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"Pharisaic Righteousness."

MESSAGE for Sunday, June 21, 2009, Matthew 23

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          This week we continue to look into the gospel of Matthew to see more about the righteousness of the kingdom that Jesus brought.  Last week, we saw that kingdom righteousness was radical in its demands--far more demanding than the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.  From Matthew five, we saw what this righteousness is, but because Jesus wants us to have a comprehensive understanding of this kingdom righteousness, he also spends a good bit of time in Matthew telling us what it is NOT.  My goal is that today, as we examine Matthew 23, a text on counterfeit, pharisaic righteousness, we will by God’s grace zealously seek after the genuine article through the gospel.  In Matthew 23 Jesus issues his most scathing condemnation of the Pharisees, issuing seven woes or words of judgment to them.  Jesus highlights the specific evils of pharisaic, self-righteousness as he pronounces judgment on these religious leaders who had so badly missed the kingdom of God and were leading others astray. 

          In the Pharisees we see a deadly degree of self-righteousness.  They had advanced degrees in self-righteousness.  There aren’t many people at this level, but as we see the self-righteousness of the Pharisees in this very extreme form, we must ask God to use their sin to reveal to us the self-righteousness within our selves. We are all self-righteous in some ways and I cannot think of any other sin described in the Bible more harmful to our spiritual health than self-righteousness.

          In verse 13, Jesus turns from the crowds and disciples and addresses the religious leaders, pronouncing his first woe saying, “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”  “Hypocrites” is Jesus’ favorite word for these religious leaders.  In the span of 13 verses, he calls them “hypocrites” six times.  “Hypocrite” was originally a word used for a person who plays a role in a play—someone who is pretending to be someone they are not.  That was the fundamental assessment Jesus made of the religious leaders of his day. He also calls them “blind guides,” “blind fools,” “serpents,” a “brood of vipers” and tells them that they can’t “escape being sentenced to hell.”  Other than being a Judas, being a Pharisee is about the worst thing you can be in Jesus’ eyes.  Tim Keller is right in his excellent book “The Prodigal God” when he says that Pharisees and other intensely self-righteous people are farther from God and more spiritually toxic than even those who are actively practicing scandalous sins.[1]  The reason is because the scandalous sinner often knows he is in sin, but the Pharisee is self-deceived and is intent on taking other people with him.

          We must hear how much God hates self-righteousness so that when he reveals our self-righteous actions and attitudes, we treat it with the same level of concern as we would adultery or stealing.  How many of us do that?  Although Jesus’ sharp words rebuke of the Pharisees’ self-righteousness are given in part because they were influential leaders, they are also guilty of an idolatrous love for money and he barely mentions that by comparison.  So, it isn’t just because they were leaders he rebukes their self-righteousness.  Jesus never rebukes adulterers, thieves and murderers this harshly—only self-righteous religious leaders. The first woe is pronounced because—v. 14—“…you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces.  For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.”  This woe is not hard to understand when you think about it.  The Pharisees shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces because they rejected Jesus, the Door that opens the way to heaven.  The first mark of Pharisaic, self- righteousness is a rejection of Jesus as the only way to enter the kingdom of God. 

The Pharisees operated under the assumption that they could be acceptable to God by their own efforts and that required them to dumb down the law from those radical demands of the kingdom we saw last week—anger is murder, lust is adultery, love your enemies, put God above everything in this world.  They domesticated those sharp, heart demands of the Law into merely external rules they could keep and they did a good job of keeping them.  Paul says of his days as a Pharisee, he was “blameless”as to the righteousness under the law.”  Therefore, when Jesus came along and called everyone to repent, they didn’t feel any need to do that because they were fine.  They didn’t need to repent and they surely didn’t need any of his righteousness so they rejected him and his message. 

As foolish as that sounds, we saw this same sin among the believers in the Galatian church and we see the same thing in ourselves, don’t we?  We would never outwardly reject Jesus—we mentally accept the fact that we are sinners and need him and the righteousness that only he can provide.  But so often we live as if God’s acceptance of us is based on whether we are living up to our own, self-contrived contemporary standard of self-righteousness.  Did I have had my quiet time today?  Did I pray long enough?  Am I breaking that sinful habit?  Do I regularly attend church?  Am I generous enough with my money?  If those kinds of things are what I am basing my standing with God on, then on a functional, spiritual level, that too is a rejection of Jesus as the only way into the kingdom.  It’s self-righteous because at the end of the day, I am looking to my own performance to be acceptable to God.  That’s just what the Pharisees did.

