This past Sunday morning I was in a class that has been studying Matthew’s gospel for over a year. We were in Matthew 23, looking through the seven woes pronounced against the Pharisees by Jesus. I really enjoy the group, and we almost always have great discussions.
Matthew 23:16–22 (ESV)
16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ 17 You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? 18 And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ 19 You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21 And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. 22 And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it.
The Pharisees were determined that the Jewish people would never again sin against God. They remembered the lessons of the Babylonian captivity, and were working very hard to bring righteousness to the nation in order to gain and keep the blessing of God.
Through that effort rose up an intricate system of laws meant to inoculate the people against the possibility of sin. In the passage above, Jesus is calling out the Pharisees for their hypocritical use of oaths. In their system, different oaths had different value and were more or less binding based on the object by which the oath was sworn. An oath sworn by the sacrifice on the altar was more binding than an oath sworn by the altar itself, etc.
Jesus’ problem with this is that the Pharisees were using these oaths as a way to break their word. For instance, a man might swear an oath by the altar, and then decide he wanted to break that oath. He would then swear a counter oath by the gift on the altar, and technically release himself from that first oath. The Pharisee could then break his word and still be technically blameless. It was all a big ole game to prove their own righteousness without actually having any righteousness.
The problem for the Pharisee is that because of his legalistic self-righteousness, he had lost sight of the God who made the temple and everything in it. The temple, and all its accessories were holy because they were established by God for His people. Instead of earnestly and sincerely seeking to serve the God of the temple, they had assigned intrinsic value in the items of the temple, and could no longer follow God in the manner he expected – with whole hearted dedication to Him as Creator and Lord.
Understanding this woe adds clarity to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5.
Matthew 5:33–37 (ESV)
33 “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.
For the authentic follower of Jesus, there is no need to swear an oath by a thing because that thing has been created and sustained by God Himself. In fact, Colossians tells us that it is through God the Son that all of creation finds its existence and sustenance.
Colossians 1:15–17 (ESV)
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
For the Christ follower, we should not have to invoke oaths in order to prove our honesty and character. Any oath we swear by a created thing is weak because that thing is insufficient in itself to validate us. All created things find their source in the Creator, and we are therefore held accountable by the Creator, not the object. We should be a people who claim the name of Christ as Savior, and this fact should be obvious in our lives. So, we are to be a people who – unlike the Pharisees – speak truthfully and live by our “yes” and our “no” because our lives are stamped by the mark of Christ, not an object.
But there is something else here that came out in my class’ discussion on Sunday. One of Jesus’ consistent charges against the Pharisees is that they have made obedience to God into a burden but do nothing to ease that burden for the common person (Mt. 23:1-4). Worse, they are hypocrites themselves not living up to their own lofty standards but instead working tirelessly to prove they are blameless before the Law. In the Pharisaical system no grace can be found. None.
Not only is there no grace, there is also no righteousness. There is an appearance of righteousness, but with no substance. With pharisaical righteousness there is only death.
Matthew 23:23–28 (ESV)
23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!
25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.
27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
Now, this is an important point…
Without grace, there is no righteousness.
We like the comfort of a righteous system. Systems are more predictable than relationships. The Pharisees certainly thought so. In their system, they could quantify and display their righteousness. Like the rich young man in Matthew 19:16-30, they had a checklist of their righteousness, and when asked they could present that list. The young man had an impressive list, and thought Jesus would be glad – even privileged – to have him as a disciple.
Turns out that Jesus isn’t interested in our checklist. He is interested in us, and wants us to be interested in him. His grace will cover our weakness. Only in throwing ourselves upon his grace will we find any sort of meaningful righteousness. If we get that one right, the rest of it will fall into place. We have to give up our religious checklists.
Grace makes us nervous. We like to talk about God’s righteous standard. We like the security of rules and law. We like to know that God will punish sin (except our own which isn’t as bad as that other guy’s). We don’t like the notion that God forgives his people endlessly and deeply because of Jesus and his action through the cross of death. But this is the fact: for the follower of Christ, who makes Jesus lord of his life, who has a lively faith, there is no condemnation. None. Period.
Where there is legalism, there is no grace. Where there is no grace, there is no righteousness. Where there is grace, there is true righteousness. Where there is true righteousness, there is no need for law. In pursuing law, we find nothing but burden. In pursuing Christ, we find acceptance, peace, – and yes – holiness.
Grace, properly understood, does not lead us to sin. Grace frees us to serve our Creator for the first time without the burden of fearing failure. Grace frees our hearts to breathe deeply of God’s peace. Grace reminds us that we are forgiven, that we are accepted, and that there is no condemnation for those who follow Christ.
Why would we abuse this gift? Only a fool takes something as beautiful as grace and spits on it. The Pharisees certainly did this. Why? Because they were more comfortable in the righteousness they could prove to others. They liked the status their righteous appearance provided. They liked the praise of men, but they already received their praise in full. You want man’s praise? Fine. You can have it, but that’s all you’ll get (Mt. 6:2-4; 23:5-7).
Folks, this whole thing we call Christianity really is about the pursuit of Jesus in relationship.
The Christian life properly understood is obsessively and dogmatically unbalanced in its Jesus-focus and its grace. When we get that one right, we find what we’ve been looking for.