Moments after a baby is born a debate begins. “Whom does the baby look like?” Some say the baby looks just like dad. Others say the baby looks just like mom. Some wise guy will always chime in that the baby looks a great deal like the postman.
As our children get older the family resemblance comes out in ways we often would rather not celebrate. We cringe when we watch our children strike out in anger just like we do. We are saddened when we observe our child avoiding problems as we do. We are embarrassed when others tease our child because of some physical oddity they inherited from us. Like it or not, there are some things we are bound to inherit from our relatives.
In the last of the woes of Jesus to the Scribes and the Pharisees, Jesus talks about the family resemblance that these leaders had to their relatives.
29 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. 30 And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers!
Jesus announced that the Pharisees were hypocrites because they built tombs for the prophets and decorated those tombs even though they were descended from the very people who had killed those prophets.
On first read this seems like an irrelevant and perhaps unfair criticism. God declared that a son should not be put to death for the sins of their father. For example, just because I come from German descent that does not mean I should be held responsible for the acts of Adolf Hitler. Just because someone is of Japanese descent doesn’t mean we should blame them for Pearl Harbor. And, just because someone is from the Middle East, doesn’t make them a terrorist. So it would seem that just because someone was a relative of one who was involved in killing the prophets, shouldn’t mean that they should be condemned.
The Pharisees and Scribes recognized that what their forefathers did was wrong. They were quick to say: “We would not have ever taken part in such activities.”
However, Jesus is not condemning these men because of the actions of their fathers. He is condemning them because they have learned nothing from the sin of their fathers. They talk a good game but they are really just a “chip off the old block”.
We see this when Jesus says, “Fill up then the measure of the sin of your forefathers!” Remember, that Jesus was speaking these words probably during the last week of His life. At the very moment Jesus was talking, they were planning ways to kill Him! These men who said they would never have killed the prophets were plotting to kill the supreme prophet and King!
In a matter of days these men would be conspiring with Herod and Pilate to have Jesus executed. They would overlook their own safeguards about proper legal procedure, convene a kangaroo court, bring in witnesses who were bribed and couldn’t agree on their story, and choose the release of a terrorist over Jesus; all so they could silence Christ. And then, the irony in the story of the trial is found in John 18:28: “Then the Jews led Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness the Jews did not enter the palace; they wanted to be able to eat the Passover.”
Do you get this? They were breaking all kinds of laws to get Jesus executed while at the same time being careful they didn’t become “unclean” which would disqualify them from the Passover celebration!
Because of this callousness, Jesus says,
“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? 34 Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. 35 And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36 I tell you the truth, all this will come upon this generation.
Jesus told these men that He was going to send prophets, wise men, and teachers and they would try to kill them all also. Of course, we know that this is exactly what happened. The Jewish leaders sought to kill the members of the early church. They went from town to town seeking to put them to death. One of those people who traveled from town to town was Paul. Because of the hostility created by these men, every disciple except possibly for John was martyred.
Jesus told these leaders that God had had enough. He was going to avenge the deaths of Abel (the first martyr in the Old Testament) through Zechariah, son of Berekiah (the last prophetic martyr in the Old Testament) and he was going to do it in the lifetime of these leaders. Putting to death the Son of God would be the last straw. History tells us that in less than 40 years from this date, Jerusalem was flattened. The temple was gone (and it has not been rebuilt since) and the people we scattered everywhere.
The Pharisees and the Scribes stood in a position where they claimed to represent God but actually, they were opposing Him.
So, what should be our response to this diagnosis of the heart of these religious leaders that we have been studying? First, there are some wrong responses. The first is indifference. We could simply shake our heads and say, “My what horrible people these were”. We could walk away having added information to our notebooks but be unaffected in our hearts. We can dismiss these words as irrelevant to our lives.
The Second wrong response is to come up with a list of more rules. In our zeal to do a better job of following Christ, we will enact “legislation” to help us accomplish our goal. We decide what is appropriate worship, what is the correct form of evangelism, what is the right way of governing the church, and even what pleasures we can and cannot enjoy. Even though these “rules” are well-meaning, they are missing the point. These rules starting being our focus. Before we know it, we are just like the Pharisees: we will be acting religious but our hearts will be far from God.
We can never find forgiveness and eternal life by keeping rules. Even on our best days we fall far short of God’s requirements. Even if we got to Heaven and God said, “Look, I’ll let you throw out your three (or even three hundred) worst days” (which He won’t do), we would be in desperate straits. God not only measures our actions but also our hearts and our intentions. Our challenge is not to work harder, but to trust more fully. We can’t be saved by our “doing”. We find new life through an undeserved forgiveness and a radical transformation that only come from Jesus Christ.
The third wrong response is to beat yourself up for your failures. During our study I have seen that many of the things Jesus condemned in the leaders of Israel, are also faults that are found in me. I have a choice: I can beat myself up or I can run to the cross! I can withdraw, or I can open my arms and plead for mercy. I can despair, or I can trust.
