Godless Religion

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Has anyone ever called you a hypocrite?

If you’re a Christian, it’s likely that they have. You did something a Christian shouldn’t, and they said, ‘I didn’t think Christians were supposed to do that.’ Ie, ‘You hypocrite.’ And if you’re not yet a Christian – but just thinking about the Christian faith – hypocrisy may be what most puts you off: the hypocrisy that hits the headlines – ‘Vicar in church funds scandal’; or the hypocrisy of Christians you know personally.

And if a hypocrite is someone who believes one thing but lives another, then all Christians must plead guilty. Because we’re never fully consistent in living out our faith - and we’re sometimes very inconsistent. And, like me, you’ll know what a bad experience it is to let the Lord down publicly by hypocrisy. And you’ll know what an even worse experience it is to face up to your private hypocrisies – the double standards and wrong motives that only you and God know about.

But I take it none of us wants to be a hypocrite. Which is why this morning’s Bible passage, which can read so negatively at first glance, is in fact there for a very positive reason: to help us avoid hypocrisy. So would you turn to Matthew 23.1. We’re in a series towards the end of Matthew’s Gospel. And Jesus is confronting those who’ve led the Jewish people further and further from God. Let me read from 23.1, which we looked at last week:

1Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2"The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. [ie, they teach the Old Testament (OT)] 3So 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. 4They tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. (vv1-4)

You can sum up the OT in three words: ‘grace then law’. First in the OT, God saved a nation of sinful people like us, rescued them out of Egypt, and brought them into relationship with himself. And that is ‘grace’: the undeserved love of God. Then he gave them his law, to tell them how to live now that they were back in relationship with him. It wasn’t given so they could earn their way back into his good books, or keep themselves there. It was given to people already accepted by grace, to tell them how to please God in response. ‘Grace then law’ is the OT.

But these leaders misread the OT, because, very simply, they were blind to grace. So instead of seeing ‘grace then law’, they simply saw ‘law’. And if you misread the Bible like that, you start believing that the law was given so we could earn our way back into God’s good books and then keep ourselves there. You start teaching that God’s acceptance depends on keeping his law. And like v4 says, that is a very ‘heavy load’. Because if we’re honest, even the best of us break the standards of his law again and again. And trying to earn God’s acceptance is not just a heavy but an impossible task.

And yet that’s what these leaders preached. But then, by contrast, Jesus came and preached the forgotten message of grace. He preached that people find acceptance with God by being forgiven their sins – and, in addition to that, he preached that he’d come to die on the cross to pay for that forgiveness.

So what we see in Matthew 23 is a collision – between false religion and the gospel of God’s grace. Last week we saw Jesus begin to expose the false religion, and he carries on as we pick up again at v13. I’ve got two headings:

Firstly, BEWARE CHRIST-LESS RELIGION (vv13-15)

[Verse 13. Jesus speaking:] 13"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. (v13)

Let me remind you what the ‘kingdom of heaven’ means. It’s the situation where everyone willingly submits to God as King. And that won’t happen fully and finally until Jesus comes again as Judge of all and Saviour of those who’ve turned to him. But Jesus talked about entering the kingdom now. By which he meant coming back into relationship with God as King, in this life, while there’s still time.

And Jesus pictures it as if there is a door, and we’re on one side and God is on the other. And the question is: how do you get through the door back into relationship with God? The teachers of the law and Pharisees said, ‘By keeping the law.’ To which Jesus says, v13:

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. (v13)

Ie, telling people they have to earn their way back into God’s good books is effectively to shut the door on them coming back to him at all. Because that is not the way.

By contrast, back in chapter 16, Jesus was teaching his disciples about his death on the cross and he said this: ‘I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven’ (see Matthew 16.13-21). And what he meant was: once I’ve died on the cross and you understand that it pays for the forgiveness of sins, you will have in your hands the key that lets people through that door. And the key is: forgiveness.

The story’s told of a little boy whose father was a bishop. And the bishop was wearing one of those large, slightly ornate, metal crosses and the little boy said, ‘Daddy, is that a key?’ And this was in the days when you could generally expect more from a bishop in the way of faith than now. And the bishop thought for a moment and said, ‘Actually, yes it is.’ And he took the opportunity to explain the gospel to his son – to explain how the death of Jesus paid for our forgiveness. In the words of the old hymn:

There was no other good enough
To pay the price of sin;
He only could unlock the gate
Of heaven and let us in.

Whereas, v13:

13"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. (v13)

Because they believed and preached Christ-less, cross-less, grace-less religion. They left people pushing the door by trying to be good enough, when it can only be opened from God’s side by forgiveness.

So beware Christ-less religion. On reflection, that would have been a better title than ‘Godless religion’, because these leaders did believe in God - and in creation, and sin, and judgement and law - just like modern Jews and Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses do. But these leaders didn’t believe in Christ and his cross and his grace – again, just like modern Jews and Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t.

