A Portrait of the Pharisees, Sadducees, Chief Priests, Scribes and Religious Leaders from Matthew
Our church in Naperville, Cross of Christ Fellowship, is working its way through the Gospel of Matthew. We have reached a point in the Gospel where Jesus confronts the Pharisees and Jewish leaders of his day (Matt 21-23). As this is the case, it is worth pausing to reflect on who these leaders were and what they were like.
If we read through Gospel of Matthew we obtain a portrait of the first century Jewish religious leaders (Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes, Chief Priests, Elders). The portrait is not comprehensive, but it does shed real light on how many of them lived out their faith. What we see is not flattering: an incredible religious devotion, that is severely misguided in many ways, and in many ways is a departure from God’s Word.
What seems to have happened is this: the Jewish leaders of Jesus day had fallen into an idolatry of outward religious obedience in the place of love for God and love for neighbor. This is surely the most insidious of idolatries, and one we can easily fall into today. We see it led to lives marked by self-righteous judgment of others, hypocrisy, jealousy, and distortion of God’s Word (theirs was a teaching that neglected the weightier things of the law for those that were less important). While many of the religious leaders had an appearance of religious obedience, they were “lacking the fruits of repentance” and were full of arrogant presumption (they assumed that being part of the religious leadership and heritage meant they were right with God).
Their allegiance to their understanding and their position led them to oppose Messiah Jesus and not be open to His prophetic message. Instead of seeing Jesus as the Messiah, they opposed him and sought to trap and ensnare him in his words; they slandered Jesus and said his miracles were done in the power of Satan; ultimately, they made a wicked plot to have Jesus arrested and falsely accused and put to death. They continued to mercilessly mock Jesus, even as he hung dying on a cross. After Jesus was resurrected, they paid off the guards to construct a lie about what happened.
Thus, we see that while they had an outward appearance of devotion and love for God, their lives showed that they neither knew God nor loved Him nor walked in His ways. This is supremely evidenced in their killing of God’s Son.
This helps us make sense of Messiah Jesus pronouncing judgment upon them. He did this through the cursing of the fig tree (21:19) and by giving 3 parables which speak of God’s judgment upon them (21:28-22:14). He also gives a strong denunciation of them with the 7 woes of judgment (23).
God’s judgment meant that they had lost their position as those who were to lead others to know God. Their physical temple was eventually destroyed, but Jesus is the true temple and all who are Christians are part of this spiritual temple. Jesus is the true Israel and all Christians become part of the people of God. Jesus is the promised Messiah and he is building his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matt 16:13-20) and only those who profess faith in Jesus are in the kingdom of God. Now this kingdom advances as Jesus’ disciples proclaim the gospel and make disciples of all nations in the power of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:18-20; Acts 1:8).
References to the Jewish Leaders in Matthew:
2:4-6: Aware that Messiah was to be born in Jerusalem
3:7-10: Rebuked by John B and warned about their fruitless life that was not in line with repentance and warned about their presumption: “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 therefor that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
5:20: A person’s righteousness must exceed scribes and Pharisees
7:29: Jesus taught with an authority that the scribes did not possess
8:19: At least some have interest in Jesus
9:1-8: Scribes offended at Jesus forgiving the sins of another “this man is blaspheming”
9:10-13: Pharisees criticize Jesus for eating with “tax collectors and sinners” and Jesus rebukes them for the self-righteousness
9:14: Pharisees fast regularly
9:34: Pharisees claim Jesus casts out demons by the prince of demons
12:1-8: Pharisees criticize Jesus and his followers for breaking the Sabbath by plucking heads of grain—Jesus asserts he is greater than the temple and lord of the Sabbath.
12:9-14: Pharisees offended that Jesus heals on Sabbath day and “conspire against him, how to destroy him”
12:22-32: Jesus heals the demon possessed but the Pharisees assign Jesus’ healing power to “Beelzebul, the prince of demons.” (blasphemy of the Spirit passage)
12:33-37: Jesus teaching about the tree and its fruit (flowing out of last passage, most likely referring to these obstinate Pharisees)
12:38-45: Pharisees and scribes demand a sign, but no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah. (Jesus as greater than Jonah and Solomon). And the comparison of the person with unclean spirits to the current generation—unclean.
