“Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, ‘My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead.’ When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided” (Acts 23:6-7).
Jews killed Jesus!
I remember hearing those words somewhere in my upbringing. Because the chief priests and their cohort pressured Pilate to crucify our Savior, some in church history have broad-brushed the story and accused all Jews of the unjust murder of Christ. Because Pharisees have become synonymous with hypocrisy, they, too, are lump with the accused.
In so doing, the Gospels, Epistles, and context have been selectively overlooked. If it were true that all Jews were responsible for the false charges, illegal trial, and eventual crucifixion of our Lord, what do we do with the Jewish disciples, the growing followers of the Way noted in Acts, and Christianity’s greatest missionary, Paul?
Paul was doing two things in Acts 23. The first was shrewd and quite humorous. The first-century Sanhedrin was dominated by Sadducees. History informs us that the full Sanhedrin at the time of Jesus’ death was composed of 65 members. Sixty of them were Sadducees.
Sadducees and Pharisees were Jewish leaders. The priests were among the Sadducees. The rabbis were among the Pharisees. One of the major theological differences that separated Sadducees and Pharisees was the resurrection of the dead. Pharisees taught it and believed it. Sadducees did not teach it or believe it.
In Acts 23, Paul is called before the Sanhedrin and is testifying. The Sanhedrin comes together united, and Paul skillfully divides them. The accusations against him are diminished as they enter into a fierce theological argument among themselves. While further angering the priests and Sadducees, Paul gains the support of an alliance with his fellow Pharisees. Picture the humor and irony of the scene.
The second, and more important, point of the story in Acts 23 is that Paul emphasizes his pharisaic credential, saying, “I am a Pharisee!”
There must be something about Pharisees that is good if Christianity’s greatest missionary claims the title even after Jesus was crucified. Yes, some Pharisees were hypocritical, just like we all are. Yes, some Pharisees majored in minor theological points, just like our churches self-divide today. Yes, Jesus strongly rebuked some Pharisees because theological hair-splitting consumed them and distracted them from loving God above all and loving their neighbors. All of that is true.
At the same time, and among all of the religious groups of the first century, Jesus was most closely aligned with the good ways of Pharisees.
Jesus was a rabbi. Jews and gentiles, men and women, rulers and commoners, friend and foe: all called him rabbi. Jesus was among the best of the best: a rabbi with authority. He spent his ministry teaching. He called Capernaum his hometown, and Capernaum was ground zero for rabbinic teaching. Capernaum was in the Galilee, the regional center of the Pharisees and rabbis.
Pharisees were seeking to be righteous and faithful. Pharisees believed that Rome would be overthrown and God’s kingdom advanced when God’s people were faithful and obedient. They trusted God’s timing. They were not like the Zealots who chose to terrorize Rome with the goal of expelling Rome violently. They were not like the priests, secularists, and Sadducees who used Roman alliances for personal gain and to their own advantage.
Pharisees and rabbis sought to put the Word of God first. Believing that obedient living was God’s desire for his people, they taught the people and led toward the goal of obedient living.
Matthew 4:23 opens the ministry story of Jesus, telling us, “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing people.” That is what rabbis did. That is what Pharisees supported. Jesus perfected it. He rebuked those who had strayed, but he never rejected the mission.
Those who are called to lead should desire to be Pharisees, too.
Those who are called to lead should be wary. Jesus warns us: do not be hypocrites. Do not become consumed with theological and hair-splitting differences among faithful brothers and sisters. Be a Pharisee of love, taking on our perfect rabbi’s yoke: love God above everything else and love your neighbor as you love yourself.
Those who are called to lead in Christian schools: be a Pharisee of love. Know the text. Love the Word. Make God’s Word the center of your life and work! Call those whom you lead to live obediently for the sake of the kingdom of God.
I don’t plan to stand up in a crowd and shout like Paul, “I am a Pharisee!” That would not be understood in the 21st century. But I do desire and pray for the courage of Paul and the passion of my Lord Jesus to stand where I am called and proclaim, “I am a disciple of Jesus. I seek to follow him obediently. And I am called to lead for him!”
Devotionals are written by Jeff Blamer, Vice President of Member Services