Pharisees and Scribes

Then spake Jesus to the multitudes and to his disciples, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses seat: all things therefore whatsoever they bid you, these do and observe: but do not ye after their works; for they say, and do not. Yea, they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger” (Matthew 23:1-4).

The Evangelists consistently speak of mutual antagonism between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees. From their presentation alone one might imagine that Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees are miles apart in their understanding of God and Judaism. And yet, of all the various sects of Second Temple Judaism, Jesus has the most in common with the Pharisees. The Sadducees accepted only the Torah as legitimate ground of authority and denied the existence of angels, the soul, and the resurrection (Matthew 22:23, Acts 23:8). The Herodians, by virtue of supporting Herod and his government, would have no love for a rival King of the Jews (Matthew 22:16). One might think that Jesus and the Essenes would have much in common; while they shared an apocalyptic worldview and some “ascetic” practices, the Essenes rejected the present Temple and its authorities as illegitimate and looked forward to the day when the Sons of Light would restore the Temple and its proper service and who withdrew from life in the greater Jewish community. Jesus did not look forward to establishment of a restored Temple in Jerusalem, nor did He withdraw from life among the people of God (Matthew 24:1-36). Meanwhile, Jesus and the Pharisees agreed about the inspiration and authority of the prophets and the writings, angels, the soul, the resurrection, and the hope of Israel in the Messiah. This leaves us with a major challenge: if Jesus and the Pharisees share so many similarities in outlook, why are the Pharisees and the scribes singled out for such strong condemnation by the Evangelists? If Jesus and the Pharisees agree on so much, why are the Pharisees portrayed in such consistently negative ways in the Gospels?

Few places express Jesus’ difficulties with the scribes and Pharisees with as much rhetorical force and denunciation as in the series of woes Jesus sets forth in Matthew 23:1-35. Jesus begins His litany of invective against the scribes and Pharisees by denouncing a form of their hypocrisy in Matthew 23:1-4.

Brooklyn Museum - Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees (Malheur à vous, scribes et pharisiens) - James Tissot

Jesus begins with the recognition that the scribes and Pharisees maintain a pride of place in Second Temple Judaism: they “sit on Moses’ seat” (Matthew 23:2). No actual chair is envisioned; Jesus gives recognition to their claims of serving as the interpreters of the Law of Moses on behalf of the people. For this reason Jesus tells the people to do what the scribes and Pharisees bid them to do (Matthew 23:3a). Some interpreters of this passage suggest that Jesus is being sarcastic and does not actually expect His audience to live according to what the Pharisees teach; such an interpretation is possible but not necessarily warranted. We do well to remember that even though Jewish people put great emphasis on literacy and would have maintained higher literacy rates than seen among the Gentiles, plenty of Jewish people could still not read or write, and even then, scrolls of the Law, Prophets, and Writings were copied by hand on expensive papyrus and parchment and would have been reserved for use in the synagogues and those like the scribes and Pharisees who were trained in the Law (Luke 4:17-20). Previously Ezra and his associates had read the Law and gave an understanding of its meaning (Nehemiah 8:1-8); many Jewish people in the first century looked to the scribes and Pharisees for the same reason, and for the time being, Jesus recognizes their role.

In Matthew 23:1-4 the problem is less with the specific interpretations and explanations given by the scribes and Pharisees and much more their unwillingness to do them (Matthew 23:3b-4)! They say the things faithful Jewish people should do, but they themselves do not do them. They expect Jewish people to adhere to all sorts of laws according to what is written and the traditions of the fathers, denounce as sinners those unwilling to bear them (John 9:16, 24), but provide no assistance to others, show no mercy, and themselves frequently (and flagrantly) violate them. In short, it may be good to do what they say, but do not do as they do.

To say one thing but do another is the essence of hypocrisy. The scribes and Pharisees were respected for their knowledge; no doubt many “average” Israelites looked up to them as holy people because of it. Yet, in practice, they were not very holy. They were just as guilty of violating the Law as other Israelites (Acts 13:39, Romans 3:13-21). Yet such totality begs the question: were not all the Israelites, save the Lord Jesus, hypocrites to some degree? Why are the scribes and Pharisees being singled out for this condemnation?

It is one thing to try and fall short; it is quite another to not even try. It is one thing to teach a given path, try to live it, and stumble at times; we humans are imperfect. It is quite another to act as if one is all holy and righteous, presume to be holier and more righteous than others, and yet substantively are little better than those whom they denounce. Such were the scribes and Pharisees: they acted as if knowing and teaching the Law brought forth its own special kind of holiness. Jesus makes it clear that it does not.

We do well to remember that the scribes and Pharisees were part of the people of God, and of all the people of God at the time, were considered to be the most holy and righteous. Their denunciation by all the Evangelists is, in its own way, a warning for believers: do not be like the Pharisees. The way of Jesus and the way of the Pharisees are quite divergent, yet throughout time Christians, however well-meaning, have fallen prey to the ways of the Pharisees!

The Apostle Paul declares that knowledge puffs up while love builds up (1 Corinthians 8:1); it is very easy to obtain knowledge of God and His ways and thus presume one’s holiness based upon one’s superior knowledge. That is the way of the Pharisee and the Gnostic; it is not the way of Jesus or those who truly follow Him (1 Timothy 6:20-21)! We are not made holy by our knowledge; we are not better than others simply because we have come to a better understanding of the will of God than they have. Such is why the first and foremost aspect of the Gospel is our own sinfulness and our inability to solve our sin problem through our own efforts (Ephesians 2:1-3, Titus 3:3). We are entirely dependent upon God in Christ for the hope of salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9); our obedient response in faith, while necessary, does not earn us or merit our salvation!

Every Christian, to some degree or another, is a hypocrite; we proclaim the way of God in Christ but fall short at times (Romans 3:23, 1 John 1:8). But we must walk the walk of Christ; we must do the commandments (1 John 2:3-6). In seeking to do them we will learn humility, faith, and obedience. We would never imagine to lay heavy burdens on others and let ourselves go free; quite the contrary (Galatians 6:2)!

