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I love Matthew 23. It’s Jesus laying down a no-holds-barred smackdown on the self-righteous Pharisees. It blows the caricature of a flannelgraph, mild-mannered inoffensive Jesus out of the water.

Here’s the thing, though.

Today, he’s speaking those words to us.

We are today’s Pharisees.

It’s easy to nod our heads at Jesus as he gives those hypocrites the tongue-lashing they deserve yet completely miss the fact that we stand in their place today.

Think about it. The Pharisees and teachers of the Law worshiped the One True God and they revered the Torah as the Word of the Lord. In fact, each one of them knew their Bible a hundred times better than you do. We feel proud if we can recite a few psalms from memory…these guys had their entire Bible memorized. Our Old Testament.

The Pharisees were the super-Christians of their day.

Jesus even takes care to point out how good they were at believing the right things. He agreed with their religious beliefs. He agreed that they followed the true religion and worshiped the true living God.

Yet Jesus was so furious at these leaders of his own religion that he called them children of hell and announced that the blood of every righteous human being who ever lived was on their shoulders.

We all know why. The Pharisees were supposed to know better. They knew God’s words better than anyone else. They were leaders who shaped the people’s thinking about what God was really like. But rather than treating this influence with the humility and reverence it merited, they used it just like every other profane worldly power. For their own glory. Their doctrine was pure but their motives were selfish, arrogant and full of pride. On the outside they appeared to be righteous but on the inside they were full of dead men’s bones.

Their deeds may have been light but their hearts were dark.

And they were teaching others that this was what following God was supposed to look like.

Friends, this is something to pay careful, sober attention to. Jesus is putting up a giant flashing DANGER sign here to those of us who worship the Father. Especially those in a position of leadership or influence. Self-righteousness is an insidious disease that is extraordinarily easy to fall into.

So easy that Jesus specifically warned us against it. Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, he says. Just as a little yeast works through a whole batch of dough, so just a little bit of pride, a trifle of “I’m better than those other guys,” can worm its way into your entire soul, puffing it up with pride and hypocrisy. In today’s world Jesus would probably have told us to guard against the “cancer” or the “virus” of the Pharisees. Let a little in and soon it will infect the whole body.

I’ve seen comments on Facebook and heard people say things in conversation like “but they’re not doctrinally pure” to disparage those who don’t agree with their interpretation of secondary issues. Fellow Christians, please hear this and remember:

It wasn’t the followers of Jesus who were doctrinally pure…it was the Pharisees.

Understand this! It is absolutely vital to the life of the American church today that we recognize this truth. When we look at Jesus and how he violently laid into those spiritual leaders, it couldn’t be clearer that “doctrinal purity” is not to be the central, defining focus of our relationship to God.

Am I saying that knowing the right things about God are unimportant? Of course not. Jesus himself instructs his listeners to heed the scriptural teachings of the Pharisees:

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you.

Matthew 23:2 (emphasis mine)

But then he immediately turns the argument and gets to the heart of the issue:

But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden. Everything they do is for show.

Hypocrites! For you [Pharisees] are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justicemercy, and faith.

Matthew 23:3, 23 (NLT, emphasis mine)

So yes, knowing the right information about God is important, but it’s not the most important. These guys were scrupulous about following the letter of the law when it came to their spice racks, but they completely ignored vastly more important things. Justice for the oppressed. Mercy toward your neighbor. Healing for the wounded. Hey, it’s a heck of a lot easier to measure out a tablespoon of dill for God and call it a day, I get that. But this is what Jesus is telling us:

If you have a judgmental, superior, unmerciful heart, God does not care how right your beliefs are.

He does. not. care.

Do you think the Good Samaritan was doctrinally pure? Absolutely not. The Samaritans had all kinds of wrong thinking about God and were religiously despised. To get an idea of the point he was making, imagine Jesus telling a story of the good Mormon, good Jehovah’s Witness, or even (gasp) the Good Muslim, stopping to help while the two Christian pastors ignore the wounded man.

But no, it was the Jewish priests who earned the disapproval in Jesus’ story. The guy who had the Bible all wrong was the one he praised.

What about the Roman centurion? Was he doctrinally pure? His culture worshipped different gods completely, for goodness sake! Yet Jesus said that this leader in the enemy’s army had more real faith than anyone in Israel.

He couldn’t be any clearer about this. One of the very few times Jesus gave a direct answer to someone’s question was when they asked him what was most important to God. His answer was blunt and to the point. It wasn’t knowledge. It wasn’t church. It wasn’t being right. It was A) Love God. B) Love your neighbor. This from the guy who never met a question he didn’t like to obfuscate.

Try this: read through the gospels, and anytime Jesus talks about the Pharisees or teachers of the law, substitute the word “Christians”. As Tim Timmons loves to say, you’ll find that the Bible sheds a lot of light on Christianity.

Helping the hurting. Caring for the sick. Being compassionate to everyone, even the “immoral and godless”…these are all things we understand intuitively as children. Yet somehow we manage to over-complicate life so much as adults. This is part of the meaning of “unless you come to me like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”.

Tomorrow I’ll offer my own humble advice on how we can get begin to get rid of this Pharisaical spirit.


On to Part Two! —>

Awesome related articles by Tim Timmons:

Truth poorly defended loses not its truthfulness;
Falsehood aptly defended loses not it’s falsity.