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The Ancient Poisons: Discernment Heresies of the New Testament

The New Testament evidence points to three sects that were indeed spiritually deadly through their opposition to Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the nascent Church. These are the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Gnostics.[1] These should be considered as the fundamental heresies of the New Testament. Although all had interlocking ideas and specific doctrinal issues, it is better to understand these heresies as distorted ways of looking at, and reacting to, the spiritual world. They are all heresies of flawed discernment.[2] Most importantly, these “destructive sects” have operated throughout Church history to limit the effectiveness of the Church, oppose the work of the Holy Spirit, and to restrict the spread of revival.


The Pharisees: [3]

In modern times the word “Pharisee” often is used to denote a person of legalistic beliefs. But unfortunately, theologians have not studied or labeled Phariseeism as a “heresy” in its New Testament sense – as a group discernment issue. The twenty-third chapter of Matthew contains Jesus’ strongest denouncement of the Pharisees. All the characteristics that we associate with the Pharisees—hypocrisy, legalism, and the reduction of scriptural interpretation to nitpicking—are exposed by Jesus’ sharp words.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are (Matt 23:13-15).

Contrary to our common understanding of heresy, Phariseeism was a “destructive sect.” That is, it was heresy, in spite of its theological orthodoxy – its correct ideas about the spiritual world. Indeed, the Pharisees had defended biblical Judaism during the bloody Hellenistic onslaught under king Antiochus (215-164 BC). The Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead, last judgment, and a spiritual world of angels and demons – all things passed on into Christianity. Unlike the Zealots of the era, they were mostly willing to allow Rome to rule as long as Temple worship and observance of the Law was not disturbed. This Pauline attitude, that civil governments should be respected, is yet another “good” passed down from the Pharisees to Christianity.[4]

Jesus clearly lauded the Pharisees’ correct ideas and their doctrinal orthodoxy:

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach (Matt. 23:1-3).

That Jesus said they occupied “Moses’ seat” means they were the authentic inheritors of Moses’ learning, just as one scholar passes on a “chair” of philosophy, or history, etc., to another in a university.[5] In fact, Matthew may have been a Pharisee at one time in his life, and wrote his Gospel partly to convince other Pharisees to accept Jesus as Messiah.[6]

Thus the Pharisees’ destructiveness did not come from their theological ideas, but from other issues. First, somewhere in the process of defending Judaism from pagan Hellenization, the primary command to love God and mankind was subordinated to correct theology. Second, they had an absolute confidence in their theological traditions as being the perfect interpretation of Scripture. They falsely placed their consensus opinions, referred to as the “traditions of the elders,” on the same level as Scripture. Two centuries later, in Babylonia, the center of Jewish studies after the destruction of the Temple, “the traditions of the elders” were put into writing and became the Jewish “Talmud.” We can call the biblically cited “tradition of the elders” as a “proto-Talmud.”

In regard to Jesus and his disciples, the Pharisees were offended by their actions in many areas, as in not washing before eating (Matt. 15:2-6). Washing before meals was not part of the Mosaic Law, but it had become part of their proto-Talmud and became the basis of their offense at Jesus. It would be fair to say that the main issue of contention between Jesus and the Pharisees was their confusion between the “Torah” (the Bible itself) and the Pharisees’ proto-Talmud.

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Category: Church History, Winter 2018

About the Author: William L. De Arteaga, Ph.D., is known internationally as a Christian historian and expert on revivals and the rebirth and renewal of the Christian healing movement. His major works include Quenching the Spirit: Discover the Real Spirit Behind the Charismatic Controversy (Creation House, 1992, 1996), Forgotten Power: The Significance of the Lord’s Supper in Revival (Zondervan, 2002), Agnes Sanford and Her Companions: The Assault on Cessationism and the Coming of the Charismatic Renewal (Wipf & Stock, 2015), and The Public Prayer Station: Taking Healing Prayer to the Streets and Evangelizing the Nones (Emeth Press, 2018). Bill pastored two Hispanic Anglican congregations in the Marietta, Georgia area, and is semi-retired. He continues in his healing, teaching and writing ministry and is the state chaplain of the Order of St. Luke, encouraging the ministry of healing in all Christian denominations. Facebook

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