HISTORY’S HARSHEST SERMON
You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? (Matthew 23:33)
History’s harshest sermon came as a shock. It was not nice; it was fierce. It was not polite; it was full of nasty names. The biggest shock was whom it was directed against. History’s harshest sermon attacked some of history’s most religious, respectable people. These people prayed several times each day. They studied the Bible. They could recite many passages of Scripture from memory. They were experts in debating doctrine and defining morality. They made sure to observe every proper ritual. They made sure to attend worship meetings. They were careful to donate exactly ten percent of their wealth to charity. They sent their children to the strictest religious schools. They worked tirelessly to persuade others to become better people and join their group. Wouldn’t most preachers be delighted with such fine people? Why would any preacher attack them?
On that particular day they filed into the worship center as usual and settled into their seats. They were looking forward to hearing a nice sermon telling nice people how to be even nicer. But a young man about 30 years old stood up to speak, and before long he wasn’t just speaking–he was roaring like a lion on the attack. And his attack was aimed directly at them!
His attacks had seven points as sharp as a lion’s teeth—and just as painful. He began each point by roaring, “Woe to you!” As he was shouting his seven woes at them, he bombarded them with horrible names. Six times he called them hypocrites, and that wasn’t the worst of it. He called them sons of hell. He called them “blind guides.” He called them filthy scum. He compared them to fancy tombs filled with stinking corpses and horrid skeletons. He called them snakes. He went on and on without letting up. Who would have the audacity to launch such a ferocious attack on such a fine group of people? Well, the young preacher was none other than Jesus Christ.
It happened in Jerusalem, in the temple. The objects of Jesus’ attack were the teachers of the law and the Pharisees. They were the most religious, most respectable people around. Many considered them the backbone of society, and yet Jesus reserved his harshest words for them. It was not against crooks or drunks or sluts that Jesus directed his fiercest fury, but against champions of church attendance, clean living and traditional family values. When Jesus used a whip to drive a group of people out of God’s temple, he did not drive out the most despised sinners; he drove out those who made their living in religious activities. And when Jesus cut loose with history’s harshest sermon, he did not attack the people everyone knew were bad but the people everyone thought were good. The Bible calls Jesus the Lamb of God, but Jesus could also be a lion roaring with rage.
Slamming Heaven’s Door
The first was the most basic. Jesus said,
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” (v. 13)
Jesus was angry that these religious elitists were slamming the door to the kingdom of heaven right in people’s faces. How were they doing that? By promoting a religion based on achievement. Their brand of religion had no room for sinners. Their most basic assumption was that God would accept only good people into his kingdom. You get to heaven, they said, by being a good person. As a result, they simply wrote off people they considered bad, and devoted themselves to telling good people how to be even better.
Any religion designed only for good people becomes a private club for the successful, not a place for sick sinners to discover God’s forgiveness and healing. The church becomes the place of the pious, the home of the holy, the gathering of the good. Sinners need not apply.
This brand of religion has two opposite but equally deadly effects. It produces hypocrisy in some people and despair in others. Those who think they’re basically good become too busy congratulating themselves on their goodness to ever face the deadly reality of their own sin. Meanwhile, those who know they’re not so good think they’re beyond hope, since the door to God’s kingdom is open only to good people.
A religion designed only for good people blocks the door to the kingdom by blocking the way to forgiveness. Those who feel they qualify as basically good people won’t see their need for God’s forgiveness, and those who know they aren’t good enough won’t see any possibility of forgiveness.
Jesus hated that kind of religion. He was vehement, almost violent, in his attacks on it. Why? Because he cared so deeply about the salvation of sinners. He saw phony religion blocking the way to forgiveness and keeping people out of God’s kingdom.
Converts for Hell
Closely related to Jesus’ first charge of slamming the door to heaven was a second charge of bringing people to hell.
“Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.” (v. 15).
These people had tremendous zeal for outreach. They were eager to convert other people to their kind of religion. But they had a big problem: they were converting people to the wrong kind of religion. Their converts were becoming children of hell.
A religion is in big trouble when it becomes more concerned with making converts than with what it is converting them to. It’s a deadly temptation to define success by numbers and by how many people we can attract. The more converts, the more who attend church, the more who buy books, the better the preacher must be. Whoever draws the biggest crowd wins. If people don’t like the Bible’s message, give them something they will like. Do whatever it takes to win people over.
