Woe to Moralism

Like the Pharisees of two thousand years ago, we all tend toward legalism – we all want to put rules, systems, and guidelines in our lives that will help us be “good people.”  The concept seems like it makes sense – on the surface. And while rules themselves are good things – heck, we’d have anarchy without rules!  – these rules alone don’t really serve as motivators toward living a good life. The Bible teaches that only the Gospel of grace – an inward change of the heart and mind – can do that. And that power comes from God alone.

Here are my notes on a very powerful and challenging passage of Scripture, Luke 11:37-54.

11:37-38 While Jesus was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him, so he went in and reclined at table. [38] The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner.

As you might recall from previous study, the Pharisees had been demanding a sign – all Jesus was going to give them for a sign was himself – his death burial and resurrection, the sign of Jonah.

There are two main groups of people in the narrative before us, the Pharisees and the Scribes. Philip Ryken gives some helpful background for understanding the difference between these two groups, he says:

What, then, was the difference between these lawyers and the Pharisees? Whereas the term “Pharisee” referred to a religious party – almost like today’s Christian denominations – the term “lawyer” referred to a professional occupation. Some lawyers were Pharisees, but not all of them, because not all lawyers followed the customs of the Pharisees. There were also some Pharisees were lawyers; they were Bible scholars by profession. Yet many Pharisees were involved I some other line of work. In fact, many of them were lay people.[1]

It’s interesting that this discussion took place over dinner – what a dinner! Ryken is right to point out that we should use opportunities like Jesus did to be sociable and take advantage of these times to build relationships. Ryken, “But we must always be sure to point them to God. All too often Christians accept this kind of dinner invitation without using it to full spiritual advantage.”

The Pharisees really did believe that cleanliness is next to Godliness. They didn’t want the hands that they used for everything during the day to ceremonially defile their food, and thus their bodies.

But this wasn’t something in the law code itself; it was a rule that the Pharisees invented for helping them keep the rules. Ryken comments, “It is important to understand that there was nothing morally wrong with what Jesus did. The only thing Jesus violated was a man-made rule for religiously acceptable conduct. The Pharisees had a thousand and one of these extra biblical rules, which they believed God had given to Moses on Mount Sinai, and were subsequently handed down by oral tradition. They further believed that breaking any one of themes a serious breach of holiness.”[2]

11:39-44 And the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. [40] You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? [41] But give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you. [42] “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. [43] Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces. [44] Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it.”

Woes to the Pharisees

Jesus didn’t hesitate to offend His dinner guests! He did so because His heart hated evil, and He was constantly teaching people the way of God, even over dinner, there was no downtime for Jesus. He was always on mission.

Jesus is going to pronounce “woes” on these men, and because that is not a term we use a lot in our day, I want to explain what it means. It primarily means judgment – it is a pronouncement of judgment on these men. But at the same time there is mixed with this a sense of sorrow.[3] You may have read some Shakespeare play where the character says, “O Woe is me!” – this is an expression of sorrow, not a pronouncement of judgment.

That being said, judgment is primary. You might be familiar with Calvin’s three offices for Jesus: Prophet, Priest, and King. In this instance Jesus is acting as the supreme Prophet come to speak the Word of God.

In the OT many prophets would pronounce “woes” on Israel or the surrounding nations for their ungodliness. One or two examples from Isaiah ought to give you the idea:

For the look on their faces bears witness against them; they proclaim their sin like Sodom; they do not hide it. Woe to them! For they have brought evil on themselves. (Isaiah 3:9)

Woe to the wicked! It shall be ill with him, for what his hands have dealt out shall be done to him. (Isaiah 3:11)

The idea of woe can likely also be tied to the idea of a curse – like the covenant curses under the Old Covenant. For example:

“But if you will not obey the voice of the LORD your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field. Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out. (Deuteronomy 28:15-19)

Now, there are three woes He pronounces to the Pharisees:[4]

  1. Neglecting God’s justice and love
  2. Loving the best seats
  3. Leading people to death

The first thing Jesus addresses, however, is how the Pharisees are all about cleaning the outside of their bodies, the whole time leaving their hearts a stained and disgusting atrocity.

We know that God desires our hearts and minds – the inside of us – to be just as devoted to him as our bodies and actions and words. It isn’t as though this is just a New Testament teaching either, for David recognized this and said:

“In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.” (Ps 40:6)

And earlier Samuel had said, “And Samuel said, “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.” (1 Samuel 15:22).

