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§ 36. Relations of the Pharisees and Sadducees to the Baptist.

We are naturally led here to inquire into the relations which John sustained to the different classes of the Jewish people. Was he, as preacher of repentance, only a man of the people, and did the Pharisees, the hierarchical party, manifest their jealous opposition from the very first, or did it arise by degrees at a later period? Of one thing we may be sure, from Matt., iii., 7, viz., that many Pharisees were to be found among the number that crowded about John and submitted to his baptism. Yet Christ, in one of his last discourses at Jerusalem (Matt., xxi., 32), drew a striking contrast between the publicans who believed in John’s prophetic calling, and were led by him to repentance, and the Pharisees, who persevered in their self-sufficiency and unbelief. The words of Matt., xi., 16, seem also to indicate that the general spirit of the people was as hostile to John as it subsequently showed itself to Christ, and that only a few, open to the lessons of heavenly wisdom, admitted the Divine mission of the Baptist. So, also, in Luke, vii., 29, 30, the course of the people and the publicans, in following John and submitting to his baptism, is contrasted with the very opposite conduct of the Pharisees and lawyers, who “rejected the counsel of God against themselves.”

Still, Matthew (iii., 7) states expressly, that “many Pharisees and Sadducees came to John’s baptism,” and the form of the statement distinguishes these from the ordinary throng. It seems somewhat unhistorical that these sects, so opposite to each other, should be named together here, as well as in some other places in the Gospels; but an explanation is perhaps to be found in the fact that it was customary to name them together on the ground of their common hatred to Christianity. It appears improbable that men of the peculiar religious opinions of the Sadducees should have been attracted by the preacher of repentance, the forerunner of the Messiah; nor does John, in his severe sermon, make any special reference to that sect, an omission 51which could hardly have occurred had any of the sect so far departed from their ordinary habits as to listen to his preaching.9191   We cannot support the expression of Matthew by the statement of Josephus (xviii., I., 4), that the Sadducees were accustomed to accommodate their own convictions to the principles of the Pharisees, on account of the strong hold which the latter had upon the people. In this case, at least, no such accommodation was required, from the repute in which John was held among the Pharisees. It does not follow, however, that the mention of the Pharisees is in the same predicament; on the contrary, the historical citation of the latter may have given rise to the unhistorical mention of the Sadducees. Nor does the fact that the Pharisees, at a later period, maintained an attitude of hostility towards John prove that they had opposed him from the beginning. His rigid asceticism and zeal for the Messiah were in entire harmony with the spirit of their sect; and they could listen with approval to his energetic reproofs and calls to repentance, so long as they were aimed only at the people and the publicans. So, in the Christian Church, ardent reformers and witnesses to the truth have been favoured even by the heads of the hierarchy, so long as they attacked only the common faults and vices of men. But the first assault upon the hierarchy itself roused all its hatred and its vengeance.

In the earlier period of John’s preaching, then, there may have been nothing to excite the jealousy of the Pharisees. Moreover, it is not likely that all who bore the name of Pharisees were fully imbued with the spirit of the sect. Although the majority of them, intent only upon selfish and party aims, may have regarded John’s ministry with an eye of suspicion, there were probably among them some earnest, upright men, upon whom his preaching could not fail to make an impression. These two thoughts may serve to reconcile Matt., iii., 7, with the other passages quoted, in which the hostility of the Pharisees is mentioned. Again, the expression of Christ in John, v., 35, seems to imply that the Pharisees received and approved John’s prophecy of the coming Messiah, but did not allow his words to sink deep into their hearts or to operate upon their thoughts and inclinations. The severe sermon9292   Luke, iii., 7; Matt., iii., 7. Luke reports it as addressed to the people; Matthew to the Pharisees and Sadducees. reported by the Evangelists was certainly not adapted to such as came to John, penitent and broken-hearted, to obtain consolation and guidance; but rather to the haughty and arrogant Pharisee, who felt sure of his share in the Messiah’s kingdom, appear when it might, without either repentance or forgiveness. It was these that he stigmatized as a “brood of vipers,” and no sons of Abraham. It was these to whom he said, in tones of warning and reproof, “Who has told you that by simple baptism you shall escape God’s coming judgment? Would you really escape it? Then repent, and do works meet for repentance. Trust not to your saying ‘Abraham is our father;’ for I tell you that 52the developement of the kingdom is not confined to the race of Abraham; nay, from these very stones that lie upon the river bank, God can raise up his children.”

In these last words he meant to tell them that if the Jews disgraced their Theocratic descent, God would remove his kingdom from them and impart it unto strangers. He ends by proclaiming that the Messiah would sift his people thoroughly, and exclude’ all that should be found unworthy. Such preaching must have been enough to imbitter and alienate the Pharisees, even if they had been before disposed to approve and favour the preacher.


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