Beware Christ-less religion. And don’t be impressed by its zeal or spread or size: none of those things are measures of truth. Look at v15:

15"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. (v15)

These people lived out their false religion with zeal. And the Jehovah’s Witnesses are a modern day example of that. But it’s no surprise that they’re zealous – wouldn’t you be if you thought God’s acceptance depended on how many converts you made? The point is: it’s wrong zeal: it’s zeal that’s trying to earn God’s acceptance – as you’ll find it is in every human world religion.

Eg, I remember talking with a group of Sikhs – very sincere and zealous people. And I asked them, ‘Are any of you sure that your God accepts you?’ And one of them said, ‘Oh no, we could never be. Only at the end, when we die, will we discover whether we’ve done enough – why, isn’t that what you believe as well?’ To which I said, ‘No it isn’t. The difference is: you spend your lives in search of God’s acceptance – trying to please him in the hope of his acceptance in the end. Whereas I spend my life in response to God’s acceptance. I try to please him because he’s already accepted me at the start.’

So we need to ask: are we living our Christian lives from the starting-point of God’s acceptance – from the starting point of trusting Christ and his cross? Or have we somehow forgotten grace and slipped into living in search of God’s acceptance? If we’re believers, can I remind us that the key that got us in and keeps us in is not how well we do, but the forgiveness of our sins. Can I remind us that grace means God doesn’t accept us any more on our best day or any less on our worst. And can I call on us to keep trusting that – in the face of all our sense of failure and unworthiness? And if you’d say you don’t yet know this relationship with God, then please know that it’s entered not by being good enough but by being forgiven. And that forgiveness is available to all, whoever they are, whatever they’ve done.

That’s the first thing: beware Christ-less religion. But:

Second, KNOW THE SYMPTOMS OF CHRIST-LESS RELIGION (vv16-28)

Just think for a moment: what happens if you believe (wrongly) that God’s acceptance depends on keeping his law? The answer is that, unless you’re totally self-deceived, a huge tension builds up. Because God’s standards are always higher than your behaviour: And you must know in your heart of hearts that you’re not good enough, and never will be – which is a terrible tension to live with.

So if you believe (wrongly) that God’s acceptance depends on keeping his law, how can you relieve that tension? Well, there are basically two ways. You can either redefine sin, or you can redefine obedience.

On the one hand, you can redefine sin so that you can say you haven’t sinned. And that’s what’s going on in vv16-22:

16"Woe to you, blind guides! You say, 'If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing [ie, it’s a promise you don’t really have to keep – breaking it wouldn’t be sin]; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.' 17You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? 18You also say, 'If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.' 19You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. 22And he who swears by heaven swears by God's throne and by the one who sits on it. (VV16-22)

What’s going on there? Well, above us (see picture above) is God’s standard. He is totally truthful and the law tells us that if we’re in relationship with him, then we are to be totally truthful ourselves – in our words and promises and commitments. But the reality is that our behaviour falls far short. We (even believers) exaggerate and tell lies and tell half-truths and break promises. Ie, our behaviour in this area is unacceptable to God.

Now the teachers of the law and Pharisees came up with a way of relieving that tension. They came up with all sorts of categories of oath that you didn’t really have to keep because, eg, you’d only sworn them by the temple rather than the gold of the temple. Ie, they redefined sin. They said, ‘If you break this kind of oath, it’s not really sin.’ It’s a bit like our category of a ‘white lie’: it’s only a bit of a lie and in fact not really a sin at all.

So we need to ask: what sins are we redefining? For what sinful behaviour are we saying to ourselves, ‘A bit of this is OK’? Eg, a bit of bitterness is OK – after all, God can’t expect me to be totally forgiving, especially after what’s been done to me. Or a bit of greed or sexual impurity is OK – after all, God can’t expect me to be totally different from the culture.

What sins are we redefining? For what are we saying, ‘A bit of this is OK? I wonder what comes to your mind?

And more positively, how can we avoid doing that? Well, we do it because we’ve forgotten grace. We do it to ease that tension of God’s standards being up there and our behaviour being down here – by bringing God down to our level. But that’s not the way. The way is to say, ‘I’m going to aim for nothing less than God’s standards, and when I feel the tension between that and my behaviour, I am going to trust his grace. I’m going to trust that that constant ‘shortfall gap’ between his standards and my life is covered by ongoing forgiveness. And instead of pretending that sin isn’t sin, or just settling for a certain level of sin, I’m going to come to God again and again, confess my sins, ask his forgiveness and set off again to resist sin.’

