The Pharisees were the hard-core legalists, who had no room for trust, or even Jesus, in all their rules. The Sadducees were the cultural “progressives” who compromised in order to fit in with secular society. Faith in a literal messiah was too crude for them, the bible and moral standards unimportant. Jesus said to beware of *both* of these types of religious people.


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Matthew #51. Matthew 16:1-12

Our text this week is another one of those “drive-through” passages of Scripture, at least it has been so for me. You know what I mean: it’s a part of the Bible that you read through pretty quickly, more or less skimming, and then you go on to something more interesting. As always, what helps me to truly engage with the text is to ask questions. And Matthew 16:1-12 presents us with one (at least) very intriguing question.

Here’s the setup. Sometime after the feeding of the 4000, two different groups, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, approach Jesus and basically ask him to prove that he is a Messiah. In essence, They’re asking him to do a magic trick. This is the second time that Pharisees have made such a request, but the first time for the Sadducees. The previous occasion is recorded in Matthew 12:38-42, and we covered it in depth in the sermon: Matthew #40.

Jesus here basically gives them two brief answers. First, he suggests that if they want a sign, they should consider “the signs of the times.” In other words, if they were to step back and look at his ministry so far as a whole, and compare it to the Old Testament, it would be obvious to them that he was the Messiah. Second, he clearly declines to do a miracle-on-the-spot for them. As I mentioned in Matthew #40, and also last time, miracles have a very limited value in convincing people to follow Jesus, and Jesus obviously knew that. Instead, as in Matthew chapter 12, Jesus tells them to look for “the sign of Jonah.” This is a reference to his coming death, burial and resurrection.

After this, they leave, and as they are traveling, the disciples realize that no one has brought along bread to eat. Once again, here is another thing that would not have been included by people making up a religion, or shaping a Bible text to suit their own purposes. The 12 apostles were the founders of the church, heroes of the faith. The New Testament is verifiably their own teaching and writing. If I was making up a religion, I would be reluctant to portray the sources of my doctrine as a bunch of silly fools. Yet, here, as in many places, the apostles look like a bunch of idiots.

First, it’s just stupid that with 12 people traveling together, no one remembered to bring food. Set aside what comes after (which is even worse), just look at it for what it is: they are totally disorganized and impractical. Personally, I think it is genuinely humorous.

Jesus hears their discussion and inserts this cryptic comment: “Watch out and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” This is where the disciples look even worse. They’ve just had an encounter with the Pharisees and Sadducees. Not long before that they were present at the feeding the 4000. And yet, they think that Jesus is saying that the Pharisees and Sadducees make bad bread. After all that they’ve been through they are still concerned about physical bread.

Jesus straightens them out, and makes it clear that what he means is that they should beware of the teaching of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. This for me is the most interesting part of the passage, and the one that begs the question: What is the teaching of the Pharisees and the Sadducees? In other words, what was Jesus warning them about?

First, I think it is reasonable to assume that one of the things Jesus is warning his disciples about is the attitude of the Pharisees and Sadducees when they demanded a sign. I want to make sure we understand that there is a difference between having honest doubts which we bring to Jesus, and demanding that Jesus meet our specifications before we will agree to trust him. The apostle Thomas had honest doubts about the resurrection of Jesus, and he expressed them, not as a demand that the Lord somehow prove himself, but merely voicing his inner struggle. I think this is good and right and appropriate. Most Christians struggle with doubt at one point or another. I think it’s a good thing to be honest about those doubts, to express them, but also to be vulnerable and open before the Lord as we seek answers. In other words, we express our inner turmoil, but we don’t demand that God has to meet all of our requirements before we trust him. This attitude of faith combined with honest struggle is beautifully captured by the man who said in Mark 9:24, “I believe, but help my unbelief.”

The Pharisees and Sadducees, however, were demanding that Jesus perform according to their specifications. They are not coming to Jesus and an attitude of struggling faith looking for help. Instead, they are essentially coming to him and saying, “We won’t accept you or listen to you until you prove yourself to us to our satisfaction.” Their starting point is not faith-with-struggle, but rather, a desire to discredit Jesus altogether.

So when Jesus tells his disciples to beware of their teaching, I think he is warning them about this attitude of extreme skepticism. We have already seen that miracles have a very limited value for convincing people who do not want to be convinced. Jesus is saying, “Don’t be like them. Struggling with doubt is one thing, but demanding that the Messiah, the son of God who created the universe, must explain himself to your satisfaction is something completely different.”

