Friday, January 31, 2014

BAD RELIGION (Matthew Chapter 23)

Remember that scene in the “The Wizard of Oz?” Dorothy and her friends overcame many obstacles in making their way to the Wizard—assuming that he could somehow help them. They entered his chamber and were confronted by an awesome and frightening display. His voice loudly bellowed out from a supersized face. Flashes of flame ushered forth around them. They shrank back in fear. But then Toto (the dog) started barking at something behind a curtain. So they pulled it back, only to find a small man pulling levers. The Wizard was not who he appeared to be—he was not a great and awesome wizard—he was a little man putting on a show.

The Lord Jesus pulled back the curtain and unveiled the truth regarding the Pharisees. No stronger words of condemnation would pass from His lips. Eight “woes” were declared unto them. The word was a warning of pending doom. The omniscient and righteous Lord saw through their religious veneer—they had been “weighed on the scales and found deficient” (Dan. 5:27). Their doom was assured (Matt. 23:33).

They were hypocrites. Seven times that word appears. The word was used in that day to describe an “actor, stage player, or pretender.” They were making a good show of religion, but it was all for show. They did not do as they taught (23:3-4). They were false shepherds who cared not for the sheep (23:4). Their deeds were done, not for God, but to be noticed by men (23:5). They loved places of honor and prestigious titles (23:23:6-10). They had no capacity to serve and reveled in pride (23:11-12). They were caretakers of the broad path that leads to destruction (23:13). They took advantage of widows, while pretending to care (23:14). They would travel far to make converts to their false religion (23:15). They were dishonest (23:16-22). They carefully observed countless traditions, but neglected “the weightier provisions of the law” (23:23-24). They observed various external “washings,” but their hearts were full of “robbery and self-indulgence” (23:25-26). They were “whitewashed tombs…full of dead men’s bones” (23:27-28). They feigned honor for the prophets of old, but would mistreat future ones (23:29-36). They epitomized a “righteousness which is in the Law” (Phil. 3:6). Others esteemed them. Measured by that standard, they might have gotten away with it. But the standard is not man (2 Cor. 10:12), but God (Heb. 4:13).

The contrast between Jesus and the Pharisees could not be greater. Jesus did as He taught. He did not do to please men, but His Father (John 4:34). He came not to lay burdens, but to give rest (Matt. 11:28). They were false shepherds; He is the Good shepherd who laid down His life for the sheep (John 10:1-11). They loved places of honor, He laid aside His divine privileges and became poor that we might be made rich (2 Corinthians 8:9). They had no capacity or desire to serve, He came to serve and give His life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). They were caretakers of the broad way, He is the narrow (Matt. 7:13-14). They took advantage of the unfortunate, He cared for sick, the blind, the demon-possessed, the widows, the children (Matt. 19:13-14; 21:14). They elevated their traditions, He perfectly fulfilled God’s law (Matt. 5:17-19). They were whitewashed tombs, “in Him was life” (John 1:4).

We do this text a disservice if we merely apply it to people long ago in a place far away. The mind of Jesus is revealed to us in His strong rebuke. What did Jesus think of the Pharisaic cult? We know from His words. What does Jesus think of religious hypocrisy? Can any “self-made religion” (Col. 2:23) substitute for that which God requires? The righteousness that is bound up in Christ is alone acceptable before God. No amount of religious activity can substitute for that. We are all full of dead men’s bones (Eph. 2:1), apart from God’s intervention. We are all whitewashed tombs, unless we have been called forth like Lazarus from our graves (John 11:43; Eph. 2:5). The sins of the Pharisees are common amongst men. Pride, hypocrisy, self-indulgence, taking advantage of others—these sins are not reserved for the cultists alone. Any religion that invests heavily in self-effort is inevitably hypocritical because heart-change is Christ’s doing, not ours. In Christ alone we receive forgiveness and transformation. Are you fully invested in Christ and His finished work on the cross? Are you born again? That’s the question. Having begun by faith in Him is your walk now characterized by “purity and simplicity of devotion” (2 Cor. 11:3) to Him? Anything less or else is bad religion.

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