In Jesus’s time there were four main categories of Jewish religious sects: The Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Essenes, and the Zealots. What’s interesting is that each of these has a modern-day counterpart in Christianity. Let’s take a look at these groups’ characteristics:
Acts 23:8 “For Sadducees say that there is no resurrection—and no angel or spirit; but the Pharisees confess both.”
The Sadducees came from aristocratic and priestly backgrounds and held the high places in society, due to their partnership with the Romans. Their focus was thus naturally on the material world and how to protect their prestige and wealth. The Sadducees’ belief in the supernatural went only as far as acknowledging the existence of God and basic rules handed down through Moses. They did not believe in heaven or hell, but wanted God only to protect their assets and material position. These did not want much interference from the supernatural, but were content to put their trust in political alliance with the secular Roman occupiers more than to trust in God. The Sadducees disappeared as a group after the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem temple. They never imagined that the Romans who they felt safe trusting in would turn against their nation with such violence.
The Sadducees correspond with the modern-day liberal, nominal Christians. Many politicians and high-status individuals and in society call themselves Christian, but when it comes down to practice they support causes and ideas which run opposite to Christ’s teachings. Any time there is a conflict between the Bible’s teaching versus the spirit of the age, these always choose the latter to side with, rejecting their faith. One of the most obvious ways to see this is in the issue of homosexuality. As soon as gay lifestyles became celebrated and defended in the world, liberal Christian denominations rushed to join in with them, ordaining gay priests and allowing gay marriages in churches. Like the Sadducee of old, they chose partnership with the secular world and its privileges, while rejecting God’s clear teachings. They do not fear damnation because they are so attuned to this material world that they have lost sight of God being a real person who will bring all things into judgment.
Anytime the church becomes too dependant on the state, this also allows the Sadducee spirit to enter. This is what corrupted early Christianity as soon as it became the sponsored religion of the Romans under Constantine. The early apostles’ fire and zeal with Holy Spirit guidance and miracles was replaced by wranglings of groups trying to invent perfect doctrines. The religion of action and practice became one instead of obsession with religious knowledge and precise doctrines, taking on the Greek mindset of worshipping the intellect above all. Despite all of these correct doctrines and political alliance with the world power, this was not enough to replace the lost presence of God. Soon after Rome fell and these Christians had to flee from the barbarians. Trusting in an alliance with the state is never a safe bet.
At first examination, this group looks much better than the Sadducees. They believed in angels, resurrection, and judgment. They took religion very seriously and incorporated many of the strict practices taught in the law of Moses throughout their lives. Naturally, they saw themselves as being first in line to inherit the promised kingdom when it would come and to be chosen by the Messiah for high positions of honor in this kingdom. Imagine the shock and horror to be bypassed by Christ when he appeared and instead ministered unto the poor, lowly, major sinners, and those forgotten by religion. The Pharisees expected that the Messiah would just walk into their synagogues (Jewish churches) and greet them with high honors for their faithfulness and religious devotion. Instead Christ greeted them with, “Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell? (Matt 23:33). This should not have been entirely unexpected however. It was common for biblical prophets to speaks words of harsh judgment and correction against both the religious leaders and common people of the time. The Pharisees mistake is that they set the law of Moses (first 5 books of the Bible) on a pedestal and ignored the writings of all of the prophets. For example, if they would have studied Isaiah they would have seen that the Messiah was prophesied to come as a suffering servant and not just as a mighty king. Isaiah also mentions the danger of dead external-only religious practice: “But on this one will I look: On him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, And who trembles at My word. He who kills a bull is as if he slays a man; He who sacrifices a lamb, as if he breaks a dog’s neck; He who offers a grain offering, as if he offers swine’s blood; He who burns incense, as if he blesses an idol.” (Isaiah 66:2-3). It is not enough to just go through the motions of religious observance while full of pride and no true love for God. How many times are we like the Pharisees, choosing to only read and quote from certain favorite sections of the Bible, while ignoring those less pleasant parts? Just as Christ surprised everyone in the manner of his first coming, we should expect no less of a surprise at his second appearing.
If the Sadducees are the liberal secular Christians, the Pharisees correspond closer to the conservative Southern-Baptist style of Christianity. If the liberal Christian loves man and hates God, then the danger of the conservative believer is of loving God but hating man. We are supposed to do both the first and second commandment. Love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself, not picking only one. The Pharisee spirit causes a mindset of having a perfect airtight religion where all of the doctrines and practices are seen as being indisputably correct and that there will never be a need to change or adjust the religion. No room is given for Holy Spirit guidance. For example, people come up with wall-length charts as if they have the entire end times figured out (dispensationalists are notorious for this). When the tribulation really unfolds, I think we will all be in for a surprise. We need a keep a humble flexible mindset, open to things unfolding differently than we had expected. Everyone loves to bash and mock the Pharisees while preaching, but we are really supposed to look for the Pharisee WITHIN OURSELVES, not assume we are any different. When reading the Bible stories of the Pharisees, don’t just sit back and judge them, look for the Pharisee within yourself.
