A rather pompous-looking deacon trying to impress a class of boys on the importance of living the Christian life said, “Why do people call me a Christian?” After a moment’s pause, one youngster said, “Maybe it’s because they don’t know you.” Ouch. Someone needs to clean that kid’s mouth out with soap. Or maybe it’s the deacon who needs to take a good long look at his life.
In dealing with the religious leaders of his day, Jesus did not mince words or hold any punches. He called them what they were: hypocrites. The Greek word was used to refer to actors because they played a part, wore a mask, pretended to be something they were not. How many times have we seen someone in a movie play a part that moved us to tears because of their sacrificial love or their selfless stand for goodness and integrity — only to hear the next week that the actor who moved us to tears was arrested for drunk driving or accused of an adulterous affair, or worse? We shake our heads at that, but we know that the character we see on the movie screen is fiction. The actor is playing a role, performing a part that has nothing to do with who he really is. He is, technically, a hypocrite.
What happens, though, when hypocrisy shows up in the church? Matthew 23 is a frightening passage of Scripture for me and maybe for you, too, because I think Jesus is warning us about how easy it is to slip into playing the part, especially if you are in a position of leadership. Perhaps the greater the commitment you have made to follow Jesus and to serve Him, the greater the temptation to slip on the mask when you fail or when you aren’t looking so good.
Here’s one place we can do a heart-check. How much of what we do as Christians is done so that we can be seen, be appreciated, be applauded by men? Jesus said to the Pharisees, “You love the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.” The chief seat in the synagogue was up front, on the platform, facing the congregation. And the greatest honor was to be ushered up to the front, walking past all the “regular people,” to take the seat where you could best be seen. That’s the key, Jesus said, “You are most interested in being seen.” I am reminded of a recent “Babylon Bee” headline: “If a man reads his Bible, but fails to post pictures of it on the Internet, did it really happen?” Yes, we love to be seen, Jesus said, and we love to be greeted in the marketplace. Oh, this one cuts me to the heart, because I love the rare occasion when someone says, “Hey, are you the one who writes that column in the paper?” I confess it. But God has been gracious to give me children who are not impressed. They say things like, “Yeah, Dad, we were able to find you in the crowd: we saw your bald spot.” Or they grin and say, “Hey, Dad, I knew you were up there somewhere in the crowd, but all the people of normal height were blocking you from view. I thought, why doesn’t Dad stand up? But then I realized that you were.”
Someone said, “Character is who we are in the dark. It’s who we are when no one is looking.” I like that, but I would add that someone is always looking. No matter where we go, God will see and hear what we do and what we say. Perhaps this is the key to avoiding hypocrisy. If I live every minute with the knowledge that God is watching and listening, perhaps God will keep me from becoming a religious windbag. I pray so.
A candidate for church membership was asked, “What part of the Bible do you like best?” He said, “I like the New Testament best.” Then he was asked, “Which book in the New Testament is your favorite?” He answered, “The Book of Parables,” and began to recite his favorite to the members of the committee.
“Once upon a time a man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves; and the thorns grew up and choked the man. And he went on and met the Queen of Sheba, and she gave that man a thousand talents of silver and a hundred changes of raiment. And he got in his chariot and drove furiously, and as he was driving along under a big tree, his hair got caught in a limb and left him hanging there. And he hung there many days and many nights. The ravens brought him food to eat and water to drink. And one night while he was hanging there asleep, his wife Delilah came along and cut off his hair, and he fell on stony ground. And it began to rain, and rained forty days and forty nights. And he hid himself in a cave. Later he went on and met a man who said, ‘Come in and take supper with me.’ But he said, ‘I can’t come in, for I have married a wife.’ And the man went out into the highways and hedges and compelled him to come in. He then came to Jerusalem, and saw Queen Jezebel sitting high and lifted up in a window of the wall. When she saw him she laughed, and he said, ‘Throw her down from there,’ and they threw her down. And he said, ‘Throw her down again,’ and they threw her down seventy-times-seven. And the fragments which they picked up filled twelve baskets full. Now, whose wife will she be in the day of the Judgment?”
The membership committee agreed that this was indeed a knowledgeable candidate.
That fictional story illustrates a sad truth: more Americans than ever before are biblically illiterate. Jay Leno once asked members of his audience about the Bible while taping his late night show.
“Name one of the Ten Commandments,” he said.
“God helps those who help themselves?” someone ventured. (Uh…wrong)
“Name one of the apostles,” Leno asked. No one could.
“Name the Beatles,” Leno said. Without hesitation, the answers came from many, shouted almost in unison: “George, Paul, John and Ringo!”
