"Blind Guides on Sacred Paths"
(Delivered Sunday, August 3, 2008 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.)
We've been studying from our Lord's words in the twenty-third chapter of the Gospel of Matthew; and particularly, from His strong words against religious hypocrisy.
Our Lord plainly hates hypocrisy. But it seems clear that He particularly hates "religious" hypocrisy. Anytime He speaks against anything, we should pay attention. But we should pay special attention to what He says in this story of His final confrontation with the scribes and Pharisees—because here, He speaks a whole chapter's worth of harsh words against their sin of religious hypocrisy.
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He began this chapter by speaking directly to His disciples—'over-the-heads', as it were, of the religious leaders of the day. In verses 1-12; He warned His followers about the pitfalls to avoid, so that they wouldn't slid down the slippery-slope of religious hypocrisy that characterized the scribes and Pharisees.
And then, in the largest portion of this chapter, He really 'lets the religious leaders have it'—speaking a series of "woes" directly to them because of their hypocrisy. The first set of "woes" were spoken to the scribes and Pharisees because of the harm that their religious hypocrisy did to other people (vv. 13-15). Our Lord loves people; and so, He hates whatever might allow other people to harm them—particularly, whatever when the harm is supposedly done "in His name". And His last set of "woes" were spoken to the scribes and Pharisees because of the harm that their religious hypocrisy had done to their own souls (vv. 25-36). Our Lord hates it when people cover-up their own sins and hide their opposition to God's will for their lives through the cloak of "religiosity".
And that brings us to our passage this morning. Tucked between these other two sets of "woes"—woes because of what religious hypocrisy did to other people, and woes because of what religious hypocrisy did to the hypocrites themselves—are two woes that our Lord spoke against the scribes and Pharisees because of the harm that their irreverent hypocrisy did to the sacred things of God.
In verses 16-24, Matthew tells us that He said;
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Now; if you have been following along in our study of this chapter, you might notice that our Lord says something unusual in this morning's passage. He uses a particular name to describe the scribes and Pharisees. His use of this name serves as "bookends" that sets these two "woes" off from the rest of the chapter. We find this name used at the very beginning of our passage; "Woe to you, blind guides . . ." (v. 16). And then, we find it at the very end; "Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel" (v. 24). We even see it hinted at in the middle; where He twice refers to them as "blind" (vv. 17 and 19).
And what's more, you might remember that "blind guides" is a metaphor that our Lord has used earlier in the Gospel of Matthew—and, in fact, with reference to the scribes and Pharisees! Back in the fifteenth chapter, the Lord had been confronted by the scribes and Pharisees because His disciples didn't ceremonially wash their hands before eating—as had been prescribed by religious tradition. Jesus responded to them by showing them how their religious traditions often enabled them to transgress the law of God. And what good did it do them to break the commandments of God with 'properly washed hands'?
Afterwards, His disciples came to Him and said that the Pharisees were offended by the things He said to them. And He responded by saying,
The scribes and Pharisees were supposed to be "leaders" and "guides" to the people with respect to the things of God. They were supposed to be, as the apostle Paul would write later, "a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, having the form of knowledge and truth in the law" (Romans 2:19-20). They were supposed to shepherd God's people; and guide them faithfully and sincerely in His ways. They were supposed to help God's people understand the things that were of true value in their relationship with Him; and to help them handle those things in a reverent manner.
But they didn't have a right relationship with these things themselves! These "guides" were hypocrites; and their religious hypocrisy made them "blind guides" to the people. They were doomed to fall into the ditch—which is what our Lord will stress in verses 25-36. And the people who followed them would also fall into the ditch—which is what He has stressed in verses 13-15.
And so, in the process of being 'blind guides on sacred paths', they irreverently misrepresented and mishandled the sacred things of God—the very things that they were supposed to lead the people into.
What a horrible thing their religious hypocrisy was!
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Now; I believe that there's a sense in which this passage has an even greater application to you and me today than it did to the scribes and Pharisees of old.
Those religious leaders lived under the old covenant. They handled the mere "shadows" of spiritual realities—the temple, the altar, the offerings, the ceremonial laws. But in this new covenant era, we have entered into the very "substance" of those spiritual realities (Colossians 2:17). We don't worship in a temple; because, in Christ, we have become the temple of the living God (Ephesians 2:19-22). We don't offer sacrifices on an altar; because we are brought into a personal relationship Christ, whose sacrifice on the cross is what those offerings were meant to represent (Hebrews 10:1-10); and we are to now offer ourselves as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1).
