“Emmanuel’s Woe Part 2” – Matthew 23:15-28

June 19th, 2016

Matthew 23:15-28

“Emmanuel’s Woe Pt 2”

Auxiliary Text: Luke 18:9-14

Call to Worship from: Psalm 130


Service Orientation: Jesus expresses His most passionate abhorrence and anger towards the Teachers of the Law and the Pharisees’ perceived self-righteousness.  He feels the same towards ours.


Bible Memory Verse for the Week:  We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. — Isaiah 53:6


Background Information:

  • Jesus is facing the scribes and Pharisees. We are standing behind Jesus.  They are in front of Jesus.  Behind them is a mirror.  So we see the face of Jesus looking at them and beyond them, through the mirror, to us, his church.  Less visual but more simply, we will use Jesus’ woes to them as warnings to us.  (Douglas Sean O’Donnell, Preaching the Word: Matthew, 685)
  •  (v. 15) There were two kinds of proselytes in the synagogues.  One was called “a proselyte of the gate,” a Gentile who only attended the services.  He now worshiped the true God, but he had not committed himself to full ritualistic and legalistic Judaism.  Such proselytes are referred to in the book of Acts as a person who was devout (10:2, 7; 13:50), as “God-fearing” (10:2, 22, 35; 17:4, 17), or as “a worshiper of God” (16:14; 18:7).

The other kind was referred to as “a proselyte of righteousness,” so called because he became as religiously Jewish as a Gentile could become.  They participated in all the ceremonies, rituals, and feasts; they observed all the cleansing and other rites, both biblical and traditional; and if males, they were circumcised.  Those converts were even given Jewish names in order to separate them as much as possible from their pagan past.  Contrary to their popular appellation, however, they became anything but righteous.  Like the scribes and Pharisees who instructed them, they became paragons of self-righteousness.  (John MacArthur, The MacArthur NT Commentary: Matthew 16-23, 380)

  • (v. 16ff) We have no clear evidence from the time of Jesus of these specific oaths being used or evaluated in the way that is here described, but given the ingenuity of the mishnaic debates about oath formulae (tractate Šebû’ôt), there is nothing surprising in the allegation; for a comparable example see b. Ned. 14b, where a vow by the Torah is not binding, but one by the Torah’s contents is. (R.T. France, The New International Commentary on the NT: Matthew, 871)
  • (v. 23) The Mosaic law required a tithe be paid to the treasury in Israel (Lv 27:30). Because it helped support the government, which was a theocracy operated to a great extent by the priesthood, the tithe was a form of taxation.  A second tenth was to be paid each year for support of the various worship ceremonies and national festivals (Dt 12:11, 17).  Another tithe was to be paid every three years for a type of welfare, to support the Levites, aliens, orphans, and widows (Dt 14:28-29), which amounted to an additional 3.3 percent a year.  Israelites were therefore required to pay just over 23 percent of their income a year in taxes to fund the theocracy.  (John MacArthur, The MacArthur NT Commentary: Matthew 16-23, 383-4)
  • (v. 23) Pious Jews religiously gave that 10 percent to the work of God. The scribes and Pharisees, however, were extraordinarily careful to give a tithe on any increase at all.  They were so careful that if they had little window gardens of herbs such as mint, anise, and cummin, they would give 10 percent of that.  Their attitude would be like someone today finding a dime on the street and saying to himself, “I must remember to add a penny to my next tithe.”  I do not know anyone who is that careful about tithing.  But the scribes and Pharisees were.  (RC Sproul, St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary: Matthew, 668)
  • (v. 24) A gnat was an insect and therefore unclean; and so was a camel. In order to avoid the risk of drinking anything unclean, wine was strained through muslin gauze so that any possible impurity might be strained out of it.  This is a humorous picture which must have raised a laugh, of someone carefully straining wine through gauze to avoid swallowing a microscopic insect and yet cheerfully swallowing a camel.  It is the picture of a person who has completely lost all sense of proportion.  (William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 2, 343)
  • (v. 24) The joke may have been helped by an Aramaic wordplay between qalmâ (gnat) and gamlâ (camel). (R.T. France, The New International Commentary on the NT: Matthew, 874)
  • (v. 27) According to Nm 19:16, anyone who touched a grave would be ceremonially unclean for a week. So the Jews developed the custom of whitewashing tombs once a year, usually just before Passover.  This made it easier to see where they had to stay away from, especially at night.  Of course, no one wanted to be ineligible to eat the Passover (see Jn 18:28).  As Jesus spoke these words, the Passover was only days away, so it is likely that all the tombs around Jerusalem had just received a fresh coat of whitewash.  (G. J. and M. J. Albrecht, The People’s Bible: Matthew, 331)


The question to be answered is . . . Why is Jesus so ticked?


Answer:  Because Jesus loves the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees even though they were living disillusioned lives because of their perceived self-righteousness.   He also loves them enough to try and encourage them to repent.


If you’re not religious, you may be intrigued by what I’ve said about religious folks. Perhaps you’re saying to yourself, Yeah! They’re a bunch of hypocrites, and I always knew it.

Do you know what you just did? You just manifested a self-righteousness that is equal to and perhaps greater than the religious self-righteousness about which I’ve written.

