Child Games: Jesus and Faithfulness (Matthew 23)

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Recently my father inlaw introduced my children, and myself, to the 1960 Disney movie Pollyanna. I’m uncertain why it’s one of his favorites but there were some good lessons in the movie. If you’re unfamiliar with the movie plot, essentially a young girl named Pollyanna is forced to live with her aunt because her parents died. Her aunt is wealthy with the attitude and nature of controlling other’s choices. She even directs the town preach, Rev. Ford in what and how to preach! She encourages him to preach more “fire and brimstone” to challenge the people to live in fear.

However, Pollyanna comes along and her father was a missionary preacher who spoke prevalently of the joys of faith and love of God. Pollyanna says her father only preached “happy texts.” Thus, her name has become synonymous with exaggerated optimism.

The Bible has both happy and holy texts, and both message styles are needed, with the tone matching the text. Preachers should not preach their preferred agenda points but rather the whole counsel of God, so that people can discern when they’re hearing from God or when they’re being manipulated into cult-like religion.

Today we are in one of the Bible’s most sober and severe passages.

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EXAMINE           Matthew 23                Jesus & Faithfulness

Jesus talks to crowds and to his disciples… in other words, those who are not just hearing, but those genuinely listening to His message.

Jesus describes the Pharisees as hypocrites…

In ancient Greek times play actors/actresses wore masks. If they had a comedic part, then their mask had a big smile, if a serious or somber part the mask had a straight or exaggerated frowning or crying face. The Greek term for an actor/actress was ὑποκριτής, one who assumed a character. The crowd also observed the obvious, that an external mask can hide what is happening underneath. The actor/actress is different from the character they portray. So, after time the term began to be used for one who had two faces, and eventually began to be used pejoratively for those whose actions differed from their speech.

Hypocrisy has two forms
1) Being phony. Proclaiming beliefs but not practicing them in behavioral lifestyle.

Jesus judged the Pharisees for not practicing what they preached (Mt 23:3-4). They burdened people with their teaching because they went above and beyond God’s commandments. They developed a religious system with 613 laws. They chose 613 because that’s how many separate letters were in the text of the Ten Commandments. They further divided that number with 248 affirmative commands, one for every part of the human body as they understood it. And 365 negative commands, one for each day of the year. In contrast, Jesus said His teaching and load was lighter and gave rest (Mt 11:30). He summed up all 613 laws with 2 – love God and love people, all the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commandments” (Mt 22:34-40). Religion makes sinners exhausted, but Christianity makes sinners enlivened.

  • Are you deceived? Jesus warns some call Him “Lord,” but they are unknown and unsaved (Mt 7:21-23).

2) Being prideful. Presenting to live at a higher standard than is reality; it’s a better than you attitude.

Illus: There’s a story of famed Chicago preacher D.L. Moody who was a guest preacher at another church. The alternate church leaders warning Moody that frequently members leave the service early and not to take it personally. Moody received the warning and enters the pulpit: “Today I’m going to preach to two groups of people. The first will be sinners and the next group saints. [He preaches briefly]. The next group I want to address are the saints, but if you’re a sinner you can leave now.” Members of the church noted this was one of the only times they didn’t have people leave the church early. /

– We don’t like to publicly admit that we’re sinners in need of grace.

 

Jesus judged the Pharisees for doing all their [righteous] deeds to be seen by others (23:5).

  • They make phylacteries broad. A square leather case strapped to forehead that contained scriptures (like a mini-bible).
  • They make fringes on garments long.
  • They love place of honor at feasts and synagogues. Then it was front but today backrow Baptist!
  • They love public greetings as “Rabbi”
    • But you have one teacher and you are all brothers; call no one ‘father’.
    • Jesus is not rejecting titles or honored positions. In the OT some were “prophets,” “judges,” “kings,” etc. In the NT some were “apostles,” but all believers have become royal priests (1Pet 2:9). Jesus’s intention is not to use our titles or positions to belittle others or to demand unquestioned obedience.
    • “Whoever exalts self will be humbled, but whoever humbles self will be exalted. The greatest shall be servants” (Mt 23:13)