I think this is probably the first thing that Jesus means when he tells them to be where the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. But when we investigate further, we find that the teaching of the Pharisees is very different from the teaching of the Sadducees. To lump them together seems almost silly. So does Jesus have anything else in mind with this warning?

To find the answer to that question we need to know more about each group. Let’s start with the Pharisees. In many ways, the Pharisees had a lot in common with Jesus. They took the Old Testament and Jewish religion seriously, they believed in resurrection, and in the Messiah. They were zealous, in fact they were hard-core religious conservatives, and quite popular with ordinary people, though they considered themselves set-apart from the ordinary folks.

However, in their zeal, the Pharisees made God’s Word into sets of external duties, and they made all sorts of extra rules that aren’t found in the Old Testament. Sometimes, they used these extra rules as loopholes to get around other rules. For instance, they said that in order to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy, you could only travel so many steps from your house on a Saturday. However, if on another day, you stashed some bread some distance from your house, when it came to the Sabbath, that stash of your food became the “new border of your house,” so you could travel to that location without counting any of the steps you took against your Sabbath total. Deuteronomy 5:14 commands the Jews to even rest their animals (like donkeys) on the Sabbath. However, the Pharisees made rules declaring that riding a donkey didn’t count as making it work unless you carried a switch to spur it on. In other words, though the Pharisees said they believed in the rules, but were constantly making more rules that helped them get around the ones they didn’t like.

Long before the time of the Pharisees, Moses told the Israelites the essence of what it really meant to be the people of God

“Listen, Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is One. Love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. These words that I am giving you today are to be in your heart. (Deut 6:4-6, HCSB)

But the Pharisees took loving God out of it. They took heart and soul out of it. They turned it into a matter of following rules, and when the rules seemed to too hard, they made new laws that helped them get around the difficult ones. It would have been hard to be a Pharisee and follow all the rules. That’s why they were considered hard-core. But it is much easier to follow rules than to have true internal righteousness, to have true love for God, to really follow him with all your heart, soul and strength. By their rule-following, they eliminated the need for a Messiah to address sin and heal hearts. Their rule-following left no room for forgiveness, no room, in fact, for the work of Jesus.

So, although the Pharisees supposedly thought that the Bible was important and authoritative, more important and more authoritative to them were their own rules and ways of doing things. And by these rules, they had taken the heart out of following God, and taken away the need for a Savior from sin.

The Sadducees were quite different. In the three centuries or so before the birth of Jesus, there was a lot of tumult in the land of Israel. For several hundred years, the Ptolemy dynasty of Greece ruled the area. During this time, a number Jews decided they wanted to fit in with the dominant culture around them. A movement arose among them to adopt the intellectual and philosophical ways of Greek society, and to abandon the more primitive-seeming, “hard-core” approach of classic Jewish religion. The Jews who took this approach became known as Sadducees. They wanted political power and intellectual respectability. The Old Testament was not terribly important to them, per se, and though they certainly considered themselves “Jews,” it was more in a cultural sense than anything to do with their core beliefs. They accommodated to and adapted to the dominant culture, abandoning much of the teaching of the Old Testament in order to do so. When the Roman Empire became dominant, the Sadducees had no trouble switching their allegiance to the Romans, who had adopted much of Greek culture themselves.

The Sadducees also rejected Jesus, but for different reasons than the Pharisees. The Sadducees did not take the Jewish scriptures seriously, so, in the first place, they did not even believe in the Messiah as an actual person. Secondly, they felt that the whole concept of Messiah was politically dangerous – it might lead to strife and even violence and war. Finally, that whole approach to religion was out of style with elites such as they, maybe even gauche. The claims, teachings and actions of the actual person, Jesus Christ, simply did not fit with their world-view.

Under normal circumstances, the Pharisees and Sadducees came down on opposite sides of most issues. They were, in general, political opponents. In some ways, you might say the Pharisees were the “conservatives” and the Sadducees were the “progressives.” But on one thing they agreed: they did not want Jesus challenging their dearly-held beliefs and lifestyle.

So, what else might Jesus have meant by: “beware the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees?”

I think we might say that Jesus is warning us about two different problems that come in with religion. One is legalism (associated with the Pharisees). Legalists believe that if they just do the right things, they will be considered right with God. They tend to ignore issues of the heart, mind and soul, and focus only on behavior. Many legalists, like the Pharisees, also find convoluted ways to excuse and justify their own bad behavior, making them also hypocrites. Beware of their teaching!