In Matthew 23:1-4 Jesus begins to set forth the contrast between the condemned ways of the scribes and Pharisees and the righteous way of God in Christ. The way of the Pharisees is always tempting for the people of God; we must resist it, remaining humble and dependent upon God in Christ, seeking to do the will of the Lord in all respects, bearing one another’s burdens and not attempting to make them heavier! Let us serve the Lord Jesus in humble faith!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Religion

If any man thinketh himself to be religious, while he bridleth not his tongue but deceiveth his heart, this man’s religion is vain. Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world (James 1:26-27).

Religion is having quite the public relations nightmare these days.

For many, “religion” is associated with various faiths and practices that to them seem antiquated, dull, irrelevant, or even downright dangerous. Some think that “religion” is the biggest problem plaguing mankind. In many aspects of our public dialogue, religion is treated with disdain, contempt, and a patronizing attitude. It is made out to be something backward: an impediment toward progress.

Yet “religion” fares little better among those who would normally be assumed to practice it. Many within Christianity define religion about as negatively as those who have no faith: “religion” is seen as a set of dead practices that one would see in a slowly aging and dying social club type atmosphere. In such a view the Pharisees are the paradigm of religion: obsessed with doctrinal peculiarities, many of which seem to have little relevance or bearing on our lives, a sanctimonious and “holier-than-thou” attitude, a bunch of people with a checklist which they cross off and then move on with their lives. Such people disdain “religion” and instead speak of Christianity as a “personal relationship with God,” a “way of life,” or find some other way to make some kind of contrast between who they are and what they do and “religion.”

We can all think of many good reasons why “religion” has developed its rather bad reputation of late. Yet such vitriolic reactions are just that: reactions. It is easy to paint an “ugly” picture of religion and condemn it. Such things should be expected from unbelievers; while believers might have reason for embarrassment on account of the abuses of religion, does that mean that the concept should be defined in such a way as to condemn it?

We must come face to face with an uncomfortable reality: everyone has a religion. Religion is simply defined as a set of attitudes, beliefs, and practices relating to ultimate reality and/or a divinity. And no matter who we are, we all have some working concept of why things are the way they are and how we should think, feel, and act in response.

We do well to consider what James, the brother of the Lord, had to say about religion. He recognizes that there is a wide gulf between the profession of religion and the substance thereof, warning that anyone who thinks to be religious but does not control their tongue that their hearts are deceived and their religion is in vain (James 1:26). To this day, two of the main reasons why people think poorly of “religion” is sanctimony and hypocrisy. The world does not lack “religious” people who say one thing and do quite another, or who condemn others for certain faults while justifying their own. Matthew 7:1-4 is a lesson which such people should learn; it is not as if God, Jesus, or anyone else truly representing the Christian “religion” would commend sanctimony and hypocrisy, for they condemn it quite strongly in many places (e.g. Matthew 23:1-36, Luke 18:9-14). Everyone could probably do better at controlling their tongue; such self-control is demanded of those who would follow Jesus.

James then speaks of “pure and undefiled” religion: to visit widows and orphans in distress and to keep oneself unstained from the world (James 1:27). James makes it clear that religion need not be something bad or terrible; there is such a thing as “pure” and “undefiled” religion. Such religion focuses on personal holiness and active participation in life among the dispossessed. By mentioning these things James does not explicitly address one’s thoughts and feelings, but it is evident that if one’s care and concern is for holiness while serving the least among him or her, their thoughts and feelings are as pure as the religion which they are practicing (cf. Matthew 7:15-20). Likewise, while Christians can work together at times to help those in need, this kind of “pure and undefiled” religion cannot be corporate: it is something given for “oneself” to do, not to be pawned off to some sort of institution, organization, or government to handle.

We do well to meditate for a moment on James’ description of “pure and undefiled religion.” Most of those who condemn “religion” for all of its excesses and abuses would likely agree that helping those in need is a good thing, and maintaining one’s personal holiness without sanctimony or a holier-than-thou attitude is certainly not a bad thing. Many such persons would probably commend a life full of this “pure and undefiled religion.” And those among Christians who condemn “religion” would certainly approve of helping the needy and maintaining one’s personal holiness.

Religion, therefore, is not the problem. Impure and defiled religion is the problem. Religion used for ungodly purposes, to advance the covetous or bloodthirsty agendas of individuals or organizations or to justify perversions and unholy ideologies is the problem. Sanctimony, hypocrisy, and sectarianism masquerading as religion is the problem. In short, Satan and sin are the problem, as they are with all things that could otherwise be good, holy, and pleasing in the sight of God. Therefore, let us cast off bad religion. Let us maintain personal holiness while seeking the best interest of those around us, especially the most destitute, downtrodden, and dispossessed, and do so to the glory and honor of God the Father in the Lord Jesus Christ. Let us practice pure and undefiled religion thanks to a restored relationship with God through Jesus in His Kingdom to the praise, honor, and glory of God in Christ at His coming!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Justified in the Sight of Men

And the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things; and they scoffed at [Jesus].
And he said unto them, “Ye are they that justify yourselves in the sight of men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:14-15).

Luke, of all the Gospel writers, spends a decent amount of time chronicling Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees as He is about to head to Jerusalem. We find within this context some of Jesus’ most famous parables and stories: the lost sheep, the lost coin, the prodigal son, the shrewd steward, the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 15:1-16:31). These specific narratives are unique to Luke’s narrative, even if their themes are consistent with the rest of the Gospel authors. Why, as the story of Jesus’ life is reaching its most climactic point, does Luke record all of these discussions?

There is much to be gained from each story on its own merits. Nevertheless, they are told and placed as they are as part of an overall critique, primarily of the Pharisees, exposing the wide gulf between their true condition before God and the righteous appearance they offered to others.