Once we see how pervasive self-righteousness is, we begin to see it everywhere–in ourselves and almost everywhere else. I challenge you to start observing the world where you live from the perspective of what we’ve considered in this chapter. You’ll be amazed. Instead of seeing politics in terms of left and right, religion in terms of God haters and God lovers, environmentalism in terms of those who love and those who hate the environment, look for the self-righteousness. Instead of seeing issues, look for the ego. (Steve Brown; What Was I Thinking?, 138)


The Word(?) for the Day is . . . Self-righteous


The gift we give the world is our lack of self-righteousness.  —Steve Brown


Self-righteousness is the one sin if you have it you don’t know it.  —Steve Brown


You want to mess up the minds of your children?   Here’s how—guaranteed!  Rear them in a legalistic, tight context of external religion, where performance is more important than reality.  Fake your faith.  Sneak around and pretend your spirituality.  Train your children to do the same.  Embrace a long list of do’s and don’ts publicly but hypocritically practice them privately . . yet never own up to the fact that it’s hypocrisy.  Act one way but live another.  And you can count on it—emotional and spiritual damage will occur.  Chances are good their confusion will lead to some sort of addiction in later years.  (Charles Swindoll; Grace Awakening, 97)


Why is Jesus so ticked at the teachers of the Law and Pharisees and their perceived self-righteousness?:

I-  Because it has blinded them so they can’t see that their  evangelism is counter-productive to the Kingdom of God.  (Mt 23:15; see also: Isa 52:5; Rom 2:17-29)


Self-righteousness repels the world from the gospel.  — Steve Brown


Christianity has come to represent hypocrisy, judgmentalism, anti-intellectualism, insensitivity, and bigotry,  (David Kinnaman, Unchristian, 223)


If it weren’t for Christians, I’d be a Christian.  —Gandhi


Christianity must reverse its current image and become dynamic, genuine, and real.  If we can prevent the message from being watered down by casual Christians, outsiders will begin to experience believers who have been (and are being) transformed by their faith and who are working in humble and respectful ways to transform the culture.  In the Bible Paul puts it this way:  “This should be your ambition:  to live a quiet life, minding your own business and working with your hands, just as we commanded you before.  As a result, people who are not Christians will respect the way you live.” (1 Thess 4:11-12).  There is nothing more powerful than the Christian life lived out in obedience; there is nothing worse than a flat, self-righteous form of faith that parades around in Christian clothes.  (David Kinnaman, Unchristian, 83)


They worked unceasingly to make people join their party and adopt their opinions.  They did this from no desire to benefit people’s souls in the least, or to bring them to God; they only did it to swell the ranks of their sect, and to increase the number of their adherents and their own importance.  (J.C. Ryle, The Crossway Classic Commentaries: Matthew, 218)


It was not to God that the Pharisees sought to lead people; it was to their own sect of Pharisaism.  That in fact was their sin.  And that sin is still present in certain quarters when there is an insistence that a man or woman must leave one church and become a member of another before being allowed a place at the table of the Lord.  The greatest of all heresies is the sinful conviction that any church has a monopoly of God or of his truth, or that any church is the only gateway to God’s kingdom.  (William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 2, 339)


In light of Mt 5:20, we need to ask ourselves whether our zeal for evangelism exceeds or comes anywhere close to that of the Pharisees.  (RC Sproul, St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary: Matthew, 664)


Jesus said that after they made a proselyte through their strenuous efforts, they made him “twice as much a son of hell” as themselves.  Do not miss that language–Jesus said the scribes and Pharisees were “sons of hell.”  They were blind, hypocritical, and foolish, and those they “converted” were in the same condition.  This was not “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” talking at this point.  He used very tough language to call a spade a spade when he talked to these scribes and Pharisees.  He did not mince or varnish His words.  (RC Sproul, St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary: Matthew, 664)


Over the centuries the Jews had not been a particularly evangelistic people, since being a Jew was usually defined in ethnic terms.  Yet there seems to have been a truly evangelistic fervor during the time of Jesus Christ.  We see a reflection of this in the Judaizers who opposed Paul, traveling as far as Galatia to corrupt the fledgling faith of his Gentile converts.  Jesus acknowledged the Pharisees’ zeal to “travel over land and sea to win a single convert.”  But what is the value of doing so if the convert becomes “twice as much a son of hell” as those who have converted him?  It is an observable fact that people converted to a fanatical position are often more corrupt in their zeal than those who were in the movement from the start.  (James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 2, 492)


How zealous are Muslim jihadists?  How zealous are Mormon missionaries?  Religious zeal is not an indication of truth.  Woe to us if we have zeal without knowledge.  Woe also to us if we have knowledge without zeal.  We need both.  (Douglas Sean O’Donnell, Preaching the Word: Matthew, 686)


II-  They are blind to the fact that they think so little of and twist God’s Law that they end up promoting the opposite.  (Mt 23:16-22; see also: Mt 15:1-20; Mk 12:40; Lk 16:14; 20:47)


One of the saddest instances of false hope occurs when people trust in what God has worked in them instead of trusting God himself.  For example, God says, “When I say to the righteous he will surely live, and he so trusts in his righteousness that he commits iniquity, none of his righteous deeds will be remembered” (Ez 33:13).  It is possible to trust in your own goodness in such a way that it produces iniquity.  Any trust, except in God, brings about sin.  “You trusted in your beauty and played the harlot because of your fame” (Ez 16;15).  God had made Israel beautiful.  But when she became satisfied with her beauty, instead of her Beautifier, the result was harlotries.  (John Piper, Future Grace, 325)


The Pharisees had so twisted the truth that they had everything backwards.  (John Phillips, Exploring the Gospels: Matthew, 437)