Therefore these Pharisees were more concerned about what was going on ceremonially outside, and all the while neglected not only their hearts, but also their interactions with others. They neglected love and justice. When they dealt with man they dealt with that which was of least concern while neglecting that which was of utmost concern.

Secondly, Jesus accuses them of loving the best seats. Ryken draws a parallel with the way parishioners in the Old North Church used to have pews with their names written on them. Anyone daring to sit in those who wasn’t a bearer of that family name was bound to be kicked out of the church. I had a similar experience in Toledo at the First Baptist Church in the Holland area. They had names on the pews, a strange female minister, and frowned on visitors. I had forgotten all about this oddity until this past week while driving past their building. Oddly enough when I looked up their website again, the logo they use is a big heart around their name! The irony, of course, is that when we behave like this church does – like the Pharisees did – we are anything but loving!

We have been called to put others first. Those in leadership ought to especially be models of servant leadership. This is the model Jesus gave us, and its how we are expected to serve.

Paul says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).

The third woe Jesus pronounces has to do with leading people to death. He calls them “unmarked graves.” But what does that mean, exactly? Well to step on or over an grave during the time of Jesus meant that you would be ceremonially unclean for one week (Numbers 19:6).

What the Jews used to do was whitewash the gravestones in order for them to be clearly marked. That way no one would come near them and be defiled.

Therefore what Jesus is saying is that people come near the Pharisees, listen to their teaching, begin to try and follow their advice, and defile themselves without even knowing it!

You catch the irony here, right? These Pharisees are so concerned with people washing their hands to remain clean, while the whole time they’re the ones defiling people left and right!

In Matthew 23:15 Jesus puts it this way:

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.

Those are powerful words! They are words or warning, words that ought to be taken seriously.

You know, the whole thing is really absurd. That is the right word for it – it’s the word J.C. Ryle uses to describe these people. But let us also beware to look inside our own lives to see if there be any falsity, any empty religion, any superficial attitudes of self-righteousness. These are things that so easily creep into the hearts and minds of men, and we must be on our guard not to think of ourselves as above or beyond them.

11:45-52 One of the lawyers answered him, “Teacher, in saying these things you insult us also.” [46] And he said, “Woe to you lawyers also! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers. [47] Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed. [48] So you are witnesses and you consent to the deeds of your fathers, for they killed them, and you build their tombs. [49] Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ [50] so that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, [51] from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be required of this generation. [52] Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.”

Background

This particular scribe must have had a sensitive conscience because he picked up the fact that when Jesus pronounced his “woes” to the Pharisees His pronouncements leaked over to the scribes as well – many of which were guilty of the same thing.

Before I get into the Woes themselves, let me point out the historical background here. Jesus says that these men are just as guilty as their forefathers who killed the prophets. He then gives Abel and Zechariah as examples. We all know Abel was killed by Cain in Genesis 4, but which Zechariah Jesus is referring to here is disputed.

Its possible that Zechariah was the man referred to in 2 Chronicles 24:20-25 because in the Hebrew Bible Chronicles was the final book, thus making him the final murder before the close of the OT canon as those in Jesus’ day knew it. Some scholars seem unconvinced because that Zechariah died in the “court” of the temple, and they see an issue between that description and Jesus’ description here as Zechariah perishing “between the altar and the sanctuary.” But Bock does a good job of laying out all the possible options, and it does seem that this Zechariah from 2 Chronicles is the most likely person to whom Jesus is referring.[5]

The point He is making here is that from the beginning there has been a war between the seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15) and the seed of the serpent. The serpent has continually tried to kill the seed of the woman, for there is enmity between them (see Gen. 3). All those who are of the world and not of God are under the influence of Satan, as Paul says:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins [2] in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—[3] among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Ephesians 2:1-3)

Tom Schreiner has some good things to say about this passage and how it fits into the larger redemptive-historical picture:

They (the Pharisees) neglected what is weighty and clear in the law and become preoccupied with what is secondary. On the outside they appeared to be righteous and pure, but inside they were stained by deep corruption, so that they were comparable to whitewashed tombs. Their evil culminated in the execution of God’s messengers, showing that they were not the seed of Abraham at all but were a “brook of vipers” – the seed of the serpent.