Jesus makes the critique explicit in Luke 16:15. He charges the Pharisees with justifying themselves in the sight of men, honoring what is exalted in the sight of men, as opposed to that which is exalted in the sight of God.

It is easy to hear this critique and consider it in terms of 21st century America, concluding how the Pharisees’ religiosity was not really significant, their worldliness was apparent, and they honored the “secular” over the “spiritual.” In so doing we would be imposing our categories and concepts upon a time and place where they are quite foreign. The Pharisees are not being condemned as secularists; they are being condemned because they continue to justify the type of religiosity that marked Second Temple Judaism in a Gentile world.

All of the parables and stories of this section underscore this critique. The Pharisees murmur about Jesus receiving sinners and eating with them (Luke 15:2); Jesus responds with the parables of the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7), lost coin (Luke 15:8-10), and the prodigal son/older brother (Luke 15:11-32). It is hard to escape the understanding that Jesus speaks of the Pharisees in terms of the “older brother,” showing the distance between their “entitled” attitude and the merciful love of the Father. In showing distance and alienation from “sinners,” the Pharisees are maintaining a “righteous” attitude that looked down upon all defilement and transgression; they were trying, at some level, to remain unstained from defilement, and to maintain holiness. Yet this was a socially acceptable type of exclusion; that is how they could get away with it and still be honored as the “righteous” in society.

The Pharisees’ scoffing in Luke 16:14 is related to the parable of the shrewd steward (Luke 16:1-12) and the declaration that a man cannot serve two masters, both God and money (Luke 16:13). Luke condemns the Pharisees as “lovers of money” (Luke 16:13), and his condemnation is just. Nevertheless, this idea was pervasive throughout society at that time. After all, God blesses those whom He loves and causes affliction for those who disobey Him; how many proverbs were written indicating the honor of wealth and the shame of poverty? Even the disciples go along with this “conventional wisdom,” expressing complete astonishment at Jesus’ declaration of the difficulty for the wealthy to be saved, wondering how anyone could thus be saved if the rich were not (Luke 18:23-26)! Therefore, the Pharisees’ love of money was entirely in line with conventional thinking of the day, no doubt married with a sense of upright piety.

Jesus will continue on with declarations about the Law and Prophets being until John, how people seeking to enter the Kingdom, and yet how nothing would be modified in the Law until all was fulfilled (Luke 16:16-17), a declaration regarding marriage, divorce, and remarriage (Luke 16:18), and then the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). The Pharisees presume to understand the Law and the Prophets and thus the will of God, and yet in their declarations they add to and subtract from the Law, focus more on the technical legality of the Law than the intentions of its Author, and otherwise find ways to justify their desires with a distorted understanding of the Law as opposed to serving God through the Law according to God’s intentions.

In the end, the Pharisees were externally everything every first century Israelite would expect from a holy person. And yet they remained separated from God, exalting what was abominable in His sight.

We do well to consider Luke’s focus on these conversations and what it shows about the Pharisees, lest we walk in the same path toward destruction. As we seek holiness and righteousness in conduct (cf. 1 Peter 1:14-16), it becomes easy to feel superior to those who are “sinners” and who are “defiled by the world,” and seek to fully separate from them and condemn them. That may be what men expect, and one can certainly seek to justify such behavior in the sight of men with constant appeals to “holiness” and “withdrawal from evil,” but since it entirely neglects humility, love, kindness, compassion, and mercy, such is abominable in the sight of God. It also proves quite easy to honor wealth and the love of money and even do so with religious motivations and with a pious veneer; there will always be many who will have no qualms with the pretense of religion cloaking a covetous and greedy spirit. Yet the love of money remains the root of all sorts of evil (1 Timothy 6:10), and we do not do well if we seek to minimize the impact of Jesus’ lamentation of how difficult it is for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of Heaven in Luke 18:24-25.

It is also easy to view Scripture like the Pharisees did: a source of justification for whatever thoughts, desires, or actions we seek to justify. In such situations the conclusion is never in doubt. The justification may persuade men, but it dishonors God and shows who really is in control. If God is the center of our existence and we seek to please Him, then we will allow His message in Scripture to change us into conformity with Jesus (Romans 8:29). This is not a matter of the spirit of the message or the letter of the message, but the proper marriage of both the spirit and the letter of what God has revealed in Scripture. There is a reason why Jesus first declared that it was easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for a tittle of the Law to fall and then to speak about marriage and divorce (Luke 16:17-18): the Pharisees might have been technically accurate with some of their interpretations, but by missing the entire intention of God as revealed in other Scriptures, they were justifying things which were contrary to God’s intentions (cf. Matthew 19:1-9).

Many falsely reason that if we focus on the “spirit” of the message, we will be led to compromise or minimize the importance of the “letter” of the message. In reality, as the examples of Jesus and the Pharisees show, by understanding the “spirit” of the message, we will honor it to the “letter”; it is by focusing on the “letter” to the exclusion of the “spirit” which will more often lead us astray, just as it did the Pharisees. And yet it all goes back to our intentions. Do we seek to honor self in the pretense of honoring God or to honor God as God and follow after Him? Are we seeking to look righteous in our current predicament, using elaborate justifications to persuade men of our religiosity, while God remains remote and unimpressed?

We can know the answer by how we react to the message of Jesus’ parables and stories. Do we feel the joy of the people who lost their sheep or coin? Can we feel thankful for the merciful love of the Father for both the prodigal son and the older brother? Do we understand how love of God and love of money are mutually exclusive? Do we sympathize with Lazarus? Or do we feel as if the people who found the sheep and coin are irrationally exuberant? Do we feel the Father is acting shamefully in how He welcomes the prodigal son? Do we chafe at the idea that the love of money and love of God are mutually exclusive? Is our sympathy more directed toward the rich man?

Do we want the justification of men that passes away or the justification that comes from God as His humble servant, trusting in Christ the Lord? Let us seek the latter and be saved!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Pure in Heart

“Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).

