How Jesus addressed the progressive vs. conservative squabble in the First Century

The divide between the progressive and conservative agendas is at a fever pitch in our nation. The progressive parties want to see positive change and for the country to “get with the times.” Conservative parties wish to see a positive shift back to what they view as “the good ole days.” I am writing in general terms, of course. Every individual who either identifies as progressive or conservative has a nuanced approach to their ideology. My point is that a great rift exists, which makes things difficult for followers of Christ who wish to make a difference for the Kingdom of God.

Readers may find it interesting that this battle between progressives and conservatives has been in play for millennia. In the first century, and just prior, two religiously political parties were at odds with one another over ideology. Those two parties were the Pharisees and the Sadducees. A study of these two camps’ history reveals that the Sadducees were the conservatives who valued the writings (the Mishnah) of their ancient Rabbis and wanted to see their traditions and history preserved. The Pharisees were the progressives who were okay with parting somewhat from the Mishnah to make room for new traditions that embraced the contemporary culture.

I recently read a historical account that details the divide between the Pharisees and the Sadducees on how the Feast of Booths should be observed. The Sadducees wanted to keep the observance of the feast pure. The ancient Rabbis who wrote the Mishnah held that the observance was to be one of thanksgiving. The Pharisees, however, wished to make official changes to the celebration to include an element of petition.

The ancient Rabbis wrote into the observance of the Feast of Booths what became known as a “water ceremony” where during the feast, the high priest would draw water from the pool of Siloam into a golden pitcher. He would then march in procession over to the temple and pour the water out as an offering on the altar. This was to express thanks for God’s providing His people with water to drink in the wilderness and for delivering them into the promised land that was fed by streams of running water.

The Pharisees were, in general, more urban people. Instead of fresh river water, they relied on cisterns, which made them dependent upon the rain. Since the Feast of Booths occurred in the fall when their reservoirs were near empty, the Pharisees thought that the holiday was a perfect time to have the High Priest ask for God to send rain for their cisterns.

The Sadducees, seeing the Pharisees’ added petition as a departure from the true meaning of the holiday, resisted the Pharisees’ initiative. The battle over the water ceremony came to blows in the First Century B.C. when Alexander Janneus, the Sadducean king and high priest at the time, made a scene of pouring the water out on his feet instead of giving it on the altar. His was a public act of protest against the Pharisees’ progressive agenda.

Well, long story short, after the death of Janneus, the Pharisees reached a compromise with his wife to allow her son to assume the office of the high priest in exchange for the addition of the petition for rain into the festival. By the time we see Christ attending the Feast of Booths in Jerusalem in John 7, the revised water ceremony had become quite a spectacle. The water parade from the pool of Siloam to the altar took place each morning for seven days. On the seventh day, the ritual was repeated seven times. Each day a petition was made for rain to fill the urban dwellers’ cisterns.

Imagine the tension between the Pharisees and the Sadducees each time the parade ended with a prayer not prescribed in the Mishnah. The last day must have been the tensest of the seven-day observance. Jesus handled this tension in a remarkable way. John 7:37-38 tells us that on the last day of the feast, “Jesus Stood up and cried out, ‘if anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me as the scripture has said out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.'”

Jesus was pointing his hearers to a higher truth concerning the coming baptism of the Holy Spirit. I don’t have the space to expound on that topic here, but is it not startling how He could point people to truth without taking a side? With this saying and the way His actions mirrored those of Janneus, Jesus both defied and affirmed the agendas of both parties.

If you read on through the chapter, you see that some people were mad. Some people were glad. Most importantly, though, some people believed!

The moral of this story is that when we find ourselves in the middle of a debate between conservatives and progressives, do not choose a “side.” Keep the gospel of Jesus Christ the focus. It will likely make people from all sides mad. It will make some of them happy. Most importantly, keeping the gospel in focus will lead some people to come to faith in Christ.