(Delivered Sunday, April 15, 2007 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
Many years ago, I was on a retreat at the Sunriver Resort with a small company I had just started working for. Obviously, I was eager to make a good impression on my new boss; and so, when he suggested that the two of us go together on a bike hike, I readily agreed. I thought about that bike hike as I studied this morning's passages, because it was during that short hike that I learned an important practical lesson in life: Never follow someone who doesn't really know where they're going.
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As we started off together in our exploration of the many routes and paths of Sunriver, I was given lots of instructions and directions about the different places we were going to go, and when we could expect to return. Dark clouds were beginning to form overhead; but I was told not to worry. My new boss said that we were only going a short distance and that we would be back in time for supper—long before the rains came. I, naturally, believed him.
I remember one particular point on our hike when we were overlooking a bluff where other folks were riding their bikes in the direction of the dark storm clouds that were rolling their way. "See those folks out there?" my boss asked me. "They're inexperienced in being outdoors. They're going to get drenched; because they're not planning ahead . . . like we are." And of course, I agreed. "Well; let's get on back home," he said. And off we went.
You can kind of tell where this story is going in advance, can't you? As you are probably figuring out, we both got so pathetically and hopelessly lost that we seriously began to doubt that we'd ever get back to our rental house before it was time to check out. We were hours late for dinner; and of course, they didn't keep dinner for us. But that was fine, because we were too wet and far too cold to eat anyway.
Now, to my credit, I never said a single word the whole time we were lost and disparately trying to find our way back. But I did do a lot of thinking. I thought things like, "'Short-trip,' eh?", "'Planning ahead,' is it?" My former boss and I are good friends to this day; but the experience did help to fix a principle in my mind: Never follow someone who doesn't really know where they're going.
Now; that was a pretty harmless misadventure. All that I ended up getting from it was 'wet' and 'hungry'. We all laughed about it later. But that same principle, when applied to matters of the soul, is unspeakably serious.
It that very principle that I believe the Lord Jesus would have us learn from this morning's passage from the fifteenth chapter of Matthew. It's a lesson that, sadly, very few people in this world learn—that when it comes to spiritual things, it is inexpressively dangerous to follow someone who doesn't really know where he or she is going. You can end up getting far worse than just cold and wet. (Actually, you can end up getting quite the opposite!)
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The broad subject in this section of Matthew's Gospel is “religion”. As followers of Jesus Christ, we know that we are not saved by a "religion". God does not call us into a "religion"; but rather into a "relationship"—a saving relationship with Himself through faith in His Son Jesus. People don't always understand the difference.
A "religion”, in the distinction I'm speaking of, is a system of man-created beliefs, and man-made rules and regulations, by which I seek to do something for God. And such a system of “religion” will never save me. But by contrast, the saving faith that the Bible calls us to is a matter of being in a "relationship" in which, by grace, I have placed my trust in what God has done for me through the cross of Jesus Christ. You might say that the key word in religion is “DO”; and the key word in a relationship with God through faith in Christ is “DONE”.
In this portion of Matthew's Gospel, Jesus is in a confrontational situation with the religious leaders of the day. Their focus is on the “DO” aspect of religion—what they believe they can "do" to earn God's favor. And as we have found in our study of this passage, it has much to teach us about the subject of "religion" in general.
It begins with the Pharisees and scribes confronting Jesus because of His failure—in their estimation, and according to their system—to hold to the ancient religious traditions of Judaism:
The first subject that Jesus touches on in this passage is that of "religious traditions". Jesus shows them that their "traditions"—which were strictly "man-made" religious traditions—had become so important to them, that they disobeyed the clear commands of God in order to keep those traditions. Thus, in this first portion, Jesus teaches us that—if we're not careful—religious "traditions" can actually became "transgressions" of the law of God.