What is said about the leaders cannot be restricted to them. By nature the hearts of all people are dull and insensitive to the things of God, nor are people genuinely interested in hearing and seeing what God has to say to them (Matt. 13:15).[6]

Zooming back in on this particular context, Jesus is pointing to these men, His current generation, and naming them as complicit in rejecting the Father’s messengers and His ultimate Messenger: Jesus Himself.

In many ways their judgment would come in such a violent fashion that thousands if not millions of Jews would perish and be dispersed within a generation of Jesus’ speaking. In 70 AD the Romans absolutely destroyed Jerusalem and scattered the Jews. It wasn’t until 1948 that they would be back in the land as a sovereign nation. Such was the judgment that came upon the Jews of Jesus’ day.

Finally, there is also a strong sense that ultimate judgment is being referred to here as well. For the consequences of opposing and rejecting Jesus and His gospel is death and judgment upon His return.

Woe to the Scribes

There are three woes that He pronounces:[7]

  1. Giving burdens to others, but not to self
  2. Building the tombs of the prophets
  3. Taking away the key of knowledge

Now, the first thing Jesus launches at this scribe is that he and the others of his trade have burdened the people unnecessarily. They had added so many rules to the law of God that any hope they had at keeping the law was blown to smithereens.

Interestingly, my first reaction to this was that “well, it’s a good thing we stomped that out in the early church era!” But the fact is that we still do this today – the Catholic Church excels at this. They elevate traditions of the church to parity with Scripture, and in so doing elevate the opinions of man to a level only reserved for the Holy God.

Ryken is right in pointing out that it isn’t just the Catholics who fall into the trap though. Anytime we elevate moralism instead of the Gospel we are basically doing the same thing. He says:

Above all, we must not present the Christian faith as a law to keep rather than a gospel to believe. The obedience we offer is not some desperate attempt to gain God’s favor, but a grateful response to the salvation he has provided through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The second thing He said to the scribe was that they were building the tombs of the prophets. This is an odd saying isn’t it? Well what was going on here was the Scribes were busy making monuments to the prophets of old. They would make these big tombs and memorials to them, but in affect Jesus was saying that because their behavior was just as bad as their forefathers, their acts of honor only amounted to finishing the job their forefathers did!

So they were just as guilty as their forefathers who had murdered the prophets. Ryken quotes a scholar who explains, “They killed the prophets: you make sure they are dead.”

This is a brutal excoriation. Jesus then uses the example of Abel and Zechariah that I mentioned above and says that they men have been on the wrong side of history from day one. Now, the Wisdom of God has come from prophets, but never more so than in the very embodiment of wisdom – the Lord Jesus Christ.

Side note: Grahame Goldsworthy talks about how when David and Solomon were on the throne, Israel was at its peak. And the kingdom of God seemed only at the threshold – though it wasn’t to be, sin was still in the land and in the people inhabiting it. Yet during that time wisdom flourished, as we see with the massive amounts of wisdom literature recorded for us in scripture. How much more so when Jesus came did the wisdom of God come from His mouth.

Finally, the third woe He pronounces is that they have taken away the key of knowledge. In other words, they have blocked people from knowing their Creator – they have led them astray and they have not entered themselves.

As Ryken says, “The key to saving knowledge is the grace that God offers to guilty sinners through Jesus Christ. The way to be saved – the way to have eternal life – is not by works of our own obedience. Rather, it is to confess our sins and put our trust in Christ along for salvation.”

Woe to Us if We Neglect the Gospel

We’ve now looked at what Jesus meant by these woes, and how these men two thousand years ago were behaving. But this lesson can also be applied to us.

For as the author of Hebrews says, “how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?? (Hebrews 2:3a).

“Jesus pointed out three ways in which his gospel reveals our brokenness and sin – ways in which we may be no different than the Pharisees: having an outward appearance of cleanness but being full of greed on the inside; sacrificing a portion of our possessions while neglecting justice for others and love for God; and doing good out of a love for the honor that it brings us.”[8]

Ryken brilliantly devised questions for examining our hypocrisy. When I read these, and truly examined my heart, I found myself under great scrutiny by the Holy Spirit.

He asks the question “When am I a hypocrite?” and the answer is as follows:

  • I am a hypocrite when I am more concerned with outward appearances than inward godliness.
  • I am a hypocrite when I am more concerned about my own little rules than about the big things that matter more to God.
  • I am a hypocrite when I crave for people to recognize my spiritual accomplishments.
  • I am a hypocrite when I am spiritually dead inside, and no one knows, maybe not even myself.

