The Sadducees and Pharisees comprised the ruling class of Israel. There are many similarities between the two groups, but there are important differences between them as well.
First, the Sadducees: During the New Testament era, the Sadducees were aristocrats. They were wealthy and held powerful positions in society, including that of chief priests and high priest; they held the majority of the 70 seats of the ruling council called the Sanhedrin. Israel, at this time, was under heavy Roman rule. This made the Sadducees very politically motivated and it affected their religious priorities. Because of their power and position, they did not relate well to the common man nor did the common man hold them in high regard; this is much of the way we feel about our elected officials today. The common man related better to those who belonged to the party of the Pharisees. Though the Sadducees held the majority of seats in the Sanhedrin, the Pharisaic minority was very influential, because they were more popular with the masses.
While the Pharisees gave oral tradition equal authority to the written word of God, the Sadducees held more to the word of God as their authority. The Sadducees preserved the authority of the written word of God, especially the books of Moses (Genesis through Deuteronomy). The problem was they were still very misguided in their doctrine and practices because of many unbiblical positions they had formed and by which they lived.
The Sadducees played a major role in the arrest and murder of Jesus as He brought major political and religious threat to their ways of life (John 11:48-50; Mark 14:53; 15:1). They ceased to exist in approximately A.D. 70. Since this party existed because of their political and priestly ties, when Rome destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in A.D. 70, the Sadducees were also destroyed.
The Pharisees: In contrast to the Sadducees, the Pharisees were mostly middle-class businessmen and, therefore, were in more contact with the common man. They participated in the Sanhedrin and held positions as priests. While they accepted the written word as inspired by God, they also gave equal, or even higher, authority to oral tradition. The oral tradition was man-made laws and governing traditions that the Pharisees majored on and to which they held the people. Even though they knew Deuteronomy 4:2, which says, “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you,” they did it anyway. Some of the examples of the Pharisees treating these traditions as equal to God’s word are found throughout the gospels (Matthew 9:14; 15:1-9; 23:5; 23:16, 23, Mark 7:1-23; Luke 11:42).
While the Sadducees ceased to exist after the destruction of Jerusalem, the Pharisees, who were more concerned with religion than politics, continued to exist. In fact, the Pharisees were against the rebellion that brought about Jerusalem’s destruction in A.D. 70, and they were the first to make peace with the Romans afterward.
Both the Pharisees and the Sadducees earned numerous rebukes from Jesus. Perhaps the best lesson we can learn from the Pharisees and Sadducees is to not be like them. Unlike the Sadducees, we do not look to man-made politics as our driving influence on the culture, but we look to the gospel of our Lord Jesus and His living word. Unlike the Pharisees, we are not to treat traditions as having any kind of equal authority as Scripture, and we are not to allow our relationship with God to be reduced to a legalistic list of rules and rituals. We are desperate for the gospel of Jesus Christ to be our power and salvation.
I want to highlight a few things related to the Pharisees and Sadducees that help us not only have a right view of them in our Bible reading but help us avoid falling into the same traps they did.
Matthew 5:17-20 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
To understand this, we must first start by asking: What is the law?
The word “law” in the New Testament has at least three different meanings when used in different contexts.
- It can refer to the whole Old Testament.
Romans 3:19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.
This is in reference to the entire Old Testament, because the preceding quotations come from the Psalms and prophets.
- It can refer to the particular commands of the Old Testament given to Moses.
In Matthew 5:17 Jesus says, “I have not come to abolish the law and the prophets.”
Here, the reference is to the law separate from the prophets. Specifically, the law here refers to that part of the Old Testament written by Moses, the first five books, called the Torah—the Hebrew word for law, commandment, or statute.
- It can refer to “works of the law” that the Pharisees added to build their man-made religion.
Romans 6:14 … you are not under law but under grace.
So, whenever we read the word “law” in the New Testament, we must ask: Is this a reference to the entire Old Testament, to just the writings of Moses (the Torah), or to the legalistic distortion of the Pharisees (the works of the law)?
The law of God is meant to give knowledge of sin by showing us our need for pardon and our danger of damnation, in order to lead God’s people, at God’s appointed time, into repentance and faith in Christ.
So, when Jesus says He came to fulfill the law, He is not saying He came to do away with it, but to be the central agent we need to survive the condemnation that the law rightly brings. Our inability to fulfill it requires someone to stand in obedience on our behalf. Praise God for the promised One, Jesus Christ!
What we must understand is that the moral law still stands today as God’s will and command for mankind to honor Him and live rightly. In this regard, the fact that the Pharisees were very devout in their obedience to God’s law is to be commended. In our Matthew 5:19-20 text, Jesus goes so far to tell us, “Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Here, we see the part of the Pharisees that was good. They were a very right-living, obedient group. They were the most righteous of men, the most devout rule-followers. For this, they were highly respected. God demands our obedience and wants us to honor Him with our days and our ways. We need to not throw out the command on us to live righteously when speaking of the failure of the Pharisees. Here, Jesus Himself says this is something we all must strive to do better—better than the Pharisees. That’s a tall order.
Now, with that said, where the Pharisees got into major trouble, and why they were a lost people in the end, was they went beyond God’s law and added their own rules and regulations. Even worse, the most damning fact was that they looked to their self-righteous adherence to the laws for their identity and for their salvation.
While we are called by God to obey His law, our utter failure to do so on our own should make us utterly desperate for one who can, in our place. This is the good news.
Only Jesus fulfills the demands of the law which called for perfect obedience under threat of a “curse”.
Galatians 3:10 and 13 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.”
While the Pharisees were good, they were not perfect and that is what the law demands—to have a right relationship with the holy God. Jesus took on what we deserve and gave us His righteousness to be reconciled to God.
Only Jesus fulfills the law, in that He releases His people who were once held captive by the law.
Galatians 3:23-26 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.
Trying to make their own way by right-living and religion is the lostness in which many are stuck today. Well, even the best of the best (the Pharisees and Sadducees) were damned and accused of falling short because they lacked the most important thing—perfection! We only have perfection in Jesus Christ. In opposition to self-righteous living and empty religion, we need the gospel. We need Jesus to be our righteousness and our power for living.
The Pharisees say, “Obey so that you can be accepted.” The gospel says, “You are accepted so that you can obey.”
This is the final takeaway I want to give you today. Many times, we say someone is being Pharisaical when they uphold the law of God—let’s be very careful here. We all are called to uphold and obey the law of God. Grace doesn’t mean we stop being obedient. What the Pharisees and Sadducees got wrong was they added to God’s law, rejected Christ as Savior, and instead tried to obey the law on their own. This we cannot do, nor must we try to do. We are desperate for Jesus alone.
Romans 1:16-17 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
By His grace and for His glory,
Soldiers for Jesus MC