Pharisaism and Sadduceeism

Matthew 16:6-12.

Resistance to grace and truth, to holiness, light, and love, according to the measure in which the divine revelation of these has come out in different dispensations, has been the sad history of man from the fall onwards. It becomes more definitely marked and emphasized in proportion to the clearness of the communications made by God, until the dispensational point is reached, when all that was in man was brought out by the presence of the Son of God on earth.

Of the various forms of opposition by which the blessed Lord was met, none were more malignant in their hatred, more subtle in their workings, or more disastrous in their effects, than that of Pharisaism and Sadduceeism, against both of whose doctrines the Lord, on more than one occasion, specifically warns the disciples and the people. From the position which this special warning occupies in Matthew 16, there is ground for the conviction that there was emphatic suitability in the Lord's warnings at that particular moment. For they come in between His final rejection of, and departure from the Pharisees and Sadducees (v. 4), and so from Judaism (morally judged by Him as fully identified with, and characterized by, these two schools), and the introduction of that which was now, not only fully before His own mind, but about to take the place of Judaism, viz., the Church.

It may be well, then, to look a little closely into what was involved in the doctrines of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, in their special bearing upon this new revelation.

It is clear that Pharisaism was the claim to personal righteousness, on the ground of acceptance before God (Luke 18:11-12). But this, carried to its full issue, implied the presentation and acceptance of the first man; and it practically and absolutely denied the necessity, on the ground of guilt and sin, of death, not only as coming in to meet man's guilty condition, but as closing for ever that history, which had only been the long record of his absolute inability to meet, in virtue of personal worthiness, the claims of God. This culminated in man's then undergoing the crucial test as to what was in him, in the presentation of the Messiah and Son of God, which only brought into clearer light the irremediable condition in which he was.

Thus Pharisaism practically denied death as an absolutely righteous necessity on the part of God, and so of bringing in atonement for sins, and at the same time ending the history of the man whose incompetence and guilt was now fully manifested, and for whom the ages of probation were about to close.

Hence, it further struck at the root of that which lay at the foundation of purpose and promise, viz., the death of Christ, now at this particular moment first promulgated by the Lord Himself, in v. 21 of our chapter - "from that time forth began Jesus to shew unto His disciples how that He must go unto Jerusalem and suffer," etc. By His own death He was about to clear the ground of that which hindered the progress of purpose, and the fulfilment of promise, in not only atoning for sins and condemning sin, but ending the history of man for ever, in his fallen and estranged condition.

But the doctrine of the Sadducees was a step further in advance of that of the Pharisees, according to Acts 23:8. "For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit" (New Translation). This constituted the specific denial of resurrection, and consequently of Christ's resurrection, for, as Paul puts it, "if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen" (1 Cor. 15:13). But this was the very condition upon which the purposes of God founded that which was to take the place of the displaced and superseded "first man," in the person of the "Second Man," upon whom, as "Son of the living God," the new edifice was to be built; for "upon this rock I will build My church." While Christians of the present day are scarcely in danger of denying resurrection, there is yet great danger of depreciating its results for God, and of forgetting, or ignoring, the vitally important place it occupies before Him, as furnishing the new ground upon which everything now proceeds for God. This was initiated by Christ in resurrection, whether as head of a new race (2 Cor. 5:15 - 17), or head of the body, the Church. (Col. 1:18.) Hence the danger lies in the practical denial of resurrection in its bearing upon the believer now, even though as doctrine it may be accepted.

The prospective bearing of these two forms of antagonism are thus apparent; and they were then the dangerous rocks ahead, upon which the Church should make shipwreck as to outward manifestation. From the earliest period of its existence, in Acts 2, these have, in one form or another, characterized the deadly hostility, and the hidden danger, to the testimony, and to the reception, and maintenance of the truth concerning this last revelation.

With far-reaching, because divine, foresight, the Lord put His finger upon, and laid bare the two doctrines, which constituted the dangers most assiduously to be guarded against, and which would most successfully mar the dispensational testimony then dawning.

But as with the disciples of old, so now, we are slow to understand the deep meaning and importance of this suitably-timed warning. We are slower still in learning the measure and extent to which modern Pharisaism and Sadduceeism affect the perception and reception of the special dispensational revelation of the assembly of God, founded upon death, which closes the door for ever on the "first man out of the earth, made of dust," and opens it upon the "Second Man, out of heaven" (1 Cor. 15:47, New Translation), the old order and old scene giving place to a new order and a new scene.

Apart from the spiritual apprehension of these things, perception and progress as to the Church of God are impossible. Even Peter fell into the snare of discrediting the Lord's own testimony, and retaining, after His communication of approaching death, what became a merely human thought concerning the Messiahship, not comprehending the effect of the new announcement, which was soon to be a manifested thing on earth. "Thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men." (v. 23.)

Is there not deep need for us, as Christians, to be on our guard, lest human thoughts should hinder us, too, from entering upon divine ones; lest we should under-rate the value and importance of the warnings which the blessed Lord Himself has, in grace, left on record. By taking heed to these the apprehension of that which is now dearest to the heart of Christ will become of deepening moment and interest.

We may add that Christendom is sorrowfully leavened with these two doctrines, viz., insisting upon the suitability by means of reformation of the first man, and the practical denial of resurrection as introducing that new divine order or structure, which as directly connected with, and founded upon it, stands perfectly distinct and apart from the principles and system of the world. Very emphatically the Lord announces the two counter truths to these two false doctrines, as realised in His own person: v. 21 - "Jesus began to shew unto His disciples how that He must … be killed, and be raised again the third day."

Let Christians seek, then, with that diligence, which is due to the greatness of the grace which has communicated it, to enter practically into the divine intention of the Lord's own warning as to these two forms of subtle doctrine, which mainly contribute to dim the spiritual perception of a new, divine order, and a new, divine structure, viz. "the Church of the living God."

Finally, the Lord invites His own to follow Him, but no longer as the Messiah, for (v. 20) "Then charged He His disciples that they should tell no man that He was Jesus the Christ," but in the new pathway opened, and first trodden, by Himself, viz., that of death and resurrection.

The characteristics of that pathway, when really entered upon by the believer, are given in v. 24, and consist in denying self, i.e. the rule of the flesh and sin (Rom. 6 and 7); and in taking up His cross, i.e. voluntarily accepting the application of death. This is to make the cross personally "His cross" (2 Cor. 4:10); and "following Him" (Col. 1:1-3) in the new status, and to that new scene, to which His death was but the dark vestibule, and in which He divested Himself of all that belonged and appertained to man's ruined estate, preparatory to entering upon the status and condition of the "Second Man" and "Last Adam," as Head of a new order. Phil. 3:10 introduces the apostle Paul to us very fully as in this pathway, and there in the deep earnestness of one who well knew that blessing was only to be found in it; "That I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable unto His death."

But the object of this paper is more to draw attention to the Lord's warning as to what must effectually hinder apprehension of, and progress in, the truths that are peculiar to Christianity, rather than to dwell upon the new positive status accomplished in Christ through redemption.

Being forewarned by the Lord, and accepting that warning, we shall find ourselves practically fore-armed against these two subtle efforts of the enemy to dim the distinctness of the Christian revelation to our souls as it has reached us from the Lord. His question to the disciples then may well, and deeply, exercise our hearts now, "How is it that ye do not understand?" M. C. G.