The Danger that Good, Upstanding, Religious People Face Today

Who are the Pharisees of today and their religious followers?

From the sermon I heard today, I have come away with a couple of things that I am meditating on. One is personal – my need to get over myself. The need to crush the pride in me that wants to appear respectable. The desire to be liked and honored by people.

I believe God is speaking these things to me, and I need to listen and respond. I can’t be afraid to speak the truth because of fear that some people will think me a fool. I need to be willing to appear foolish for the sake of the Gospel. I confess these things today (and ask you to pray for me if you feel so compelled).

The other thing is something God has been laying on my heart over many years now. A more prophetic message for the church, the body of Christ. It goes all the way back to my earliest reading of Scripture when I noticed that the focus of the harshest words Jesus spoke was directed at the Pharisees – the religious leaders (and presumably the people who followed them).

The year 2020 will be remembered as a year of hardship and difficulty, but the ways in which people reacted to those hardships may be longer lasting than those difficulties themselves. I am thinking specifically of the religious people in the United States when I say this.

The sermon today was about the story of Zacchaeus, the wealthy tax collector who was short in stature. A more despised person one might not be able to imagine.

Tax collectors were sellouts to the Roman occupiers for personal gain. They not only collected the taxes imposed by Roman rulers; they used their position and authority to collect more than was required to line their own pockets.

Tax collectors took advantage of the Roman occupation to gain wealth for themselves at the expense of their own people. They turned their backs on fellow Hebrews and were, therefore, despised by them (and likely by the Romans as well for the same reason).

We might have a modicum of compassion and understanding for a prostitute washing the feet of Jesus with her tears, or the adulterous, Samaritan woman at the well, or the woman caught in the very act of adultery who was brought to Jesus to be stoned. Zacchaeus, though, was a man people could love to hate.

He was an outcast of a different kind. He was an outcast by choice. He wasn’t a victim of his own weakness. He exploited the weakness of his own people to benefit himself. He was alone because he chose exploitation as a way of life over family, friendship, compassion, faith and doing what was right.  

It’s no wonder that, when Jesus called Zacchaeus down from the tree and invited himself to his house for a meal and fellowship, the crowd was indignant. Of all the people Jesus could have chosen, why in the world did Jesus choose this guy? Didn’t he know who he was and what he did for a living?

Nothing would likely have stirred the indignation of moralistic, self-righteous, religious people then this!

Many of the reputable, religious people were no fans of Jesus to begin with. They had already judged who Jesus was. He came from Nazareth, a small, of little influence and lesser reputation. Does anything good come out of Nazareth.[1] (John 1:46)

Many were saying Jesus was a prophet, and even the Messiah. Jesus seemed to encourage them. He didn’t say he wasn’t, but the Messiah was supposed to come from the line of David, the seed of Jesse, from Bethlehem, the City of David, the place where David was born.[2]

The religious people knew their Scripture.

They knew their Scripture, but they jumped to conclusions about Jesus that were incorrect. Though Jesus was from Nazareth, he was also born in Bethlehem like David was, and his parents were from the line of David.

The Pharisees applied their undeniable scriptural knowledge, but they judged by appearances, rather than giving more careful consideration to the matter. Once they came to a conclusion about Jesus, they were unwilling to consider alternative possibilities.

The crowd present when Jesus invited himself into the home of Zacchaeus included Pharisees and moralistic, self-righteous, religious followers of the Pharisees (the blind leading the blind, as Jesus called them), who criticized Jesus for associating with tax collectors (and other sinners). Some of these people were very likely in the crowd that would demand that Pontius Pilate “crucify him”!

Who are the Pharisees of today and their religious followers?

Does anyone doubt that Jesus would be just as critical of the moralistic, self-righteous, religious people today if he lived among us?

Have people changed in the last 20 centuries? The writer of Ecclesiastes said, “There is nothing new under the sun”, centuries before Jesus.

We struggle with the same issues and the same tendency for sinfulness. Jesus came to his very own! The Hebrews, of all the people on earth who should have recognized him and received him, didn’t recognize him. They rejected him.

They knew the Scriptures. They could recite Scripture by heart. They studied to show themselves approved. They knew right doctrine. They were proud of their religious heritage. They were pious, moral, upstanding, devoted, reputable people who had not sold out their birthright for personal profit.

