Christless Religion

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on September 13, 2020.

But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.  So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation (Matthew 23:13–36).[1]

The Sermon on the Mount is arguably Jesus’ most famous sermon, one recognized and even quoted by saint and sinner alike. Part of its appeal is its simplicity. It is in summary a seven-point sermon with each point introduced by the same word: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are those who mourn…Blessed are the meek…Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…Blessed are the merciful…Blessed are the pure in heart…Blessed are the peacemakers…” (Marr. 5:3-9). In case you missed it, the one word is “blessed.”

Often misunderstood, the Sermon on the Mount essentially describes the characteristics of true believers, those in Christ. But it is not Jesus’ only seven-point sermon. The other also begins each point with one word, not of blessings but of woes.

This seven-point sermon of woes is directed not at Christ’s disciples but the disciples of another religion, the scribes and Pharisees. It is to Israel’s teachers and preachers that Jesus unleashes his harshest criticism. As they sit on Moses’ seat (Matt. 23:2), so they will be judged accordingly. For unlike Moses, they look to themselves rather than Christ and his reward (Heb. 11:26). Rejecting Christ, they practice and promote a Christless religion.

True religion is not found in your works but through life-transforming conversion by God’s grace through faith in Christ, not in conforming your behavior to rules but in conformity to Christ by the indwelling Holy Spirit, not in your record of moral accomplishments but through the cleansing presence of Christ, not in your perception of who you think you are but upon who Christ is and your identity in him. Therefore, as we consider the Christless religion of the scribes and Pharisees, we should not be surprised to find a Christless conversion, a Christless conformity, a Christless cleanliness, and a Christless conception.

Christless Conversion

Jesus’ sermon is directed to the scribes and Pharisees, which he addresses as “hypocrites” (not a term of endearment). But their hypocrisy is as much about their self-deception as it is their deceit, as Jesus will confront in each of the seven points, beginning with the kingdom of heaven. It is not that they have merely slammed the door shut to salvation. They don’t go through the door either. In a corrupt sense, they are doing to their neighbor as they do to themselves.

To enter the kingdom of heaven is an expression meaning to receive eternal salvation through faith in Christ. This of course is an individual, spiritual matter of the soul. How then can the scribes and Pharisees control the metaphorical door? Because they are the teachers and preachers of God’s Word. The people listen to them and look to them for spiritual leadership.

Who you listen to teach and preach is of the utmost importance. Whether it be on Sunday morning or by reading, watching, or listening. Whenever someone gives me a book, or sends me an article or blog post, do you know the first thing I do before I read anything? I look to see who wrote it. My time is too important and my heart and mind too precious to read the words of a flake, or worse a false teacher. Jesus said, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matt. 7:15). And the Apostle Peter’s caution is as relevant today as it was in the first century: “there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies…And many will follow sensuality…And in their greed they will exploit you with false words” (2 Peter 2:1-3). Be discerning in who you follow; they could be leading you astray.

So, Jesus condemns the scribes and Pharisees for seemingly blocking the truth of the gospel but worse: They were zealous missionaries of a Christless religion. It’s not just that they practice false religion, but they passionately preach it too. Note the hyperbole of Jesus’ condemnation: They “travel” to convert, over “sea and land” to convert, one proselyte, who knows not the Lord but becomes “twice as much a child of hell.”

The book of Acts reveals that Jesus’ words may be more literal than we think. The apostles encounter non-Jewish proselytes in the second, sixth, and thirteenth chapters, converts to Judaism yet perhaps more zealous. One commentator wisely observes, “The convert sometimes outdoes the zeal of the converter, with more fanaticism than discernment.”[2] The scribes and Pharisees could reject the Lord and fulfillment of the Law while zealously enslaving converts to the Law’s demands, who carry their enticement to others.

Today, you and I are less likely to encounter Jewish proselytes, but we will encounter those enslaved to sin or those seeking to please a god through religious practices. Religion is alive and well in America, in its Christless variety. As those of the one, true, religion, we must guard against trying to conform our neighbor to a list of requirements but instead share the gospel and the freedom that is ours in Christ.

Christless Conformity

Jesus tells the scribes and Pharisees not once, not twice, but three times that they are blind: “blind guides,” “blind fools,” “blind men.” Why such an emphasis on blindness? They could not see the foolishness of their own requirements, which they were leading others to practice. We may assume there were more, but Jesus limits his criticism to two: swearing by the temple and swearing by the altar.