The numbers are staggering. According to the Barna Research Group, 41 percent of Americans read the Bible once a year or never. Only 16 percent of Christians say they read their Bible daily. The numbers are also embarrassing. Twelve percent of Americans think Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. Fifty percent of graduating high school seniors, in one survey, thought Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife.
Just wondering…how much of our language is foreign to those who don’t know the Bible? Phrases like these, “A house divided,” “Blind leading the blind,” and “Can a leopard change his spots?” all have their origin in the Bible. That’s just three phrases, the ABC’s if you will, but there are hundreds, thousands of biblical references that have become commonplace in our language, and the power of their meaning has been lost.
That’s not the greatest cost of biblical illiteracy on our nation, however. David wrote, “I have hidden Your word in my heart, that I might not sin against You.” Those who throw away the compass are bound to get lost. Those who become “a law unto themselves” (another biblical reference) are headed for destruction.
We need the Bible. Not just on our shelves, but in our hearts.
What was a day in your past that you anticipated for weeks or even months? I remember several years growing up when I would wait for my grandmother, Nana, to come on my birthday and pick me up in her convertible Morris Minor. She would take me to a favorite restaurant to eat, and sometimes to a movie. It was a day I looked forward to. What if, instead of stopping to pick me up, she just drove by my house and threw a moldy McDonald’s hamburger out the window at my feet, while singing, “Sad Birthday to you…”? That’s a happy day turned sour.
Let’s raise the stakes much higher. When is the day of the Lord darkness and not light? When is the day of the Lord gloom, and not joy? Answer: It is when the day of the Lord comes for the unbeliever. As I work through the book of Amos in the Old Testament, I have thought about Haman several times. He was the wicked right hand man to the King in the book of Esther. The second feast day for Haman was not festive but disastrous. He came expecting to be honored, but instead he was hanged. Haman’s presumption led to his demise.
That is what was going on in Israel in the 8th century B.C., and we could all learn from it. The people presumed that God would look the other way as they lived any way they chose to live. Instead, God said to Israel that they were like a man who was able to escape from a lion, only to meet a bear, and then a deadly snake. This is a scene from a movie, isn’t it? It’s an Indiana Jones stunt, where he is chased by a lion, and somehow escapes. Only to turn around when he thinks he is in the clear, and a grizzly bear is standing there ready to devour him. Somehow he escapes from the clutches of the bear. Hey, this is Indiana Jones we’re talking about. He barely makes it into his house as the bear crashes into the front door behind him. He breathes a sigh of relief while leaning his hand against the wall to catch his breath, and then a serpent bites him and he dies. End of movie. Credits roll. Rest in peace, Indiana!
Except it’s not a movie. It’s real. God is making it plain to those who do not know him that there is nowhere to hide on the day of the Lord. Even your own home is no longer safe. God is coming to where you live, and there’s nothing that can stand in his way.
You see, the people of Israel thought of God then like many people think of God today. That God is always good. Don’t get me wrong, God is good. But to many people today, an “always good” God never brings judgment on his people. And the day of the Lord for them is when their “always good” God vindicates his people while punishing their enemies. But what God thunders to them through his prophet Isaiah, and Jesus repeats 700 years later to the Pharisees and the scribes is this: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” The people in Amos’s day, and Isaiah’s day, and the people in Jesus’ day thought the same thing then that billions of people think today: “If I say good things about ‘God’ every now and then, and check some of the ‘religious rituals’ off my list now and then, I can live any way I want to. I am home free!”
That presumption results in disaster, and that’s bad news. That track ends with the day of the Lord being the very opposite of what we expected, where a moldy hamburger would be the least of your worries. Here’s the good news. God made a way for us to come to him by grace because he loves us. Start on a different track today, by acknowledging that your presumptions about him have been wrong.
I know Easter was last week, but let’s face it. The stunning news that Jesus died on Friday and was raised from the dead on Sunday is still fresh, still powerful, and still relevant to every human being on the planet. He beat death, so that we could as well.
I remember as a little boy taking a dare from a friend. He dared me to crawl through a culvert under the road near our house. You couldn’t see from one end to the other because it took a slight turn. The pipe had a little bit of water running through it, and lots of spider webs I would have to fight through. I summoned my courage, took the dare, made the journey, exited triumphantly on the other side and yelled at my friend, “Come on! You can do it, too!”
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the linchpin of Christianity, the absolute cornerstone of our faith, and all of our hopes are built squarely on our belief that Jesus “emerged on the other side,” that he rose from the dead on the third day, just as he said he would. But our belief is not blind faith, my friends. Oh, no.