Purity has been a sacred matter throughout the generations. It seems that almost every culture has some ritual declaring or making participants clean or pure; we tend to value pure, clean things. Insistence on cleanliness and sanitation is perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the medical and public health fields. In general, we associate good, positive things with purity and cleanliness, and negative, evil things we portray in dirtier, filthier ways. Purity is good.

In order to communicate the value of purity in a physical way, God established many commands regarding cleanliness for Israel in the Old Testament. Certain foods were reckoned as clean, and others unclean and defiling (Leviticus 11:1-47). Many bodily discharges rendered a person ritually unclean, needing purification (cf. Leviticus 12:1-8, 15:1-32). Various skin diseases also rendered a person unclean (Leviticus 13:1-14:57). Many of these cleanliness laws were established to limit contagion and the spread of disease; others were designed to mark out Israel as a special people. All of the cleanliness laws, at some level, were designed to instruct Israel about God’s sanctity and the need for cleanliness before Him.

By the first century, the Israelites were quite faithful when it came to ritual cleansings. Many small pools used for such ritual cleansing, known as mikva’ot, have been discovered through archaeological digs; some are mentioned in John 5:1-4 and John 9:7. The Israelites understood the concept of ritual cleansing; they placed a high priority on remaining ritually clean and pure.

External cleansing is great, well, and good, but Jesus’ radical message in Matthew 5:8 is that it is not enough. External cleansing can only remove the symptoms of defilement, not the cause.

Jesus considers those who are pure in heart to be blessed, or happy. It is the internal purity which allows for external purity and righteousness; despite whatever pretense people may try to maintain, as long as there is impurity and defilement within, impurity and defilement must come to the surface some day. True defilement is not something a person can ingest; defilement comes out from what is within, which is Jesus’ powerful message in Mark 7:14-23.

This “beatitude” is as much a challenge as it is a declaration of blessedness. None of us can be fully pure in heart; we all fall short of God’s glory and sin (Romans 3:23, 7:14-25, 1 John 1:8). There is always a strong temptation to foster and harbor impure thoughts and attitudes within ourselves; we easily deceive ourselves into thinking that since no other human can perceive our thoughts, no one else knows what we are thinking. To this day people face strong societal pressures to make sure that their outward actions conform to societal norms; this is why we rarely tell others how we really feel about them, and very few of us feel comfortable admitting the darkness that is often present deep within us. Thus, we keep things inside.

But God does see and know; all things in darkness will be revealed by light at some point (Ephesians 5:7-13). Meanwhile we labor under significant burdens, trying to save face and keeping up a false exterior. It never works out; it always collapses somehow.

This is why God throughout the New Testament insists on a complete cleansing and renewal of the individual. It is not as if people are generally good and just need a little help here or there; we must come to terms with our sad reality. Sin has corrupted and defiled not just our deeds but also our thoughts and feelings, and we must fully repent, changing our minds so that our attitudes and actions will follow (Acts 2:38). This is why we must capture every thought unto obedience in Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5); this is why we must mentally dwell on that which is good, holy, and profitable (Philippians 4:8). We must in every way seek to remove all that which is unholy, impure, and defiled from our thoughts and feelings; then we can live without hypocrisy, allowing our exterior to shine with the interior light which comes from Christ (Matthew 5:13-16).

Those who are pure in heart shall see God. We are not intended to understand this verse on a physical, concrete level: after all, the heart is merely an muscle pumping blood, and no man can see God (John 1:18). Purity in heart involves purity of mind and emotion, and none of this is possible without purity in soul. Little wonder, then, that the Risen Jesus speaks of the saved as those who have not soiled their garments and who walk with Him dressed in white (Revelation 2:4-5), and Paul speaks of Jesus presenting a church to Himself which is pure and unblemished (Ephesians 5:25-27). Those who are pure shall be with God forever and will stand in His presence in the resurrection (cf. Revelation 21:1-22:6).

Such purity cannot come from our own futile efforts; we can try to cleanse ourselves all we want, but the stain of sin remains. None of us will walk in white because we, by our own power, have kept from defilement. We all need cleansing, and continuous cleansing at that, from Jesus through the blood shed for the forgiveness of our sins (Romans 5:6-11, Ephesians 5:25-27). We must seek after purity in Christ; we must seek to align our will to His so that we can be conformed into His image (Romans 8:29), and thus maintain our cleansing. Let us seek to be pure in heart so that we may see God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Seeking Sustenance Through Righteousness

“Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled” (Matthew 5:6).

No matter how old or young we might be, no matter how rich or poor, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, language, and any other way that people try to divide one another up into various groups, we all understand, to a degree, hunger and thirst. We all have felt the internal groans that accompany the desire for food; we have all experienced the dry mouth that seeks hydration.

Food and drink represent the most primal and basic of needs. Shelter is nice; nevertheless, in many places, one can live without it. All of our other “needs” are not really needs; we can continue living just fine without them, although our quality of life will be hurt. Yet none of us can live long without food or drink.

So what happens when we are bereft of food or drink? Hunger and thirst grow. Before long, all we can imagine is the satisfaction of our hunger and thirst. That hope drives us and sustains us to find a way to satisfy those desires. Soon anything remotely edible is eaten; anything that might have moisture is consumed. Even if some food or drink is found, hunger and thirst might return again soon. It starts all over again. And, if enough time passes without eating or drinking, we would die from starvation or dehydration.

Jesus understands this reality all too well, having previously experienced a long fast and intense hunger (cf. Matthew 4:1-2). Yet His concern, while preaching to His disciples and gathered Jews on the mountain, is not with physical hunger; He speaks blessings upon those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5:6).

There is a reason why Jesus describes the situation as He does. He does not say, “blessed are the righteous.” This is probably partly because there are none who are completely righteous (cf. Romans 3:9-20). The big problem is that the people look to many of the religious authorities for their definitions of righteousness, and Jesus knows quite well that those religious authorities only maintain the pretense of righteousness (cf. Matthew 5:20, 9:11-13, 23:1-1-36). Mere pretense will not do here. Jesus is aiming at something far more deeply felt, far more primal than the exterior.

