[From my archives.]
Ah, those good old Pharisees. They’ve been dead and gone for centuries, yet we never tire of talking about the dangers of their beliefs. I’ve lost count of the number of sermons I’ve heard, articles I’ve seen, and books I’ve read that in some way or another caution the Christians of modern days against acting like the Pharisees of ancient days. And I suppose it’s good. It’s just as easy—and just as wrong—for Christians to fall into legalism, rules, and self-righteousness as it was for those sanctimonious Pharisees.
It’s true that Jesus’ most scathing condemnation was reserved for the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. (Anyone who suffers from a milk-and-watery conception of “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” need only turn to His blistering condemnations in Matthew 23 to permanently unsettle their thinking.) But the Pharisees were not the only religious sect of Jesus’ day. And this came to me as a mild surprise: they were not the only ones He told us to beware of imitating. I still remember my puzzlement when I stumbled across the verses:
“And Jesus said to them, ‘Watch out for and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”…Then they understood that He did not say to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (Matthew 16:6,12 NASB, emphasis mine)
The Pharisees and who? I did a little research to find out. It seems that, while the Pharisees had the biggest place in the public eye, the Sadducees, their rivals, had gotten a corner on the ministry in the temple. Furthermore, at least one insightful Bible teacher (Oswald Chambers) said that that was exactly the situation in the present-day church. The world may see the hypocrisy of Pharisee-Christians, but inside the church, Chambers believed, we have a far greater infestation of Sadducees.
This was worth looking into a little more. Who were these Sadducees and what did they believe? What could I do to keep from becoming one of them—or was I one already? How would I know if I might be a Sadducee?
The most detailed account of interaction between Jesus and the Sadducees is recorded in Matthew 22 (it is paralleled in the other synoptic gospels). The Jewish leaders were trying to trick Jesus into betraying His ignorance of theology, which, come to think about it, was rather foolish to try with the one who was both incarnate Theos and eternal Logos. Anyhow, the Sadducees make their grand entrance, as Matthew describes:
“On that day some Sadducees (who say there is no resurrection) came to Him and questioned Him, saying, ‘Teacher, Moses said, “If a man dies, having no children, his brother as next of kin shall marry his wife, and raise up an offspring to his brother.” Now there were seven brothers with us; and the first married and died, and having no offspring left his wife to his brother; so also the second, and the third, down to the seventh. And last of all, the woman died. In the resurrection therefore whose wife of the seven shall she be? For they all had her.’” (Matthew 22:23-27 NASB)
The information may not exactly be transparent. But I believe this incident, if we study it, shows us several critical characteristics of these Sadducees. And the more I found out about them, the more I realized I was looking into something that was uncomfortably like a mirror. Here are the symptoms of the Sadducees, which (if you are brave) you may ask yourself if you share.
1. You might be a Sadducee if what you disagree with is more important to you than what you believe.
Notice how these Sadducees are introduced to us. They are from the sect “who say there is no resurrection.” So, what do they believe instead? Why aren’t they introduced, say, as “the Sadducees, who believe in the annihilation of the soul”? “The Sadducees, who believe in reincarnation”? “The Sadducees, who believe in the eternality of matter”? Somehow, their beliefs aren’t important enough to mention. We are only told what they disagree with.
It doesn’t get any better in the rest of the Bible. Acts 23:8, discussing a dissension between Pharisees and Sadducees, explains, “For the Sadducees say there is no resurrection, nor an angel, nor a spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge them all.” Again, no trace of what the Sadducees actually believe in: we have only an exhaustive list of what they deny. All their doctrinal statement says is, “We disagree with Pharisees.”
When you ask the Sadducees to tell you what they think is true, all they can come up with is, “The truth is, they’re wrong.” You are left with a void—the spiritual equivalent of a negative number. They are eager to say what they think is wrong, but they never tell you what they think is right.
2. You might be a Sadducee if you enjoy proving people wrong.
For Sadducees, as we’ve seen, the most important part of doctrine is disagreement. But it’s not enough for them to sit back and politely beg to differ. They knew that Jesus believed in the doctrine of the Resurrection, and they wanted to prove to the world that He was wrong. In fact, they lived to prove people wrong.
That can be understood two ways. First, it is not so important to the Sadducees to prove ideas wrong, as it is to prove people wrong. These Sadducees were less concerned with showing that the doctrine of the Resurrection was fallacious than they were with showing that Jesus was foolish for believing it. They used the beliefs as an excuse to attack the person.