So, how should we respond to these words to Jesus to the Scribes and Pharisees? First, we should have an attitude of humility. As we look at the Pharisees we should realize that these men thought they were right. They believed they were serving God even thought they were fighting Him. That same thing can happen to anyone. Before we know it we can find ourselves feeling smug in our own sinfulness. We can convince ourselves that evil is good.
How easy it is to drift. How simple it is to rationalize sin. How proficient we are at feeling that we have “arrived”. If we learned anything from this study, I hope we have learned that we can be filled with confidence, and even a sense of righteous indignation, and still be dead wrong. It CAN happen to us. We can be so attached to our traditions, our preferences, and our experiences, that we stop being open. We cease to be teachable and start becoming hard. And we can do this while looking and feeling quite spiritual!
I learned this lesson the hard way, just like most of us do. My Pastor when I was growing up became my mentor in ministry. He had moved to Michigan and I went and served as an intern for a summer. After I finished graduate school I took an Associate’s position under this man for whom I had the utmost respect. The 20 months I served the church (I left because of the crash of the auto industry) were some of the most joyful months I’ve ever had in ministry.
A few years later I was contacted by this church and asked if I was interested in coming back to replace my mentor. After asking some questions I found out what had happened. This minister had had and continued to have an adulterous relationship with one of the members of the church! He went on to get a divorce, as did the woman involved in the adultery. Two families were torn apart and an entire congregation was left disillusioned.
To say the least, I was devastated. Maggie and I felt like our own marriage had been tainted, since this Pastor performed our wedding ceremony. I was angry, but then I was sobered. The realization hit me that if this kind of thing could happen to my friend . . . it could happen to me. It was one of the most humbling experiences of my life.
Jonathan Edwards in his “resolutions” for life resolved,
To act, in all respects, both speaking and doing, as if nobody had been so vile as I, and as if I had committed the same sins, or had the same infirmities or failings, as others; and that I will let the knowledge of their failings promote nothing but shame in myself, and prove only an occasion of my confessing my own sins and misery to God.
Edwards had it right. When we see the sin of the Pharisees and the Scribes, we should be humbled in our own walk before God.
Second, we should renew our Focus. Matthew 23 has reminded us,
- We should focus on developing our relationship with God rather than trying to be popular.
- We should submit to Scripture and not the opinions of men. Sure, we should read the works of great men of God. However, we must read to gain insight into the Word . . . not as a replacement for the Word. The bottom line question always must be: “what does Scripture say?” There will undoubtedly be times when we will disagree on some of our interpretations. In those times, we must go back to the Bible and we must always start with the possibility that we might be wrong. We should go to the Scriptures not to find verses to prove WE are right . . . we should be trying to learn what IS right. When we stop being teachable we become an obstacle to the advance of the Kingdom.
- We are reminded that we should be pursuing a servant heart rather than status. In other words, we should look for ways to serve rather than demanding that we be served. We should be willing to listen, willing to give the benefit of the doubt, and always looking for a way to honor God in our acts of love.
- We should trust the leading of God’s Spirit rather than the programs of men. We should pursue what honors God rather than simply what “works”.
- We should be trying to live out our salvation rather than trying to live FOR our salvation.
Somewhere along the line the Scribes and Pharisees lost their focus. Our job is to make sure that we learn from their mistake.
Third, We Should Be Discerning. The people of Jesus day assumed that because these men were of the ruling class and because they were educated in the law . . . they must be obeyed and followed. They were wrong.
Over the history of the church, people have gotten into trouble when they stopped weighing the truth or falsehood of those who were their teachers. The same is happening today. Too many people believe that because someone stands behind a pulpit, or quotes a string of Bible verses, or writes books, or has a media ministry . . . they are reliable teachers. If we have seen anything from Matthew 23 we should have learned that this is not necessarily so.
We live in a society that has become intellectually lazy. We have become a most gullible society,
- We assume that something that is in the paper, on television, on the radio or in the news must be true.
- We feel if something is more expensive it must be of higher quality
- We believe if something is popular it must be good.
- We have bought the notion that freedom requires that everyone be able to do whatever he/she wants to do. It’s a nonsense idea. There have to be limitations on freedom or society would be in chaos. The real question is: “who should define the parameters of our freedom?”
- We mistakenly conclude that any book sold in a Christian Bookstore, must be solid. We also assume that everything written by a faithful scholar (or preached from a faithful pulpit) must be true.
- We assume that something that brings us pleasure must be from God
- We tend to believe that if someone quotes Bible verses for their position, it must be Biblical.
This kind of thinking (or lack thereof) is deadly. If we do not guard the truth, we will lose the truth. If we don’t think clearly we will be giving the Devil permission to move us in the direction of the world. The bottom line is that we need to be active in maintaining our relationship with the Lord. Shortcuts and Laziness lead to compromise and drifting.
The Pharisees and the Scribes would have been much better off to actually listen to what Jesus was saying. If they had paid attention, they might have seen that this man understood the Scriptures, He loved God, and the power of God pulsated through Him. If they had listened they would have learned that this Jesus was the very One whom God provided to take away their sin and ours. He was the One who could transform their lives and their hearts. In short, they would have been saved rather than lost.
Now, the question is this: will we learn from their mistakes or will we repeat them?