After He spoke these words to the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus then turns to the crowds who were there and overheard this confrontation; and He corrected the misunderstanding that the religious teachers had instilled in the minds of the people through their tradition of ceremonial washing:
Jesus spoke this strange-sounding parable to the crowds—right there in front of the Pharisees who had just rebuked Him. And later on, Peter asked Him to explain what it meant:
And there, Jesus touches on another important subject when it comes to "religion": the subject of what it is that truly "defiles" someone. Jesus clarified the matter and brought it all into proper focus; teaching us that true defilement before God isn't a matter of what we put in our mouths—the foods we eat or abstain from. Rather, He shows us that it's a matter of what comes out of our mouths—that is, our words. What comes out of our mouths is a product of what's truly in our heart; and it's the stuff that comes out of our mouths that truly defiles us in God's sight.
These are very important principles to keep in mind when it comes to practices of "religion". And tucked between these two principles is the one that we'll focus on this morning. It has to do with the "teachers" and "leaders" of man-made systems of religion. And Jesus' words here warn us to keep in mind that spiritual principle that was suggested to me—the hard way—on my bike hike: that it's dangerous to follow someone who doesn't know where they're going.
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If the Lord wills, we will be spending more of our attention on that third principle next week—that true defilement comes, not from without, but from within. But before we do, let's look again at Jesus' first articulation of that principle. It sets the context for our passage this morning; and from it, we can glean some wonderful spiritual truths that relate to the whole subject of “leaders” and “teachers” in man-made religions.
First, notice that, after the Pharisees and scribes rebuked Jesus for not keeping to their man-made traditions of ceremonial washing—and after Jesus then rebuked them in return for placing their man-made traditions over the clear commandments of God—Jesus then turns from them and speaks directly to the crowds and teaches them the spiritual truth that the religious leaders had failed to either grasp or teach.
That alone was a very bold move on Jesus' part. He was demonstrating a characteristic about His teaching ministry that had previously amazed those who heard Him. After the Sermon on The Mount, people were astonished at His teaching, "for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes" (Matthew 7:29). He didn't look to the long-held traditions of scriptural interpretation and application that the Pharisees and scribes had developed and codified. He didn't quote 'Rabbi So-and-so', or Rabbi Such-and-such', in order to authorize what He said. He spoke as who He Himself was—the Son of God in human flesh, who taught divine truth under the direct authority of His heavenly Father. I can't help but think that this had a dramatic impact on those who saw it—that Jesus would, as it were, go 'over the heads' of the religious leaders and speak directly to the crowds.
What's more, I believe it showed the compassion and grace of our Lord that He would do so. He didn't speak these words of truth to the Pharisees and scribes—the learned and religious elite of the day. Rather, He called the common people to Himself and spoke to them. This reminds me of another wonderful truth about our Savior's redeeming love—one that's spoken of by Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31;
We also notice that Jesus begins with an invitation: "Hear and understand . . ." That's a very remarkable invitation. Jesus doesn't just invite them to "hear" this parable; but He also invites them to "understand" it.
Please stop and think about that. To "hear" what Jesus has to say, but to not "understand", is a very condemning thing. That was all that the Pharisees were able to do. They were like those whom Jesus had indicted before; saying,
The proud Pharisees and scribes "heard", but their minds were closed. They had not been given the ability to "understand." Only by an act of God's grace can anyone be enabled to both "hear" AND "understand"; and Jesus here offers that grace, not to the “proud” and “learned” religious leaders, but to the simple folk who had gathered around Him. The apostle Peter himself exemplifies the attitude that we should have—one that humbly seeks to be granted the ability to understand what Jesus says; because he, later on, asks Jesus, "Explain this parable to us" (v. 15).
I believe all of these things help us to appreciate the warnings that Jesus is about to give us concerning the "teachers" and "leaders" in man-made systems of "religion". In all of this, Jesus boldly sets Himself above the religious teachers of the day, and speaks the truth directly to His people. He corrects the errors of the teachers of man-made religion; and brings spiritual things back into their proper priorities. He shows us in this not to follow "unspiritual" and "unredeemed" men in matters of the Spirit. He warns us not to follow "leaders" who do not really know where they themselves are going.