Unfortunately, sometimes legalists appear to have a lot in common with true Jesus-followers. Jesus had much more in common with the Pharisees than the Sadducees. Officially, legalists generally believe the right things. But there is very little room for Jesus in their rule-following. They’ve taken the heart out of it, literally.

The second thing Jesus warns about is, for lack of a better term, “social religion.” In our day and time, this is associated with religious people who tend toward the “left” end of the political/social spectrum. Personal morality has very little importance for the socially religious. Truth is seen as “flexible,” and the Bible is not particularly valued. What they do value is the respect of the culture around them. They want to fit in with what the majority thinks and does. They do not change the culture around them, though they might wish to think that they do. They will readily attack conservative minorities, thereby hoping to appear as if they are challenging the status quo, when in fact, they are merely agreeing with society at large. Beware of their teaching!

The important thing is that both reject Jesus. They take different paths, and reject him for different reasons, but this is what we must beware of. Hard-core religious legalists may “officially” approve of Jesus but they don’t really want to surrender control to him. They prefer to seek safety in following rules and making others do the same. On the other hand, socially “progressive” Christians may also “officially” approve of Jesus, but when that means anything like admitting the need to be forgiven for actual personal sin, or supporting Jesus’ standards of personal moral conduct, they shudder and back away. They want religion that does not require personal surrender or personal change; they want a religion that is approved by the society around them. The actual teachings of Jesus tend to be too extreme and too absolute to get much approval from culture, so progressives also, set Him aside.

None of this is new. Jesus clearly knew it, as we see from our text today. The apostles also knew it. Paul writes:

For the Jews ask for signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. (1Cor 1:22-23, HCSB)

I was going to say that both legalism and progressivism tempt me, but I want to be honest, and the truth is, legalism has never really attracted me. I just don’t have enough energy or desire for control to be a legalist. However, I do know a number of people who struggle with it, and many more who were brought up in it. I think one of the appeals of legalism is that it feels “safe.” You know what you have to do, and how you have to do it. Very little trust is involved. Of course, that is the problem.

For example, a legalist I knew in Lutheran seminary insisted that if a pastor would simply hold worship services using the correct and approved liturgy, then all the people in the congregation would be spiritually well. This is trust in performing external duties, not trust in Jesus. Simply doing the liturgy the correct way is also a lot easier and more straightforward than walking with Jesus daily in faith. I’ve met legalists here in the South who feel that if you simply “get saved” (answer an altar call), get baptized, and go to church regularly, you can do whatever you want with the rest of your life. This is trust in performance, not real trust in, and surrender to, Jesus.

Legalism is also difficult for true Jesus followers, because legalists are often technically correct in their doctrine; often our argument with legalists is not about core beliefs, but rather about how to apply them.

My temptation is usually more in the other direction. I am little bit of an intellectual guy, and I want the respect of other intellectuals. Jesus-followers at times have had the reputation of being ignorant and bigoted, and not only do I think that is wrong, but I also want to prove it is wrong. I’m tempted to show that I am smart, that I’m not so bad. I want the respect of the culture at large. I realize how silly it sounds to say that I actually believe a man was raised from the dead, and is still alive, 2000 years later. I realize how bigoted it sounds (these days) to simply repeat the moral standards taught by the bible. I am tempted, therefore, by the Sadducee-style approach to religion. A vague and non-demanding “faith message” is not threatening to our culture. But a call to personal commitment to an unseen Messiah who also wants to transform us into new creations – that doesn’t fly so well. These days, people are saying to those who believe in biblical morality “You are the wrong side of history.” That’s the kind of thing the Sadducees paid attention to. When they heard things like that, they changed to suit the culture. Jesus says of them, “Beware!”

So where does this all take us? What is Lord saying to you about this? If you have honest doubts that you share in openness, I think probably you are fine. But some people may be tempted to insist that Jesus meet all their personal requirements of “faith” before they will follow him. That’s something to consider, and watch out for. Perhaps you’ve struggled with legalism. Maybe you feel that if you just do your duty (church-going, following a dress-code, praying a certain way) you are fine. Perhaps you need to remember that Jesus invites you into a daily, living relationship of faith – of trust in him, not in your own doing. Or, possibly you are like me. You don’t like to be thought of as “on the wrong side of history.” You want respect, and you are tempted to alter your beliefs or biblical moral standards to get it. But Jesus was persecuted by society at large – in fact, by the Sadducees, who had some political clout. He said that his disciples should expect the same. Compromise is not the answer – trust in Jesus is.

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