navigation by the spirit:

is the skipper a pharisee or a sadducee

by Robert Brow   (web site -

The Greeks said that in sailing between Sicily and the mainland you had to beware of Scylla on the one side and Charybdis on the other. Jesus said that in sailing by the power of the Spirit we must beware of Pharisaism on the one hand and Sadduceeism on the other (Matthew 16:6). He was speaking of two kinds of religious leader (16:12). The Pharisees take us on the rocks. With Sadducees we get sucked into a whirlpool. There is little to choose between the two opposite ways of wrecking a congregation.

 Most ordinary crew members have experienced the misery of seing their ship wrecked in one way or another, so after a bit they become choosy about church going. They also jump ship in large numbers when they know the ship is headed off course. That is why we have the phenomenon of millions of good Christians who have decided to quit regular church attendance. They tell us they would rather pray and love God at home. This really irks the Sadducees and the Pharisees because it leaves too few to pay the establishment.

 But the real problem is that people who pray at home are like football players who throw a ball around in the park but never join a team. There is no substitute for being part of a crew, washing the deck, hoisting the sails, and being moved by the strong winds of the Spirit.

 We also know good people who keep their ship spick and span. They love to see the captain on deck in full naval uniform with all the flags flying. But they have their way of making sure he never takes them out of the harbor. Once or twice a year they polish the brass and invite visitors to walk the decks and admire the cannon. They even have courses for children on marine knot tying. That is safe enough, like all the shiny cruisers in our marinas that never get to open waters.

 So we badly need skippers and mates who can take us between the rocks and whirlpool under full sail. They are a rare breed, and they never lack a crew prepared to risk everything to sail with them. At the end of life's journey sailors recount the tough passages they enjoyed in such company.

 There is no school that can guarantee graduates who can navigate by the Spirit. But the Bible does tell us how to beware of the duds. Pharisees believe in saving us by giving rules. Sadducees intend to save us by human manipulation. Though they are total opposites, in Jesus' day they got into unholy alliance to crucify the one who said their temple and religious establishment would be toppled in that generation.

 The Gospel only gives us a few words about those who will steer us into the whirlpool: "There is no resurrection" (Matthew 22:23, Mark 12:18, Luke 20:27). The logic of this mentality is simple. The body, mind, and human spirit are one, and when you die nothing but dust is left, which is true enough. The false assumption is that there is no creative God and no one to resurrect us. That means there can be no life after death, this world is all there is, so better make what we can of it.

 Modern Sadducees use the term resurrection, but like Hymenaeus they "have swerved from the truth by claiming that the resurrection has already taken place" (2 Timothy 2:17-18). Hymenaeus of course "suffered shipwreck in the faith" and Paul had him dumped him overboard (1 Timothy 1:19-20). But the idea that resurrection is nothing to do with the resurrection of our bodies is very appealing, so Sadducee preachers use it for the new life that emanated from the teachings of Jesus.

 That is why they talk about God, say the creed, and engage in religious rituals. But basically there is no God beyond the performance of our religion. God could even be a kind of world soul. So prayer is merely meditation designed to improve yourself for the now. Nor does it make sense to believe in the Holy Spirit (Acts 23:8), and since the Bible is hard to understand you must make sure it is properly interpreted by those who know there can't be anything miraculous about it. There are huge commentaries for doing just that.

 Sadducees always have a heavy agenda for saving the world. They feel deeply about all the latest wrongs reported by the media, and they serve with great dedication. But it is human effort and the political process, not the Holy Spirit, that can save men and women in the here and now. The way to solve problems is by setting up committees and getting them to discuss programs. And everything must be controlled centrally to make sure no one gets the idea the Holy Spirit could start something that could get out of hand.

 Although we are only given a few words about Sadduceism, the New Testament gives us a detailed description of the Pharisee mind. Historians tell us we should not condemn all Pharisees as legalists, and there must have been many fine individuals among them. Some even changed their opinion about Jesus (John 3:1-10, 7:50-52, 19:39, Acts 5:34, 22:3-6, 26:5, Philippians 3:5).

 We have some impressive leaders with a basic Pharisee mentality in our churches today, and we should respect them as upright, moral people. But at the same time we can remember that they might not be able to help us understand the radical nature of the news brought from heaven.

 The heart of legalism is salvation by law. The Pharisee aim is to discover the right rule for every situation, and criticize those who do not obey it. That is why they kept coming to Jesus to ask his opinion about a law, or to find fault with his failure to obey one. We note for example their concern about work on the sabbath, divorce, paying taxes, fasting, eating with bad people, being touched by bad people, degrees and titles, church discipline, evangelism, swearing, tithing, and getting ready for the second coming. When Jesus cast out a demon, the Pharisees said it was by the Lord of the Flies (Matthew 10:25, Mark 3:22, Luke 11:15-20) instead of recognizing the agency of the Spirit.

 In contrast to the Sadducees, the Pharisees were enthusiastic for Bible study. Scholars have counted 613 of their commandments, of which 248 were positive and 365 were negative, including 39 acts which were prohibited on the sabbath day. But since all these rules were meant to be memorized and obeyed and make you feel guilty, we can imagine the common people found them burdensome. But the common people heard Jesus gladly when he offered them the Holy Spirit to empower them for the love of God (Luke 11:13).

 Because of its legalism the Pharisee mind is given to moralizing, and that quickly slips into self-righteousness (Luke 18:10-12). The idea is that if you know the right rule for every occasion you must be a better person than those who don't know the rules. Instead of the unpredictable and miraculous inrush of the Holy Spirit, the prescription for moral health is that by repenting and feeling bad about your sins you will improve a bit.

 But since the heart is never changed by moralizing, those who live by Pharisee teaching need a litany of criticism. "Such things would never have been allowed in the old days. Young people are immoral. They use drugs and four letter words. The neighborhood is deteriorating. Couples are getting divorced and marry again. Films are full of sex and violence. Child abuse is rampant. The Internet is riddled with pornography." We need not approve any of those things, but none of them can be changed in God's direction except by the power of the Spirit.

 Perhaps more serious than nagging judgmentalism is the fact that God chose to give us his Word in a form which is living and powerful (Hebrews 4:12). That means that when we read a text or a parable we never know what the Holy Spirit is going to say to us. If Pharisee teachers have already reduced it to their human tradition of orthodoxy, the Word of God is emptied of its power (Matthew 15:6-20, Mark 7:5-8).

 No wonder Paul was upset when one of the churches he had planted came under Pharisee teachers. "Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?" (Galatians 3:2-3) It was the Holy Spirit alone who effected the change in them when they began the Christian life, and it is the Holy Spirit alone who can produce the fruit of the Spirit in them as they go on (5:22-25). Going back to laws and rules and legalism is turning off course towards the shoals.

 So on the one hand the Sadducees deny the work of the Holy Spirit. On the other side the Pharisees make him redundant. The tragic consequence of both Sadduceism and Pharisaism in our churches is that the Spirit is carefully removed from rocking the ship. No sailor in his or her right mind will sign up with a Pharisee or Sadducee captain, and Jesus never told us to do so. "Watch out and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees."

 It is only right between these deadly opposites that Jesus offered a way to sail and love by the powerful inspiration of the Holy Spirit. As we go with him, there may be risks, and storms, and pirates, but the Holy Spirit is all that Jesus has given to empower his Church.


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