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These are my notes from my ladies’ Sunday School class this morning. I’ll be posting the notes from my class here each week. Click here for last week’s lesson.

Through the Bible in 2014 ~ Week 45 ~ Nov. 2-8
Luke 18:15-21:38, Mark 11-13, John 12, Matthew 22-25
Woe Is We

Matthew 23

Background:
The Pharisees* were the movers and shakers in Jewish religious life. They held positions of authority in the Sanhedrin (Jewish governing council) and temple, and generally concerned themselves with keeping and enforcing what they perceived to be proper law and order within Judaism.

The main problem with the Pharisees (as Jesus so often, and rightly, pointed out) was that they had added hundreds of their own laws on top of God’s laws and equated the keeping of their laws with the keeping of God’s laws. We often look back through history and chide them for this (sometimes deservedly, sometimes hypocritically), but let’s keep something in mind: they had seen what disobedience to God’s law had caused. Warfare, siege, starvation, bloodshed, exile. It was horrific. But instead of seeking to love God with all their hearts and obey Him out of that love, they started “double fencing.” If God put up a “no trespassing” fence around, say, working on the Sabbath (doing your regular job/work instead of resting and worshiping), the Pharisees backed up about 100 yards and put up an additional fence to make sure you wouldn’t break that law. You couldn’t walk more than a certain number of steps- that might lead to working. You couldn’t rub grain in your hands to hull it and eat it (Luke 6:1-2)- that was too much like working.

One of the things Jesus was trying to show people, including the Pharisees, was that a right relationship with God was about loving Him, not rule-keeping. This scared the Pharisees. It probably sounded too loosey-goosey. They were afraid that if Israel didn’t maintain strict adherence to the law, anarchy would break out and result in an even harsher judgment from God than they had previously experienced. And since Jesus was spearheading this movement away from the heavy burden of Pharisaical law, the Pharisees wanted to get rid of Him.

As we approach chapter 23, the Pharisees’ approach to getting rid of Jesus had been largely passive aggressive instead of direct. Hoping to show Jesus for the blasphemer they thought He was, they spent most of chapter 22 trying to trick Him into saying something they could nail Him on. Taxes, the resurrection of the dead (that was actually the Sadducees), the greatest Commandment. They couldn’t seem to trip Him up. Jesus, having answered all their thinly veiled questions, turns the tables on the Pharisees, and manfully addresses them, and their sin, directly, pulling no punches.

Intro to Woe (23:1-12)
Jesus prefaces what he is about to say to the scribes and Pharisees by addressing the disciples and the gathered crowd. He wants to make sure the people understand that there is a difference between God’s law, which is good, and the Pharisees’ perversion of God’s law, which is bad. The people were to keep God’s law as it was presented in Scripture (3), not as it had been built upon by the Pharisees. Furthermore, whatever good motive the Pharisees might have started out with in making all these extra laws (i.e. keeping the people from breaking God’s law), their motive had now morphed into attention and honor-seeking (3-7). They were no longer motivated by a genuine concern for God’s people and holiness, but by a desire for accolades and prominence. Jesus wanted the people to be careful not to fall into that trap themselves (8-10), especially the disciples, who would soon be heading up the New Testament church. They were to humble themselves and serve those they shepherded, not become “celebrity pastors.”

Woes 1&2 (13-15, Luke 3:8, Genesis 15:6)
It’s interesting that the Pharisees were so proud of their Abrahamic heritage (“We have Abraham for our father…” Luke 3:8) but they forgot what God declared to be the theme of Abraham’s life- righteousness through faith, not law-keeping:

And he [Abraham]believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness. Genesis 15:6

The Pharisees were believing and teaching a false doctrine of righteousness by works, not faith. They were teaching this both to the Jews under their care (13) and to any Gentiles who might be seeking the one true God (15). False doctrine, even if it sounds good and holy to the ear, even if it seems to be “Bible-ish,” even if it’s being preached by someone in religious authority, sends people to Hell. Jesus says so right here. The only gospel that saves is the one Jesus preached, the one that is true to God’s word.