But the other way to relieve that tension is to redefine obedience to God so you can say you’ve done it. And Jesus gives two examples of that. Look down to v23:

23"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices - mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law - justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. (vv23-24)

That’s an example of redefining obedience by being selective. Someone once said, ‘The trouble with the Ten Commandments is that, unlike other exam papers, they don’t say at the top, ‘Attempt not more than 7 out of 10’’. And one way to try to make obedience easier is to be selective – to attempt less of what God asks of us. So in vv23-24, these people majored on some minor parts of God’s will that were relatively easy - and neglected the major parts of God’s will which are so demanding we can never actually say we’ve done them. I mean, think of what Jesus said back in chapter 22 (in reply to the question, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”):

37Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38This is the first and greatest commandment. 39And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ 40All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (22.37-40)

But can you ever say your love for God or neighbour is ‘done’ – complete, finished, tick box? Have you ever loved God, or your neighbour, or your husband or your wife, or your parents or your children, enough? No: those major things are never, can never, be ‘done’.

Now if you look at v23, it’s true that for those living under the old covenant, God called them to tithe- ie, give a tenth of – all their income and produce. And the teachers of the law and Pharisees majored on things like tithing their spices – which was basically easy and made them feel they’d done their obedience. But Jesus says, v23:

But you have neglected the more important matters of the law - justice, mercy and faithfulness [What about the needs of the poor? What about those whose rights are being denied – from the unborn child to the persecuted church? What about the bereaved or sick or elderly who need our care? What about our marriages promises or our contractual commitments? V23:] You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. [ie, you’ve lost all proportion as to what most matters to God.] (vv23-24)

So we need to ask: how are we redefining obedience to God? What do we, in our Christian circles, major on so we can feel that we’ve ‘done’ our obedience? Maybe it’s reading our Bibles every day. Or going to Home Group every fortnight. Or giving 10% of our money to church. It’s easy to major on just a few things as if that was obedience ‘done’ – box ticked. And of course they’re always the relatively easy things, the self-contained and less demanding things. And speaking for myself, that’s what those things I’ve mentioned are relatively easy and self-contained. But what are we neglecting?

What minor things are we majoring on, and what major things are we neglecting? I wonder what comes to your mind?

And again, more positively, how can we avoid doing that? Well, again, by living by grace. If we forget grace, we simply can’t live with that tension between God’s unmanageably big call to love him with all our heart and our neighbour as ourselves - and our actual behaviour. If we forget grace, we’re forced to reduce obedience from that call to love God and our neighbour to just a few, minor, manageable things so that we can somehow say our obedience is ‘done’. But that’s not the way. The way, again, is to say, ‘I’m going to aim for nothing less than God’s total call on me, and when I feel the tension between that and my behaviour, I am going to trust his grace.’

Now in vv23-24 they redefined obedience by being selective. But, lastly, in vv25-28, you can redefine obedience as being all about externals. V25:

25"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence [they did literally clean cups and dishes to be ‘ritually clean’ – but Jesus is speaking metaphorically about their actual lives]. 26Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. 27"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. 28In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. (vv25-28)

Ie, you project an image of being spiritual by all your externals and rituals, but underneath there’s no real obedience to God from the heart.

So again, we need to ask: what externals can we mistake for obedience – or even hide behind in our disobedience/half-heartedness? There are surely all sorts of externals which we mustn’t equate with spiritual health. Eg, you can rattle through a Sunday service here, say and sing the words on the service sheet, even take communion - and yet be spiritually at a low ebb, or even spiritually nowhere. You can read a lesson, pray in public, chip in at your Home Group, appear on a list of leaders, even wear a staff badge. But those are all externals. We shouldn’t equate them with spiritual health. And we should beware hiding behind them when, underneath, we know we’re spiritually unhealthy.

So again, more positively, how can we avoid doing that? Well Jesus tells us in v26:

26First clean the inside of the cup and dish…

By which he means: don’t deal first with how you appear to others. Deal first and personally and privately with God. We’re not to cover up problems with externals (more Christian activity, more church commitments) – whether the problem is doubt or half-heartedness, or compromise with some sin. We’re to take the problem to God in prayer; confess it to him; ask his forgiveness; ask that by his Spirit he might change us, strengthen our faith, strengthen our love for him, strengthen our resistance to sin – whatever it is we need.

Ie, the answer yet again is: grace. If we forget grace, we’ll simply end up pretending to one another that all is well, when in reality it isn’t. But if we live by grace it frees us to stop pretending, to admit to God and one another that we’re not what we should be, and to ask him to forgive us and change us further.

We began with the charge of hypocrisy – of believing one thing but living another. And it’s certainly a charge that stuck with these teachers of the law and Pharisees. People disagree over whether they were ‘deliberate hypocrites’ – knowingly keeping up a false appearance to deceive their public; or ‘sincere hypocrites’ who at least admitted it to themselves, but knew nothing of grace; or whether they were so self-deceived that they didn’t even think they were hypocrites.

But those questions are probably irrelevant. Because the message of the gospel, the message of this part of Matthew’s Gospel is this. There are only really two groups of hypocrites here this morning and all of us belong to one of them. There are those hypocrites who admit it to God and find his grace. And there are those who don’t.

And the question this part of the Bible leaves you with is: which kind of hypocrite are you?

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