There is the evidence of the empty tomb. The bones of Caiaphas, Jesus’ accuser, were discovered in 1990, but Jesus’ body was never found. Had the disciples stolen the body, as the Jewish authorities claimed, then the followers of Christ died for a lie. All but one of the disciples of Jesus was martyred. Peter was even crucified upside down, according to Jewish historians, because he said, “I am not worthy to die as my Lord.” The disciples did not steal the body because they didn’t have to. How about the Romans and the Jews? Did they steal the body? No, because if they had, they would have ended Christianity in its infancy by producing the beaten, bloodied, broken body of the Christ. That would have been the end of it. But they could not produce the body because they did not have it. The tomb was empty because Jesus was resurrected.
There is also the evidence of eyewitness accounts. The resurrected Jesus appeared to friends and enemies, skeptics and believers. He “was seen by over five hundred brethren at once,” Paul wrote. In “The Case for Christ,” Lee Strobel explains that if we were to give each of the 500 witnesses 15 minutes in a courtroom to tell his story, we would be there around the clock Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and all day Friday until 11 p.m., hearing one after another say, “He’s alive! I saw the Lord.” Is it possible that any of you dear readers, after 125 straight hours of eyewitness testimony, would leave the courtroom unconvinced?
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the most successful trial lawyer of modern times was Sir Lionel Luckhoo, “who succeeded in getting his 245th consecutive murder acquittal by January 1, 1985.” The Sydney Morning Herald called Luckhoo the “Perry Mason of the Caribbean.” He was an expert on what constitutes reliable, admissible, persuasive evidence. And his life changed at the age of 63 when he heard about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He analyzed the evidence and came to this conclusion:
“I have spent more than forty-two years as a defense trial lawyer in many parts of the world. I say unequivocally the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is so overwhelming that it compels acceptance by proof which leaves absolutely no room for doubt.”
Nearly 2,000 years ago, Jesus crawled through the culvert of death and emerged triumphant on the other side, conquering death, sin, and the grave. He stands and says to all of us, “Come to me and you will be given life everlasting, too.” The evidence for believing his story is true is overwhelming. The rewards for trusting him with your life are eternal.
As the story goes, a man was watching TV with his wife when the doorbell rang. He went to see who it was and found his friend on the doorstep. “What are you doing?” the friend asked. He said, “Watching a movie.” The friend said, “Oh, which one?” The man knit his brow and worked on that thought for a moment, then said, “What’s that flower called that smells good but has thorns?” His friend replied, “Rose?” “Yeah, that’s it.” The man then turned and called back into the house, “Hey Rose, what’s the name of that movie we’re watching?” Now there’s a man with a memory problem. His forgetter is working overtime.
It’s important to remember the names of our loved ones, and diseases that strip that ability away are cruel and unrelenting in their torture. But what about those who forget the very reason for their existence simply because they are consumed with lesser things? Why would Paul write to Timothy, “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead”? Surely that is the last thing this young pastor would forget. Not so fast. You might argue that the banner over Israel in the Old Testament was, “They forgot God.” Moses said it this way near the end of his life: “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth.” It is one of the reasons why I believe Jesus gave us the Lord’s Supper. “Do this,” he said, “in remembrance of me.” It is a regular reminder for the body of Christ that employs all of our five senses as we taste, smell, touch and see the elements, and as we hear the Words that he spoke, “This is my body, broken for you…this is my blood, poured out for you.”
The Taj Mahal is perhaps the most beautiful structure in the world. It was built in the 1600s by an Emperor for his favorite wife after she died giving birth to their fourteenth child. It took twenty thousand men more than twenty years to build this magnificent shrine. The sad irony is that by the time the building was completed, the favorite wife had been gone so long that most in the empire did not know her memory and had no idea why the Taj Mahal had been built. They marveled at the edifice, ignorant of the life it celebrated.
It can be true of a church, can’t it? We build magnificent structures and cathedrals that dazzle the eye. We spare no expense to have the finest architecture, the tallest steeple, the largest sanctuary, or the most “cutting-edge” programs. Then we drift away from center. We forget the reason we started the church in the first place. The stained glass windows tell the story of the Gospel that we long since quit preaching. “The Gospel? It is just too exclusive,” some say. “We need a more tolerant message.” The church bells still play the old hymns through the week, songs that many would be embarrassed to sing on Sunday. Songs like, “We’ve a story to tell to the nations, that shall turn their hearts to the right.” Or songs like, “Jesus shall reign wherever the sun does his successive journeys run; his kingdom spread from shore to shore, till moons shall wax and wane no more.” You want to get hissed at, or worse, just stand up on a college campus today and speak the words to either of those two hymns.
Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead. We may forget who is enshrined in the Taj Mahal, because she is long gone. Jesus is not. He is risen from the dead. The living Savior is the very reason for our existence.