A person once wrote, “You can be sure that when someone says, “I hope you won’t mind me saying this. . . “ you are going to mind.”
Criticism is difficult to take. We would rather people congratulate us on what we are doing right than point out what we are doing wrong. Some people seem to relish pointing out the faults of others. However, there are others who admonish us because they love us. They aren’t trying to feel superior or manipulate us to do what they want . . . they simply want to help us grow in our relationship with Jesus Christ. These are among our most cherished friends.
The rebuke of a friend can turn us from danger. A pointed observation can turn us from a time of stagnation to a time of growth.
In Matthew 23:13-26 Jesus has some pointed criticism of the religious leaders of the day. Jesus is telling the truth in the hope that the truth might awaken some of the one’s He is criticizing and warn those who are listening. There are at least seven different indictments in this passage.
Jesus begins each with the word “Woe”. The word “Woe” is an expression of extreme horror and grief. It is a statement of condemnation. It could be said that it is just the opposite of when Jesus says, “Blessed are you . . . “
In six of the seven “woes” Jesus begins by calling the Pharisees and Teachers of the law “Hypocrites”. The one exception is in verse 16 where he calls them “blind guides.” A Hypocrite was a play actor . . .a pretender.
This morning we look at verse 13,
13 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. [Mt. 23:13]
The teachers of the law and Pharisees were people who believed they were leading people to God. Jesus said they were keeping people FROM God. They were slamming the door in the face of those who wished to know God. They were leading people to Hell, not Heaven.
It is a devastating thought isn’t it? Those who think they are serving the advancement of the Kingdom might actually be hindering its’ advancement. Consequently we need to study these words carefully.
HOW BARRIERS ARE ERECTED
By Opposing Jesus. The primary way the Pharisees shut the door of Heaven was by speaking against Jesus. They told people He was working for the Devil. They said his miracles were sinful. They attacked Him personally and rejected His message fully. In doing so, they were turning people away from the source of salvation. Apart from Christ, no one can be forgiven or know eternal life.
There are those today who do the same thing. There are those in the so-called “Jesus Seminar” who tell us not to trust the words of Jesus in the Bible. They twist His words and try to re-make Him into their image. They explain away the plain teaching of our Lord. When they do so, they are shutting the door of the gospel in men’s faces.
By Our Neglect. We hinder people in their desire to know life with God by not telling them about Jesus. Deep within each person is a yearning for significance. There is a desire to know if there is “something more” to life than what we can see and touch. People are searching for a connection with something beyond this life.
We have the key that unlocks the door to this deeper life. We know where to find peace with God. When we don’t share the message of Christ with others we are like a person who watches someone frantically looking for something while all the time we holding the sought item behind his back. We are like a Doctor who withholds an antidote to a deadly poison or the treatment for a deadly disease. We are like those who refuse to throw a life preserver to one who is drowning. Our passive indifference has the same result as the active opposition of the Pharisees.
By Bad Example. Jesus told us in verse 3 not to do what the Pharisees do because they do not practice what they preach. There are many people who are turned off from the gospel because of the hypocrisy in the lives of people who call themselves Christians. People see church people devouring each other. They see people who profess to be Christians stealing from the job, cheating customers, participating in adulterous relationships, filled with the hatred of prejudice, abusing their families, indulging in drunkenness, consumed with an indulgent lifestyle, tearing down other churches, and other sinful practices. When others see this they conclude that there is nothing to the message of new life in Christ.
It is true that not everyone who calls himself a believer is a believer. It is also true that growth in the Christian life takes time. However, we must not sidestep the truth that when we profess Christ and live like the Devil we are hindering others from coming to Christ.
By Preaching a False Gospel. The Pharisees told people that the law would save them. They told them that if they worked harder they had a better chance of earning God’s grace. They pushed religion rather than a relationship with God. They pushed people to EARN salvation rather than teaching them to trust Christ for their salvation. That same message continues to be preached from pulpits.
