I’ve been spending a lot of time in the 23rd chapter of Matthew… and thinking about the “religious” circles I run in. I find Matthew 23 to be one of the most insightful and, at the same time, most incredibly disturbing chapters of Scripture. It is Jesus’ famous chapter against religion. I have gleaned 3 things in my time studying this chapter.
First, Jesus acknowledges that over time, religion tends to creep in and replace the Gospel among God’s people. In vv. 34-35, Jesus speaks about a war between religion and the Gospel within the people of God, which dates back to the time of Adam and Eve. This war between religion and the Gospel penetrates so deep even to separate people of the same family. God has sent Prophets, wise men and scribes (from among their own people) to avert this great conflict, as described in verse 34, but the religious people have killed them.
Secondly, Jesus tells us that we have a tendency to see this conflict in the past but not in ourselves. Jesus states in verse 29, “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.”
The Pharisees do not identify themselves with religious in the past who killed the prophets; rather they thought of themselves as the friends of God! Notice what they have going for them… what they pride themselves on, what they told themselves proved they “loved” God:
- They love missions: Verse 15, they “travel across sea and land” to make converts. They are hefty “Lottie Moon Christmas Offering” givers and they boasted the sending of a lot of missionaries.
- They love doctrine: Verse 5, they wore broad “phylacteries.” These were small cubed shaped cases made of leather, containing Scripture passages written on parchment they’d wear on the arm. In other words, this was the Jewish version of the AWANA vest. Then in verse 16, you see they get into a minute discussion of what made for a proper and improper approach to swearing.
- They taught disciplined obedience: verse 23, they “tithe mint and cumin…” When you go through your spice drawer and tithe the powders… well, that’s pretty intense.
In other words, the Pharisees knew God’s book and they cherished God’s teachings. Because they stood for God’s standards and genuinely tried to live them out, they looked back at Cain and the generations of faithless Israelites and bemoaned their sin. “Oh, we’re not like that,” they declared. “We serve God zealously. We’re His friends. We stand for truth. We would never have resisted, much less killed, the prophets of God.” The irony is that they were about to kill the greatest prophet of all time.
Generations later, the papists in the time of Luther would look back at the Pharisees and think, “We’d never do that,” while at the same time trying everything they could to shut up Martin Luther. We have a tendency to see this conflict in the past but not in ourselves. But we need to see that we are they.
Third, religiosity makes us horribly ineffective at evangelism. Jesus chides the Pharisees in verse 15 saying, “You travel across sea and land to make a single convert.” You search and search to try and get converts, but it’s incredibly difficult for you. That’s because religion repels people, especially those unlike us in the culture. Compare that to Jesus. People flocked to be around Jesus, including sinners and prostitutes and tax collectors and Roman soldiers. He didn’t have to go around the world, He just walked down the street and all cultures flocked to Him!
We have a tendency to dismiss that by saying, “Well, that was Jesus, He worked miracles.” But this excuse is unacceptable. Jesus said in Luke 5 to Peter, after he filled his boat to overflowing with fish, “from now on you will catch men like that.”
For how many of us has that (i.e. having a boat overflowing with converts) been our experience? Do we attract people like Jesus did, or are we more like the religious people Jesus was describing? The baptism numbers of the SBC, with which our church cooperates, have steadily dropped for years now. Many of the churches are half full, and in large part many of the churches are graying and dying. Furthermore, most Southern Baptists look very alike culturally–same race, same background, same political convictions. “We travel the world to make a convert,” but struggle with that, because we’re more defined by our traditions than we are the Gospel.
We defend our lack of growth by saying, “Well, that’s because our culture doesn’t like hard preaching, discipleship preaching.” The fact is, Jesus preached hard about discipleship, and sometimes He turned people away, but we don’t even have the people to turn away! We have to recognize and acknowledge that there’s a difference in driving people away and no one showing up!
What exactly does religion replacing the Gospel look like? Jesus gives 7 woes… I would describe them in these 5 categories:
- Religious people are obsessed with recognition (vv. 5-6). They love conventions, titles, and public praise.
- Religious people focus on external conformity to tradition and not inward transformation (vv. 25-26). It’s not to say that they don’t also teach inward transformation, just that they are defined more by the externals than the internals. As D. A. Carson says, “Error is truth out of proportion.”
- Religious people focus on the sins of other rather than on their own sins (vv 2, 28).
- Religious people esteem secondary traditions over a love for God (vv 16, 23-24). If you conform to their traditions, they consider you godly. If you don’t, there’s no way you possibly could be. They strain at a gnat and swallow a camel.
- Religious people are generally judgmental and angry in their tone (v. 23)
I can write about these things because they have described me so well. Not just in the past, but many of these are my own tendencies now.