Let us remember that Jesus taught his disciples, “Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more that this comes from evil” (Matt. 5:33-37). Swearing by an oath taken by heaven or earth or by your head may sound strange, but we now know their source: the practices of the scribes and Pharisees. And while phrases and even the custom may seem foreign to modern ears, Jesus makes sure to reveal its foolishness.

Is there greater significance to the gold in the temple than the temple itself? Does such a distinction warrant being legally bound? Is there greater significance to a gift upon the altar than the altar itself? Does such a distinction warrant being legally bound? Does all of this sound irrelevant at best and arbitrary and capricious at worst? That’s because it is, and that’s Jesus’ point.

The blind scribes and Pharisees had concocted superficial religious practices that carried no true significance. How can we avoid the same? We must examine what we do according to God’s Word, adding nothing to it but taking nothing away. May what we think, say, and do be conformed not to the temporal and trivial but to the eternal Word of God.

Of course, going to God’s Word doesn’t guarantee that we won’t misapply it. Consider, for example, the tithing practices of the scribes and Pharisees. They looked to God’s Word and the command to give a tenth of what the land yielded (Lev. 27:30-33). Taking this to the extreme, they included the yield of their herb gardens in their tithes. Were they conforming their actions to the Word of God? Indeed. Then, what was the problem? They were blind to the “weightier matters” of justice, mercy, and faithfulness.

Jesus’ words remind us of the words of the Prophet Micah: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). In their zeal to conform to their standards of obedience to God’s Law, they had missed the communicable attributes of God, even missing God himself. Or, as Jesus puts it euphemistically, “You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” Let us be careful not to choke on the superfluous and insignificant but keep the main thing the main thing: doing what is right, loving kindness, and living in humility before God.

Christless Cleanliness

I don’t know the source of the idiom, “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” but I’d like to think it was the scribes and Pharisees. I am sure they knew properly what many of us have only recently learned: how to wash our hands. But what if our deadliest enemy is not on the outside to be washed away with soap and warm water in twenty seconds? What if the virus is within? What if you sparkle on the outside but inside harbor greed and self-indulgence? What if your heart could be opened like a casket revealing the evidence of your uncleanness.

Of course, we all have sins of the heart, known only to us. Since this is the case, what should we do? Harbor our sin like dead men’s bones hidden in a tomb? Shall we focus more on our outward appearance hoping it will mask the hypocrisy and lawlessness within?

No, what the scribes and Pharisees were blind to, we see through the gospel, a spiritual authenticity by God’s grace alone through faith in Christ alone. In Christ, we are led neither to harbor nor hide our sin but to confess it. He who is just, and merciful, and faithful leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4), and “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). In Christ, we are cleansed, spotless in fact. No outward religious cleansing can do what God does through the cleansing power of the Holy Spirit.

Christless Conception

Outward religious conformity without inward spiritual conversion can be deadly. Just ask the prophets. Yet, the scribes and Pharisees were so blinded by their self-righteousness that they conceived of themselves to be the heirs of the Old Testament prophets. Jesus reveals that they are merely lying to themselves. Just as their ancestors persecuted and murdered the prophets, so they even murdered Israel’s Messiah, the Son of God.

Can you imagine their self-deception? They really thought they were the religious champions of Israel: Through their leadership, they would save Israel; even their murder of Jesus, they justified as for the people.

But Jesus reveals that they are in a long line of wicked leaders. Foreshadowing his own execution by crucifixion, Jesus also tells of the persecution and martyrdom of his disciples who follow him, all at the hand of Israel’s teachers and preachers. Carrying on the tradition of the father’s, they reveal that they are not of our Father in heaven but of him who leads them to steal, kill, and destroy. From the first recorded murder in Scripture (Cain’s murder of Abel) to the death of Zechariah (the last recorded martyrdom in the Hebrew canon), that ancient evil serpent led his brood of vipers to mortally silence the servants of God. Yet, their innocent blood cries out, sentencing Satan’s minions to hell.

Jesus concludes his woeful sermon with the pronouncement of imminent judgment: “Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.” And so it did. The generation that rejected Israel’s Messiah inherited God’s wrath. Thinking their Christless religion would save them and the people, they saw Jerusalem fall and the temple decimated in A.D. 70. The theocracy they were seemingly saving ceased to exist.

Yet, as the Apostle Paul puts it, “through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:11). For the gospel has come to us, carried from Jerusalem to the world. Therefore, let us guard against the Christless religion of the scribes and Pharisees, looking by faith to Christ our Savior, to be conformed to his image, as we are cleansed by his blood, finding our true identity in Christ alone.

[1] Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).

[2] R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007), 870.

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