And that depth is the challenge that this declaration makes for each successive generation. It is always far too easy to circumscribe “righteousness” or over-emphasize aspects of righteousness over other aspects of the idea. People like using this verse to make themselves feel better about their condition, lamenting how people do not seem to want righteousness anymore. They are right; precious few hunger and thirst after righteousness today. But that has always been the case– and this verse was not designed to make people comfortable.

So far Jesus has not blessed people who are normally considered blessed; in fact, the people whom Jesus declares happy are normally reckoned as unhappy. The poor in spirit; those who mourn; those who are meek (Matthew 5:3-5)– these are not found among the elites of society, in aristocracy or positions of authority. When was the last time that a mourner was idolized? Who wanted to exchange a comfortable lifestyle for poverty? Who thinks that meekness is really the way to get ahead in the corporate world? So far Jesus has been turning the world and our understanding of it upside down; this has not suddenly stopped at Matthew 5:6.

Hungering and thirsting after righteousness should not be envisioned as merely being everyone else’s moral censor. Far from it; to hunger and thirst after righteousness is to consider righteousness the most primal need in life. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness believe that if they do not keep avoiding the wrong and doing the right, especially doing the right, they will die, just as quickly (if not quicker) than if they stopped eating and drinking. They are sustained in life by showing love, mercy, and kindness. Those who really hunger and thirst for righteousness do not need to wear that desire as a badge or to use it as a platform; they are too busy seeking to satisfy their desire to do what is right.

Are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness aware of the immorality in society? Most certainly! If they are not seeing it in the lives of those upon whom they have shown mercy and love, they are experiencing the effects of persecution from those who perceive that too much righteousness undermines what they want to do and who they want to be. Remember that Jesus has been declaring blessed and happy those who are not considered such by the world at large; that is no less true of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness as those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, and who are meek. It is a hard road to walk; it is not something which most people would understand as pleasant. And yet such people are driven by their desire to satisfy righteousness, just as all people are driven to satisfy their hunger and thirst.

Do we hunger and thirst for righteousness? There is no doubt that we all want to appear righteous. There is even little doubt that most of us want to be on the side of righteousness. The Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and lawyers all wanted to be seen as righteous and to be on the side of righteousness. No; only those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled. Do we believe that we will die if we are not abiding within righteousness? Do we seek out opportunities to do what is right– and to avoid what is evil– like we would be willing to seek out food in a famine and water in a drought? Are we driven by righteousness like it is the most basic, primal impulse within us?

This is a challenge as much as a declaration of happiness; if we do not so hunger and thirst for righteousness, we should be. In the truth in Christ there is light and life; in evil there is nothing but darkness and death (John 1:4-5, Romans 6:23). Man does not live by bread alone, Moses says and Jesus affirms, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Deuteronomy 8:3, Matthew 4:4). Better to hunger for what is right than for food; better to thirst for righteousness than for water, since food and drink perishes, but righteousness will endure forever through God in Christ (Amos 5:24, 2 Peter 3:13).

It is not easy. We are going to be tempted to sin constantly. We will be tempted to put the physical necessities of life above the spiritual. We may experience quite stunning forms of persecution that we might never have imagined (cf. 1 Peter 2:18-25). Jesus hungered and thirsted for righteousness, and He obtained shame, derision, flogging, and a cross for it. Yet He was filled with all power and authority (Philippians 2:5-11); and so we shall be filled with all good things if we yearn for righteousness as well. Let us consider righteousness our most primal need, and glorify God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Keeping Up Appearances

“But all their works they do to be seen of men: for they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, and love the chief place at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and the salutations in the marketplaces, and to be called of men, ‘Rabbi'” (Matthew 23:5-7).

It is one of the most natural desires of mankind: to be valued and appreciated. Most would rather people have a favorable opinion of them than an unfavorable one. Few are those who revel in being unloved, unappreciated, and completely rejected by others!

This impulse is natural for a reason– we were never meant to be alone. Just as God maintains relational unity– One God in Three Persons, one in will, purpose, essence, substance, and mind– we, having been made in His image, seek after relational unity with God and with others (cf. John 17:20-23, Genesis 1:26-27, Acts 17:27). It is nearly impossible to develop healthy relationships when we show complete disinterest in the ways others look at us. Not a few social customs emerged as ways of living so as to be acceptable to one’s fellow man.

Yet, as with all impulses, the desire to be valued and appreciated can be tragically misdirected. This is Jesus’ concern with the Pharisees as expressed in Matthew 23:5-7. They certainly wanted to be valued and appreciated– and made it their goal and obsession. They received what they wanted. But it did not please God.

It was likely that there were a few Pharisees who were sincere in their approach– they really wanted to serve God through their phylacteries, garments, and wanted to be humble. Sadly, such were hardly the majority. We can be confident that the reason that these charges burned was because they rang true in the hearing of the people. Sure, the Pharisees acted religiously. But far too many did so in order to keep up appearances and to gain favor with the people. We can safely reason that if the Pharisees were offered a chance to receive salvation and eternal benefits but would be despised by their fellow Jews on earth, or to be condemned yet receive the glory and accolades of their fellow Jews on earth, most would take the latter route– because most did, according to Matthew 23, Acts 7, and the testimonies throughout Acts. Jesus’ summons to humility and suffering were too much for them to endure.

When confronted with such a passage, it is quite easy to point fingers at the Pharisees. It is also extremely easy to find opponents, religious or otherwise, and point fingers at them. Yet we must remember that Jesus is speaking to fellow members of God’s covenant people to wake them up and exhort them to repentance. As painful as it might be, it is always best to first point the finger at ourselves before we try to point it at others (cf. Matthew 7:1-4)!

