act/react like "pharisees" in our attempt to guard righteousness and holiness by judging behavior (and even a person’s motivation) based on adherence to traditions instead of discipling them into a prayerful life of discerning the Spirit's leading away from sin and toward the One of God who is Truth
"Jesus said to those Jews who believed in him,
'When you continue to embrace all that I teach, you prove that you are my true followers. For if you embrace the truth, it will release true freedom into your lives'.” John 8:31-32
[Note] The truth Jesus gives us releases us from the bondage of our past, the bondage of our sins, and the bondage of (human) religion. Jesus was speaking these words to those who were not fully free from man’s traditions. Truth must be embraced and worked out through the divine process of spiritual maturity. The Greek word for “truth” is reality. To embrace the reality of Christ brings more freedom into your life. See the book of Galatians for a clear explanation of the freedom Jesus referred to here.
"When he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak and he will shew you things to come." John 16:13
"The Holy Spirit will come and help [comfort; encourage; defend] you, because the Father will send the Spirit to take my place. The Spirit will teach you everything and will remind you of what I said while I was with you. you." John 14:26
Remember, we must keep the main thing the main thing.
Truth. Jesus, The One of God. The main thing of everything.
Only as the text bring us into the mind of Christ...is it divinely empowering
Only as theology makes us passionate to be filled with (yielded to) the Spirit...is it truly enlightening
Only as tradition brings us into fully alive worship and discipleship of the One of God in all we do...is it authentically experiential
Teaching and preaching. Sermons and studies. Singing and serving. Praising and praying...mean little if they are ends in themselves. Dangerous to the soul, actually.
The anger of Jesus toward the scribes, pharisees, and sadducees was because their role had become their goal. Their function had replaced their focus. The revival many are praying for is not a return to a better translation or a superior systematic theology or an improved set of traditions. Revival is a return to our first love, the Truth-incarnate, our Lord and Savior.
" I know all that you’ve done for me—you have worked hard and persevered. I know that you don’t tolerate evil. You have tested those who claimed to be apostles and proved they are not, for they were imposters. I also know how you have bravely endured trials and persecutions because of my name, yet you have not become discouraged.
But I have this against you: you have abandoned the passionate love you had for me at the beginning. Think about how far you have fallen! Repent and do the works of love you did at first. I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place of influence if you do not repent."
Many people have rejected Christianity because of the "Christians" they’ve observed.
None of our attempts to speak or call for truth will resonate with seekers if the Truth is not alive in the text or living in the theology or present in the tradition. Christianity without the revelation of the redeemer is, at best, religious psychology.
Lord, it is easy for me to spot those with blind spots. May I learn from their mistakes. May I consistently ask the Spirit to assess my mind and motivation. I implore you to examine me and reveal where I have substituted something else (my allegiance to text or theology or tradition) for the True One.
May you read this Scripture as if our Chief Shepherd is talking to us today. Uncovering the sins of a Church stewarding the text, teachings, and traditions while failing to connect the crowds or the disciples to the One who is Truth.
Matthew 23:1 Then Jesus addressed both the crowds and his disciples and said, 2 “The religious scholars and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat as the authorized interpreters of the Law. 3 So listen and follow what they teach, but don’t do what they do, for they tell you one thing and do another. 4 They tie on your backs an oppressive burden of religious obligations and insist that you carry them, but will never lift a finger to help ease your load. 5 Everything they do is done for show and to be noticed by others. They want to be seen as holy, so they wear oversized prayer boxes on their arms and foreheads with Scriptures inside, and wear extra-long tassels on their outer garments. 6 They crave the seats of highest honor at banquets and in their meeting places. 7 And how they love to be admired by men with their titles of respect, aspiring to be recognized in public and have others call them ‘Reverend.’
8 “But you are to be different from that. ...
13 “Great sorrow awaits you religious scholars and you Pharisees—such frauds and pretenders! You do all you can to keep people from experiencing the reality of heaven’s kingdom realm. Not only do you refuse to enter in, you also forbid anyone else from entering in!
14 “Great sorrow awaits you religious scholars and you Pharisees—frauds and pretenders! For you eat up the widow’s household with the ladle of your prayers. Because of this, you will receive a greater judgment.
15 “Great sorrow awaits you religious scholars and you Pharisees—such frauds and pretenders! For you will travel over land and sea to find one disciple, only to make him twice the child of hell as yourselves.
16 “You blind guides! Great sorrow awaits you…
23 “Great sorrow awaits you religious scholars and Pharisees—frauds and pretenders! For you are obsessed with peripheral issues, like insisting on paying meticulous tithes on the smallest herbs that grow in your gardens. These matters are fine, yet you ignore the most important duties of all: to walk in the love of God, to display mercy to others, and to live with integrity. Readjust your values and place first things first. 24 What blind guides! Nitpickers! You will spoon out a gnat from your drink, yet at the same time you’ve gulped down a camel without realizing it.