I believe that this was what the apostle John was speaking of when he wrote,
“Teachers” and “leaders” are a necessary part of the church that Jesus has established on earth. The Bible tells us that Christ Himself “gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers . . .” (Ephesians 4:12). But they are “teachers” and “leaders” who teach us and lead us in truths that God has already authoritatively established—once for all-in the sure words of Scripture.
By contrast, teachers and religious leaders who invent something new for us have done so because they first departed from the truths given to us in God's word. And no matter how persuasive or convincing such teachers may be, it's dangerous to follow someone who—in the end—doesn't really know where they're going!
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So then; this is the context for the warnings Jesus is about to teach us in this passage. And apparently, the disciples were disturbed by it all. They came to Him and said, "Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?" (v. 12). They, no doubt, knew of the growing animosity that the religious leaders held toward Jesus. They must have known that the Pharisees had already "plotted against Him, how they might destroy Him" (Matthew 12:14). As they read the feeling of "offense" on the faces of the Pharisees, they were very possibly concerned for their own safety and that of the Lord. And so, they let Jesus know what they thought He didn't know—that He had offended them when He countered their traditions by turning to the crowd and saying what He said to them.
Now; I suspect that the Lord DID know that He offended them. He spoke what He said in a very public manner. But whether Jesus knew that He had offended the scribes and Pharisees or not, He goes on to address the matter to the disciples. And it's here that He gives us some basic principles we need to keep in mind concerning "teachers" and "leaders" of man-made religious systems.
First, notice how He speaks of . . .
1. THE DOOM OF 'MAN-MADE' SYSTEMS OF RELIGION.
Jesus answered them and said, "Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted" (v. 13).
What did He mean by "every plant"? There have been a variety of opinions. Some have said that it refers to the "teachers" or "leaders" themselves, who teach in contradiction to God's revealed will. Others have said that it refers to systems of religion that they develop. Still others say it refers to the doctrines and teachings that they disseminate. And others still, because of the immediate context, believe that it refers to the traditions that are developed as a result of those false systems. It may be that the phrase is intentionally broad, and that we should take it to mean that everything which our heavenly Father did not establish will one day be, as it were, "pulled up by the roots"—like a weed that is to be discarded.
I suspect that these words may have reminded the disciples of another parable that Jesus had already told them:
The point is clear, though; isn't it? Even though the Pharisees and scribes may have been offended at His rebuke of their system of religion—with all its trappings and traditions and teachings—it didn't matter. Their "system" was not something that the Father had planted; and so, it was ultimately doomed to be pulled up by the roots on the great day of judgment.
What strong words these are! And how great a warning they should serve to make sure that we give ourselves over exclusively to following Christ and obeying the commandments of God's word! What a warning it is that we not to allow ourselves to be associated with that which is not of God—with that which is doomed to be pulled up and cast away! These words remind us of Paul said in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15;
We must be discerning, dear brothers and sisters; and make sure that our faith is built on the foundation that will last—and not on that which is doomed to be pulled up by the roots!
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So then; Jesus first speaks of the doom of those systems of religion or tradition or philosophy that are not of God. That alone should be enough of an admonishment to keep away from them.
But next, we see that Jesus speaks of . . .
2. THE BLINDNESS OF THE LEADERS OF THOSE SYSTEMS.
It's interesting to me that, when the disciples came to Jesus to tell Him that He had offended the scribes and Pharisees, He didn't seek—in any way—to remove the offense. He didn't apologize, or try to explain Himself to them. Instead, He told the disciples, "Let them alone" (v. 14); or, as it's translated in the NIV, "Leave them."
