Pharisees & Sadducees [Part 5]: Asking the Wrong Questions

Then it happened that as Jesus was reclining at the table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were dining with Jesus and His disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to His disciples, “Why is your Teacher eating with the tax collectors and sinners?” But when Jesus heard this, He said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick.”But go and learn what this means: ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT SACRIFICE,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Then the disciples of John came to Him, asking, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. “But no one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and a worse tear results.”Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out and the wineskins are ruined; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved. (Matthew 9:10-17)

John the Baptist

John the Baptist is believed by some biblical scholars to have grown up in an Essene community, maybe even the one at Qumran.  This is partially due to conjecture based on Luke 1:30 and partly related to his similarity to them in doctrine and practice.[1] John’s use of baptism as a sign of repentance may link him with the Essenes.  Essenes are known to have practiced “ritual self-washing.”[2] It is quite possible that John, having witnessed and perhaps participated in such washing, adopted a version of it for his own ministry.  It may also be that John the Baptist startlingly applied proselyte baptism, that designed for Gentiles adopting Judaism, by encouraging it even among Jews.[3]

Whether John the Baptist was influenced by Essene thought or not, it is undeniable that he was similar to them in a number of important ways.  He shared their zeal for the coming Messiah and the purification and restoration of the true Israel.  He understood the desert as a place of purity and safety from the dangers of weak doctrine and practice of God’s laws.  Like them, he had much in common with the Rechabite and Nazarite traditions.[4] He lived an ascetic lifestyle similar to theirs.  John and his disciples, as the passage in Matthew highlights, were well known as often fasting from regular meals.  Like them, he understood himself as “preparing the way of the Lord” as prophesied in Isaiah.

However, he differed from the monastic strain of the Essenes by returning to Jewish society to call any who would come to repentance.  Through the power of the Spirit, he recognized Jesus as the Messiah when He approached him to be baptized and called all to follow Jesus instead of himself.  Yet, even John was confused and troubled by the company Jesus kept and His lifestyle and sent some of his followers to question Jesus.  John knew the Messiah by sight yet he failed to fully grasp who He was and what He had come to do.

The Pharisees and Jesus

For their part, the Pharisees were nearly as meticulous as the Essenes in practicing righteous living.  In their understanding, they jealously guarded the Law by adding the additional protection of their traditions.  They began as conscientious objectors to Hellenization or any sort of adulteration of their Jewish heritage.  They were regarded as learned, wise, honorable, and upright by most Jews.  By the 1st century, they and the Sadducees were the main contenders for religious authority.

As they grew in both power and esteem, their presumed righteousness began to lead many Pharisees to become prideful.  Worse, they began to twist the intentions of the traditions for their own selfish purposes and to place a greater emphasis on the fence than on the Truth the fence was supposedly there to protect.  As is often the case, their success in one area, that of keeping the Law, led them to fail in another, that of living with grace and humility before the Lord.  They failed to recognize their own weaknesses.  Most Pharisees were somewhat less than grateful to Jesus for pointing out their flaws.  Thus, the majority of the Pharisees, who had devoted their very lives to preparing for the Messiah and guarding Israel until its restoration, missed both when He came. What a tragedy.  It breaks my heart.  And it makes me wonder where my commitment to holiness and honoring God get in the way of seeing Him and walking with Him?  Where am I mistaking something good for the very best which is God Himself?

A Shocking Messiah

Jesus’ purposes were in most ways identical to those stated by John the Baptizer and the Pharisees.  He, too, came to usher in the Kingdom, to call sinners to repentance, and bring restoration to the chosen ones.  However, He did these things in ways that shocked and dismayed John who had announced Him and even His own disciples.  To the Pharisees who carefully guarded their faith and people, His apparent licentiousness and reckless disregard for the Laws of God made Him worthy not of worship but of death.

The Messiah, as the Bridegroom of the Kingdom of God, came eating and drinking and celebrating the salvation of His people as it happened around Him.  What He knew was what John the Baptist and the Pharisees missed:  that the time of waiting and agonizing with groanings, prayers, and fasting was ended.  The Light of the World, the King, the long awaited Messiah had come at long last.  How could anything but feasting, and joy follow His coming? Yet many of the ones who watched for Him most carefully were the very ones who missed Him.  He came in ways that no one expected.  He spoke with Samaritans, was a rabbi who accepted women as students, and ate with Roman-sympathizers.  He did work on the Sabbath by healing the sick.  The Messiah brought them something they never expected – a New Covenant.  He came with healing in His wings and, for the first time in history, thoroughly authentic righteousness.

Bibliography

Barnett, Paul. Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity: A History of New Testament Times. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999.

Bock, Darrell L. Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002.

Bruce, F.F. New Testament History, 3rd ed. New York: Doubleday, 1980.

Goodenough, Erwin R. An Introduction to Philo Judus. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1940.

Gundry, Robert H. A Survey of the New Testament, 3rd ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994.

Johnson, Paul. A History of the Jews. New York: Harper Perennial, 1987.

Josephus, Flavius.  Josephus: The Essential Writings, trans. Paul L Maier. Grand Rapids, Kregel, 1988.

Scott, Jr., J. Julius, Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament, 6th ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995.


[1] Robert H. Gundry, A Survey of the New Testament, 3rded. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 111.

[2] Ibid., 112-113.

[3] Ibid., 113.

[4] Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews, (New York: Harper Perennial, 1987), 98.

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