 

  • Are you argumentative? Do you find your friends becoming fewer or people avoiding you? Do you hesitate to share your convictions or views bc of how people may respond? Are you seeing patterns of canceling relationships simply bc you differ or disagree? The Bible calls us to peace and humility, which doesn’t mean we remain silent, Confrontation can be compassionate, but we must wisely and winsomely speaking truth in love. And realize, attempting reconciliation doesn’t always mean it will be accomplished.
    – 2 Tim 2:23 “Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels.”
    – Prov 9:7-8 “Whoever corrects a scoffer gets abuse, and he who reproves a wicked person incurs injury. Do not reprove a scoffer or they will hate you; reprove a wise person and they will love you.”

Both forms of hypocrisy are wrong and are characteristic of the Pharisees; of whom Jesus denounces. Ultimately, Jesus gives 7 woes against the religious leaders that inform our cautions of faith in the church.

Woe: (οὐαί). The word is used 7x and is an expression of grief, like “Ouch!” “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that,” or an expression of condemnation, like “Enough!” “Stop right there, I don’t want to hear any more.” Each of these are griefs from God’s heart and condemnations from Jesus Christ against the Pharisee’s hypocrisy.

  • Woe to the closed door.
    You shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces (23:13-14). We are tempted in this area if we don’t talk about our need and reliance upon Jesus; if we don’t share the gospel and call for others to repent and believe; if we are known for pointing out the sins of others but are not willing to specifically own issues or specifically repent of faults (more than just “I know I’m not perfect but…”).
  • Woe to the clone mindset.
    You make converts of self to traditions not of God (23:15). We are tempted in this area if we rally people to our opinions about multiple items beyond the gospel. Typical stumbling blocks are items that are not biblical commands but generational or ethnic stereotypes. We can disagree on so many things and still need not demean or divide.
    Note: the very idea of making proselytes/converts is not just spiritual fire insurance but a transformation to a way of life.
  • Woe to un-commitment.
    You make promises never intending to keep (23:16-22).
    Swearing by the temple or gold is an empty oath, where Jesus challenged previously to simply let your word be true and not swear oaths (Mt 5:33-37). We are tempted in this area if we passively consume the benefits of ministry but not contribute to the responsibility of the church (time, talents, treasure). 
  • Woe to the distracted.
    You follow religious minutiae but not spiritual significance of justice, mercy, and faithfulness (23:23-24). The Pharisees tithed of their spices and smallest garden crop. And in this case, Jesus did not condemn them for their tithing practice, but that they were neglecting far more important matters. Jesus says they were “straining out a gnat but swallowing a camel!” In their eagerness to avoid worldly pollution they were immersed the cesspool of empty religion. One fourth-century commentator said, “God laughs at the superficial diligence of those who measure cucumbers.”[1] They were distracted and lost focus of the essentials of their faith.

We are often tempted in this area if we do not equally care about doctrine and deeds, beliefs and bodies, principles and people. So, whether the topic is race, immigration, unborn, euthanasia, or a host of other topics – Christians should not stick their head in the sand or be silent. Where the word speaks – we speak, and while the Bible may not provide policy it does character for how we speak about people made in the image of God. Ultimately, we are to care about earthly and eternal suffering, and certainly if the latter is not addressed then the former becomes irrelevant. The mission of the church is not solely about a gathering, but as equipping people to scatter as salt and light for the purposes of extending God’s justice, mercy, and faithfulness.
Micah 6:8 “what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
cf. also Lev 19; 25; Ps 94:15-16; Prv 31:8-9; Ec 3:16-17; Isa 1; 10; 58; Jer 22:3-5 Am 5; Mal 3:5

As I pastor, I can be a little wary of Christians who seldom commit to church and ministry because they want more “bible studies,” or to “go deeper in study.” While I can appreciate biblical depth (I’ve devoted my life to studying and teaching the bible, with 9+ years of academic study), I have also observed many Christians are educated beyond their obedience. Today’s church doesn’t have an information famine but rather an application failure. We have abundance of resources but without their operation.