Now; this wasn't because Jesus didn't care about offending people. Clearly, in some cases, He cared very much! For example, there was once a controversy about Jesus and the paying of the temple tax that was required of every Jewish person. Jesus maintained that it was not necessary for Him to pay the tax, because He—and those who followed Him—were the full realization of that for which the temple was meant to symbolize. And yet, He said, "Nevertheless, lest we offend them . . ."; and He then sent Peter off to "fish" for the tax money (Matthew 17:27).
But here, the situation was different. The scribes and Pharisees were not put-off because of some innocent misunderstanding or offense. Rather, they were setting themselves in opposition to the clear teaching of God's word. Jesus had cut it straight with them; and utterly countered their false teaching—and rather than repentant, they were offended. Their hearts were hardened toward the truth. And Jesus' response was to leave them in a state of offense. He neither sought their acceptance, nor feared their disapproval. And as we read on, we see why. Jesus said, "They are blind leaders of the blind" (v. 14).
You see; it was typical of the Jewish religious leaders to think of themselves as 'guides to the spiritually blind'. They held that it was their task to lead those who were without spiritual understanding, and guide them to the light. The apostle Paul once referred to them in those very terms in Romans 2:17-19;
But the fact is that, in reality, these religious leaders were themselves spiritually blind. Just think! There was the Son of God standing before them; and yet, they were opposing Him in every way. And that's what made them particularly culpable; because they were not only spiritually blind, but were also in a state of arrogant denial about their blindness—setting themselves up to be "guides" to others who were blind.
Perhaps you remember the time when Jesus actually healed a man who was physically blind. It was a wonderful miracle; and yet, the Pharisees opposed Jesus for it because he healed the man on the Sabbath. The apostle John writes;
And so; Jesus warns us to think rightly about those who, in arrogance, set themselves up to be "teachers" and "spiritual leaders" in opposition to faith in Christ and obedience to the teaching of God's word. They may 'speak' impressively and in what appears to be a credentialed manner; they may even sound 'reasonable' and 'intelligent'. But the fact is that they are, themselves, spiritually blind. And they are worse than just "blind". They are "blind leaders of the blind".
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To be "blind" is bad. But to be a "blind leader of the blind" is nothing short of deadly! This leads us to a final thing Jesus tells us about these "teachers" and "leaders" of man-made systems of religion . . .
3. THE DANGER TO THOSE WHO FOLLOW THOSE LEADERS .
Jesus says it plainly; "and if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch". Literally, He says that they will both fall into a pit or a well—a fall that leads to utter destruction.
Perhaps in this respect, it would be good to remember the words of Psalm 1:
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So then; as followers of Jesus Christ, let's be circumspect. Let's be very careful that we do not follow after so-called "teachers" and "religious leaders" and "spiritual advisors" and "counselors" who are—in actuality—"blind leaders of the blind". As Jesus has already warned us, "You will know them by their fruits" (Matthew 7:16). Just looking at our passage this morning, you can tell them by two things: (1) they lead and teach in a way that is contrary to God's word and in such a way as to cause people to be in disobedience to God's clear command; and (2) they become very offended when you point out their error, and when you clearly speak forth God's truth. Jesus' counsel to us, in such cases, is very simple and straight-forward: "Let them alone."
Instead, let's be sure we measure teachers and their teachings by the sure standards that God has given us. First, let's measure them against Christ, and against His command to follow obediently after Him. It's not wrong to be ministered to by a teacher or a leader who is following Jesus faithfully. Paul himself was able to tell the Corinthians, "Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ" (1 Corinthians 11:1). And second, let's be sure we measure what we hear against the faithful teaching of Scripture. Let's be like the noble Bareans in the Book of Acts; who, we're told, when they heard the teachings of Paul and Silas, "seared the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things are so" (Acts 17:11).
Let's always be on the alert; dear brothers and sisters! Let's beware and be forewarned! Let's make very sure not to follow someone who does not know where they are going!
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