Second, proving someone else wrong is simply another way to prove that you are right. The Sadducees are on a thinly disguised ego trip. We think of pride as a desire to lift oneself up, but it can also manifest itself as a desire to put others down. If they can make Jesus look bad, they’re making themselves look good. If He is wrong to believe in the resurrection, then it must be correct to disagree with the resurrection—which just happens to be what the Sadducees themselves think. What a happy coincidence.
3. You might be a Sadducee if you don’t want your questions to be answered.
It doesn’t take a very shrewd judge of character to tell that the Sadducees were not asking an honest question. They didn’t believe in the resurrection, yet they were asking about something that could only happen in the resurrection. That tall tale about the “One Bride for Seven Brothers” wasn’t something they wanted help understanding, nor was it even a teacher’s question to see if Jesus knew the correct answer. It was an impossible, ridiculous scenario designed to show the (perceived) fallacy of life after death—a clumsy attempt at reductio ad absurdum.
Really, the only “question” the Sadducees asked was, “How can you believe in the resurrection when it would cause you to accept an outlandish scenario like this?” That’s not a question. It’s a rhetorical device that is designed to keep an answer from being given.
So, the Sadducees don’t want to gain knowledge, or at least, they don’t want any knowledge that might support a belief they disagree with. And you know who are the only people who refuse to ask questions: the ones who think they already know it all.
4. You might be a Sadducee if you think sarcasm is spiritual.
Not only was the Sadducees’ question dishonest, it was positively dripping with sarcasm. “Whose wife shall she be in the resurrection?” they asked, but they didn’t believe in the resurrection. “It’s not a problem for us; it’s a problem for you. Have you got an answer? We don’t need one.”
This particular kind of sarcasm–not so much clever as condescending, snidely attempting to belittle others–is common enough among skeptics and unbelievers. But the Sadducees thought they were serving God. By their views, Jesus was in theological error, and it was their moral duty to point out his mistake. Scoffing and scorn was their method of doctrinal debate; this was how they presented their deepest spiritual views.
No one, not even a Sadducee, will come out and say, “The way to really act like God is to sarcastically put down your opponents.” But, deep in their inner hearts, there’s something that would agree with that statement, without of course putting it in so many words. If they put it into words, they would have to contend with the Bible’s unequivocal teaching: “Surely he scorneth the scorners: but he giveth grace unto the lowly.” (Proverbs 3:34 KJV)
5. You might be a Sadducee if you think what happens in this world is more important than what happens in the spiritual world.
This is the crowning hallmark of the Sadducees. As we’ve seen, they don’t believe in a resurrection, or in angels, or in spirits. Those three things have a common thread: they all belong to the supernatural world. The only things left for Sadducees to believe are in the physical world: the things we can see, taste, and touch.
That shows itself in three ways. The first is an unwarranted reliance on human understanding when it comes to supernatural things. Tell a Sadducee about some spiritual experience that doesn’t quite add up from an earthly perspective—a sudden conversion, a healing, a vision—and you will get a king-sized dose of the scoffing treatment. If it doesn’t make sense to the rational mind, it can’t possibly be true. Paul observed rightly, “A natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.” (1 Corinthians 2:14 NASB)
The second way is a trust in tradition. (If your church bills itself as “contemporary,” don’t worry; you still have plenty of traditions too.) Sadducees say they are convinced that they know what is right; but we get a more accurate picture by slightly changing the word order. Sadducees are convinced that what they know is right. The only way they’ve ever done it is the only way it can be done.
The third way is a pragmatic concern with the here and now. The Sadducees are building a kingdom on this earth. They are concerned not with what is best but with what gets the best results, which results are defined as the most people in the pews, the most money in the till, the most impressive building—in short, anything that can be calculated, counted, or measured.
When someone suggests that the things that endure forever might after all be worth more attention than the things that quickly pass away, the modern-day Sadducees may squash him with a common put-down. “You’re so heavenly-minded, you’re no earthly good.” That’s not how God sees it. Listen to the soul-stabbing words of Paul’s epistles: “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” (Colossians 3:1-2 NIV) Perhaps it is time for a new cliché: they’re so earthly-minded, they’re no heavenly good.
It is not the brutal skeptic who is the Sadducee, he does not destroy anybody’s shrines; it is the religious man or woman with particularly bright conceptions of their own, but who are far more concerned with the visible success of this world than with anything else. You go to them with some insurgent doubt in your mind, and they smile at you, and say, “Oh, don’t exercise your mind on those things, it is absurd.” That is the Sadducee who has done more to deface in modern life what Jesus Christ began to do than all the blackguardism and drunkenness in our modern civilisation. The subtle destruction of all that stands for the invisible is what is represented by the Sadducee.