Now, that approach may get more people to join your religion, but it won’t get them any closer to the kingdom of heaven. Any religion or cult can make converts. But what are they converting them into? Jesus says that making converts is a bad, not good, if you’re making those converts into sons of hell. It takes more than zeal for converting others to make a religion authentic. It takes a sincere sorrow for sin, a living faith in the mercy and love of God, a commitment to Jesus Christ, and a firm belief in God’s Word, the Bible. Anything less is helping people toward hell, and the more people it persuades, the worse it is.
Jesus then issued his third indictment:
Woe to you, blind guides! You say, “If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.” You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? You also say, “If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.” You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. And he who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it (v. 16-22).
“Blind, blind, blind”—three times Jesus called these people blind. It’s a sign of spiritual blindness when people want loopholes in God’s law, when they use silly technicalities to excuse lies and broken promises. When you’re part of a religion designed for good people and not for sinners, you’ll find yourself looking for loopholes a lot. You can’t afford to simply admit your sins and mistakes and ask for forgiveness. You’ve got to show that there was nothing wrong with what you did. You end up playing a silly game like a child who says that his lie wasn’t really wrong because he had his fingers crossed when he told it.
The Pharisees were telling people, “If you make a promise and swear on the temple, God doesn’t mind if you break your promise. But if you swore on the gold in the temple, then your promise is binding, and God insists that you keep your promise.”
Rubbish, says Jesus. A promise is a promise. A lie is a lie. Blind guides can make up all sorts of exceptions and excuses, but God sees right through such silly games. Our loopholes and lies won’t prevent the God of truth from calling us to account.
Majoring in Minors
Jesus’ fourth charge is equally devastating. He accuses the religious elite of majoring in minors and minoring in majors:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
These people believed in tithing, the practice of giving 10 percent of one’s income to God. They were ever so precise, down to the exact penny. They even made sure they donated a tenth of any spices that were given to them. Meanwhile, they didn’t know the first thing about justice for the oppressed, mercy for the down and out, or faithfulness to those who were counting on them.
Religious people sometimes become so obsessed with getting the fine points exactly right that they neglect the important things. Right now, millions still don’t know Christ, cities are wracked with pain and poverty, AIDS is killing millions, children are being aborted and abused. And what are religious people doing? All too often, we’re concerned with lesser matters. We want to be sure that we’ve got our rituals and regulations exactly right. Even if we manage to be exactly right on such issues, however, we’ll still be dead wrong in Jesus’ eyes if we “neglect the more important matters–justice, mercy, and faithfulness.” When we worry so much about smaller details of church life that we neglect to demonstrate the love of Christ to a lost and dying world, then we are straining at gnats and swallowing camels.
Majoring in minors, and minoring in majors: that’s deadly for churches, and it’s deadly for individuals too. Some people who are admired as generous financial supporters of churches and charities. But they make the money through shady business practices and by paying employees barely enough to live on.
Hey! God isn’t just interested in whether you give exactly 10% of your money to him. He’s also interested in how you make that money in the first place, and whether you pay workers a fair wage. Woe to anyone who forgets that! I’m not saying that all people who become wealthy and give to charity are guilty of exploiting others—not at all. But I am saying that no amount of charitable giving can make up for business practices that neglect “justice and mercy and faithfulness.”
One more example of majoring in minors and minoring in majors: There are people who leave their church if the style of music offends them, but these same people can hold a grudge for decades without a qualm of conscience. Love and forgiveness are at the very heart of faith, yet they make a bigger deal of someone else’s taste in music than their own lack of love. This is what Jesus calls straining at gnats and swallowing camels.
Ritual Over Reality
Jesus’ fifth charge condemns religion that puts externals over internals, that puts rituals over reality.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean (v. 25-26).
Jesus attacks those who go through all the right rituals, but are nothing but scum on the inside. In particular, Jesus condemns greed and self-indulgence.
In October of 1517, Martin Luther launched the protest that became the Reformation. Luther protested against a church that emphasized regulations and rituals more than the reality of God’s grace and forgiveness. At the same time, Luther was infuriated by a church hierarchy that was full of greed and self-indulgence. Safe passage to heaven had become something to sell. One of the church’s most notorious peddlers and fundraisers was a man named Tetzel. His slogan was, “When the money in the coffer clinks, a soul from purgatory springs.”
Today there Tetzels still with us. Often they are well-groomed and wholesome-looking, their mouths are full of God-talk, and they guarantee you God’s blessings if only you will write a generous check for their particular ministry. Meanwhile, they pay themselves lavish salaries from the money they raise. Woe to such religious hucksters! They wash the outside of the dish, but inside they are scum, filthy with greed and selfishness.
