Bad Religion

Bible Reading: Matthew 23:1-36

Remember that scene in “The Wizard of Oz?”  Dorothy and her friends overcame many obstacles in making their way to the Wizard—assuming that he could somehow help them.  They entered his chamber and were confronted by an awesome and frightening display.  A voice loudly bellowed as lashes of flame ushered forth, causing them to shrink back in fear.  But then Toto (the dog) started barking at something behind a curtain.  So, they pulled it back, only to find a small man pulling levers.  The Wizard was not who he appeared to be—he was not a great and terrifying wizard at all—he was a little man putting on a show.

The Lord Jesus pulled back the curtain and unveiled the truth regarding the Pharisees.  No stronger words of condemnation would pass from His lips.  Eight “woes” were declared unto them.  The word was a warning of pending doom.  The omniscient and righteous Lord saw through their religious veneer—they had been “weighed on the scales and found deficient” (Daniel 5:27) assuring their pending doom (Matthew. 23:33).

They were hypocrites.  Seven times that word appears.  The word was used in that day to describe an “actor, stage player, or pretender.”  The Pharisees were meticulous in their religious practice, but it was all for show, for they did not do as they taught (23:3-4).  They were false shepherds who cared not for the sheep (23:4).  Their deeds were done, not for God, but to be noticed by men (23:5).  They loved places of honor and prestigious titles (23:23:6-10).  They had no capacity to serve and reveled in pride (23:11-12).  They were caretakers of the broad path that leads to destruction (23:13).  They took advantage of widows while pretending to care (23:14).  They would travel far to make converts to their false religion (23:15).  They were dishonest (23:16-22).  They carefully scrutinized and observed countless traditions, but neglected “the weightier provisions of the law” (23:23-24).  They observed various external “washings,” but their hearts were full of “robbery and self-indulgence” (23:25-26).  They were “whitewashed tombs… full of dead men’s bones” (23:27-28).  They feigned honor for the prophets of old but would mistreat future ones (23:29-36).  They epitomized a “righteousness which is in the Law” (Philippians 3:6).  Others esteemed them.  Measured by that standard, they might have gotten away with it.  But the standard is not man, but God (2 Corinthians 10:12; Hebrews 4:13).

The contrast between Jesus and the Pharisees could not be greater.  Jesus did as He taught.  He did not do to please men, but His Father (John 4:34).  He came not to lay burdens, but to give rest (Matthew 11:28).  They were false shepherds; He is the Good shepherd who laid down His life for the sheep (John 10:1-11).  They loved places of honor, He laid aside His divine privileges and became poor so that we might be made rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).  They had no capacity or desire to serve; He came to serve and give His life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).  They were caretakers of the broad way; He is the narrow way that leads to life (Matthew 7:13-14).  They took advantage of the unfortunate, He cared for the sick, the blind, the demon-possessed, the widows, the children (Matthew 19:13-14; 21:14).  They elevated their traditions, He perfectly fulfilled God’s law (Matthew 5:17-19).  They were whitewashed tombs, “in Him was life” (John 1:4).

We do this text a disservice if we merely apply it to people long ago in a place far away. The mind of Jesus is revealed to us in His strong rebuke. What did Jesus think of the Pharisaic cult? We know from His words. What does Jesus think of religious hypocrisy? Can any “self-made religion” (Colossians 2:23) substitute for that which God requires? “No amount of religious effort or activities can acceptably substitute for the righteousness gained through faith in Christ.” Apart from God’s intervention, we are all full of dead men’s bones (Ephesians 2:1). We are all whitewashed tombs unless we’ve been called forth like Lazarus from our graves (John 11:43; Ephesians 2:5). The sins of the Pharisees are common amongst men. Pride, hypocrisy, self-indulgence, taking advantage of others—these sins are not reserved for the cultists alone. Any religion that invests heavily in self-effort is inevitably hypocritical because heart-change is Christ’s doing, not ours. In Christ alone, we receive forgiveness and transformation. Are you fully invested in Christ and His finished work on the cross? Are you born again? That’s the question! Having begun by faith in Him is your walk now characterized by a Spirit-led “purity and simplicity of devotion” to Him (Galatians 3:3; 2 Corinthians 11:3)? Anything less or else is bad religion!

“No amount of religious effort or activities can acceptably substitute for the righteousness gained through faith in Christ.” 

Jerry Conklin


What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

O precious is the flow
that makes me white as snow;
no other fount I know;
nothing but the blood of Jesus.

For my pardon this I see:
nothing but the blood of Jesus.
For my cleansing this my plea:
nothing but the blood of Jesus. [Refrain]

Nothing can for sin atone:
nothing but the blood of Jesus.
Naught of good that I have done:
nothing but the blood of Jesus. [Refrain]

This is all my hope and peace:
nothing but the blood of Jesus.
This is all my righteousness:
nothing but the blood of Jesus. [Refrain]

Author: looking2jesus13

Having served as pastor at Lewis and Clark Bible Church, in Astoria, Oregon, for almost three decades, my wife’s cancer diagnosis led to my retirement and subsequent move to Heppner to be near our two grandchildren. I divide my time between caring for Laura and working as a part time hospice chaplain and spending time with family and spoiling my chocolate lab.

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