          Another mark of self-righteousness as practiced by the Pharisees is false converts who continue the chain of self-righteousness.  In verse 14 we read, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.”  The scholars tell us that the Jews at this time in their history showed a remarkable level of missionary zeal. They were all about world missions and sacrificed significantly to win converts.  But Jesus says in effect, “you are just reproducing the same rotten fruit you bear.”  Evangelism and world missions can be done for both good and bad reasons.  The Pharisees were out to reproduce themselves because when someone else adopted their lifestyle and beliefs, that validated them.  This wasn’t about God, it was about proving themselves to be zealous and worthy of followers.  The problem was, as Jesus says earlier in Matthew—a good tree produces good fruit and a bad tree produces bad fruit.  The scribes and Pharisees were bad trees and they reproduced after their own kind. 

          Jesus teaches that the second generation Pharisee is twice as bad as the first—they evidently took it to new levels.  You sometimes see this in rigid, self-righteous churches.  One self-righteous group breaks off from a local church over stupid little legalistic differences—the original church just doesn’t have it right—doesn’t practice Christianity the way they like—in fact, they’re seriously flawed.  The group splits off from the first and begins to establish their own, much improved self-righteous code of spirituality.  What happens in those churches?  They invariably splinter again—a second group within that church doesn’t think they are strong enough on this point of morality or minor doctrinal teaching, so they split again—each generation out-doing the former in their self-righteousness.  This isn’t to say that sometimes believers don’t have to break away from bad churches.  Paul says in First Corinthians 11:19, “…there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.”  The difference there however is between those who are true believers and those who are fakes.  That is not about a minor point of doctrine or a difference of opinion regarding Christian lifestyle.  More to the point, most of the time, if you meet someone who is manifestly self-righteous—equating Christianity with some sort of piety code--intensely concerned about keeping the rules—their self-righteousness was programmed into them by a self-righteous church.  Bad trees yield bad fruit.

          A third mark of self-righteous Pharisaism is in verse 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 that has made the gold sacred?  And you say, ‘I 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.’  You blind men!  For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred?  So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it.  And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it.  And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it.  The reasons Jesus shreds the logic behind the Pharisees complicated and ridiculous regulations concerning oaths is to expose their true intention for doing this.  That is--the Pharisees had created this complicated legal system to answer the question—“when am I legally bound before God to tell the truth?”  As we saw last week, that’s a stupid and unnecessary question, isn’t it?  The intention was so they could work the loopholes they had created in the law so that they could justify not telling the truth.  If they weren’t placed under just the right oath, then they could legally break an agreement or tell a lie without penalty.  A third mark of self-righteousness is that it is marked by a deceptive, self-serving application of truth for the purpose of selective obedience.

          Kingdom righteousness demands that you tell the truth every time to everyone to whom you owe it.  The Pharisees wanted some wiggle room there--because if you told the truth all the time, that could hurt you—people might not admire you, you won’t make out as well in some business deals if you tell the other party everything you owe them.  So they skirted that and came up with a set of rules that enabled them to appear to be honest, while preserving their capacity to be dishonest when it served their selfish purpose.  The Pharisees were lawyers so when they did this, they expressed this in the kind of legal babble Jesus quotes in verse 16.  Instead of looking at God’s bar for truth--seeing how high it was and humbly crying out for their need of God’s grace to be truthful, they instead just lowered the bar to the level where they were comfortable.  But it was all riddled with deception because they had given themselves this legal cover to make it look like they were being very precise, even pious in their application of the law.  In fact, they were just liars—that’s why Jesus calls them hypocrites because they were trying to justify their lies through legal maneuvering.