How many works do we do in order to be seen of men? It is less an issue of the types of things that we do and more of an issue of the motivations behind what we do. It was not inherently wrong to have broad phylacteries or long bordered garments. For that matter it is not inherently wrong to be honored by one’s fellow man. It is all about why we do what we do– are we doing it to please others? Are we doing it because we are afraid of what others will think about us if we do not?

There are some obvious applications of this. Not a few give themselves titles or “earn” titles and insist on their use. Jesus condemns this attitude (Matthew 23:8-12). It is one thing to be given the seat of honor; it is quite another to constantly seek it out and love it and cherish it. The world does not lack people who have too high of an estimation of themselves, and who are quite sure that others should also. The world is full of monuments of ambition and glory-seeking; some are physical, some are not; some are magnificent in their glory, and far too many others are tragic in their failure. These all will pass away (1 Peter 1:24-26). These glory-seekers may get their reward on earth, but they are headed for quite the disappointment on the final day!

Nevertheless, this conversation can get personal and painful very quickly. It is one thing to talk about glory-seeking actions like we have; it is quite another to start talking about the appearances we keep up among one another. While no one lives an entirely transparent life, most of us could use a little more transparency and authenticity in the way we present ourselves. We feel like we must “keep it all together” on the outside even though things may be falling apart inside. Yet how willing are we to find some fellow Christians with whom we can discuss our difficulties and confess our sins (James 5:16)? What stops us from “going forward” regarding our difficulties? How many soldiers of Christ have fallen, having rarely or never cried out for help for fear of rejection, finding it easier to say nothing and to keep up the appearance of righteousness?

In Jesus we have the example of the authentic life. He served others, always mindful of His connection with the Father (cf. Matthew 20:28). He humbled Himself greatly (Philippians 2:5-8). He received honor at times but was not acting in order to receive the honor. Yet He also honestly grappled with the sufferings He experienced; He did not hide away from them or act like they were not there, but poured out His anguish before God and His disciples (Matthew 26:37-39). There was nothing to hide.

While propriety does demand that some things ought to remain private among people, we cannot delude ourselves into thinking that anything is hidden before God. We must live transparently before Him and authentically toward others, as Jesus did. We must not live seeking self-glory and honor; we may get it, but we do so at the expense of our relationship with God. We must never do anything just to be seen by our fellow man. That certainly includes any number of public religious acts and “rituals,” but let us not fool ourselves– it includes the very manner of our lives as well. We want to be accepted and appreciated, and yet, in Christ, God is willing to accept and appreciate us more deeply than we can ever imagine, but only if we allow ourselves to be satisfied in Him and Him alone (Romans 8:1-39). Let us not be as the Pharisees; let us be willing to endure the shame and dishonor of humility and discipleship, and serve God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Casting Down to Build Up

For this cause I write these things while absent, that I may not when present deal sharply, according to the authority which the Lord gave me for building up, and not for casting down (2 Corinthians 13:10).

We all know of people who are very good at tearing others down. They exist in every facet of life. We see politicians who are convinced that their opponent is wrong but does not necessarily have a lot to say about what is right; likewise there are voters who are definitely against one particular candidate even if they are not really “for” any of them. In families there always seems to be a relative or two who can say nothing good about anything and is full of complains and criticisms. What workplace would be complete without the employee who is constantly grumbling about what is wrong and why things are not getting better? And, sadly, even among Christians, there are many who focus entirely on the negatives. They are very quick to point out the flaws in other Christians, in local churches, and in the church as a whole. They are always confident in the demise of Christianity, a local church, and so on and so forth.

Oftentimes such people are really masking their own insecurities. By focusing on everyone else’s problems they can conveniently forget about their own. Anyone who would challenge their critical attitudes are maligned as not being sufficiently concerned enough about various dangers, or are slandered as being “soft” on “the truth.”

Yet, in reality, such people are not as spiritual or as mature as they would like to think. They are filled with the spirit of judgment and condemnation, which ends up always being hypocritical, and it often sets at nought fellow people for whom Christ died. There is a reason why the Scriptures consistently witness against such attitudes (Matthew 7:1-4, Romans 14:7-12, James 4:11-12)!

Nevertheless, there are times when there does need to be concerns about various challenges– doctrinal error (1 Timothy 4:1-4, etc.), Christians and churches not seeking to reflect the Lord Jesus accurately (cf. Romans 8:28, Revelation 3, etc.). Yet, in such things, perspective is critical.

Paul has plenty of reason to criticize the Corinthians– and he certainly does criticize them. They are being persuaded by false teachers to discredit Paul and his testimony (2 Corinthians 11:1-33). There is great concern that many of the Christians are acting in ungodly ways without repentance (2 Corinthians 12:20-21).

Paul does not go soft on the Corinthians. He rebukes those in sin and warns them that they will not be spared (2 Corinthians 13:1-3). He will not sit by idly while Satan devours the church in Corinth. He clearly sees the problems in Corinth. But notice that his resolve does not stop there!

Paul does not use his authority to tear down and walk away– he uses his authority to tear down so that he can build up again (2 Corinthians 13:10). That is what Christ intends for him to do. Anyone can criticize. Anyone can point out problems. But God’s work, ultimately, is edification and encouragement– building up and strengthening (1 Corinthians 14:26, Ephesians 4:11-16, Hebrews 10:25).

Even though the processes may seem to begin in the same way, there is a world of difference between casting down for the sake of casting down and casting down for the sake of building up again. There is much more investment and concern when we are seeking to build up, a greater resolve for things to work out well, and greater concern about precisely how things are cast down. The ultimate end is in view, not just the short-term.

We need to seriously consider ourselves in our faith as to whether we are one of “those people” who are good at tearing down but not at building up (2 Corinthians 13:5). How well has that gone? How many people have you pushed away or hurt, regardless of your intentions? Were you really seeking the best interest of your neighbor, or were you just trying to put on the sanctimonious pious face (cf. Philippians 2:3)?