15:1-9: Pharisees and scribes criticize Jesus for not keeping traditions in regard to washings. Jesus calls them out: “for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”
15:10-20: Jesus refers to them as “blind guides” who have clearly misunderstood about what defiles a person.
16:1-4: Pharisees and Sadducees demand a sign (right after a bunch were performed!). Jesus refers to them as an “evil and adulterous generation.”
16:5-12: Jesus warns his followers to stay away from the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees (leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees)
16:21: Jesus predicts that he will suffer from the elders and chief priests and scribes and be killed.
19:3: Pharisees come to test and trap Jesus in a question about divorce
20:18: Jesus predicts he will be “delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles…”
21:12-13: Jesus cleanses the temple and drives out the money-changers
21:15-16: Chief priests and scribes see Jesus heal and receive acclamation “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they are “indignant” and question Jesus about it.
21:18-19: Jesus curses the fig tree, which is symbolic for ethnic Israel
21:23-27: Chief priests and elders question Jesus’ authority
21:28-22:14: Jesus gives 3 parables which speak expose the evil behavior of the Pharisees and Chief priests and speak of God’s judgment upon them. The kingdom of God is taken away from them (21:43) and they know Jesus is speaking about them and they want to arrest him. They are like an obstinate unbelieving son who refuses to believe even after very clear evidence, thus they are not allowed into the kingdom of heaven (28-32); they are like murderous workers who kill the messengers and son of the owner to get the possession, thus they will have the kingdom of God taken away from them (33-46); they are like the wicked members of a kingdom who refuse to accept the king’s gracious invitation and instead murder or mistreat his servants (22:1-14)
22:15-22: Pharisees “plot to entangle him in his words” and ask a trick questions about money in relation to the earthly kingdoms
22:23-33: Sadducees comes to trap Jesus in a trick questions about marriage and the afterlife
22:34-40: Pharisees try to trap him with question about greatest commandment
22:41-46: Jesus instructs them about the Messiah in relation to David and “no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.”
23:1-36: 7 WOES ON SCRIBES AND PHARISEES
They “preach but do not practice” (3) and “do their deeds to be seen by others” (5) and place heavy burdens on others they cannot bear (4)
1. They shut others out of the kingdom of heaven and do go in themselves
2. Zealous for conversion, but those who join them become even worse than they are!
3. They are foolish by placing a higher value on gold than the temple and the gift rather than the altar—earthly priority over God
4. Tithe minutely but “neglect the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness.”
5. Clean the outside of cups but their hearts are vile “full of greed and self indulgence”
6. Like whitewashed tombs that are clean on the outside but inside dead—“outwardly appear righteous to others, but within are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness”
7. Claim they would not have been like their ancestors in murdering prophets and God’s messangers and so build tombs and monuments, but in reality they will, and cannot escape “being sentenced to hell”
24:1-2: Temple is going to be destroyed
26:3-5: Chief priests and elders plot to arrest and kill Jesus, but want to do in a way that does not expose them to the ridicule of the people
26:14-16: Chief priests give Judas money to betray Jesus
26:47-56: Chief priests and elders are present at Jesus’ arrest and betrayal and abandonment
26:57-68: Jesus is brought before high priest and scribes and elders and they questioned him and condemned him to death (66) and they struck and beat him and mocked him (67-68)
27:1-2: Chief priests and elders to “counsel against Jesus to put him to death” and they “bound him and led him away and delivered him over to Pilate the governor”
27:3-10: Judas returns to them and they refuse to show remorse “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” And they took the money which was returned and bought a field
27:11-14: Chief priests and elders accuse him before Pilate
27:15-23: Chief priests and elders ask Barabbas is released and Jesus put to death. Pilate knows it was “out of envy” they delivered Jesus up.
27:24-26: They cry out for Jesus to be killed and say “His blood be on us and on our children!”
27:41-44: The Chief priests and elders and scribes mock Jesus while he is on the cross and revile him.
27:62-66: Chief priest and Pharisees request for a guard to be put at Jesus’ tomb, remembering Jesus’ prediction of a resurrection.
28:11-15: After Jesus’ resurrection, the chief priests and elders gave money to the soldiers to lie about what happened and spread a false rumor.