Groups like the Amish, Hutterites, Monasteries, or cults in general who believe their followers are the “chosen” or only ones who are saved. The Essenes helped to preserve a lot of Bible books and apocrypha which have been found in excellent condition by archaeologists, helping to confirm the reliability of the Bible. They trusted in their isolation to protect them from the impurities of the secular world. Unfortunately, this isolation also caused them to miss out on the ministry of Christ when he passed through the land of Israel. Parents are always trying to determine the right balance for their kids, how much to expose them to the world versus how much to shelter them. Either extreme can lead to problems. Today we tend to lean to the side of too much worldly exposure because there is already so much through socializing, but then we add TV and films to it and there ends up being no escape from worldly values either at home or outside. The Essenes took their isolation to an extreme, but we can learn something from their habits of really sticking together as a community and not just chasing after every latest fad the world offers.
These were terrorists, radicals, and troublemakers. They wanted to provoke the Roman occupiers into battle, hoping to win fame and glory by being the heroes who would establish the Jewish kingdom which had been lost a century earlier. One of their main inspirations was the success of the Maccabean wars in which everyday Jewish farmers and peasants had overthrown the armies of the Greeks, the world power at the time ( this story can be found in the apocryphal “Book of Maccabees” which is highly recommended reading and a great story). If ordinary Jews had been able to route the armies of the former world power, the Greeks, why should taking on the Romans be any different?
One of Jesus’s disciples were taken from this group, “Simon the Zealot.” Adjusting to Jesus’s teaching of “render to Caesar what is due Caesar,” “he who lives by the sword must die by the sword,” and “turn the other cheek” must have been a real shock to this disciple, accustomed to the Zealot mindset of trusting in violence to take care of business.
Where are todays Zealots in Christianity? Fortunately, it is the smallest of the groups and is not common compared to religions such as Islam. Christ was very clear about non-violence in spreading his message. Usually when a Christian is found supporting some kind of lawlessness it is due to associating too closely with a political group and putting radical politics before Christ. This was the cause of the violence in the crusades, where the pope had control of the political as well as religious sphere and thus compelled the masses of believers that salvation and forgiveness of sins would come to anyone who fought in the campaign to retake Jerusalem from the Muslims. A more recent example is in the capital riot. There are many Christians who support Trump, due to his favorable stance towards Christian issues and the hostility of liberals to those same Christian practices. No matter how much you love a leader however, it is essential that Christ is always indisputably first. There has to be a boundary where you only support a secular leader up to a point and no farther, rather than swallowing everything they say and giving a blank cheque of allegiance. Militancy used to be mostly found among left-wing activists but now it is becoming common among formerly peaceful conservatives as well. There were a lot of Christian symbols and messaging being waved around and flaunted as the capitol riot and it did a great disservice to the reputation of Christianity. This is a modern-day example of the medieval crusade mindset. In the book of Revelation, there is a rider on a white horse prophesied to go out “conquering and to conquer,” this is often interpreted as the spirit of the false Christ, the antichrist. He rides on a white horse, appearing to fight for good, but his ends are only political and to usurp Christ’s place rather than promote Christ. A Christian can never be part of any lawless mob, no matter how much you adore the leader.
“You shall not follow a crowd to do evil” (Exodus 23:2).
Genesis 2:10, “Now a river went out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it parted and became four riverheads.”
Of course there was a fifth group as well, that is Christ’s disciples and followers. In Genesis it describes how God sent out a river from Eden to water the land, but it became divided into four competing rivers. The identity of certain of these rivers are debated as to where they may be located in the real world; the passage is often seen as a parable, full of symbolism and with many meanings. One meaning I see illustrates how the flow of God becomes divided by man into our competing sects and denominations (I keep misspelling it as “demon nation,” perhaps there is a hidden meaning). What we need to do is return to the pure river of Eden; that is return to Christ’s teachings directly. It might seem obvious that a religion called Christianity would be based on the teachings of Christ, but its actually easy for us to lose sight of what Christ taught. By cherrypicking a favorite verse here and there, we end up with a tower of religion that allows us to ignore the basics of the gospel. This is what happened during the dark ages, the Catholic religion built up a tower of human tradition and assumptions, while preventing ordinary people from learning the Bible for themselves. The reformation was all about returning to the purity of the Word, Christ’s teachings and the early apostles’ writings. We have to constantly check, how many of our practices and traditions actually line up with the current of scripture? Have we become lost from the flow of Eden, into one of the four rivers of man? There are a handful of verses that often get cherrypicked for sermons and encouragements. One of the benefits of reading the Bible on your own is that you get to see all the passages, the less popular ones as well. Reading the Bible with an open mind, willing to change, helps lead us back to the river of Eden.