There are other false gospels being taught. There are others who call themselves Christians and proclaim that everyone will go to Heaven in the end. These people neglect the clear words of Jesus about Hell. They give people a false security that keeps them from running to the cross of Jesus for forgiveness and new life.
There are pseudo Christian groups that lead people astray. These groups have Christian in their name (Like the Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints or Christian Science, or even Jehovah’s Witnesses) but they do not proclaim the truth of the Gospel. They have added to, subtracted from, and distorted the message of Scripture and are subsequently leading people astray.
There are those who preach politics. Walking with Christ certainly has political ramifications (just as it has economic, relational, and social implications). However, when we make the gospel and the conservative political agenda synonymous we distort God’s message. This approach invites people to reject Jesus because they don’t share our political agenda or opinions rather than because of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ.
There are those who preach a diminished gospel. A diminished gospel is one where we only tell part of the truth. In other words, we preach only that which is popular to our culture. Paul warned Timothy in 2 Timothy 4,
the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4 They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. 5 But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.
Paul knew that would be people who would preach what is popular rather than what is true. They will omit talk about sin, repentance, and judgment. They will preach what will please their listeners. They will become market driven rather than Scripture-driven.
A Pastor of one of the largest churches in America said, “I don’t talk about controversial things. I just want to talk about the love of Jesus.” This man didn’t talk about sin. He doesn’t talk about repentance (or turning away from sinful pursuits). He even refused to say that Jesus was the only way to Heaven. Yet, this man is considered to be one of the chief voices of the church today! This man gave up the truth so he could have a bigger crowd.
Suppose you went to see the Doctor because you weren’t feeling well. Suppose the Doctor read the test results with the nurse and discovered that you had early stages of cancer and needed surgery followed by radiation and perhaps chemotherapy.
Next suppose the Doctor came to see you and said, “We got the test results back and I don’t think it is really anything to worry about. Let me give you some pain medication and you should start feeling better.” As soon as you left the office, the nurse turns to the Doctor and says, “Why didn’t you tell him that he had cancer? If he doesn’t get treatment it will be too late and he will die!”
The Doctor says, “Well, I knew the idea of having cancer and needing these treatments might upset him. He’s my friend. I want him to be happy. If I tell him he needs surgery and chemotherapy he might be upset with me and I might lose him as a patient.”
Would you consider that Doctor to be competent? Would you consider him to be your friend? Of course not! Sometimes we have to hear difficult things before we can take corrective action. In the long run such behavior is only going to make things worse. When Christians do not preach the entire message of the gospel, when we refuse to talk about sin, repentance, and Hell, we are just like that Doctor.
Churches are filled with thousands of people who enjoy moral pep talks but who never hear the truth of the Bible. They listen to a popularized gospel that is really no gospel at all. This distorted gospel is simply serving to make people feel comfortable as they slide toward Hell. It is not opening the door to Heaven it is closing it.
When we proclaim any of these false gospels we are actually hindering people from following Christ rather than encouraging them.
BREAKING DOWN THE BARRIERS
So, what do we do? How do make sure we aren’t hindering people as they look for eternal life? Let me draw some quick principles.
We must enter into the Kingdom of God ourselves. Jesus said the Pharisees were not entering the Kingdom themselves. They felt godly, spiritual, and superior, but they would not follow Jesus. They didn’t like the idea that they were as sinful and lost as the next guy. They wanted to earn their own way. They wanted to, in effect, save themselves by their good deeds.
There are hundreds of people just like the Pharisees. They sit in the church. They believe they are God’s people. But they have not entered the Kingdom.
So the first thing we need to do is a personal inventory. Are you a true believer?
1. Do you recognize that you are a sinful person? Do you see the rebellious character of your own heart? Do you see the way you make excuses for your sin? Have you repented (or turned away from) all notions that you can earn your way into Heaven? Do you understand you deserve Hell?
2. Do you recognize Jesus as the only One who can save you? Do you understand that His death was for your sin? Do you believe His promise that those who put their trust in Him will have eternal life?