The scribes and Pharisees were condemned for their blindness in handling the sacred things of God in a hypocritical way. And for us, who live under even greater light than they did, the condemnation for such blindness is even greater. They were condemned for mishandling the mere "shadow" of spiritual realities in their time; and our condemnation would be even greater if we mishandle the very "substance" of those things in our own!
In these words, our Lord condemns religious hypocrisy because of the way it manipulates and misuses the holy things of God. So then; let's carefully heed what He says to them in these two "woes", so that we may avoid the dreadful condemnation they received from our Lord!
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You might think of these two "woes" as presenting two distinct sides of the same coin. The first woe against their religious hypocrisy was over the way . . .
1. IT MINIMIZES THE MAJOR THINGS (vv. 16-22).
The particular form that their hypocrisy took was in the way that they abused spiritual things in order to make "oaths". You might remember that, in the Sermon on The Mount, our Lord once spoke these words:
Human nature hasn't changed throughout the centuries. People did back then what people often do today. Instead of simply speaking the truth, keeping their word, and really meaning what they said, people often make "false promises" that they disguise with "religious oaths". The law forbids that we use God's name in a vain way; and so, in order to reinforce a promise, someone would swear instead by "God's throne", or by "earth", or by "Jerusalem"—thinking that they could make an oath by the things of God.
But people didn't really feel that they were as bound to such an oath as they would if it had been sworn in God's name. And so, they tried to bring things a little closer to God. They believed that, if you swore by the temple, it wasn't binding—but if you swore by the gold that was given as a donation into the treasury of the temple, it was binding! They believed that, if you swore by the altar in the temple, it wasn't binding—but if you swore by the offering presented to God on the altar, it was binding! And thus, they could have some oaths that were binding, and others that were not.
And can you see what the result of this practice was? They were minimizing the value of the temple—even though it was the temple that sanctified the gold! And they were minimizing the altar—even though it was the altar that made the offering holy! The gold truly was sanctified; and the offering truly was holy. But it was these greater things—the temple and the altar—that gave them their sacred value. And so, in daring to manipulating the sacred things of God in this way for selfish and dishonest purposes, they were dishonoring and devaluing the sacred things of God themselves! And they were blindly leading other people to do the same!
Look again at what our Lord tells these "blind guides";
In their hypocrisy, they sought to "manipulate" the sacred things of God for selfish ends. And to so mishandle the sacred things of God—even thought a step removed—was to both minimize those things in the sight of people, and to dishonor the very God that those things were meant to lead people to.
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Now you tell me; do people ever manipulate the sacred things of God today in order to fulfill selfish ends and achieve dishonest purposes? Of course they do! It's one of the most notorious and sinful forms of religious hypocrisy. It's prevalent in our day—and even in the church, and among those who profess the name of Christ.
And the great harm it does to the sacred things of God is that it minimizes and trivializes those things in the sight of people. And what's more, they dishonor God Himself—even though they think that they have kept themselves a few steps safely away from committing blaspheming Him. Jesus' words make it clear that to misuse the things of God is to blaspheme God Himself. And God has warned that He "will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain" (Exodus 20:7).
Don't ever let this form of religious hypocrisy take root in your soul! Don't hypocritically "manipulate" the sacred things of God for your own purposes! Don't "minimize" the sacred things of God in that way! Don't hypocritically display a "fish sticker" in order to draw customers to your business! Don't hypocritically boast in your church attendance in order to win social approval! Don't hypocritically pretend a faith in Christ in order to make people think you're something that you're not! Don't hypocritically twist the sacred word of God around, or take it out of context, in order to justify your own agenda.
Ask the Holy Spirit to reveal where this form of religious hypocrisy may be in your life; and when He does so, repent of it decisively! Because to manipulate the things of God for selfish ends is to minimize them and despise them before His face. And whoever makes a practice of dishonoring His name in that way will not escape judgment.
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So then; that's one way that religious hypocrisy harms the things of God. It irreverently dares to minimize the major things. That's one side of the coin. And here's the other. In Jesus' second "woe", we also see that . . .
2. IT MAXIMIZES THE MINOR THINGS (vv. 23-24).
Jesus gives the scribes and Pharisees a very vivid portrait of themselves in verse 24. He calls them, "Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!"
