Good News for Pharisees and Sadducees

Have you ever played the game called follow-the-leader? Boys and girls have played it for years. I can remember leading the other children in the neighborhood through the swimming pool with their clothes on, through the mud, off the highest steps of the porch, and in, through, or off any other ridiculous place I could think of. They came right along behind, because we were playing follow-the-leader.

Even though follow-the-leader is considered a childhood game, most of us continue to play it in one way or another. The entire advertising industry is built on this tendency of human beings to follow the leader, to do what they see someone else, some leader, doing.

Sheep are notorious for following the leader. At a slaughterhouse in New York City, New York, a goat was trained to jump into the chute as soon as the gate opened. The sheep always followed. Just before the slaughtering section, there was a little side door. When the goat reached that point, he jumped out, the side door slammed shut behind him, and the sheep kept going to their death. The goat went back for another group of followers. The people at the slaughterhouse had come up with an appropriate name for the goat—Judas! The game of follow-the-leader repeatedly ended up tragically, at least for the sheep.

Following Religious Leaders

At the time of Christ, people followed religious leaders. There were two main groups, the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The leaders were off course, and the people followed. Both leaders and people went astray. Jesus told a parable about this follow-the-leader syndrome, perhaps one of the shortest parables He ever told. It is found in Luke 6:39, 40. “He also told them this parable: ‘Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? A student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher.’ ” Perhaps we could paraphrase it this way: “The followers will invariably be like their leaders, and rarely will a follower rise above his leader.”

We could mention one name—Hitler—to give a classic example of the danger of people blindly following the leading of other people. And the German people are no more gullible than the rest of us. All of us are prone to follow leaders. Sometimes the most self-centered leader is the one who attracts the most self-centered followers.

The tragedy in the days of Christ was that a whole nation perished because they went blindly following their religious leaders instead of studying Scripture for themselves. The great danger we face as a church today is that we will depend upon other people. This is one of the primary reasons for disunity. We are not in the habit of studying Scripture for ourselves. Many study a lot of the teachings of various leaders, but not so many study the Scripture for themselves.

I would like to assure you that this is not an attack on organized church leadership. People often choose for leaders those who have no official leading position in an organized church structure. This is rather a warning against following anyone, regardless of his occupation. We are to be followers of Christ. No leader is to be followed blindly, even though most people who do so would not admit to blindness. The proper function of a leader is to help people to see for themselves.

We need leaders. God believes in leadership. According to Scripture, even heaven has its system of leadership. But the function of the leader is to lead the people to know Jesus for themselves. The purpose of leadership is not to hand truth to people for them to accept without any further investigation. There is an old adage that says, “You can give a man a fish, and you will feed him for a day. You can teach a man to fish, and you will feed him for a lifetime.”

Paul was a mighty leader in the early church. He was not blind, and he taught the truth he received from God. But the Bereans checked it out for themselves. They had the perfect combination. Their lesson to us is this: If we are in the habit of checking truth for ourselves, we will not be misled.

Who They Were

The Pharisees and Sadducees at the time of Christ were only representatives of the entire nation. The people who followed the Sadducees became like their leaders. The people who followed the Pharisees became pharisaical. We are not just having a history lesson when we look at these religious leaders from the time of Christ. Their characteristics are still present in the church today, both in leaders and followers, for those on every level of the church who are spiritually blind.

In terms of behavior, the Pharisees were the conservatives and the Sadducees were the liberals. The Pharisees observed many more rites and ceremonies and traditions than did the Sadducees. But both groups were legalists, because both had their attention on their performance instead of upon God.

The Pharisees were traditionalists, according to Mark 7 and Matthew 15, and were very loyal in their support of that which had been handed down from the fathers. The Sadducees were the intellectuals who loved to discuss hard questions, such as the status of marriage in heaven. The Pharisees were perfectionists. The Sadducees were imperfectionists.

