Let’s look now at Matthew 3. Here is the first mention of the Pharisees and their kind in Matthew’s Gospel –
Matthew 3:1-17, “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’” Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
First of all, where did these guys come from? We have not met them in the Old Testament. Malachi spoke some 400 years before, and then the OT canon ended. The 400 silent years, this era is called, because God sent no prophet during that time. And then John the Baptist came on the scene in the spirit of Elijah. John was the last OT prophet, a real transitional figure between the Old and the New covenants and, as Jesus said, John was the greatest of the prophets (Matthew 11:11). But who are these vipers – the Pharisees and the Sadducees? How did they develop during this time that is also called the “Intertestament Period”?
I found these facts in ISBE (izzzbeee, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia). Pharisee is a name coming from a word meaning “separatist.” They were so named because of their care to avoid legal contamination. The Jewish historian, Josephus was a Pharisee. During the intertestament period when one of the successor-generals of Alexander the Great, Antiochus Ephiphanes persecuted the Jews and desecrated their temple, the Pharisees supported the successful rebellion of Judas Maccabeus. They later separated from Judas, opposing any diplomacy with Gentile nations. This led to an attitude of complete separation from Gentiles. Their strictness and opposition to any other Jews whom they perceived as sympathetic to the Gentiles resulted in some 800 of the Pharisees being put to death by crucifixion.
The Pharisees added traditions to the Law. They taught that these traditions, which were supposedly interpretations of the Law, had been given by Moses to the 70 elders, and had then been orally transmitted through the centuries. The Mishna says – “Moses received the (oral) Law from Sinai and delivered it to Joshua and Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets and the prophets to the men of the great synagogue.” The Pharisees also taught that additions to these traditions were made by prophets by direct inspiration, or by interpretation of the words of the written Law. So in this respect the Pharisees were very much like the Roman Catholic Church today. Rome maintains that an authoritative, orally-transmitted body of tradition has been passed down accurately from the Apostles, separately from the written Scriptures. Listen to the ISBE article describe their tradition-
Less valuable, at times burdensome and hurtful, were the minute refinements they introduced into the Law. Sometimes the ingenuity of the Pharisaic doctors was directed to lighten the burden of the precept as in regard to the Sabbath. Thus a person was permitted to go much farther than a Sabbath day’s journey if at some time previous he had deposited, within the legal Sabbath day’s journey of the place he wished to reach, bread and water; this point was now to be regarded as the limit of his house, and consequently from this all distances were to be ceremonially reckoned (Jewish Encyclopedia, under the word “Erub”): The great defect of Pharisaism was that it made sin so purely external. An act was right or wrong according as some external condition was present or absent; thus there was a difference in bestowing alms on the Sabbath whether the beggar put his hand within the door of the donor or the donor stretched his hand beyond his own threshold, as may be seen in the first Mishna in the Tractate Shabbath. A man did not break the Sabbath rest of his donkey, though he rode on it, and hence did not break the Sabbath law, but if he carried a switch with which to expedite the pace of the beast he was guilty, because he had laid a burden upon it.
In the next article, part 4, we will look at still more information about the Pharisees, and also try to make some observations about the scribes and the Sadducees, though our primary focus here is on the religion of the Pharisees. But let’s end this article with a very important hypothesis –
If, in fact, our churches today are infected with the leaven of the Pharisees, then we should expect to find a body of tradition which, though not the Scripture itself, still enjoys widespread authority among us. It would be a body of teachings, that purports to be proper conclusions from the written Scriptures, as interpreted by various men (theologians, pastors, teachers) over time. These traditions would then have grown to enjoy widespread, unquestioning acceptance by the majority of Christians. And, as we shall see, when these traditions are exposed as erroneous, those who hold them do not give them up without a fight.
Go to Part 4 of this series
Go to Part 2 of this series