Barriers To Belief

This morning we recount the story of what is known as the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, one week before the death and the Resurrection of Jesus. I am not going to assume that you know the story, even though most of you are familiar with it.

Jesus and his disciples came from Bethany (the hometown of Lazarus) into Jerusalem during Passover week. Passover is the equivalent of our Thanksgiving or Christmas. It commemorated God sparing the firstborn of Israel during the plagues in Egypt (where the firstborn son of every Egyptian was killed). Many made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the celebration. The roads were crowded and the town was full.

Jesus was now a well known celebrity. For three and a half years He had done miracles and taught with an uncommon authority. People knew who he was, and many concluded that he was the long awaited Messiah who would return Israel to its time of independence and dominance. As he entered town He created quite a stir.  People gathered along the road to Jerusalem to greet Him. They waved Palm branches and some put their coats on the ground in front of Him (like rolling out a Red Carpet).

Imagine with me the camera zooming in on Jesus as he ascends the path going into the Holy City. I suspect He was smiling. How do you resist smiling at others cheering for you? However, if you let the camera scan the crowd you see some dignified looking men overseeing the demonstration. They are not smiling, they are angry. They are Pharisees. We read about them in John 12:19

So the Pharisees said to one another, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!”

The Pharisees were known as the religious faithful. They revered the Word of God and were diligent about keeping the law of God. They would probably be people we would want teaching our classes or serving in leadership. To be called a Pharisee was an honored title.

The question we want to ask this morning is this: What happened to these men? How is it that they missed God’s promised Messiah? They not only missed Him – they executed Him! At this time when the crowd was opening their hearts to Jesus, the Pharisees were plotting his destruction. In John 11:57 we are told,

But the chief priests and Pharisees had given orders that if anyone found out where Jesus was, he should report it so that they might arrest him.

The reason we pose the question is not simply due to academic curiosity. It is deeper. The Pharisees remind us that you can be religious, you can read your Bible, you can be active in the church, and still be an opponent of Jesus. I don’t want that to happen to me . . . or to you. So the question I pose this morning is this: What happened to these men that turned sincere men into opponents of God?

They Emphasized A Works-Based Goodness 

The problem these guys had with Jesus was that He didn’t follow the established rules. He spent time with sinful people. He talked to women who had bad reputations, he touched dead bodies (to bring them back to life), and He even spent time with a Samaritan (a woman, no less). In some of His stories, Jesus made the Pharisees the bad guys and Samaritans and tax-collectors the good guys!  The Pharisees felt the only conclusion was that Jesus was a false teacher and needed to be stopped.

The Pharisees were passionate about trying to live a holy life (even though they did it selectively). Let’s give them credit for their sincerity. However, their underlying premise was all wrong. They believed if you did enough good things, you could earn favor with God.

Jesus spent His ministry trying to show that we are sinful and rebellious people in need of God’s grace. He wanted us to see that we could not save ourselves. We need God’s mercy, His grace, and His provision for our sin (Jesus). Jesus came to announce that ANYONE could have a relationship with God (no matter what their past record consisted of) if they would simply turn to Him. He came to let us know that God loved us.

It is true that a person who has a true relationship with Christ will live differently from those who have no such relationship. However, this behavioral change is a result of the new relationship and is not the basis of the relationship. The reason for this is that we need a new heart to truly live the life that God has called us to live. God will change us over time AFTER we have admitted our sin and embraced His grace.

Obeying rules does not necessarily equal a relationship with God any more than

  • Getting good grades = an education (lots of people can master the “system”)
  • Being married = having a committed relationship (you can be legally married without being truly committed to your spouse)
  • Being promoted in your job = competency in that job (people can be promoted for all kinds of reasons).