          All of us lower God’s bar of righteousness in order to accommodate our selfish flesh.  That is self-righteousness because it involves establishing an unBiblical, self-serving standard of right and wrong and then living it out; believing God is pleased with it.  For instance, God has been calling many of you to tithe for a long time—Malachi says not tithing is robbing God.  But you have lowered that bar in your own mind somehow so that you don’t have to because of A, B, or C—selective obedience.  You’ve struck a deal with God.  For others here, God has called you to do some very radical things with your life, but instead of trusting God and going for it—you’re playing games with God.  God, I won’t do that, but I will do this…I know you like this too.”  That’s gamesmanship.  That’s Pharisaic self-righteousness.  Here’s God’s pattern—God calls us to the radical obedience that comes from faith.  When we hear or read it in his Word, we fall on our face and cry out to him for grace and ask others to pray for us.  Then, by God’s grace we take that step of faith and obey.  No deception, no selective obedience—just loving God and doing what he says out of that love. That’s kingdom righteousness—nothing less.

          A fourth mark of self-righteousness is in verse 23.  Jesus says, “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.” The mark of self-righteousness the Pharisees show us here is an upside-down application of Biblical commands.  The Law in Leviticus 27 dictates that all the tithe from the land—seeds, fruit--everything belonged to God.  The Pharisees had figured out that this included spices and herbs as well so they gave 10 percent of their mint and dill and cumin to the Lord and Jesus does not correct their scrupulous interpretation of the Law.  In fact, he says “…these you ought to have done. Jesus wants us to recognize that everything we have belongs to God and at a minimum a tithe goes back to him. 

          But the Pharisees had everything upside down—they didn’t give any thought to huge issues of the kingdom that involved justice and mercy and faithfulness, but they were scrupulous to make sure they gave as an offering 2.2 sprigs of mint from their 22 mint plants coming up next to their front door.  We see this upside down value system in the Pharisees all the time in the gospels.  In Luke 13, a woman who had been stricken with a severe demonic disability and who had been bent over for 18 years is miraculously healed and the take home message for the Pharisees is--Jesus healed her on the wrong day of the week.  The SABBATH had been violated!  That’s straining to swallow a little gnat but inhaling a camel.  We can be upside down as well.  In a moment of love-bereft, self-righteous indignation, we can verbally peel the skin off a brother or sister for whom Christ died and think nothing of it--and then in the next moment act as if the world is coming to an end because our kid hasn’t memorized their AWANA verses.  What we get upset about reveals what we care about and what we care about often reveals our self-righteousness. 

Churches do this too.  In a congregational meeting, they will vehemently argue for a half an hour over the color of the paint in the Narthex, but when the next agenda item comes up, there is no real discussion about whether to cut the funding for the missionaries—“these are tough economic times, you know.”  Do we hear how upside-down that is?  The problem is—our hearts are often more concerned about whether our kid memorizes his verse for the week, or the color of a room than we are the weightier matters of the kingdom.  That’s self-righteousness because it takes God’s revelation of what is important and turns it upside down—placing the priority on our own petty and fleshly agendas. 

A fifth mark of self righteousness is similar and that is a priority is placed on superficial, external expressions of righteousness to the exclusion of genuine, heart righteousness.  Jesus says in verse 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.  You blind Pharisee!  First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.” At the heart of the Pharisees’ problem was they were far more concerned about appearing to be righteous in the sight of people, than actually living out genuine heart righteousness before God.  However, all their efforts to appear outwardly righteous to others did nothing to transform their hearts.  Jesus says in effect, “If you work on the internal righteousness of your hearts because you are concerned about God who looks on-- the heart—then your external acts of righteousness that people see will take care of themselves.[2]  Working to outwardly impress others will never bring transformation.  It’s as we live our lives with God alone as our audience—living to please him from the heart—that our hearts change and that will have a profound impact on the externals that other people see.

Jesus makes this same criticism in verses 5-7.  He says of the religious leaders, “They do all their deeds to be seen by others.  For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.”   Phylacteries were little leather boxes that had four Bible verses in them that were worn either on the arm or the forehead by some Jews in accordance with a wooden interpretation of Exodus 13.  The longer fringes on their garments were also purely external and designed to impress other Jews with how spiritual they were.  This kind of external righteousness was rooted in their pride.  They wanted people to know, not only how righteous they were, but that they were more righteous than almost everyone else.  It wasn’t just about appearing to be good; it was about appearing to be better.  This is C.S. Lewis’ point in his chapter on pride in “Mere Christianity.”  Our spiritual pride always ends up expressing itself by showing contempt for other believers who we think are less observant than ourselves.  This is why the Pharisees looked down their noses at Jesus for eating with tax-collectors—they would never do that!  One of the sure fire symptoms of self-righteousness is “contempt for the less observant.[3] 

A brother or sister isn’t as nearly committed as you in their church attendance or their work in the church or in their prayer life and instead of your heart being broken over their comparative spiritual shallowness and praying for them; you instead look down your nose at them in contempt.  That’s self-righteousness.  This is especially tempting to do if the lukewarm person in question is younger than you or better looking than you or more educated than you or makes more money than you.  It’s tempting to try to compensate for those things by smugly affirming that, “I’m clearly more committed to Christ than he is.”