The Sadducees did not believe in resurrection from the dead, physically or spiritually. They did not believe in the power of God worked out in the life. They did not accept the judgment and believed that only the first five books of the Scriptures were inspired. Among the Sadducees were some of Jesus’ worst enemies.

The Pharisees and Sadducees were violently opposed to each other. The Jewish nation at the time of Christ had much theological discord. The people lined up behind the leaders, some following Pharisees, some following Sadducees.

Neither the Pharisees nor Sadducees were converted to the teachings of Jesus. Neither group could offer a realistic hope of salvation to the weak person. Neither group had time for the harlots and thieves and publicans. Both groups misinterpreted Scripture, misinterpreted the law, misinterpreted prophecy, and misinterpreted the kingdom of heaven that Jesus taught. The principle that man can save himself by his own righteousness was the principle of both groups, even though they had a great theory of justification, and the blood of the lambs flowed freely at their sacrificial services.

Jesus called both groups hypocrites because of their external religion. The essence of Jesus’ teaching, which was self-surrender, found no acceptance in their thinking or experience. Neither group had experienced the supernatural work of the Spirit upon the heart. They had never experienced the new capacity for knowing God, which is not even present in the unconverted heart. That is why there was so little meaningful Scripture study, so little truly private prayer, so little relationship with God. The capacity was not even there. While these hypocrites were meticulous Sabbath keepers and tithe payers and health reformers, there was so little on the inside that responded to the truths of God’s Word, that they ended up tying the Scriptures to their wrists and foreheads in an attempt to substitute for what they lacked on the inside. There was no room for God’s Word in their hearts. Self was the center of their focus. Nobody is more selfish than a Pharisee. And the new birth, which would have brought about the death of the Pharisee, because it changes the heart, was threatening to those who were interested only in changing the outside.

Reasons They Disliked Jesus

The religious leaders did not like Jesus because He received sinners, the open sinners whom they despised.

They did not like Jesus because He was more interested in the true meaning of the Sabbath than in the external regulations they had invented.

They did not like Jesus because He did not observe their traditions, fasts, washings, and ceremonies.

They did not like Jesus because He was not impressed with their external goodness.

They did not like Jesus because of His teaching of self-surrender, the very thing they feared more than anything else.

They did not like Jesus because He did not live up to their expectations as the Messiah.

They did not like Jesus because He did not treat them with the respect they craved.

And, most of all, they did not like Jesus because of the condemnation they felt in His presence.

The Pharisees and Sadducees were victims of salvation by works, and, in spite of the meticulous appearance they tried to maintain before the crowds, they all had their hidden problems. This made them uneasy in the presence of Jesus, whose purity was a rebuke to their sins. They did not like Jesus because they did not want to give up on the idea of saving themselves.

Another reason why they did not like Jesus was the manner of His coming. They had expected that the religious leaders would be the first to herald the coming of the Messiah. To be passed by, to be informed of His birth by ignorant shepherds and heathens from another country was more than their pride could take. They refused to accept that God could be trying to communicate to them through these channels. Once they had made their position public, they were too proud to retract it and continued to the end to deny the testimony of their own senses.

Their motivation for being religious was an attempt to gain the temporal blessings that came as a result of moral living. They liked to see the grasshoppers stopped at the fence line when they had paid their tithe. They liked the respect of the people. And although they were at swords’ points with one another, they finally united in the end at the crucifixion of Jesus. Both groups were legalists; both groups were against Jesus, and both groups were wrong.

It is true that they had a limited acceptance of Jesus. They did not reject Him altogether, in spite of the fact that they did not like Him. They believed Him to be a prophet. They accepted Him as a miracle-worker and healer. They accepted Him as a great teacher. But they did not accept Jesus as Saviour, Lord, and God. Lordship is where they drew the line. And their limited acceptance led to total rejection in the end. The people, who were following blindly along, also ended up rejecting Jesus, in spite of the tremendous evidence that He was exactly whom He claimed to be. The people were sometimes astonished at the lack of acceptance Jesus found with their leaders, but they continued in the end to follow the leaders they had chosen.