The Pharisees are not unique. We all tend to focus on rules. We like developing litmus tests to determine who is a true and who is a false believer (it helps us feel better about ourselves). Think about some of the tests we set up. We measure people based on,

  • Whether they sing hymns or choruses in worship or whether they sing to a worship band or an organ.
  • Whether the Pastor wears a suit, jeans, or a clerical robe
  • The frequency with which you take communion
  • Whether or not a church has “altar calls”
  • What experience you have had or haven’t had in relation to the Holy Spirit
  • How you view the sequence of events in the last days
  • What you feel is the appropriate percentage for giving
  • What version of the Bible you read
  • How much water you use in baptism
  • How we relate to words such as predestination, election, and eternal security
  • What political party you belong to
  • Where you stand on certain social issues (abortion, gay marriage, global warming)
  • Whether or not you engage in certain vices (smoking, drinking, swearing)

NONE of these things is a necessary condition for salvation! You can pass all the things on the checklist and still be outside of the family of God. You may still be without forgiveness! The ONLY thing necessary for a person to become a follower of Christ is to recognize their sinfulness while at the same time embracing who Jesus is and what Jesus did on their behalf. If a person has truly put their trust in Christ they are a believer, they are members of God’s Kingdom, and they are our brother or sister in Jesus Christ.

They Were Selective in Their Obedience 

The Pharisees knew what the Law of God said, but they didn’t always catch what it meant. Perhaps you have had that situation with one of your children. You tell them they are not to jump on their bed. In a little while you see them in the bedroom jumping on the bed. When you get angry they say “You said I couldn’t jump on MY bed you didn’t say I couldn’t jump on my sister’s bed!”

The Pharisees were great at obeying the letter of the law. Jesus spent a great deal of time showing that people were missing the point. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) Jesus said it was not enough just to never actually have killed anyone. He said the spirit of the law was that we should never be angry at another or wish them harm. It was not enough to merely avoid the act of adultery. He said even looking at a woman lustfully was a violation of the spirit of the Law. It was not enough to love your friends; Jesus said the spirit of the law was that they were to love even their enemies.

Jesus pointed out (as did the prophets) that many religious people feel good about their actions but overlook the general principle to do justice and show mercy. They overlook God’s command to care for widows and orphans. Over and over the Lord declared that He “desired obedience rather than sacrifice”. The point is that God is not concerned with what we know, if we are not willing to obey Him.

It is very easy to become unbalanced in our faith. We can be guilty of

Being experts in right doctrine while doing nothing to alleviate suffering

Being so concerned about social change that we give no thought to doctrine and the need for people to turn to Jesus Christ.

Being so concerned about experience that we are easily led astray into any teaching that “feels good” or sounds pleasant to our ears.

Being so concerned about false teaching that we are closed to any fresh leading from the Holy Spirit.

Contending for the faith so vigorously that we become contentious and obnoxious.

Wanting to integrate faith and politics so passionately that we are guilty of allowing our political viewpoint to become a test of faith.

Being so concerned about keeping politics out of faith that we forbid any religious influence in government at all.

If you watch someone walking on a tightrope you know that any good gust of wind can upset their balance and lead to a fall. The same is true for us. It is very easy to become imbalanced because of a passionate speech or a personal experience. One of the best ways to stay balanced is to listen intently to the entire Word of God. We must hear not only the words but the heart behind the words.

They Made Their Experiences Normative

The Pharisees assumed that their experiences, their talents and their gifts were normative. In their mind, if you were going to be a strong follower of the Lord of Heaven and earth, you needed to be like them.

This sounds arrogant but it is very common isn’t it? Don’t we all do this to some extent? If we have a particular experience with God we feel any “true follower” should have that same experience. If we feel called to a particular ministry or service project we feel everyone who is spiritual should follow the same path. If we have reached a particular conclusion about some controversial point of doctrine, we feel everyone who is “mature” will reach the same conclusion.

Why do we do this? I think it is because we conclude that if our experience or conclusions are different from others, one of us must be wrong . . . and we KNOW we aren’t wrong! We fail to grasp that people are at different places in their faith. The Holy Spirit gives us different gifts and passions and we have different experiences based on our needs and God’s design for our particular life.

It is true that there are some issues over which we must agree: Jesus either was God in the flesh or He wasn’t. The Bible is the Word of God or it is the Word of men. There is life beyond the grave or there isn’t. However, there is room for a wide variety of experiences, gifts, callings, and even different degrees of emphasis in various issues. We should embrace diversity rather than resist it.