If anyone ever had the right and the ideal circumstance in which to tear down just to demolish sin, it would have been Paul with the Corinthians. Nevertheless, even with that flawed group of people, Paul’s intention was to build them up. Yes, he had to cast down sinfulness, false doctrines, unholy thoughts and attitudes, and other difficulties. But the goal was not just to tear down and leave a gaping hole– his purpose was to have the opportunity to then rebuild in a more holy and suitable way.

Our goal must be the same. Whenever we have to cast sin down, we must do so only after considering ourselves and our own challenges (Matthew 7:1-4, Galatians 6:1-3), after much prayer and deliberation, and making sure that it is being done for the ultimate benefit of those whom we are challenging, and not of ourselves in rivalry or empty conceit (Matthew 18:15-20, Galatians 6:1, Philippians 2:1-4). We must then make sure that we strengthen and build up such a one in their faith. Pointing out problems is easy; seeking to understand challenges so as to improve and to make things better is quite another. If we are ready to critique, we must be ready to repair and rebuild.

The world, this country, the workplace, the family, and the church will sadly never lack people who tear down. Tearing down just for the sake of demolition has never been, is not, nor ever will be God’s way or God’s intention for us. Let us have the same spirit as Paul and cast down for the purpose of building up, seeking the best interest of our neighbor to ultimately strengthen him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Fig Tree Religion

And on the morrow, when they were come out from Bethany, [Jesus] hungered. And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find anything thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for it was not the season of figs.
And he answered and said unto it, “No man eat fruit from thee henceforward for ever.”
And his disciples heard it (Mark 11:12-14).

The long-awaited time had come. Jesus of Nazareth, believed by many to be the Messiah, the Christ of God, had entered Jerusalem in triumph (cf. Mark 11:1-11). He will soon strike at the heart of the religious power structure in Jerusalem by cleansing the Temple of its moneychangers and merchants (Mark 11:15-19). And what do we find in the middle of these great events? Jesus’ rebuke of a fig tree.

It seems rather anticlimactic. Why does Mark interrupt the grand story of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem by telling us about this fig tree?

It may help to understand a bit about the situation. Even in Jerusalem, late March or early April is a bit early for figs to be ready. Most of the trees would not even have their leaves yet. But this fig tree did have its leaves– and when a fig tree has its leaves, it is indicating that it has its fruit hidden underneath. This particular fig tree, however, was false– perhaps it was a different subspecies, or perhaps it was a young tree– for it exposed leaves but had no fruit within it. Highly disappointed, Jesus curses the tree because it made a presentation without its substance.

That may be the clue to understanding the importance of this interaction. Mark very well may have us to understand that there is more to this story than just a fig tree.

The fig tree may represent the Jews and the Judaism of the day. Fig trees are good, and figs are good. Fruitless fig trees that have no leaves are understandable, but what cannot be tolerated is the fig tree that has leaves but no fruit. Thus it is with Israel in Jesus’ day, especially the religious authorities, the chief priests, the elders, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. It was a good thing to be a Jew and to be a part of the covenant with God. It would be understandable if a Jew were learning his faith or recognized in humility how much further he had to go. But to have the outward appearance of religion without its substance– its fruit– was intolerable. And that was precisely what Jesus saw in the Judaism of His day!

Soon after these events He would excoriate the Pharisees for being whitewashed tombs– pretty on the exterior, but full of dead men’s bones inside (cf. Matthew 23:27). They worry about keeping dishes clean, but inwardly are defiled (Matthew 23:25-26). On the exterior their religiosity is beyond a doubt; inwardly they remain unconverted and sinful. There is little hope for such people; they are, like the fig tree, cursed, never to provide fruit for mankind again.

We would do well to learn the lesson of the fig tree and avoid “fig tree religion.” We know from experience and statistics that the vast majority of the people around us in America believe in God and in His Son Jesus Christ. Most people would claim to be Christians. A lot of those people attempt to maintain the exterior of goodness and piety– they seek to look like the “good people” of society, and yet inwardly they may remain unconverted and sinful. Such a faith cannot save (Matthew 7:21-23)!

It is one thing to be as a fig tree without fruit and without leaves– had this fig tree been as such, Jesus would have likely just passed it by. Therefore, it is one thing for people in our society to be sinners and recognize that they are sinners. Such is actually the first step in coming to a real knowledge of the truth (Ephesians 2:1-10, Titus 3:3-8). Jesus, after all, came to save sinners (cf. Matthew 9:11-13).

The real danger comes from providing the pretense of righteousness and/or religiosity without any substantive fruit. These are the “righteous” of Matthew 9:11-13, those who certainly think they are healthy and sound and profitable but really are not. They are self-deceived, and self-deception is the hardest kind of deception to overcome (Galatians 6:3, James 1:22-25, 1 John 1:8). As long as they remain in that condition, nothing can be done for them or with them (cf. Revelation 3:14-22)!

But what of ourselves? Who are we? Are we fig trees without leaves and without fruit? Then let us grow in knowledge and faith to maturity, showing fruit for the Lord (Hebrews 5:14, 2 Peter 3:18). Do we have leaves and fruit, believing in God and obeying Him? Well and good; let us abound all the more (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:1, 9). Or are we the fig tree with leaves but no fruit, having the pretense of religion but not the substantive fruit thereof? We must always be on guard against this danger, considering ourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5, Galatians 6:4). If we find ourselves in this condition, we must immediately repent, and work to show the fruit that is in keeping with that repentance (1 John 2:3-6)!

Therefore we can see that the story of the fig tree is quite appropriate in its context. Jesus is about to encounter the superficial piety of the Judaism entrenched in Jerusalem, and it will be cursed. Let us not fall into the same trap, and let us both show leaves and bear fruit for God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Beam and the Mote

“And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how canst thou say to thy brother, ‘Brother, let me cast out the mote that is in thine eye,’ when thou thyself beholdest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote that is in thy brother’s eye” (Luke 6:41-42).