Condemnation is the board (Mt 7:2-5) in our eye.  He knows that the mere fact that we are condemning someone shows our heart does not have the kingdom rightness he has been talking about.  Condemnation, especially with its usual accompaniments of anger and contempt and self-righteousness, blinds us to the reality of the other person.  We can’t “see clearly” how to assist our brother, because we cannot see our brother.  And we will never know how to truly help him until we have grown into the kind of person who does not condemn.  Period.  (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 224)


Competitive comparison is the main way elder brothers achieve a sense of their own significance.  Racism and classism are just different versions of this form of the self-salvation project.  This dynamic becomes exceptionally intense when elder brothers pride themselves above all for their right religion.  If a group believes God favors them because of their particularly true doctrine, ways of worship, and ethical behavior, their attitude toward those without these things can be hostile.  Their self-righteousness hides under the claim that they are only opposing the enemies of God.  When you look at the world through those lenses, it becomes easy to justify hate and oppression, all in the name of truth.  (Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God, 54)


The whole idea was both theologically and logically preposterous.  Those standards were nothing more than wicked pretenses for using holy things to disguise their unholy propensity to lie.  (John MacArthur, The MacArthur NT Commentary: Matthew 16-23, 383)


They stressed human regulations at the expense of divine ordinances!  (William Hendriksen, NT Commentary: Matthew, 831)


What Jesus is saying is this–the truly good man will never need to take an oath; the truth of his sayings and the reality of his promises need no such guarantee.  But the fact that oaths are still sometimes necessary is the proof that men are not good men and that this is not a good world.  (William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: Gospel of Matthew, 162)


Jews were to see their inability to keep the Law and, because of this, look to the Messiah all the more.  God designed the Law this way.  Moreover, even if by some miracle a Jew was able to keep EVERY SINGLE tenet of the Law, he would likely still fail in one—his attitude.  The Law, after all, creates a horrible “Catch-22” almost by necessity.  The better you “keep” the Law, the more you think yourself basically “good” and the less you humble yourself before God.  You quickly become self-righteous and prideful.  Thus, though you may be able to keep many outward tenets of the Law (as the Pharisees did), your motivation for doing so would have shifted from love of God to love of self.  All the outward piety in the world cannot cover a sick and twisted heart. Period.  —Chris Scripter


Jesus said the Pharisees were guides by virtue of their position, but they were blind in the sense of lacking understanding of the true meaning of the law of God.  (RC Sproul, St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary: Matthew, 665)


My dad had imparted to me a latter-day Puritanism:  Never lie.  Always tell the truth, no matter what the cost.  Work hard at any task you are given.  Give people a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.  I learned so much about truth telling and integrity from him.  What I hadn’t learned was that by presuming I lived by his strict moral code, I would become blind to the ways I failed it.  My self-righteousness enabled me to compartmentalize:  to believe I was doing the right thing while simultaneously going along with the wrong thing.  (Charles Colson, The Good Life, 195)


The Jews divided oaths into two classes, those which were absolutely binding and those which were not.  Any oath which contained the name of God was absolutely binding; any oath which succeeded in evading the name of God was held not to be binding.  The result was that if a man swore by the name of God in any form, he would rigidly keep that oath; but if he swore by heaven, or by earth, or by Jerusalem, or by his head, he felt quite free to break that oath.  The result was that evasion had been brought to a fine art.  (William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: Gospel of Matthew, 159)


Everything involved with the temple and everything involved with heaven involved God.  In fact, since God is the creator of everything, to swear by anything at all involves God.  (John MacArthur, The MacArthur NT Commentary: Matthew 16-23, 383)


The Pharisees had devised all sorts of rules and regulations about how to make appropriate vows, and which vows had to be kept and which could be fudged.  They gave the people loopholes, ways out of the obligations they entered.  (RC Sproul, St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary: Matthew, 665)


Obviously, it was extremely unwise and arrogant of the scribes and the Pharisees to teach that the people could make vows on the altar or on the temple without intending to keep them.  The people needed to know the full implications of swearing by those holy objects, but the sad truth is that the Pharisees, the guides of the people, did not know themselves.  They were blind.  (RC Sproul, St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary: Matthew, 666)


The whole idea of treating oaths in this way, the whole conception of a kind of technique of evasion, is born of a fundamental deceitfulness.  Truly religious men and women will never make a promise with the deliberate intention of evading it; they will never, as they make it, provide themselves with a series of escape routes, which they may use if they find that promise hard to keep.  (William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 2, 341)


God hears every word we speak, and God sees every intention of our hearts.  In view of that, the fine art of evasion is one which should be foreign to every Christian.  The technique of evasion may suit the sharp practice of the world, but never the open honesty of the Christian mind.  (William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 2, 341)


We will regard all promises as sacred, if we remember that all promises are made in the presence of God.  (William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: Gospel of Matthew, 160)


Many people make a good living doing nothing but uttering in attractive or coercive ways “yeses” that are not really yeses at all, and “noes” that are not noes.  In social or political contexts, we now called them “spin doctors.”