  • Woe to superficiality.
    You focus on external behaviors but exclude inward heart motivations (23:25-26). The Pharisees followed the priestly code for washing vessels (Lev 11:31-33), but Jesus compared them to washing the outside without cleaning the inside. In other words, they were masking sickness, presenting as healthy but internally are terminally ill.We are tempted in this area when we are not transparent, honest, and vulnerable. It’s ok to say we are not ok – to admit our struggles, our griefs, or problems and pains. The problem occurs when we hide our issues or when we project the fault of all our troubles on others rather than accept responsibility.

    When we name our struggles and sins then we become accountable. We need to be careful with whom we trust in confessing our sin so it doesn’t become a manipulated relationship. Yet, there’s healing in confession (Ps 32; Gal 6; James 5; 1Jn 1:9).

  • Woe to counterfeits.
    You have the appearance of righteousness, compassion, and spiritual life but not the reality (23:27-28). Jesus called out the religious leaders as “white-washed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones.” Maintaining graves was a means to honor relatives and family generations. But, the best way to honor the dead is to live out their legacy not be “hypocrites or lawless.”We must be careful of predators and wolves in sheep clothing. We can identify counterfeits or wolves in at least 4 ways:
    Watch for lone-wolves. They’re great at disguising tactics and hunt inconspicuously. Beware of those who have positions but don’t share influence or roles. There’s a difference between one exercising leadership and one monopolizing power – count the # of people who enjoy working with them.
    Watch for their teeth. Sheep follow the shepherd’s guidance, but wolves howl, growl and bite at correction; a wolf can never be led (cf. Prov 10:17; 12:1; 15:3, 32). Look for approachability and listen for apologies, if you don’t see these then you may be dealing with a wolf.
    Wolves eat inordinately. They can eat up to 20lbs at one time, but they can also go multiple weeks without eating. Beware of those who lack a steady diet of God’s word; they could be a little lamb or they could be a dangerous prey.
    Wolves are nocturnal and often hunt at night. When the darkness of challenges and crisis arrive, who are the problem solvers and who are pointing out every fault and failure. Pharisee wolves make excuses while Christian sheep do all they can to keep focus and make disciples.
  • Woe to the spiritually stubborn.
    You memorialize past heroes but do not honor present faith and compassion (23:29-36). While past prophets should have been honored, they were not. The Pharisees and others sought to build tombs and monuments of the righteous; an honorable action. Yet, they repeat the actions of their forefathers by intimidating, undermining, and terminating anyone who challenged them. In this passage, Jesus calls these leaders: hypocrites, blind guides, fools, greedy and self-indulgent, white-washed tombs, serpents, brood of vipers, persecutors and murderers. While the religious leaders were very sincere, they were sincerely wrong. They believed fully in what they were doing was right and good. Undoubtedly, not every Pharisee, scribe, or Sadducee was a bad apple, corrupt, or evil. When Jesus rebuked the Pharisees, he is not personally attacking every individual Pharisee as much as pointing out systemic issues that were unrighteous and unjust in the religious culture and secular society. Ultimately, Jesus is saying the religious leaders, as a whole, were too arrogant and stubborn to listen to the warnings of others or self-examine.This entire chapter should be (is) one of the most startling and scariest for any Christian to read. If we are not willing to pause and pray for God to purify our heart that we might look more like Jesus, then we may be spiritually stubborn and in danger of sin’s consequences.

 

APPLY/THINK

Jesus closes a sermon in the temple with a lament. He, cries for the city – God’s city – Jerusalem, whom He desired to gather under His loving protection, but they rejected Him. There has to be heartbreak and dejection over their choice that would require Him to suffer and die through crucifixion.

The house of Jerusalem would be left desolate. In the next few decades, Rome would conquer and erase the Jerusalem temple. The hope of God’s people is not in an earthly government or religious resurgence, but in the return of the coming Lord Jesus.

This message may sound like Jesus just busting and breaking the Pharisees. One of the only things that is better broken is a sinner’s heart in the hands of the Savior. Jesus is severe in this message with truth in love in order to awaken the reality to healing from the gospel not religious child games.

[1] Bishop Hilary of Poitiers, On Matthew.

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