For those who do not think that Jesus has a sense of humor, we provide exhibit A: beams and motes, or, as in other versions, logs and specks. A man with a log/beam in his eye, trying to take a speck/mote out of the eye of his brother. That is a very funny picture indeed!

But why does Jesus present this image? It is not just to get a quick laugh– it is a very pointed example. We all can see how ridiculous it is for a man with a big stick of wood in his eye to try to take a small speck out of his brother’s eye– but are we willing to see how ridiculous we often look on the basis of the meaning of this picture?

The context is a guide to meaning. The declaration to “judge not” is made in Luke 6:37-38, and the image of the blind leading the blind and how they will fall into a pit follows (Luke 6:39). After the image, Jesus speaks of how trees are known for their fruit, the good and the bad, and how good people bring forth good and evil people bring forth evil (Luke 6:43-45).

Beams and motes, therefore, have to do with judgment and goodness or evil. We are all a lot better at discovering the sins and deficiencies of others than we are of our own. That does not mean that we do not have deficiencies– far from it (Romans 3:23, 1 John 1:8)! It is just a lot more difficult to come to grips with that uncomfortable truth. It is always easier to see ourselves as better than we really are– either by conveniently “forgetting” how they look, like the “natural man” of James 1:22-25, or focusing on their intentions and aspirations and not their actual conduct. That is why people walk around with beams in their eyes– and they are generally blissfully attempting to forget about it.

The mote in our brother’s eye represents his sin or deficiency in a given situation. There is a difficulty there– Jesus does not deny this. The mote needs to be removed (Galatians 6:1)!

This can be done in one of two ways. Most people keep the beam in their own eye and attempt to remove the mote in their brother’s eye. You can imagine how well that goes! The brother tends to be offended and the one with the beam does not understand why they are so unwilling to come to grips with their sin! The whole time the brother just sees the big old beam in the eye– the unrepentant hypocrisy– and they are easily turned off or turned away.

But Jesus intends for people to follow a different path. We all have those beams, and we all, when appropriate, need to help our brethren with their motes. But we need to first take the beam out of our own eye– recognize our deficiencies, prove our own work, remain humble servants of the Lord– and then we can look more carefully to help our brother with his difficulties. When he realizes that we do not feel that we are better than him, that we are fellow servants of God trying to obtain the Kingdom, and are willing to admit when we are wrong, our attempt to assist him will go much better.

The action itself– removing the mote– is not different. The difference is within us– we either are willing to recognize our failings or we are not. When we refuse to recognize our failures, we deceive ourselves, and it is easier for us to treat other people contemptuously. That is precisely why we must recognize our failures, even though it is very uncomfortable– it forces us into humility, perceiving that we are really no better than anyone else, and that will allow us to show compassion and mercy to others– which is exactly the point!

It is a silly picture– someone with a log in their eye trying to take the speck out of his brother’s eye. And yet how many of us try to do the same by pointing out the failures of others while attempting to cover up or hide our own? Let us not look foolish– instead, let us recognize our failings, maintain humility, and help others in love and with compassion– and show good fruit!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Two Sons

“But what think ye? A man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, ‘Son, go work to-day in the vineyard.’ And he answered and said, ‘I will not:’ but afterward he repented himself, and went. And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, ‘I go, sir:’ and went not. Which of the two did the will of his father?”
They say, “The first.”
Jesus saith unto them, “Verily I say unto you, that the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed him not; but the publicans and the harlots believed him: and ye, when ye saw it, did not even repent yourselves afterward, that ye might believe him” (Matthew 21:28-32).

Jesus’ parable of the two sons is a rather uncomfortable parable. We find ourselves reflected in at least one of the sons.

The first son begins as the rebellious one. He dares to refuse to do the will of his father, but then realizes his mistake, and turns and does what his father desires. We can see that this son does, eventually, do the will of his father, as it is said in Matthew 21:31.

The first son demonstrates the importance of repentance and the hope that exists for those who have rebelled against God. He is very much like the “prodigal son” in Luke 15:11-32. At some point, each and every one of us refused the call of our Father and went our own way (Romans 3:23), but thanks to His love and grace, we can be reconciled back to God in Christ (Titus 3:3-7). And then we must get to work, just as the first son did (Titus 3:8)!

Yet it is the second son that is the focus of this parable. In context, it is a condemnation of the religious authorities who certainly professed belief in God and yet rejected John His prophet and Jesus His Son (Matthew 21:23-27, 21:33-46). They were willing, as the second son, to tell the Father “yes,” and yet they did not do what He told them to do!

Jesus’ conclusion is sharp and biting, just as it was intended. The people whom everyone recognized were great sinners were going to enter the Kingdom before the “holiest” and most respected religious authorities! Tax collectors and prostitutes were willing to humble themselves, listen to John and Jesus, and change their ways (cf. Luke 7:36-50, 19:1-9). The religious authorities refused!

It is better that we find ourselves to be like the first son. God is more concerned with our action than our profession– it does not do us any good to claim that we are followers of Jesus if we are not actually doing what Jesus says to do (Matthew 7:21-23, James 1:22-25)! We must never allow ourselves to become like the religious authorities and become self-righteous, for repentant sinners always get further than self-righteous hypocrites before God (Matthew 9:11-13, Luke 18:10-14)!

In the end, we cannot tell God “yes” and yet do nothing. If we tell God “yes,” that we believe in Him and that He is our Lord, and yet we do not preach the Gospel to our fellow man (Romans 1:16), or we do not show him mercy and kindness in his time of need (Galatians 6:10), or we do not encourage fellow Christians (Hebrews 10:24-25), or we do not show love and compassion as His Son did (Colossians 3:12-14), what do you think will happen to us (Matthew 7:21-23)? How can we expect to receive God’s blessings if we do not do what He tells us to do?

Who are we? Are we the first son who once refused God but have learned better and now do His will? Or are we as the second son, always willing to say yes, but in the end do nothing? Let us be as the first son, do the will of the Father, and be saved!

Ethan R. Longhenry