When I get a cup of coffee from home, take it outside, and walk it over to the church office, I often try to protect it. I put my hand over it and cover the top. I hate it when a bug makes a nose-dive from out of the sky and meets its journey's end in my perfectly good cup of coffee! When I'm about take a sip, and look in and see this disgusting bug floating on its back—with all six legs kicking away in desperation—the whole cup is ruined for me. I throw all the contents out, wash the cup, and get fresh coffee. (Well, okay—not always. I admit that, sometimes if I'm working outside and am too lazy to get a fresh cup, I just fish the bug out—figuring that he wasn't in there for very long—and pretend that it never happened. That's gross, I know. But I will only do that once! Two or more bugs out in the field, and the whole cup goes!)
Well; the scribes and Pharisees were even more careful than that! In the book of Leviticus, winged bugs were identified as ceremonially "unclean" as food (Leviticus 11:20, 41). And so, if these scribes or Pharisees were to drink a glass of wine or water, they would first carefully strain-out any bugs—even the tiniest and most unseen bugs—so that they wouldn't accidentally take something "unclean" into their mouths and thus become defiled before God.
But do you know what else was unclean as food? Camels—one of the largest animals in the Jewish culture (Leviticus 11:4). If you ever get close enough to one to pick-up their aroma (as I have), it would never occur to you that they might serve as food! And yet, imagine the picture of a Jewish man being so mixed-up in his spiritual priorities that he carefully strains out a tiny, unclean "gnat" out of his drink—and yet, thinks nothing of gulping down a whole unclean "camel"!
That's what our Lord says that the scribes and Pharisees were doing in their religious hypocrisy. They were legalistically concerned with an outward observance of of the most minute details of the law—because that was the things that other people could see. But they disregarded the fact that they were failing to keep the greater matters of the law in the process. They strained-out spiritual gnats and swallowed spiritual camels.
Look once more at what our Lord tells these "blind guides";
The Old Testament law commanded that they pay tithes to God of all that they had—"whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the tree" (Leviticus 27:30). And so, that's what these scribes and Pharisees did. They were even careful to tithe the tiniest of herbs that grew in their garden—mint and anise and cummin. Imagine how they'd carefully count out the little pieces of herbs—all in order to make sure that they kept this most intricate matter of the law.
And yet, they neglected the greater matters of the law. The law of God wasn't given in order to just make "herb-counters" out of people. It was given in order to make them act with justice and equity toward one another. It was given in order to lead them to behave with mercy and compassion toward those in need. And it was given in order to cause them to esteem truth and faithfulness in their dealings with God and their fellow man. And yet, in their religious hypocrisy, they concentrated on the minute details of the law, and neglected its greater principles. They maximized the "minor" things. "These you ought to have done", Jesus said, "without leaving the others undone".
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I was deeply impressed by something I read recently in Timothy Keller's recent book, The Reason for God. Now, honesty demands that I tell you that I'm making a slightly different application to his words than he intended. But I believe that what he wrote illustrates something helpful with regard to what our Lord says here about religious hypocrisy.
Dr. Keller observed that one of the biggest deterrents toward Christianity in the average unbeliever's mind is the perception of "fanaticism". They often view Christians as "over-believing" in religious doctrine and "over-practicing" their faith. They see them as people who, for the most part, become so extreme that they are reduced to simply just 'denouncing' various, specific aspects of our culture—movies, television, homosexuality, evolution, other religions, etc. Such Christians appear to such unbelieving people to be intolerant and self-righteous as a result of their "fanaticism" and "extremism".
Then, Dr. Keller introduces this insightful take on the matter. He writes—as if speaking to such an unbeliever;
Now Dr. Keller meant that comment to be directed toward the unbeliever. But I'm directing it to us as believers this morning. To put it into relation to our passage, such Christians should have done "love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23)—that is, truly exhibit the fruit of the Spirit, against which there is no law—"without leaving the others undone".
We need to be authentically "fanatical" about following Jesus in every respect! But religious hypocrisy—the kind that legalistically emphasizes the minor things while ignoring the greater matters of Christian living—leads us to make distinctions and over-inflate the importance of minor things. It causes us to strain out gnats while swallowing camels.
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The scribes and Pharisees were "blind guides" on "sacred paths". They either 'minimized the major things' or 'maximized the minor things'. And both errors caused them to irreverently dishonor the things of God and lead other people astray.
May God search our hearts and rid us of any such religious hypocrisy.
1Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Dutton, 2008), p. 57.
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