The inherent wrongness of such projects makes Jesus simply say, “Don’t do it.”  Swearing, or the “song and dance” in general, does not respect those upon whom it is directed.  As God’s free creatures, people are to be left to make their decisions without coercion or manipulation.  Hence, “let your affirmation be just an affirmation,” a yes, and your denial be just a denial, a no.  Anything more than this “comes from evil”–the evil intent to get one’s way by verbal manipulation of the thoughts and choices of others.  (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 175)


A godly person will always tell the truth, and for him a simple yes or no is sufficient, because his virtuous character is his bond.  (John MacArthur, The MacArthur NT Commentary: Matthew 16-23, 382)


III-  It has caused them to major on minors and minor on majors.  (Mt 23:23-24; see also: Mi 6:8; Hos 6:6; Zec 7:8-10; Mt 5:33-37; 7:3; 9:13; 12:1; 22:37-40)


He did not call them foolish for paying the tithe.  His implication is that they did the right thing in tithing so carefully.  But there were “weightier matters”–justice, mercy, and faith–to which they had not given scrupulous attention.  In other words, the scribes and the Pharisees were majoring in minors–at least, minors by comparison.  The proper course for them was to do the minor duties while also striving to fulfill the weightier matters, and we need to do the same.  (RC Sproul, St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary: Matthew, 668)


The scribes and Pharisees were inequitable, unfair, unjust, unmerciful, brutal, unforgiving, unkind, greedy, and abusive of others.  They were everything that is contrary to the weightier provisions of the law.  Worst of all, they walked by sight rather than faith, trusting in their own works rather than God’s grace.  (John MacArthur, The MacArthur NT Commentary: Matthew 16-23, 384)


The Pharisees confused the externals for the essentials.  Likewise, many Christian churches today make major issues of minor personal choices and divert new Christians from Christ to their own version of cultural essentials.  (Bruce Barton, Life Application Bible Commentary: Matthew, 454)


The picture then that Jesus gives is this:  imagine these blind, unbalanced religious leaders one moment straining their wine through a thin cloth to avoid swallowing a microscopic bug and the next moment grabbing a camel and swallowing that big beast whole.  It’s a picture of people who have “completely lost [their] sense of proportion.”  It is a funny/not-so-funny picture of majoring in minors.  (Douglas Sean O’Donnell, Preaching the Word: Matthew, 687-8)


The world will not know we are Christians by the color of the church carpeting, the height of the steeple, or the glorious sound of the choir, but by our love.  They will know we are Christians–Christ-followers–by our love.  (Douglas Sean O’Donnell, Preaching the Word: Matthew, 688)


Nothing therefore could be more ridiculous than to strain out the wine or the water, so as not to hurt the jaws by swallowing a gnat, and yet carelessly to gulp down a camel.  But it is evident that hypocrites amuse themselves with such distinctions; for while they pass by judgment, mercy, and faith, and even tear in pieces the whole Law, they are excessively rigid and severe in matters that are of no great importance; and while in this way they pretend to kiss the feet of God, they proudly spit in his face.  (John Calvin, Commentaries, Vol. XVI, 93)


Grotesque as the whole thing may seem, it can still happen.  A church can be torn in two about the color of a carpet, or about the shape or metal of the cups to be used in the sacrament.  The last thing that men and women seem to learn in matters of religion is a relative sense of values; and the tragedy is that it is so often magnification of matters of no importance that wreck the peace.  (William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 2, 345)


Scrupulous tithing becomes an act of hypocrisy when it is divorced from justice, mercy, and faithfulness.  (G. J. and M. J. Albrecht, The People’s Bible: Matthew, 330)


God save us also from self-righteous judgmentalism…There is a universe of difference between the motivations behind legalism and discipline.  Legalism says, “I will do this thing to gain merit with God,” while discipline says, “I will do this because I love God and want to please him.”  Legalism is man-centered; discipline is God-centered. (J. I. Packer; Rediscovering Holiness, 114)


You were not created to be a law follower.  You were created to love and the Law is simply a guide, a rule, to assist you to know how to love and how to define love.  The Law is a guide.  Your salvation is in Christ.  Therefore there is no room for pride, self-confidence or self-righteousness.  All have failed miserably under the Law. (Eph 2:8-9)


The double use of “neglect” is thus rhetorically effective:  at the moment you are neglecting the things that matter; those are the things you ought to be concentrating on, but that does not mean therefore neglecting the others.  (R.T. France, The New International Commentary on the NT: Matthew, 873)


Competitive comparison is the main way elder brothers achieve a sense of their own significance.  Racism and classism are just different versions of this form of the self-salvation project.  This dynamic becomes exceptionally intense when elder brothers pride themselves above all for their right religion.  If a group believes God favors them because of their particularly true doctrine, ways of worship, and ethical behavior, their attitude toward those without these things can be hostile.  Their self-righteousness hides under the claim that they are only opposing the enemies of God.  When you look at the world through those lenses, it becomes easy to justify hate and oppression, all in the name of truth.  (Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God, 54)


Strict Pharisees would strain their drinking water through a cloth in order to avoid swallowing a gnat, the smallest of the unclean creatures (see Lv 11:41-43).  But when they devoted so much time and effort to meticulous tithing, Jesus says that is like swallowing a camel, the largest of the unclean animals (see Lv 11:4).  (G. J. and M. J. Albrecht, The People’s Bible: Matthew, 330)


In His reference to the truly weightier matters, Jesus paraphrased the words of Micah.  Some 700 years earlier that prophet had declared, “[The Lord] has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mc 6:8).  (John MacArthur, The MacArthur NT Commentary: Matthew 16-23, 384)


It is possible to carefully obey certain details of God’s laws but still be disobedient in our general behavior.  For example, we could be very precise and faithful about giving 10 percent of our money to the church but refuse to give one minute of our time in helping others.  Tithing is important, but giving a tithe does not exempt us from fulfilling God’s other directives.  (Bruce Barton, Life Application Bible Commentary: Matthew, 455)