Jesus’ sixth accusation drives the point home:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness (v. 27-28).
A cemetery often looks better than the lawn of a family bustling with life. Lively kids mess up the lawn and leave toys lying around. Dead people don’t. They don’t disturb the graveyard grass or leave unsightly clutter. With a little whitewash and a good landscaping crew, the cemetery looks perfect. But no matter how perfect it looks, the place is dead!
A living, vibrant church is like a houseful of rambunctious children. It’s going to have its share of messy situations and embarrassing moments. That’s because it’s helping sinners with their problems rather than forcing them to pretend they don’t have any problems. When a church become more interested in appearances than in the honest sharing of struggles, it is dead. It may still look splendid. Everybody comes to church dressed prim and proper. All the rituals are carried out exactly according to form. All the right words are used, and everyone is careful to make a good impression. But a church like that is a spiritual cemetery. The monuments are beautiful, the grass looks great, but just below the surface lie death and decay.
Rejecting God’s Messengers
Speaking of cemeteries–in his seventh and final indictment, Jesus charges that these hypocrites think that the only good prophet is a dead prophet:
“Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, “If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers!
You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth… (v. 29-35)
Almost everybody likes a prophet once he’s dead. It’s the ones who are alive that we don’t like very much. It’s easy to say we would have repented if we had heard the preaching of Jeremiah or Amos or John the Baptist or Jesus. But when we’re confronted by the voice of God in our own time and challenged to repent of the sins that we enjoy and make excuses for, it’s another story. In many of our churches, if a preacher stood up and preached a sermon like the one Jesus preached, he’d be out looking for a new job. Oh, we admire great prophets and reformers from a distance—now that they’re gone—but what we want in our own pulpit is a person who is nice, sociable, easy to get along with. We won’t come out and say it, but what many of us really want is a wimp. We want a nice, tame religion, not the fierce, challenging reality of the living God.
A prophet of God is not a nice person telling other nice people how to be even nicer. Zechariah wasn’t stoned to death for saying, “I’m OK, you’re OK.” Jeremiah wasn’t thrown into a muddy pit for saying, “Something good is going to happen to you.” John the Baptist didn’t get his head cut off for saying, “Smile, God loves you.” Jesus wasn’t crucified for saying, “What you folks really need is more self-esteem.”
Cruel to Be Kind
God’s spokesmen in the past weren’t simply “nice” people, and they didn’t always say nice things. Jesus himself wasn’t always a “nice” person. His words were often harsh, bordering on cruel. But Jesus was cruel to be kind. He loved people too much to stand by idly while they destroyed themselves trying to prove they were already good enough without him.
When Jesus finished thundering out these seven woes, his eyes began to fill with tears and his voice cracked:
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (v.37).
Behind Jesus’ fierce anger lay his tender love. He saw these people marching toward destruction, so he sounded the alarm and urged them to come to him. But they refused.
Don’t make the same mistake. Don’t expect a true spokesman from God to be just a nice person telling other nice people how to be even nicer. The gospel tells you that you are wicked, that your heart is full of corruption and mixed motives, that you need to be forgiven and transformed. If think you’re basically a good person and merit God’s approval, woe to you! You’re still outside the kingdom of heaven, and you’re probably also shutting the kingdom in the faces of others. No matter how good you look, no matter what others may see, your heart is corrupt.
The only way you will ever enter the kingdom of heaven is to repent of your sin and to plead for God’s mercy and forgiveness. You must put your faith in Jesus and in the blood he shed to pay for your sins. Your inner deadness must be replaced by the life of God’s Holy Spirit.
Jesus came to save sinners. Christianity is for sinners only. People who think they are already good enough to deserve God’s approval need not apply. The church of Jesus is the place to be confronted with our sin and comforted by God’s grace, not a place to congratulate ourselves on how good we are. Any church that forgets this truth needs to be reformed. Any individual who forgets this truth needs to be reborn.
Lord Jesus, thank you for being painfully honest with us. Help us to see ourselves as you see us. Cleanse us from hypocrisy; help us to proclaim and celebrate the gospel of God’s grace and forgiveness for unworthy sinners.
Help us, Father, to realize again the vileness of our sin and the wonder of your love. Free us from the trap of trusting our own goodness, and may we never be an obstacle to others who are seeking a relationship with you. Work the miracle of reformation in our churches and the miracle of rebirth in our hearts, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.