–Oswald Chambers, “The Base Impulse“
There are two ways you can tell if these things are true about you. The first way, obviously, is if you read about the Sadducees and said, “Good grief, that sounds just like me!” The second way, less obvious but equally reliable, is if you read about the Sadducees and said, “Aha, that sounds just like them!” You wouldn’t have enjoyed noticing it about them (whoever they are) if it hadn’t also been true of you.
How well did I do myself on the Sadducee test? Well, I’ll just hint that, if some of these descriptions seem uncommonly detailed, it might be because they’re descriptions of someone I know very well. To come out with it, I’ve seen almost all of these things in myself (at one time or another) as I looked into the mirror of God’s Word. I know from experience how uncomfortable it makes you feel when you look at the words of Jesus and realize, “I’m doing exactly what Jesus cautioned His disciples against doing.”
But there’s good news. If you feel guilty about being a Sadducee, that’s the first sign that you are ceasing to be one. And Jesus Himself provides the most effective antidote to this system of thinking. Watch His response to the Sadducees carefully, as it tells not only the cause of the Sadducees’ problem, but its cure.
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. But regarding the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” (Matthew 22:29-32 NASB)
After the tedium of the Sadducees’ endless negations, it is refreshing to notice how Jesus handles something He disagrees with. “You are mistaken,” He says, and goes on to tell why they are mistaken, and what the truth really is. But on the way, He points out the spiritual diseases that caused the Sadducees to become what they are. Jesus’ diagnosis is piercing and perceptive: the Sadducees do not understand the Scriptures or the power of God. And there is more to that than you might imagine.
“You do not understand the Scriptures,” Jesus said to the Sadducees. It wasn’t that they never read their Bibles. Indeed, quite the opposite. The Pharisees and Sadducees were noted for their in-depth knowledge of the words of Scripture: “scholarly” is almost an understatement; “fanatical” is a little closer. But, for all their studies of the words, they had missed the whole point. It was as though a scholar of literature devoted his life to the study of Hamlet and never once noticed that Shakespeare’s play is about a despondent prince.
“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life,” Jesus had told them on a different occasion; “it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life” (John 5:39-40 NASB). The purpose of the Scriptures is to testify of Jesus and point us to Him as the one who gives us life. In the Scriptures, the Father has spoken by inspiration of the Spirit and testified concerning the Son. If we read the Scriptures and do not see Jesus in them—on every page—then we do not understand them.
“O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken!” He said to the travelers at Emmaus. “Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.” (Luke 24:24-26 NASB) Notice the repeated emphasis on “all”. Jesus is the subject, not only of the Gospels and Epistles, but of all the Scriptures. If I am making it my goal to understand the Scriptures, then I must make it my goal to know Jesus. The two cannot be separated. (And, of course, it works the other way around: if your goal is to know Jesus, you had better study God’s Word.)
How does this cure a Sadducee? For one thing, it shows you the truth. Not only is God’s word truth (see John 17:17), but Jesus said, “I am… the truth” (John 14:6). The more you learn of the truth, the more you come out of your disagreement to other people’s philosophies. You do not need the sarcasm, as the truth can speak for itself. And you begin to ask questions that can be answered, and to find the answers—and to realize that “Jesus is the answer” is more than an idle cliché.
What about the power of God? The first step is to recognize that it exists: once you realize this, you are faced with something bigger than yourself, which is fatal to the self-assuredness that undergirds the Sadducees’ thinking. In turn, that teaches you the beginnings of humility, which takes all the fun out of proving people wrong. Then, as you see that knowing about it isn’t enough, you begin to experience God’s power—which puts an end to the anti-spiritual pragmatism. It teaches you, in fact, the only way to really be effective in working for God, and that is when God does the work with you as His instrument.
When you are a Sadducee, your spiritual life is all dust, dryness, bitterness, and jealousy—I speak from some experience. But being a converted Sadducee is one of the greatest joys in the world. You learn about forbearance, mercy, and forgiveness. You find humility; your pride fades away. You rejoice in the fact that you don’t know everything, and don’t need to. It is all Jesus’ doing, for He is the resurrection and the life.
Originally published in Abide Journal, Winter/Spring 2005. Lightly revised.