Jesus’ meaning is clear–in their consuming concern over less weighty matters, they were ignoring major issues.  This verse is reminiscent of Jesus’ pointed question in the Sermon on the Mount:  “And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?” (7:3).  (RC Sproul, St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary: Matthew, 668-9)


IV-  It has caused them to live for appearances and not an authentic godly heart.  (Mt 23:25-28; see also: Mt 5:20, 44-48; 6:1-18; 7:15; 22:37-40)


That spirit is not dead; it never will be until Christ rules in our hearts.  There are many who wear the right clothes to church, carefully hand in an offering to the church, adopt the right attitude at prayer, are never absent from the celebration of the sacrament, and who are not doing an honest day’s work and are irritable and bad-tempered and mean with their money.  There are people who are full of good works and who serve on all kinds of committees, and whose children are lonely for them at night.  There is nothing easier than to observe all the outward actions of religion and yet be completely irreligious.  (William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 2, 343)


This tendency was illustrated in the Pharisees’ refusing to enter Pilate’s house on the day before the Passover, lest they be defiled, but who were nevertheless quite ready to murder Jesus.  (J. Oswald Sanders, Bible Studies in Matthew’s Gospel, 124)


The obvious application of this is to the concern even most church-going people seem to have for keeping up appearances.  As long as we go to church, talk nicely, give a bit of our money to charitable causes, and do our civic duty, it does not seem to matter much whether we are dishonest in business, covetous in money matters, cruel in dealings with our families, selfish, proud, or arrogant.  We may even say, “What I do in my own private life does not matter; it’s nobody’s business but my own.”  Jesus did not think this way.  On the contrary, he said, “You hypocrites!  You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.  Blind Pharisee!  First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean” (vv. 25-26).  (James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 2, 494)


The noonday devil of the Christian life is the temptation to lose the inner self while preserving the shell of edifying behavior.  Suddenly I discover that I am ministering to AIDS victims to enhance my resume.  I find I renounced ice cream for Lent to lose five pounds.  I drop hints about the absolute priority of mediation and contemplation to create the impression that I am a man of prayer.  At some unremembered moment I have lost the connection between internal purity of heart and external works of piety.  In the most humiliating sense of the word, I have become a legalist.  I have fallen victim to what T. S. Eliot calls the greatest sin: to do the right thing for the wrong reason. (Brennan Manning; The Ragamuffin Gospel, 131)


In their strict observance of Jewish rituals, they appeared to be the very embodiment of men of God.  Like whitewashed tombs, they were beautiful on the outside.  However, as Jesus noted, even the most beautiful tombs contained dead men’s bones and the remains of corpses that would cause defilement if touched.  The scribes and the Pharisees were like that.  Although they gave the appearance of zeal, faith, and piety, they were spiritually dead inside.  (RC Sproul, St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary: Matthew, 671)


In the OT period, Israel’s religion decayed into mere formalism, externalism, and ritualism.  People simply went through the motions, making the sacrifices, reciting the prayers, and singing the hymns, with no faith, no passion, no love, and no joy.  They gave an external salute to the things of God, but they completely missed the essence of it.  So, God thundered to His people through the voice of the prophets, calling them back to love for Him.  But never did the prophets say that inasmuch as the people had corrupted the forms, God was going to dispense with them.  The forms, externals, and rituals were not the problem; it lay in the hearts of the people.  (RC Sproul, St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary: Matthew, 672)


The Pharisees did not recognize the predicament of original sin, so they regarded themselves as being capable of keeping the law.  But the law they worked so strenuously to fulfill was only a caricature of God’s law.  All their ceremonial washings did nothing to cleanse their hearts, where the real uncleanness was.  (G. J. and M. J. Albrecht, The People’s Bible: Matthew, 331)


If you dismember your body to the point where you could never murder or even look hatefully at another, never commit adultery or even look to lust, your heart could still be full of anger, contempt, and obsessive desire for what is wrong, no matter how thoroughly stifled or suppressed it may be.  “From within, out of the heart of men, the thoughts of evil proceed:  fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, acts of greed and iniquity, as well as deceit, lewdness, the envious glare, blasphemy, arrogance and foolishness–all of these evils come from inside and pollute the person” (Mk 7:21-23).  (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 167-8)


All followers of Christ need to be reminded that religion is a subtly dangerous cover-up for spiritual deadness.  We go to church, we attend the small group, we read the Bible, we go through the motions, we check off the boxes, but if we’re not careful, we can miss the point altogether.  In all our efforts at moral renewal, we only cover up the curse of sin that lies at the core of who we are.  (David Platt, Christ-Centered Exposition: Exalting Jesus in Matthew, 305)


They were painstaking about formal, ceremonial trivialities but were unconcerned about their hypocrisy, dishonesty, cruelty greed, self-worship, and a host of other serious sins.  They substituted outward acts of religion for the essential virtues of the heart.  (John MacArthur, The MacArthur NT Commentary: Matthew 16-23, 385)


The reason why so few believers “through the Spirit mortify the deeds of the body,” is, a forgetfulness that the work has to do first and mainly with the root of sin in the soul: “Make the tree good, and the fruit will also be good”; purify the fountain, and the stream will be pure.  Oh, were there a deeper acquaintance with the hidden iniquity of our fallen nature,–a more thorough learning out of the truth,–that “in our flesh there dwelleth no good thing,”–a more heartfelt humiliation on account of it, and more frequent confession of it before God,–how much higher than they now are would be the attainments in holiness of many believers!  (Octavius Winslow, Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul, 172)