We must guard against confusing unity with uniformity. Unity affirms that even though we come from different backgrounds, have different experiences, and are at different stages of growth, we are one in Christ. Uniformity insists that we must look and act the same.

The Bible says over and over that we are all one body but we have different functions within that body. So, rather than insist that you agree with me or you are going to Hell, let’s affirm essential Biblical truth while leaving room for a variety of different experiences.

They Idealized the Past

To the Pharisees the best days were the good old days of the past. They believed their traditions were sacred. Anyone who dared to do something different was considered a heretic.

It is easy to forget that the nation of Israel was often in conflict. The people either refused to change or they ran after every new teaching that came on the scene. The early church faced all kinds of problems. They fought internally, they debated theology, they struggled with racial equality (there was real resistance to embracing the Gentiles), and they had petty rivalries. The early church wasn’t that much different from us.

We drift toward the attitude of the Pharisees when we make the past into something it is not . . . the good old days. We have selective memories. We remember the victories but forget the battles. The people of God have always chaffed at anything that was new and different. Think about it . . .

The “hymns” of today were the contemporary songs some people resisted in the past.

Most denominations developed because of differences over some point of doctrine or expression.

There was a day when Christians were appalled because in worship men and woman sat together, or a woman didn’t wear a hat, or a man didn’t have on a shirt and tie.

In our own church we have debated about sound systems, air conditioning in the sanctuary, and multimedia.

Almost every new version of the Bible has been welcomed with a measure of resistance and a fear that it was undermining the true authority of the Word of God.

The point is this: instead of guarding our traditions, we should be trying to follow Christ! The Pharisees refused to listen to Jesus because He was not part of the status quo. This doesn’t mean we should run after every new gimmick or fad. But it also doesn’t mean we should elevate the “way we have always done things” to where it becomes a test of religious orthodoxy. 


So on this Palm Sunday what should we take away from this text?

1. Anyone can become a Pharisee if we are not careful. We like to throw rocks at the Pharisees but in truth they are not unlike us. This fact should cause us to regularly do an inventory of our lives.

Are we believing and preaching a false gospel? Are we telling people that if they would just be “good enough” they could earn a place in Heaven? Are we pushing people away from the Kingdom or are we preaching a message of God’s amazing grace?

Are we cherishing the status quo to the extent that we are no longer open to the work of God in our lives? Do we resist change simply because it is different? Are we overly critical of others because they are different from us?

Are we selective in our obedience? Are we proclaiming Christ yet resisting His authority and Word in parts of our lives?

Are we measuring other people by our experience rather than by the truth of Scripture?

2. Strive to Be Teachable. If the Pharisees had listened more closely to Jesus (rather than seeing Him as the competition) they would have learned something of eternal importance: they would have learned that Jesus was not the competition…He was the One they had been looking for all their lives. He had come to set them free from the frustration of trying to make themselves good enough. He had come to extend forgiveness, mercy, grace, and new life. 

We practice being teachable by being open to other people. We can be open to what they teach us whether they are protestant or catholic, male or female, old or young, conservative or liberal, a mature believer or a brand new believer. We must remember that in the past God spoke through a burning bush, a donkey, dreams, reluctant prophets, and even pagan emperors. Though we must remain discerning and measure all things by the Word of God; we must be ready to hear whenever and wherever God speaks to us.

Because the Pharisees would not listen; because they were threatened rather than open; because they were so preoccupied with guarding their “turf”; they missed the very One for whom they were waiting. Instead of embracing the Son of God; instead of experiencing His new life; instead of welcoming God’s Kingdom on earth; they put Jesus to death. They rejected the very One who came to rescue them from themselves.

Is this what is happening in you? Are your insecurities, guilt, and defensiveness keeping you from the very one who has come to make you new? The Lord is not waiting for you to “measure up” to some external standard. He knows about your scars, your failures, and your brokenness. He offers you forgiveness. He offers you a new beginning. He invites you to become a member of His family.

Don’t celebrate Palm Sunday and miss the Savior. Don’t settle for merely being religious. Listen to Jesus, run to Him, and believe that He can do what He promises. Unclench your heart, raise your hands, Sing Alleluia. He is the One you have been waiting for all your life. Don’t miss Him.

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