The importance of introspection on these matters is extremely important and was highlighted by J.C. Ryle who said:

Let me counsel every true servant of Christ to examine his own heart frequently and carefully before God. This is a practice, which is useful at all times; it is especially desirable at this present day…We ought to watch out hearts with double watchfulness. We ought to give more time to meditation, self-examination and reflection. It is a hurrying, bustling age; if we would keep from falling, we must take time to being frequently alone with God.[9]

11:53-54 As he went away from there, the scribes and the Pharisees began to press him hard and to provoke him to speak about many things, [54] lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say.

Nothing Changes Unless that Change is Wrought by God

This is the description of an evil and hard hearted people. Lying in wait for someone to catch them in what they say – that is the epitome of someone not convicted of sin. Even after Jesus had exposed their sin to them, they still didn’t get it. Remember: This is the Son of God pronouncing woe upon them.

This shows both the radical depravity of mankind, and the sovereignty of God in salvation. Man is so fallen that unless God be actively at work in his fallen heart, he will not be saved.

Steven Lawson points out that the term “radical depravity” does not mean “that fallen men are a wicked as they can be, but that the sin affects every aspect of their beings. From the crown of his head to the soles of his feet, man is radically corrupt…Depravity causes all unconverted people to be defiant and disregard God’s supreme rule.”[10]

What must be done, then, for mankind to be saved? God must change his heart in a divine way. Lawson comments, “…when God chooses some to be saved, He sends the Holy Spirit in irresistible power, and the Spirit calls God’s elect to Himself. The Spirit suddenly changes them from being God-haters to God-lovers.”[11]

Praise God He has changed many such men and women who are Pharisees at heart, loving hypocrisy and moralism, to bowing before the gracious throne of the Lord Jesus. We must understand that it is only be the grace of God that we are saved, and only be the grace of God that we are sanctified.

Had it not been for this grace, we would yet be hyprocrites, walking dead men, shut up inside our own sinfulness judging others and hating others. For as Paul says:

For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. [4] But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, [5] he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, [6] whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, [7] so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:3-7)

Therefore the point in what we are saying here is that the gospel has defeated all men’s attempts at moralism.

J.C. Ryle says the following:

There are thousands at the present day who make a great ado about daily services, and keeping Lent, and frequent communion, and turning to the east in churches, and a gorgeous ceremonial, and intoning public prayers, – but never gat any further. They know little or nothing of the great practical duties of humility, charity, meekness, spiritual-mindedness, Bible reading, private devotion, and separate from the world.[12]

Now remember what Jesus said when the people approached Him asking for instruction on how to do the works of God:

Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:27-29)

These people got the order wrong. They didn’t understand the way in which God works, and the same can be said in our day – all of this is baffling to me because in both the OT and the NT it is plain that God wants first a heart that is dedicated to Him, and then works which match it. But the inside must be dealt with first and foremost. That is why I want to admonish you to check the inside, look intently at your mind and hearts and see if there be any hypocrisy that needs rooted out. That is the challenge of this passage, and one we must all take seriously.

Let me close with a thought from Ryle:

Whatever we are as Christians, let us be real, thorough, genuine, and sincere. Let us abhor all canting and affectation, and part-acting in the things of God, as that which is utterly loathsome in Christ’s eyes. We may be weak, and erring, and frail, and come far short of our aims and desires. But at any rate, if we profess to believe in Christ, let us be true.[13]

 

Footnotes

[1] Ryken, Pg. 632-633.

[2] Ryken, Pg. 620.

[3] William Hendriksen, Pg. 636.

[4] As summarized by Darrell Bock, Commentary on Luke Volume II, Pg. 1109.

[5] Bock, Pg.’s 1122-1124.

[6] Tom Schreiner, New Testament Biblical Theology, Pg. 512.

[7] Bock, Pg. 1109.

[8] Gospel Transformation Bible notes on Luke 11:37-44, Pg. 1378.

[9] Ryle, ‘Churches Beware!’, Pg.’s 76-77, as quoted from Ryken, Pg. 621.

[10] Steven Lawson, Foundations of Faith, Pg. 139.

[11] Lawson, Foundations of Faith, Pg. 121.

[12] J.C. Ryle, Commentary on Luke, Volume 2, Pg. 45.

[13] Ryle, Volume 2, Pg. 47.

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