Leo Tolstoy, who battled legalism all his life, understood the weaknesses of a religion based on externals.  The title of one of his books says it well:  The Kingdom of God Is Within You.  According to Tolstoy, all religious systems tend to promote external rules, or moralism.  In contrast, Jesus refused to define a set of rules that his followers could then fulfill with a sense of satisfaction.  One can never “arrive” in light of such sweeping commands as “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. . . Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  (Philip Yancey; What’s so Amazing About Grace?, 197)


Christ, with a view to the advantage of the simple and ignorant, tore off the deceitful mask which the scribes held wrapped around them in empty hypocrisy; for this warning was advantageous to simple persons, that they might quickly withdraw from the jaws of wolves.  Yet this passage contains a general doctrine, that the children of God ought to desire to be pure rather than to appear so.  (John Calvin, Commentaries, Vol. XVI, 94)


There is nothing that can be done with anger that cannot be done better without it.  The sense of self-righteousness that comes with our anger simply provokes more anger and self-righteousness on the other side.  (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 151)


Self-righteous service picks and chooses whom to serve.  Sometimes the high and powerful are served because that will ensure a certain advantage.  Sometimes the low and defenseless are served because that will ensure a humble image.  True service is indiscriminate in its ministry.  It has heard the command of Jesus to be the “servant of all” (Mk 9:35).  Brother Francis of Assisi notes in a letter, “Being the servant of all, I am bound to serve all and to administer the balm-bearing words of my lord.”

Self-righteous service is affected by moods and whims.  It can serve only when there is a “feeling” to serve (“moved by the Spirit” as we say).  Ill health or inadequate sleep controls the desire to serve.  True service ministers simply and faithfully because there is a need.  It knows that the “feeling to serve” can often be a hindrance to true service.  The service disciplines the feelings rather than allowing the feeling to control the service.  (Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 129)


“Being conformed to the image of Christ has more to do with our honesty than our purity.”  (Steve Brown; Steve’s Letter, June 2000)


Being truthful when you know it will cost you is the true test of honesty.


He that performs duty without the heart, that is, heedlessly, is no more accepted with God than he that performs it with a double heart, that is, hypocritically.  (John Flavel, Keeping the Heart, 22)


V-  It has blinded them to see Who Jesus really is and His great love for them.  (Whole Bible see also: Rom 1:18-32; 1 Cor 1:18-2:16)


I discovered an astonishing truth:  God is attracted to weakness.  He can’t resist those who humbly and honestly admit how desperately they need him. (Jim Cymbala; Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire, 19)


John Newton, a minister, once wrote a letter to a man who was very depressed.  Take note of what he said:

You say you feel overwhelmed with guilt and a sense of unworthiness?  Well, indeed you cannot be too aware of the evils inside of yourself, but you may be, indeed you are, improperly controlled and affected by them.  You say it is hard to understand how a holy God could accept such an awful person as yourself.  You then express not only a low opinion of yourself, which is right, but also too low an opinion of the person, work, and promises of the Redeemer, which is wrong.  You complain about sin, but when I look at your complaints, they are so full of self-righteousness, unbelief, pride, and impatience that they are little better than the worst evils you complain of.  (John Newton, The Works of the Rev. John Newton, Vol. VI, 185)  (Timothy Keller, King’s Cross, 90)


The elder brother is not losing the father’s love in spite of his goodness, but because of it.  It is not his sins that create the barrier between him and his father, it’s the pride he has in his moral record; it’s not his wrongdoing but his righteousness that is keeping him from sharing in the feast of the father.  (Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God, 35)


Godly righteousness, the kind defined by Jesus, is not defined only by conduct but by the motivation as well.  (Tullian Tevidgjian; Life Without God – Pt 9)



Worship Point:  Worship Jesus, the only One ever to bring worship worthy of the God of the Universe and Who makes it possible for His worship to become our worship by our being “In Christ”.  (Isa 29:13; Ez 33:31; Mt 15:8-9; Mk 7:6-7; Jn 4:23-24)


Every time I think I can fix it (my sin problem or FWS) I lower the holiness of God.  — Steve Brown


I constantly hear people saying, “At our church, we have no liturgy.”  How can a church have no liturgy?  Every church has something. The service follows some order; it is not simply chaos.  In truth, such churches have just exchanged one form for another, one external for another.  We must remember that God Himself designed the worship for His people, and when He did so, He commanded them to worship Him with the forms, the externals, and the rituals He designed.  But we do well to remember Cain and Abel.  It is not enough to worship by the forms only; we must worship in faith, in spirit, and in truth.  We must never neglect the internal realities, beginning with sincere love for God.  (RC Sproul, St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary: Matthew, 672)


The Law is a divinely sent Hercules to attack and kill the monster of self-righteousness and to show us every day just how desperate we need God’s grace. —Martin Luther  (Tullian Tevidgjian, Life Without God – Pt 7)


Gospel Application:  I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.  I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. (Phil 3:8b-9 see also Rom 1:16-17; 10:4; 2 Cor 5:21)


The good news of the Gospel is founded upon Who Christ is and what He has done.  Not upon who we are and what we have done.  If you find yourself depressed or discouraged because you do not feel you can keep up this Christian life, then this is an indication that you are a slave to self-righteousness and you are counting on what you are and what you have done instead of Christ.  Cheer up.  You are a whole lot more sinful than you think.  But cheer up!   God is much more forgiving, gracious, merciful, and loving than we ever dreamed or imagined.  — Pastor Keith


Heidelberg Catechism: Question number 60   Q. How are you right with God?