But they were dead wrong about Jesus.

These are words of warning to us today. Perhaps, we should not to be so quick with our judgments or so slow to consider other alternatives. The warning is all the more poignant for the religious among us. The interaction of Jesus with the Pharisees and the moralistic, self-righteous, religious people in the first century crowds is no less a warning for moral, upstanding, reputably religious people today than it was for them.

Continue reading “The Danger that Good, Upstanding, Religious People Face Today”

Giving Alms from Within

God knows the thoughts and intents of your heart already. Go ahead and give it to Him. You’ve got nothing to lose.


Jesus didn’t pull any punches, and the religious leaders were often the targets caught in his cross-hairs. One theme of his criticism was that they kept up righteous appearances while they were anything but righteous on the inside.  It’s a bit unnerving, is it not, that Jesus could see the thoughts and intents of the heart!

For those who might be tempted to say that the one person in history you would most like to meet is Jesus, maybe you should rethink that!

But then again, Jesus didn’t do anything more than God, the Father, already does. God “discerns our thoughts from afar”; He even knows every word “on my tongue” before I say them. (Psalm 139)

Think about that. Where can I go that God is not present? There is no use trying to hide from God. It’s futile to think that we can.

So, we might as well be honest. God already knows what’s going on in our heads and hearts!

Continue reading “Giving Alms from Within”

Honest Liar or Dishonest Priest?


Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?  For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’  But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’  So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.  You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:   “‘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.'” Matthew 15:1-9 ESV


And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.”…. Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled?  But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.  For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.  These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” Matthew 15:10-11, 17-20 ESV

Jesus leveled his criticism at people who seemed to honor God in the way they spoke and acted, but they didn’t honor God in their hearts. He quoted the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel who carried a similar theme in their writings. The prophets were as harsh on the religious and political leaders of their day as Jesus was in his day.

The statement, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”, seems to miss the mark in light of the importance Jesus places on the heart, does it not? Not that what we do isn’t important. It’s just that what we do starts with who we are, and who are is in our hearts.

Continue reading “Honest Liar or Dishonest Priest?”

Balance Between Scripture and Spirit

Reaching for one without letting go of the other

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I feel compelled by the Holy Spirit (I hope) to explain myself a bit. Please forgive me if this gets into a little self-conscious rambling.

I have touched recently on some important doctrinal issues without really addressing them in a doctrinal way. That is intentional, but that leaves me a little self-conscious about it.

I have brushed past many doctrinal issues in this blog, and some of them are themes that I come back to quite often. Recently, I have veered dangerously close to issues like the inerrancy of the Bible and Bible hermeneutics, though I have not used words like that, other than to acknowledge at some points those rocks that exist in the turbulent waters.

I often reflect on the sovereignty of God and the free will of man. I often reflect on atonement, redemption, salvation and similar themes, though I don’t often use those words. Anytime we speak of the cross, the specter of those doctrinal ideas arises.

I am usually not all that conscious about doctrine in the sense of academic formality or denominational purity. This also is intentional, though it isn’t intended in any rebellious, skeptical or heretic away.

What I always aim for is “mere Christianity”.

Continue reading “Balance Between Scripture and Spirit”

Jumping from the Precipice

Without a heart that is willing, we cannot know God.

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If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority. (John 7:17)

Jesus spoke these words after his own brothers expressed their skepticism about who Jesus appeared to be suggesting he was, the long awaited Messiah from God. (John 7:2-5) He spoke these words to a crowd that was also largely skeptical, wondering who he really was. Some were saying he was a good man, but others were claiming that he was leading people astray. (John 7:12)

I keep coming back to this verse (John 7:17) since I heard Dr. Rosaria Butterfield give her testimony of her journey from liberal, lesbian professor who was highly critical of Christians and Christianity to becoming a believer and later a pastor’s wife and having a ministry of her own.

In her world of academia, she was used to doing research and coming to conclusions before being willing to put her faith in a proposition. That is the academic process.

As she was listening to a sermon after having spent many months becoming friends with a pastor and his wife, reading the Bible, and considering the evidence for Christianity, she made a life changing realization. She was approaching Christianity academically. She was not willing to believe until all of the facts were lined up and could be reduced to a certain answer.

When she heard this sermon in which the preacher read John 7:17, she realized that she had it all backward. Continue reading “Jumping from the Precipice”