A sixth mark of self-righteousness as condemned by Jesus in the Pharisees is in verse 27.  Jesus says, “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 bone and all uncleanness.  So you outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”  Tombs were sources of ceremonial uncleanness because according to the Old Testament, contact with dead bodies made Jews unclean. The Jews used to whitewash tombs with lime every year around Passover to make them more attractive and also to help people notice them and stay away from them.  That helps us see what Jesus is saying here.  That is—the external acts of the Pharisees, which they thought were beautiful, were actually an indication that they defiled people with their self-righteousness.  The mark of self-righteousness Jesus highlights here is a spiritually contagious disease wrapped in the appearance of holiness.  Self-righteousness is contagious and toxic to other believers.  The point is that when you teach and practice this external expression of self-righteousness, you are not only hurting yourself—you are defiling others who look to you for what it is to be a Christian. 

Instead of leading others to the cross and grace by your humility, you are compelling them to do the same kind of worthless, spiritually lethal acts of external righteousness you are doing.  This mark of self-righteousness is especially important for parents to note.  If you hear your child spouting off about why their classmate in Sunday school isn’t nearly as committed to Jesus as they are because they don’t do this, or because they engage in that; chances are they have learned that from you.  That’s defilement.  Seventh, and finally in verse 29 we read, “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.  Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.” 

A final mark of self-righteousness is an increasing level of self-deception.  The Pharisees were so deceived that they believed that had they been alive, they would have hailed the prophets as heroes and not attacked them as so many of their Jewish contemporaries did.  Do we see how absurdly self-deceived these people were?  The Pharisees were–as Jesus spoke--conspiring to kill him—the Great Prophet to who all the others pointed.  Self-righteousness is so self-deceiving.  Some of the most self-righteous people in this room have barely felt a twinge of conviction.  This is why we all need people who we will listen to when they speak into our lives.  Some believers have no one outside their family who they will allow to speak into their life.  When you lovingly confront a self-righteous person about their self-righteousness, they will almost go on the defensive in the area of their self righteousness—Jesus says they are blind—they don’t see it.  The problem is always with the one confronting the sin.  A deeply self righteous person will very seldom admit to it because they have invested so much time and energy in this false righteousness, that to admit that it is sinful would tear down their entire spiritual life.

As we close, the good news is that Jesus died for the sin of self-righteousness too.  Any self-righteousness we have is an infallible indication that in that area, we have not internalized the gospel.  Self-righteousness fills the vacuum created by those areas of our life where we haven’t internalized the righteousness of Christ in the gospel.  Because we aren’t living in faith on the promise of Christ’s righteousness, we try to establish our own by our own set of rules and regulations that will make us acceptable.  The answer to self righteousness is not to resolve to stamp out any vestige of it in your life.  The answer to self-righteousness is the grace of humility as we stand in the shadow of the cross and humbly concede that Jesus died because we have no righteousness and any attempt we make to be acceptable to God is an utter sham.  That’s why Jesus says in verse 11, right smack in the middle of this section on self-righteousness, “The greatest among you shall be your servant.  Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”  The opposite of self-righteousness is humility—humbly admitting that we are wretched and miserable apart from Christ, desperately in need of his righteousness and desperately in need of brothers and sisters who we have given freedom to speak the gospel into our blind spots.

As we embrace God’s righteousness found in the gospel, we will more clearly see our self-righteousness and see it for the hideous and ridiculous thing it is.  May God grant us the grace to know the gospel and humbly embrace and live out the righteousness found only in Jesus.


[1] Tim Keller, “The Prodigal God,” p. 46-47.

[2] Carson, Matthew, p.482.

[3] This phrase comes from an IVP publication on the Pharisees.

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