If I were to ask you what the greatest threats to the Church today are (notice Church with a capital “C” . . . meaning not just Wildwood), what would you say?
No doubt, the list would include Satanic attack, organized governmental opposition to Christianity, and moral decay in the culture around us. To be sure, these are all definitely challenges in the world today, and threats to the Church. However, if our list of problems ONLY included things on the outside of the Church, we would be naively mistaken. There are certainly INSIDER challenges to the Church as well . . . things like doctrinal perversion, abuse of power, and misplaced priorities among leaders and congregants.
Two things fascinate me about Jesus’ last public sermon before He went to the cross (found in Matthew 23):
- He focused His attention on the enemies to His new movement that were found WITHIN (and not OUTSIDE) the religious organizations of His people. He did not spend time discussing the Roman’s or the secular culture’s moral bankruptcy. He did not bemoan what was happening in the Roman bath houses or contemporary entertainment. While there were certainly plenty of things to be repulsed by in first century Palestine among the religious outsiders, Jesus focused His attention on what was happening in the synagogues and the Temple courts. He offered His strongest criticism and rebuke on the problems inside the “church” not outside it.
- He focused His attention NOT on the “liberal” end of the religious pool, but on the “conservatives.” Not all Jews in the first century were red . . . many of them were blue. In what John MacArthur has termed the harshest chapter in the Gospels (Matthew 23), Jesus blasts the conservative leaders of the religious right of His day: the Scribes and the Pharisees. He spares (in this address) the liberal Saducees or the politically minded Herodians (though they were equally lost), to focus on the destructive effect of the conservative religious leaders. Does that surprise you at all?
When I say He focused on the “conservatives” that probably ruffles a few feathers, and so I want to clarify what I mean. The Pharisees and the scribes were the most religious people in Israel at the time of Jesus. They kept (at least their version of) the Law with dramatic and demonstrable fervency. They studied the Scriptures and taught it to others (albeit with plenty of add-on’s from their tradition). They believed in the judgment of God, life after death, the coming of a future Messiah, and many other “orthodox” truths that were REJECTED by the liberal end of Jewish society (notably the Saducees). In this regard, they were the conservatives of Jesus’ day . . . they wanted to separate (the word “Pharisee” literally comes from the word “to separate”) from the evil practices of the world and from the liberal heresies of the Saducees. And yet, Jesus still came after them STRONG. Why?
In their desire to separate and be devout, they had fostered a self-righteous worldview that believed they alone were “good enough” for God. By reworking the Scripture into a set of complex (but doable) external commands, they no longer felt a need for a Savior because they had “saved themselves” and were just waiting for their reward when Messiah came. When Jesus comes and challenges the flimsy nature of their righteousness, they see Him as a threat to their dominance, and plot to take Him out instead of welcoming Him in.
Though there were only about 6,000 Pharisees at the time of Jesus in Israel, they were a very influential group. Many of them were scribes and religious leaders, teaching the nation of Israel. So their ideas had great influence. Though they were “good” at calling people to separate from the world, they also were demanding that people separate from Jesus Christ as well . . . their brand of conservatism had no place for a gracious Savior seeking and saving the lost and questioning their convoluted religiosity. Since the consequences of their conservative corruption were so influential, Jesus (in a public way) calls them out in front of all just days before He went to the cross . . . to give all who initially heard the message, and all who read it today in Matthew’s Gospel, the chance to repent of our self-righteousness and cling to the Savior, regardless of what “color” (red or blue) we might be.
This Sunday at Wildwood, we will look at Matthew 23:13-22 in part 4 of our “Authentic” sermon series where Jesus talks about the dangers found INSIDE religion when we support religion (even Christianity) without room for Christ. See you Sunday, September 8 at Wildwood in either our 9:45 or 11:00 service!