Back to the Pharisees: First-Century Power Players, Part 9

To help you better understand the historical-cultural context of the Acts of Faith series (The Centurion’s Wife, The Hidden Flame, and The Damascus Way), I’d like to introduce you to the primary Judean authorities at the early part of Acts. This is Part 9 of 10.

Back to the Pharisees

The Hebrew word for Pharisee is Pirush and means an interpretation.

In Matthew 15 these Perushim come to Jesus and demand to know why his disciples violate the tradition of the elders, referring to the body of teachings developed around the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. Today these teachings take up a vital portion of the Talmud, the rabbinical teachings, and are referred to as the Mishnah.

The Pharisees based their life upon these interpretations. And here is the vital key to understanding their response to Jesus: They did not see these as interpretations at all. The Pharisees considered them to be divine revelations, holding the same authority and authenticity as the sacred texts themselves.

This view of Scripture still holds among the religious Jews of today. Orthodox Jews consider the Talmud on par with the Torah. The Talmud is the key to understanding the Scriptures, they believe, and without the Talmud right thinking is not possible.

So when Jesus responded with new interpretations, when he dared to correct their thinking, when he rebuked them for making their interpretations into stumbling blocks for the common man, they were absolutely consumed with rage.

But their rage over Jesus’ teachings goes even deeper. So deep, in fact, that they were willing to establish a union with their avowed enemies. Two groups that hated and fought each other for centuries now united to ensure the death by crucifixion of one man.

Remember, the Sadducees said there is nothing beyond death. The kingdom of heaven? Then build it here on earth. Live a moral life. Follow God’s law today. Because today is all there is.

In contrast the Pharisees lived for God’s return in the Messiah. They studied the prophetic end-time texts and argued over the smallest scrap of detail. The earthly realm was of little or no importance.

Jesus came and told them they were both wrong.

The Sadducees heard him speak of heaven with personal intimacy, as one who had only recently arrived from there. He rebuked the Pharisees for both misunderstanding the concept of the kingdom of heaven and becoming so obsessed with the end times they lost sight of the suffering that surrounded them

And so these two factions conspired to murder him. What choice did they have?

There was a man named Nicodemus who was one of the Pharisees and an important Jewish leader. One night Nicodemus came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we know you are a teacher sent from God . . .” John 3:1-2 ncv

Nicodemus was not the sole member of the Sanhedrin to follow Jesus. But he was certainly in the minority. The other council member we know of who shared his devotion was Joseph of Arimithea, the man who played a vital role in Jesus’ burial. Joseph was a Pharisee like Nicodemus. We know this because the Scriptures tell us that Joseph was “waiting for the kingdom.” That single descriptive phrase tells us a great deal, since the Sadducees did not believe in the hereafter.

Rabbinical sources indicate that Nicodemus was an extremely rich man. He gave his sister a million gold dinars for her dowry. His niece received four hundred dinars a month just for perfume. But he was also a curious man, so driven by his hunger to know more about this prophet that he would risk everything to speak directly with Jesus.

This exchange comes very early in Jesus’ ministry. Which means the Pharisees had heard of him, and one of their own traveled out into the provinces to speak with him.

Travel from Capernaum to Jerusalem required one week. What is more, the Sanhedrin rarely stepped foot out of Jerusalem. The official limit of their power base was Judea, and Capernaum was much further north, beyond Samaria, up near the borders of the Syrian province and the Parthian empire. Yet this wealthy, powerful man came to Jesus. And what he says here is more than astonishing. “We know you are a teacher sent by God.” A truly amazing statement.

Nicodemus has effectively admitted that the ruling council recognizes Jesus as holding divine authority. The Sanhedrin knows by what Jesus is doing, and because of his moral conduct, that he truly is a man of God. Yet the majority of this council chooses to reject him.

Jesus said, “You are an important teacher in Israel, and you don’t understand these things?” John 3:10 ncv

The oldest known Greek texts of John’s gospel state that Jesus calls Nicodemus the teacher of Israel. That indicates the highest teacher. We know that the Sadducees controlled both the Temple and the ruling council. But their connection to the common man was virtually nil. They did not bother to teach anyone outside their very limited circle. What this suggests is that Nicodemus was the most powerful Pharisee on the Sanhedrin, their senior scribe. This makes the exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus all the more remarkable.

Nicodemus has asked Jesus to explain the second birth. He chides this man for not understanding. This is a vital point for us.

“I tell you the truth, unless you are born from water and the Spirit, you cannot enter God’s kingdom. Human life comes from human parents, but spiritual life comes from the Spirit. Don’t be surprised when I tell you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wants to and you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where the wind comes from or where it is going. It is the same with every person who is born from the Spirit.” John 3:5-8 ncv

Nicodemus would have fully accepted the concept of immersion. As a matter of fact, he practiced it himself. As is commanded in Leviticus and elsewhere, devout Jews visited the ritual baths at least once a week. I recently went to one such bath in Svat, a city in the hills between Galilee and the Lebanese border, that has been in use for over twenty-five centuries. So it was not the concept of immersion that was alien to Nicodemus, it was the purpose.

In this passage, Jesus ties together the truth of baptism to receiving the Holy Spirit. Our learned man would have been deeply conflicted. On the one hand, such immersions would have been a natural component of participating in any major festival. And these festivals, at least in their biblical form, were intended to draw man closer to God.

Yet Jesus suggests here that when a person enters the water and is born anew into God, the Spirit also enters in.

Nicodemus would have known about the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is mentioned throughout the Old Testament, beginning with his presence above the waters in Genesis one. The texts Nicodemus knew inside and out were interpreted to mean the Holy Spirit appeared only to God’s chosen messengers. Now Jesus was saying that this intimacy, this divine indwelling, was available to all believers.

Here are links to each of the books in the Acts of Faith Series. I believe it will enhance your understanding of first-century power players to read the novels as we progress through this series.

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Coming next: What this means for us

One Response to “Back to the Pharisees: First-Century Power Players, Part 9”

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