25 “Great sorrow awaits you religious scholars and Pharisees—frauds and imposters! You are like one who will only wipe clean the outside of a cup or bowl, leaving the inside filthy. You are foolish to ignore the greed and self-indulgence that live like germs within you. 26 You are blind to your evil. Shouldn’t the one who cleans the outside also be concerned with cleaning the inside? You need to have more than clean dishes; you need clean hearts!
27 “Great sorrow awaits you religious scholars and Pharisees—frauds and imposters! You are nothing more than tombs painted over with white paint—tombs that look shining and beautiful on the outside but filled with rotting corpses on the inside. 28 Outwardly you masquerade as righteous people, but inside your hearts you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
29 “Great sorrow awaits you religious scholars and Pharisees—frauds and imposters! You build memorials for the prophets your ancestors killed and decorate the monuments of the godly people your ancestors murdered. 30 Then you boast, ‘If we had lived back then, we would not have joined them in killing the prophets.’ 31 But your words and deeds testify that you are just like them and prove that you are indeed the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Go ahead and finish what your ancestors started! 33 You are nothing but snakes in the grass, the offspring of poisonous vipers! How will you escape the judgment of hell if you refuse to turn in repentance?
34 “For this reason I will send you more prophets and wise men and teachers of truth. Some you will crucify, and some you will beat mercilessly with whips in your meeting houses, abusing and persecuting them from city to city. 35 As your penalty, you will be held responsible for the righteous blood spilled and the murders of every godly person throughout your history—from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Jehoiada,[q] whom you killed as he stood in the temple between the brazen altar and the Holy Place. 36 I tell you the truth: the judgment for all these things will fall upon this generation!”
37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem—you are the city that murders your prophets! You are the city that stones the very messengers who were sent[r] to deliver you! So many times I have longed to gather a wayward people, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings—but you were too stubborn to let me. 38 And now it is too late, since your city will be left in ruins. 39 For you will not see me again until you are able to say, ‘We welcome the one who comes to us in the name of the Lord.’ ”
And the Living Expression was with God, yet fully God.[c]
2 They were together—face-to-face,[d] in the very beginning.[e]
3 And through his creative inspiration
this Living Expression made all things,[f]
for nothing has existence apart from him!
4 A fountain of life was in him,[g]
for his life is light for all humanity.[h]
- 1:1 Most scholars consider the first eighteen verses of John to be the words of an ancient hymn or poem that was cherished by first-century believers in Christ.
- 1:1 The Greek is logos, which has a rich and varied background in both Greek philosophy and Judaism. The Greeks equated logos with the highest principle of cosmic order. God’s logos in the Old Testament conveys his powerful self-expression in creation, revelation, and redemption. In the New Testament we have this new unique view of God given to us by John, which signifies the presence of God himself in the flesh. Some have translated this rich term as “Word.” Though the Greek term logos may be rendered “word,” it would be wrong to think it indicates primarily a lexical unit in a sentence. Logos is more accurately understood as a form of self-revealing or “message.” Jesus Christ is the eternal Message, the creative Word, and the Living Expression of God made visible. He is the divine self-expression of all that God is, contains, and reveals in incarnated flesh. Just as we express ourselves in words, God has perfectly expressed himself in Christ. Jesus is God’s Story.
- 1:1 The Living Expression (Christ) fully possesses every attribute of deity held by God the Father (Col. 1:15–20). The Living Expression existed eternally as a separate individual but essentially the same, as one with the Father.
- 1:2 The Greek word used here and the Hebraic concept conveyed is that of being before God’s face. There is no Hebrew word for “presence” (i.e., the “presence” of God), only the word “face.”
- 1:2 Both Gen. 1:1 and John 1:1–2 speak of the beginning. In Genesis Moses spoke of the beginning of time, but John speaks of eternity past, a beginning before time existed. The Living Expression is Christ who existed eternally as part of the Trinity. He has no beginning, being one with the Father.
- 1:3 Or “all things happened because of him and nothing happened apart from him.” The Aramaic is “everything was in his hand” (of power). See Ps. 33:6; Isa. 44:24.
- 1:4 See Ps. 36:9. The Aramaic reads “In him were lives” (plural)—not only multiple human lives, but also spiritual life, eternal life, and life in every form. John used the word life (zoe) thirty-seven times in his gospel.
- 1:4 Jesus Christ brings the light of eternal life and the full revelation of God (Heb. 1:2–3). The Gospel of John is easily divided into three sections: life (chs. 1–7), light (chs. 8–12), and love (chs. 13–21).