Woe 3 (16-22, Matthew 5:34, Exodus 20:16, Proverbs 12:22, John 14:6)
These days, nobody seems to give a second thought to saying, “I swear to God,” to make people believe them, even when they’re lying. People place their hands on a Bible in court, swear to tell the truth, and then perjure themselves, fearing only the legal consequences, not the spiritual. The Pharisees were a little more concerned that God might zap them if they used His name to convince someone of their honesty, all the while deceiving him. Their deceitfulness was so pervasive that they had devised a list of things they could swear by that wouldn’t bring down God’s wrath even if they were lying. But they were only deceiving themselves. It didn’t matter what they swore by, because everything belongs to God and is under His control. God’s command is not to lie (Ex.). Period. He says that “lying lips are an abomination” (Pr.) The God who says, “I am THE TRUTH,” (Jn.) wants us to be so in love with truth that truth is all we speak, rather than seeing how many lies we can get away with.

Woe 4 (23-24)
The tithe didn’t really cover these tiny little herbs, but the Pharisees dutifully measured out a tenth of everything to show their righteousness. But they were so focused on the metrics of righteousness that they had lost the heart of righteousness. That’s why we see them, in several instances, not rejoicing that a blind or crippled person had been healed, but chastising Jesus for healing the person on the Sabbath. Notice that Jesus didn’t say they were wrong to tithe, only that they should not have forgotten to love and serve their neighbors while doing so. Their religion had become a rigid skeleton of laws and regulations, do’s and don’t’s. No heart, no flesh.

This is one that so many churches today are guilty of without even realizing it. When we focus on man-made rules and traditions to the extent that we don’t notice the people we’re trampling on in the process, or we cannot help people because we’ve backed ourselves into a corner with our own rules (and please notice, I’m talking about man-made rules here, not strict adherence to sound doctrine, which is required by Scripture), we are doing exactly what Jesus was scolding the Pharisees for.

Woes 5&6 (25-28, 1 Samuel 16:7b)
1 Samuel 16:7b says:

For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

And what Jesus saw in the Pharisees’ hearts was people who were dead (27) in their sins (25). They concerned themselves only with appearing righteous to others, not with the actual condition of their hearts. Because they were unsaved, the best the Pharisees could do was to put on a facade of holiness, and they worked hard to maintain that facade. Jesus tried to explain to them that if their hearts were right with God through faith, humility, and repentance, a righteous outward appearance would be a natural overflow of the righteousness inside. Righteousness isn’t about what we do, it’s about who we are in Christ. It isn’t about behaving like a good person, it’s about trusting in the only good Person who ever lived and having His goodness credited to our accounts.

Woe 7 (29-36)
Jesus is already pretty torqued, but you mess with His faithful servants, and He goes ballistic. Remember all the prophets we read about in our study of the Old Testament and the way many of them were treated? Many of them were murdered by God’s people simply for speaking God’s word to them. And here came the Pharisees, patting themselves on the back, decorating tombs, and saying, “Well, of course we would never have done such a thing.” Hogwash. They were already plotting to kill Jesus (in fact, by now, they had already tried stoning Him and throwing Him off a cliff), and they would go on to martyr 11 of the 12 apostles as well as others of Jesus’ followers in the early church era. Anybody who spoke the truth of God rather than what the Pharisees wanted to hear was in just as much danger as an unpopular Old Testament prophet.

Some Christians are very much the same today. They read the gospel accounts of the Pharisees plotting against, and crucifying, Jesus and think to themselves, “I would never do that,” but if a fellow Christian calls them to repent of obvious sin, or shows them that they’re following false doctrine or a false teacher, they immediately attack that person as “judging,” “unloving,” “divisive,” etc.

Whoa (37-39)
Christ’s public teaching ministry was over with this final diatribe. Having completed these seven woes, what is His tone? Is it angry? Condemning? No, it is sorrowful. One of the defining characteristics of Jesus is that, no matter how much we have sinned, He loves us. And, in the same way you can be absolutely furious with your child yet still love him, Jesus loved these Pharisees. It grieved Him that they preferred their sin of a fake relationship with God to a real relationship with God. God is not the cruel taskmaster the Pharisees’ endlessly burdensome law-keeping implied. In Christ, there is freedom from the yoke of the law– the freedom to love God and obey Him from the heart. That’s what Jesus wanted for the Pharisees. He didn’t want to punish them; He wanted to set them free. Free from duty and drudgery. Free from facades and fear. Free to rest in Christ and enjoy their Father rather than slaving away for Him.

And that’s what Jesus wants for us, too. He obeyed the Law perfectly for us so we wouldn’t have to (because we can’t). And when we trust that He did that for us, He gives us the righteousness that He earned with His law-keeping. Jesus sets us free from the need to strive, to try harder, to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. He sets us free to love and enjoy Him.

Whoa.

*Who Were the Sadducees and the Pharisees? by Got Questions?

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