The Origins of Modern Organized Religion: Pharisees, Sadducees & Synagogues

Pharisees, Sadducees & Synagogues

  • Why do we see these things in the New Testament, but not in the Old Testament?
  • Where did they come from and why were they in constant conflict with Jesus?
  • Did Christ build His church on their pattern?
  • Or did Pharisaical Christians build a counterfeit church?
  • What was the pattern taught by Christ’s apostles?

Jesus said:

“Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far away from me. But in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’ Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.” (Mark 7:6-8)

Let’s start by looking at the commandment of God regarding the sabbath and how “the precepts of men” brought about new traditions.

The context of the following passage contains the first mention and instruction about the sabbath in the Bible: “‘The Lord has given you the sabbath… Remain every man in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.’ So the people rested on the seventh day.” (Ex 16:29-30)

So the sons of Israel shall observe the sabbath, to celebrate the sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant. (Ex 31:16)

God’s sabbath was for rest and relaxation, physical and spiritual rejuvenation, “every man in his place” with his family, teaching the Word of God to his children and grandchildren (See Deut 6:1-7), celebrating the God Who created the world in six days and rested on the seventh.

For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there is a sabbath of complete rest, a holy convocation. You shall not do any work; it is a sabbath to the LORD in all your dwellings. (Lev 23:3)

Scripture never deviates from this original pattern. Subsequent Scriptures only reinforce it. Were synagogue meetings part of God’s sabbath? Where did they come from? God didn’t add synagogues to the sabbath, men did – in direct contradiction to God’s instruction to “let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.”

Israel had failed to keep the Law of Moses and their idolatry brought God’s judgment upon them after a millennium of patience. Numerous prophets had warned them to repent and foretold a coming savior. Instead of simply obeying God, they organized a hierarchical system that centered around synagogue meetings every sabbath. This was a man-made attempt to control people. “Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men” now had a vehicle for proliferation and enforcement. They were organized to religiously practice “the traditions of men.”

As always happens when there’s a power structure that enables some to control others, various factions sprung up seeking control of the power structure. What we see in the New Testament – 1500 years after Moses had delivered God’s simple sabbath instructions – is the Pharisees and Sadducees, each with their own political hierarchy, creeds and rituals. They were political parties – jostling for power and cutting deals with outside rulers to maintain positions. Jesus, John the Baptist, and other prophets who didn’t play their game were persecuted or killed.

Nevertheless many even of the rulers believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they were not confessing Him, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the approval of men rather than the approval of God. (John 12:42-43)

Jesus warned his apostles that the same thing was going to happen to them, and it did. The apostles preached Jesus’ message that frees people from man-made hierarchical controls. Just as Jesus had done, they went right into the synagogues and delivered the message. And they frequently got a violent response, just like Jesus got.

But Christianity flourished! They reached new people through public preaching at the temple, in synagogues, in the market, and wherever else they could get a hearing all over the world.

Stephen was the first Christian martyr after Christ. Acts chapters 6 and 7 describe how some men from what was called the Synagogue of the Freedmen rose up and argued with Stephen and murdered him.

Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death. And on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Some devout men buried Stephen, and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison. (Acts 8:1-3)

The church in Jerusalem had grown to number in the thousands, but in order to ravage the church, Saul had to enter house after house. There was no central location in Jerusalem where he could find them all because they met from house to house.

Converts to Christianity continually devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, prayer and to the breaking of bread from house to house (See Acts 2:36-47). Scripture never deviates from this original pattern. Subsequent Scriptures only reinforce it.

God’s New Testament pattern was a lot like His sabbath: “rest and relaxation, physical and spiritual rejuvenation, every man in his place with his family, teaching the Word of God to his children and grandchildren.” Except now it included fellow Christians and each one ministered to one another with a psalm, a teaching, or an exhortation (See 1 Cor 14:26-33).

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long before Pharisaical Jewish converts to Christianity were trying to impose their traditions on Christians – Jew and Gentile alike. Much of the New Testament deals with this conflict.

Were church buildings part of God’s pattern? Where did they come from?

Within a few centuries a new hierarchical system had been organized from which arose the Catholic Church, its invention of numerous doctrines, a priesthood, and their claim of universal authority over Christianity. This was another man-made attempt to control people.

Instead of being centered around synagogues, it centered around buildings they call churches. It eventually spawned denominations whose “clergy” kept “teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.” They’re organized to religiously practice “the traditions of men,” each with their own political hierarchy, creeds and rituals.

The word “church” appears 77 times in the New Testament and it never refers to a building. It always refers to Christians and it says things like “the church that is in their house.” (Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19; Col 4:15; Philem 2) There’s no mention in Scripture of Christians having anything like a “church building.” God didn’t add synagogues to the sabbath and He didn’t add buildings to the church. Men added both.

This is the historical record. What are you going to do with this knowledge? Are you striving after the Pharisee model or God’s model?

Because they’re not following the New Testament pattern, many “Christian” churches are dysfunctional. Here are two self-evident truths that shame many self-proclaimed Christians today:

  1. Billions of dollars are spent on unbiblical church buildings, while billions of souls haven’t heard the gospel.
  2. Instead of churches sending preachers to the lost, unscriptural hirelings supplant the priesthood of all believers.


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