3. Have you surrendered your life to Christ? Have you put all your confidence in His ability rather than your own? Are you willing to turn from your sinful ways and begin to trust His guidance for your life?
If you cannot answer yes to these questions, then it is likely that you have not entered in to the Kingdom of Heaven. I encourage you to confess the things that are hidden in your heart and ask God to cleanse you and to make you new. Run to the cross of Jesus and take hold of the life He offers.
Second, We need to Cut Out the Middleman. We are susceptible to false teaching because we rely on other people to tell us what God is saying. It is time for Christians to get back to the Bible. It is time that we learn to pray and have a vital relationship with God. We must seek God ourselves. Our calling is not to proclaim the message of contemporary psychology, politics, or American culture. Our job is to proclaim the truth of God’s Word. We can’t do that and we can’t recognize error, unless we know the truth ourselves. I encourage you to develop a personal knowledge and understanding of God and the Bible.
We need to stick to the Biblical Essentials. It is easy to confuse personal preference with Biblical essentials. We need to beware of making baptism, our interpretation of the events of the second coming, our style of worship, our denominational affiliation, our practice of communion, or interpretation on debated theological issues a test of faith. These items are secondary issues and not essential for salvation.
I was amused by this story from Max Lucado,
A bishop was traveling by ship to visit a church across the ocean. While en route, the ship stopped at an island for a day. He went for a walk on a beach. He came upon three fishermen mending their nets.
Curious about their trade he asked them some questions. Curious about his ecclesiastical robes, they asked him some questions. When they found out he was a Christian leader, they got excited. “We Christians!” they said, proudly pointing to one another.
The bishop was impressed but cautious. Did they know the Lord’s Prayer? They had never heard of it.
“What do you say, then, when you pray?”
“We pray, ‘We are three, you are three, have mercy on us.’ ”
The bishop was appalled at the primitive nature of the prayer. “That will not do.” So he spent the day teaching them the Lord’s Prayer. The fishermen were poor but willing learners. And before the bishop sailed away the next day, they could recite the prayer with no mistakes.
The bishop was proud.
On the return trip the bishop’s ship drew near the island again. When the island came into view the bishop came to the deck and recalled with pleasure the men he had taught and resolved to go see them again. As he was thinking a light appeared on the horizon near the island. It seemed to be getting nearer. As the bishop gazed in wonder he realized the three fishermen were walking toward him on the water. Soon all the passengers and crew were on the deck to see the sight.
When they were within speaking distance, the fisherman cried out, “Bishop, we come hurry to meet you.”
“What is it you want?” asked the stunned bishop.
“We are so sorry. We forget lovely prayer. We say, ‘Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be your name …’ and then we forget. Please tell us prayer again.”
The bishop was humbled. “Go back to your homes, my friends, and when you pray say, ‘We are three, you are three, have mercy on us.’ ”[1
Our job is not to make other people look and talk like we do. Our job is to introduce people to one who can change them forever.
It is always easier to see the fault in another than it is to see it in the mirror. As we study the woes of Jesus directed at the Scribes and Pharisees we need to remember that we can fall into the same patterns and mistakes that they were guilty of committing.
So let’s take this text personally. Look at your own life. Are you opening the door of the Kingdom of God to others or are you closing the door? Are you discouraging others from faith by your inconsistency, your emphasis on superficial things, or your embracing of false teachers? Are you a person “of the book”? Do you make time to read and study the Scriptures for yourself? Do you check what others teach by asking, “but is this biblical?”
Take a good look at your life. Repent where needed and return to the wonderful truth of the gospel of God’s grace. The message of the gospel is the most wonderful news we could ever share: God in His wonderful and marvelous grace has provided a way for us to know forgiveness from our sin and a life of fulfillment and purpose. He has done this through His Son, Jesus. It is a message we have the privilege of sharing with others. We need to make sure that we pass it on correctly.