  1. Only by true faith in Jesus Christ (Rom 3:21-28; Gal 2:16; Eph 2:8-9; Phil 3:8-11).

Even though my conscience accuses me of having grievously sinned against all of God’s commandments and of never having kept any of them (Rom 3:9-10), and even though I am still inclined towards all evil (Rom 7:23), nevertheless, without my deserving it at all (Ti 3:4-5), out of sheer grace (Rom 3:24; Eph 2:8), God grants and credits to me the perfect salvation, righteousness, and holiness of Christ (Rom 4:3-5; Gen 15:6; 2 Cor 5:17-19; 1 Jn 2:1-2), as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, as if I had been perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me (Rom 4:24-25; 2 Cor 5:21).

All I need to do is to accept this gift of God with a believing heart (Jn 3:18; Acts 16:30-31).


Q61.  Why do you say that by faith alone you are right with God?


  1. It is not because of any value my faith has that God is pleased with me.  Only Christ’s satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness make me right with God (1 Cor 1:30-31).  And I can receive this righteousness and make it mine in no other way than by faith alone (Rom 10:10; 1 John 5:10-12).


Q62.  Why can’t the good we do make us right with God, or at least help make us right with him?


  1. Because the righteousness which can pass God’s scrutiny must be entirely perfect and must in every way measure up to the divine law (Rom 3:20; Col 3:10; Dt 27:26).  Even the very best we do in this life is imperfect and stained with sin (Isa 64:6).


Spiritual Challenge:  Recognize your proclivity towards self-righteousness and seek to allow Jesus to destroy that proclivity and become truly righteous “In Christ.”  (Psa 51:2-5; Prv 4:23; Isa 64:6; Jer 17:9; Mt 15:1-20; Rom 1:16-17; 3:10-23; 10:4)


Jesus again sets forth the impossible standards of His kingdom righteousness.  All people are murderers and adulterers.  Many do not realize that they are because of the subtlety of sin and its blinding effect on the mind.  Jesus does not suggest that the scribes and Pharisees, or anyone else, could deliver themselves from the propensity to sin.  As always, the impossibility that He sets forth has a twofold purpose:  to make men and women despair of their own righteousness and to seek His.  The Lord’s remedy for a wicked heart is a new heart, and His answer for our helplessness is His sufficiency.  (John MacArthur, The MacArthur NT Commentary: Matthew 1-7, 305)


The sign of the Fall is our attraction to self-righteousness. (Steve Brown; “The Vulnerability of Our Witness”, Gal 2:11-21)


Outward practices can never change a man.  Only a renewal of his heart will bring real change.  (RC Sproul, St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary: Matthew, 671)


Self-righteous legalists point to the law to show what they CAN do.   Christians who are saved by grace point to the Law to show what they cannot do and what drives them to Christ.


In its religious form, self-righteousness is a conviction that one is better than others, morally, spiritually, or theologically. Yet the word has come to connote something more than that:  it is the spurious view that one is not like other people. Self-righteous people always think they speak as outsiders. The religious man opened his prayer with an interesting statement:  “God, I thank you that I am not like other men” (Lk 18:11).  (Steve Brown, What Was I Thinking?, 131)


A number of years ago a particular denomination issued a report on human sexuality.  Among other things, it suggested that we should no longer label as sin such things as fornication, homosexuality, adultery, or pornography.  When I heard of the report I was so angry that I literally could not speak.  I apologized to the congregation, sat down, and tried to compose myself.

Never before had I experienced anger that made me speechless.  Usually, the angrier I become, the better I talk.  After praying about it, I realized that for one of the few times in my life, I was experiencing the anger of God–and it was a fearsome thing to behold!

Listen carefully:  God was not angry because of the sin of homosexuality, fornication, adultery, or pornography.  Does that surprise you?  God was angry–and I believe that I expressed that anger in my speechlessness–because the report had said that sin was not sin, thus burning the bridge of repentance, which is the only real source of power for the Christian.  The report’s horror was not that it seemed to forgive some horrible sin.  God does that all the time.  The report’s horror was that it said that there was no need for forgiveness.  (Steve Brown, Born Free, 158-9)


Ministries which attack only the surface of sin and fail to ground spiritual growth in the believer’s union with Christ produce either self-righteousness or despair, and both of these conditions are inimical to spiritual life.  Dynamics Of Spiritual Life. (Richard F. Lovelace; An Evangelical Theology of Renewal, 214)


It’s been observed in surveys that the average person believes he is better than the average person.  We are blind to our own blindness.  (David Jeremiah, Captured by Grace, 69)


The careless heart is an easy prey to Satan in the hour of temptation; his principal batteries are raised against the heart; if he wins that, he wins all, for it commands the whole man:  and alas! how easy a conquest is a neglected heart!  It is not more difficult to surprise such a heart, than for an enemy to enter that city whose gates are opened and unguarded.  It is the watchful heart that discovers and suppresses the temptation before it comes to its strength.  (John Flavel, Keeping the Heart, 33)


Legalism claims that overt action in conforming to rules for explicit behavior is what makes us right and pleasing to God and worthy of blessing.  Jesus called legalism “the righteousness…of the scribes and Pharisees” (Mt 5:20).

Legalism, superstition and magic are closely joined by their emphasis on controlling people and events.  Legalists are forced toward superstitious behavior because, in the interest of controlling life through their laws, they depart from the natural connections of life.  They bypass the realities of the heart and soul from which life really flows.  That is why Jesus tells us we must go beyond the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees if we are truly to enter into life.