Could it be possible to be in the camp of the Pharisees or Sadducees today? Is it still possible to be a conservative legalist, who hopes to get into heaven by his own works? Is it possible to be a great defender of the traditions that have been handed down from the fathers and still to miss recognizing and accepting the living Christ? Or is it possible to be a Sadducee today, who finds his security in a liberal standard of conduct, who does not believe in the resurrection from being spiritually dead, and who does not accept that God has power for him to overcome sin? Is it possible today to join those who discard their belief in the judgment and who are selective as to which of the inspired writings they will accept? Is it possible to hold a theory of righteousness by faith in Jesus when it comes to justification, but to reject the righteousness by faith that is worked out in the life, in favor of trying hard in your own strength?

Whether you find yourself a Pharisee or Sadducee today, the picture looks pretty black. It looks like bad news right down the line. But there is good news for the Pharisees and Sadducees of today, just as there was good news for the Pharisees and Sadducees in the days of Jesus.

Jesus Loves Pharisees Too!

The good news for Pharisees and Sadducees is that they are loved by Jesus just as much as every other sinner in this world is loved. “While Jesus ministered to all who came to Him, He yearned to bless those who came not. While He drew the publicans, the heathen, and the Samaritans, He longed to reach the priests and teachers who were shut in by prejudice and tradition. He left untried no means by which they might be reached.” The Desire of Ages, 265. Christ is able to save Pharisees and Sadducees and all of the people who have been followers of these leaders and have partaken of their spirit. Jesus is still seeking to bring each one to know Him personally, to come to Him personally, and to accept personally His gift of salvation.

What is the good news for the Pharisees? The good news is that being a Pharisee is not the unpardonable sin. The disease of hypocrisy is not incurable. Jesus has the power available to change even the Pharisee and Sadducee so that they are righteous inwardly as well as outwardly. You can join the exceptions to the rule. You might join one of the leading Pharisees who came for a nighttime visit with Jesus to discuss the subject of religion, but who went away to experience the new birth of which Jesus told him in their interview. He found the vital relationship with God and gave of his riches to support the early church after the crucifixion of Jesus.

You might join a man named Simon, who held a feast to pay Jesus back for healing him of his leprosy. But he ended up accepting Jesus at his own feast and became a follower of Jesus.

You can join the friendly scribe who came to Jesus for the purpose of trapping Him and humiliating Him before the people, but who saw in Jesus’ words a wisdom beyond his own. And Jesus said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Mark 12:34.

At the end of Jesus’ ministry here on earth, when the Pharisees and Sadducees had finally united in their enmity against Him, the Sanhedrin was gathered together to determine how to rid themselves of this Jesus. After the discussions had continued for some time, Caiaphas rose to his feet. With a sneer on his face, he said to the leaders who were assembled there, “ ‘You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.’ He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation, but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one.” John 11:49–52.

That is the good news for Pharisees in one sentence: It is better for you that one man die for the people. Listen, friendly scribe who comes to ply Jesus with questions, It is better for you that one Man die for the people. Listen, Nicodemus, who comes under cover of darkness, It is better for you that one Man die for the people. Listen, Simon, the leper, It is better for you that one Man die for the people.

Listen, Pharisee and Sadducee, wherever you are today. You can give up on the double life, give up your external performance covering your inner emptiness, and come to Jesus for the free gift of salvation. It is expedient for you, it is good news for you, that one Man should die for the people.

And one Man did die. Ever since that time, it has been good news. If you are playing follow-the-leader, you will miss the good news. But you can be an exception and follow Jesus today.

Domingo Nunez is Director of Outreach Ministry for Steps to Life. He may be contacted by telephone at: 316-788-5559, or by e-mail at: