"Insides and Outsides"
(Delivered Sunday, August 17, 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.)
This morning's passage is about the principle of sin that abides in us. It may be under the surface, and hidden from the eyes of others. But it's there nevertheless. I confess that it's hidden in my own heart; and that it often pops up and reveals itself.
I'd like to tell you how it did so just the other day.
In a moment of frustration, I got mad at someone that I love. And as I turned to walk away from them, I called them a name. I didn't use profanity; but I might as well have done so, because it was a name that cut that person down and treated them with contempt. I immediately turned back to them and asked forgiveness; and forgiveness was just as quickly granted to me. I made sure we were okay; and we both moved on.
But later on that day, I reflected on that incident and did some searching of my heart before God. It had really shocked me that such a thing could come out of my mouth. Jesus once said, "You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ [which means, "Empty-head"] shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire" (Matthew 5:21-22). The name that I called this loved one wasn't in that list; but the principle was the same. I spoke in such a way as to spitefully “dissed” that person; and as our Lord tells us, doing such a thing violates the spirit of the commandment, "You shall not murder".
I had to make an honest confession before God that the spirit of 'murder' was abiding deep in my heart; and that it popped out suddenly and struck someone I love. I'm a pastor. I work in a church and live in a parsonage. I study the Bible and pray for a living. I handle spiritual matters all day. I teach people from God's word. I proclaim the good news of the gospel. I speak about heavenly things. The external aspects of my life are ,manifestly “religious”. Yet, however 'righteous' and 'religious' these things may make me look on the outside to other people, none of them can cover up the fact that the principle of sin still lurks in my heart, and that it's presence in me displeases the Lord.
Now; I'm telling you this because the next thing that happened in the schedule of my week—after dealing before God with this fresh discovery of sin in myself—was to begin preparing my sermon on our passage this morning:
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In the story of this chapter of Matthew's Gospel, our Lord is just a couple of days away from His crucifixion. And in His last encounter with the scribes and Pharisees—the religious leaders of the day—He speaks a series of "woes" against their religious hypocrisy. These "woes" are expressions of sorrow over the future that is in store for them because of their unrepentant hypocrisy. He began by issuing some "woes" over the way their religious hypocrisy harmed other people around them (vv. 13-15); and then, He spoke "woes" over the way their religious hypocrisy dishonored the sacred things of God (vv. 16-24). And now, He speaks three remaining "woes" over the way their religious hypocrisy harmed the very hypocrites themselves (vv. 25-36).
This morning, we're going to look at the first two of these remaining three "woes" together; because they are basically about the same thing. They show how religious hypocrisy is a dangerous thing to the hypocrite. It enables him or her to cover-up and ignore the "ugly" sins that abide in the secret places of their own heart, while cloaking themselves over with an exterior of religious "beauty".
I find that it's very easy to read a passage like this and think of how suitable it is for other people. Perhaps certain people even came to your mind as I read it—and you found yourself really regretting the fact that they didn't come to church today!
But dear brothers and sisters in Christ; I believe the Holy Spirit means for you and me to embrace this passage to ourselves. The theme of the twenty-third chapter of Matthew's Gospel is Jesus' condemnation of 'religious hypocrisy'; and we dare not apply His words to someone else until we have first applied them to ourselves.
May the Holy Spirit direct these words to our hearts this morning; and show us where we ourselves hypocritically maintain a condition of 'inward corruption' through an 'outward covering' of religious beauty.
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Let's begin by considering . . .
1. THE ILLUSTRATIONS JESUS USES (vv. 25, 27).
First, He says,
Now, to a certain degree, you can take the Lord's words literally. The scribes and Pharisees had very elaborate ceremonies of washing and cleaning. As Mark tells us in his Gospel;
And their doing so wasn't necessarily being condemned by the Lord. Many of their traditions concerning washings and cleanings had their basis in the Old Testament law. What Jesus was condemning was the hypocrisy of their priorities. They concentrated all their efforts on the outside, while ignoring the inside.
Perhaps you have a china closet in your home; and you have some very fine pieces in it. If you invited someone over for a special dinner, and you wanted to use your finest dinnerware, you'd probably have to carefully wash them and make them presentable for use. They might have collected a little dust over time, and you would want them to look nice and clean—to shine and sparkle for your guests.
But what if you took all the time to care for the outside of your finest cups, made them clean and polished and attractive for your guests—and then poured sewage into them? What if you washed and cleaned all the outside of your finest plates—and then covered them with rancid garbage and slimy worms? Would your guests say, “Well; at least the outsides of the cups and plates were clean”?
In a spiritual sense, that's what the scribes and Pharisees had done. They took the time to clean their cups and plates in a way that was in keeping with the ceremonial laws concerning cleanliness. They were very careful to follow the letter of the law with respect to these things. And they thought that, on the basis of their doing so, they themselves were "clean". But what good did all their cleanings and washings do? They had filled the cups and plates with "extortion" or "greed". The delicacies they put on their nice clean plates, and the wine they poured into their nice clean cups, were acquired through acts of cheating and lying and aggression toward others. The cups and plates were also filled with "self-indulgence". That which they placed in their nice clean cups and plates was devoured by them in a gluttonous, piggish, selfish manner.
The cups and plates were clean on the outside; but you might say that what was in them was sinful "going in" and sinful "going out".
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And then, Jesus says,
Jesus spoke these words just before the feast of Passover. And because many travelers and pilgrims made their way from various parts of the world to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast, the tombs and graves along the way would often be coated over in advance with a chalky lime substance—a "whitewash".
There were two reasons for this. The first had to do with the law. In the Old Testament, God's word warned that it would be ceremonially defiling for a man or woman to accidentally come into contact with a dead person. Numbers 19:16 says, "Whoever in the open field touches one who is slain by a sword or who has died, or a bone of a man, or a grave, shall be unclean seven days." Many of the tombs and graves of people were scattered in the remote areas along the way; and a traveler could easily and unwittingly come into contact with them. They were like what Jesus said on an earlier occasion of the scribes and Pharisees in Luke's Gospel; "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like graves which are not seen, and the men who walk over them are not aware of them" (Luke 11:44).
If such a traveler or pilgrim accidentally came into contact with one of these graves while on their way to Passover, they would become ceremonially unclean for seven days; and because the Passover was just a few days away, they would thus become unable to celebrate the feast. And so, in order to prevent this from happening, these graves would be 'marked out' and 'highlighted' by the bright, glistening "whitewash".
But another reason for the whitewash was so that the tombs and graves would be 'beautified' for the feast. People today often decorate and beautify the tombs and graves of their loved ones with flowers on holidays. People often wash and clean the tombstones of family members, to care for their burial place and honor their memory. Similarly, the Jewish people would often beautify the tombs and graves and sepulchers of loved-ones, or family members, or even great people, with a coating of "whitewash" to keep them looking fresh, and glistening, and attractive. In the verse just after our passage this morning, our Lord says that the scribes and Pharisees would "build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous" (v. 29).
And Jesus doesn't seem to condemn the scribes and Pharisees for whitewashing tombs. Rather, what He condemns is the fact that the scribes and Pharisees, in their religious hypocrisy, were "like" those whitewashed tombs—"which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness."
All the religious and ceremonial "cleanness" and "whitewash" on the outside couldn't take away the moral "decay" and "corruption" that still remained inside.
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So; those are the ways He illustrated the mistaken priorities of the scribes and Pharisees. This leads us to consider . . .
2. THE HYPOCRISY JESUS CONDEMNS (v. 28).
In verse 29, Jesus brings these two illustrations together and says;
You see; we serve a God who is very deeply concerned with the inner man—with what is inside us. The outside is important to Him too; but the inside is His great priority. The Bible tells us that "the LORD does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7). It's the things that are found inside a person that determines what kind of a person he or she is before God. It's what's inside the heart that determines the course of the life. That's why Proverbs 4:23 says, "Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life."
Do you remember how the Lord taught this to His disciples? The scribes and Pharisees were concerned because He and His disciples hadn't washed their hands in the ceremonially approved manner before eating. But Jesus took that opportunity to tell His followers: “Hear and understand: Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man" (Matthew 15:10-11).
He went on to explain;
What good does it do, then, to eat with properly washed hands when such defilements are still inside the heart? What good does it do to spend all one's time cleaning the outsides of the cups and the plates, when the insides are filled with moral filth? How can painting whitewash over the outside of a tomb do anything to remove the stench of moral rot inside? How can such things please our holy God, who not only sees the outside of a person but also what's deep inside his or her innermost being?
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You know the old saying?—“Cleanliness is next to godliness”? Well; I don't know how close to godliness cleanliness really is. Some seem to think it's really close! But the deceiving thing about outward, religious “cleanliness” is that (if it truly is next to godliness) it's only next to it. But it's not really godliness!
And if I may, dear brothers and sisters; This is why religious hypocrisy is such a dangerous thing—and why our Lord hates it so much when He finds it in us. Such hypocrisy allows us to cover up what's inside with an outward veneer of "religious beauty", while letting moral corruption remain inside. It allows to look good on the outside before others, while remaining inwardly unclean before a holy God who looks at the heart. It allows us to look 'godly' before men while allowing true 'ungodliness' remain in us.
Just think, dear brothers and sisters, of how many times we have pulled up to the church parking lot to the Sunday worship service, wearing a warm Christian smile—after having just shared harsh words with someone in our family. Just think of how many times we have stood in the house of God to sing songs of worship—after having shared gossip and slander about someone He loves. Just think of how many times we put an offering in the plate as it goes by— after having spent a week of doing injustice at work or with our neighbor. Just think of how many times we sit with our Bible's open before others—while at the same time entertaining some of the most vile thoughts imaginable in the privacy of our minds.
Please understand—I'm not saying that we shouldn't wear that smile, or sing those hymns, or offer those gifts, or have those Bible's open. But what good do these outward displays of “religion” do, if God looks into our hearts and sees unrepentant murder, and slander, and greed, and lust? What a harmful thing such outward displays of “religion” are, when they allow us to keep such filth covered up on the inside!
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Now; look carefully at verse 26. Do you notice that Jesus uses the name, “Blind Pharisee . . .”? He spoke earlier of the scribes and Pharisees as “blind guides” (vv. 16, 24), because they led others astray with their hypocrisy. But here, He affirms that the blindness also impacts the hypocrites themselves. They may “see” all kinds of other things on the outside; but they had become utterly “blind” to the secret sins within their own being. They are like what our Lord said to the church in Laodicea; “Because you say, 'I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing'—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked—” (Rev. 3:17). There's no blindness greater than the spiritual blindness that prevents us from seeing the truth about the sin in us!
But do you also notice that, even though He spoke to them elsewhere in the plural, here He speaks in the singular—as if to one blind Pharisee in a personal way? I believe this indicates that we are not to merely apply what He is about to say to other people, or to ourselves as a group, but to ourselves individually and personally—as just to one man or to one woman, utterly naked and open to the eyes of a holy God to whom we must give account.
Look carefully at this verse—verse 26; because it's here that we find . . .
3. THE SOLUTION JESUS PROPOSES (v. 26).
Jesus says, “Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also” (v. 26).
If I may, dear brothers and sisters; please take my own experience as an illustration. As soon as that spiteful name came out of my mouth, I realized that the principle of sin still abides deep within my inner being. God sees me as one of His precious redeemed children by faith; and because I am in Christ, there is no condemnation from God toward me. But nevertheless, there is still has a very vile principle abiding in me and at work in my person. I expect to be freed from this principle completely when I am glorified in Christ; but until that day—every day that I live—I must rely on God's help, and combat this principle that is still in me.
I brought that specific sin of the lips before God, held it up to the analysis of His word, and gave it its proper name—”murder”. I admitted the truth about it. I “confessed” it—which means that I said the same thing that God says about it. I thanked God for the fact that Jesus' blood was sufficient to cover this sin that has been revealed in my inner man. And I “repented” of it—which means that I changed my thinking and admitted that I must rid myself of this sin. I made sure my “repentance” also meant that I earnestly sought the forgiveness of the one that I harmed with my words.
And then, having done those things, I go forward. But the the work is not over. I keep seeking that this sin be replaced in my heart with the Holy Spirit's own fruit of “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). I keep on actively and progressively “putting off” this sin—letting “all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away” from me; and seeking instead to “be kind . . . tenderhearted . . . forgiving . . . even as God in Christ” has forgiven me (Ephesians 4:31-32).
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And if I may, let me suggest a new, radical way of thinking about all this. The sort of brokenness and humble encounter with the truth that makes us admit that we have filth and corruption within our souls, and that moves us to cry out to God for forgiveness and cleansing—that's the pathway to the sort of outward adornment of “religion” our Lord truly wants from us!
A true display of religion isn't brought about by the things that people ordinarily associate with “religion”—that is, by covering ourselves over with the external displays of “religious” talk, or the “religious” ceremonies, or the “religious” vestments. Making a priority out of those external things leads to the sort of “religious hypocrisy” that covers-up the sin in our inner man. Instead, a true display of “religion' is brought about by something that doesn't make us look good in front of other people. It comes about by a sincere, heartfelt, personal application what the apostle John describes in 1 John 1:5-9;
If this is the practice of our hearts before God, then we will have first truly cleansed the inside of the cup and dish. And only then will outside be clean also.
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