Life does not come by law (Gal 3:21), nor can law adequately depict or guide life.  The law is the letter, and “the letter kills, but the spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6).  Legalists are evermore forced into merely symbolic behavior, which they superstitiously suppose to have the good effects they seek.  Magic or superstition, as is well known, also place absolute emphasis on doing everything “just right,” which is the essence of legalism.  (Dallas Willard, Hearing God, 183)


Take a moment to picture the scene again.  There is the Lord, whose kind but searching glance is able to see the wounds that shame would hide.  Every word He speaks is another nail in His coffin, so to speak.  He knows that He is on His way to the cross.

There are the disciples, aghast at the Lord’s frontal attack on the powerful religious leaders of the nation.

There are the multitudes.  They have thought vaguely about the pretensions of the leaders, but have never been able or willing to put their thoughts into words.  Never in all their experience had anyone else spoken so succinctly, bluntly, and boldly about hypocrisy.

And there are the scribes and Pharisees in their fine raiment.  They are stunned, shocked, and stabbed to the heart, for they have been thoroughly exposed by the preacher from Nazareth.  Will they repent?  No.  Revenge is their word.  They will have this man who claims to be their King dead and in His tomb before the week is out.  (John Phillips, Exploring the Gospels: Matthew, 439)


Without being bound to the fulfillment of promises, we would never be able to keep our identities; we would be condemned to wander helplessly and without direction in the darkness of each man’s lonely heart, caught in its contradictions and equivocalities—a darkness which only the light shed over the public realm through the presence of others, who confirm the identity between the one who promises and the one who fulfills, can dispel. (Hannah Arendt http://quotes.dictionary.com)


So What?:  Trusting in your perceived self-righteousness is death.  Trusting in the righteousness of Christ is life eternal.   The best way to destroy your perceived self-righteousness is to allow Christ to cultivate a broken and contrite heart.  (Ps 51:17; Lk 18:9-14)



The real difference between a Christian and a non-Christian is not their attitude toward sin… . the difference is their attitude toward their good deeds.  The Pharisee repents of sin, but the Christian repents of his or her “righteousness” as well, seeing it not only as insufficient, but sinful itself, since it was done in order to save ourselves without Christ.  (Tim Keller, The Content of the Gospel, 27)


Here is a spiritual principle regarding the grace of God; To the extent you are clinging to any vestiges of self-righteousness or are putting any confidence in your own spiritual attainments, to that degree you are not living by the grace of God in your life.  (Jerry Bridges; Transforming Grace; Living Confidently in God’s Unfailing Love, 33)


It is not your sin that will keep you out of heaven.  Jesus died to take care of that.  What will keep you out of heaven is your damnable perceived self-righteousness which causes you to think you do not need Jesus.


“When we call sin “not sin” we burn the bridge back to God because we can’t repent of something we don’t think is wrong.” (Steve Brown; Romans Tape 2 Side 2)


Pride in his good deeds, rather than remorse over his bad deeds, was keeping the older son out of the feast of salvation.  The elder brother’s problem is his self-righteousness, the way he uses his moral record to put God and others in his debt to control them and get them to do what he wants.  His spiritual problem is the radical insecurity that comes from basing his self-image on achievements and performance, so he must endlessly prop up his sense of righteousness by putting others down and finding fault.  As one of my teachers in seminary put it, the main barrier between Pharisees and God is “not their sins, but their damnable good works.”  (Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God, 77)


I know of only two alternatives to hypocrisy:  perfection or honesty.  Since I have never met a person who loves the Lord our God with all her heart, mind, and soul, and loves her neighbor as herself, I do not view perfection as a realistic alternative.  Our only option, then, is honesty that leads to repentance.  As the Bible shows, Gods’ grace can cover any sin, including murder, infidelity, or betrayal.  Yet by definition grace must be received, and hypocrisy disguises our need to receive grace.  When the masks fall, hypocrisy is exposed as an elaborate ruse to avoid grace. (Philip Yancey; What’s so Amazing About Grace?, 204)


Paul’s righteousness based on the Law brought him into direct conflict with the Truth.  He was a persecutor of true worshipers, as is everyone who tries to live by the Law.  Just as Cain could not tolerate Abel, those who seek to stand by their own righteousness find the presence of those who stand by faith in Jesus intolerable.  The righteousness of God, based completely on the atonement of the cross, strips away facades and lays bare the pride of man.  The cross is the greatest threat to man’s self-centeredness.  Paul testified to the Philippians that to know Christ he had to give up everything that he was.  When he perceived the righteousness of Jesus, he counted everything that he had so valued in life as rubbish (Phil 3:2-9).  (Rick Joyner, There Were Two Trees in the Garden, 23)


Our ambition should be to have a heart which never knows bitterness, envy, jealousy, hate or spite, but is ever full of love.  That is the standard; and again I think it is quite obvious that this is the point at which we often fail.  We have only a negative conception of holiness, and therefore we feel self-satisfied.  (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, 218)


If you get into a covenant relationship . . . you finally have a zone of security, a zone of safety a place where you can finally be yourself.  You see in a consumer relationship you are always marketing, you are always selling yourself, you’ve got to perform, you’ve got to meet the other person’s need or they’re out.  But in a covenant, in a marriage . . . you can finally have a zone of safety, you can finally get rid of the facades, you can finally let him know, her know about your insecurities.  You can finally be yourself.   (Tim Keller  message, “Love and Lust”)







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