Of all the condemnations of sin that are to be found in the Bible, it is the shallow, insincere, formalistic religion that is invariably the product of legalism that is most severely condemned. It is the kind of thing that God condemns through the message of Isaiah to the Jewish nation.

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of well-fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats
.” (Isaiah 1:11).

They were doing things God commanded but something was lacking. Their day-to-day lives were not in sync with their religious profession. They were not really interested in the things God wanted for them. They were living sinful, unrepentant lives while thinking God should accept them for their “faithfulness” in sacrifices, keeping feast days and praying to him. What was God interested in for them?

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
correct oppression;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause
. (Isaiah 1:16,17).

What these people had was religion without righteousness. They had form without substance. They had practice without principles. This kind of religion was common in Jesus’ day. Unfortunately this is all to common even to this day.

When we come to the New Testament we find that Jesus was still dealing with the same kind of problem. I the 23rd chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus launches a scathing rebuke against the scribes and Pharisees superficial and ostentatious religious teachings and practices. Here he uses some of the strongest language that can be found in the whole of the Bible.

He repeatedly calls them hypocrites and terms them “blind guides,” “blind fools” and “blind men.” He compares them to dishes that have been carefully washed on the outside but left dirty on the inside and to tombs that have been meticulously whitewashed on the outside but full of the bones of dead men on the inside. And if that were not enough, he said to them, “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?” (Matthew 23:33). By today’s politically correct religious standard that is no way to win friends and influence people!

That he called them hypocrites is something of which we should take note. The term “hypocrite” derives from the theater. In ancient Greece, a hypocrite was an actor. From this primary meaning it came to be applied to one who puts up a false front in order to deceive others into believing they are something they are not. The term as Jesus used it refers to someone who promotes teachings or principles which they themselves do not practice.

Jesus characterized the scribe’s and Pharisees’ religion as being like dishes that have been carefully cleaned and polished on the outside but inside were filthy with the crusted remains of meals long forgotten. He also compared their religion to whitewashed tombs – clean and gleaming on the outside while full of the putrefaction of death on the inside. Their religion wasn’t just empty – it was corrupt and rotten and repugnant to God and to righteous people alike.

The sad part of this was that the people whom Jesus addressed were fooling no one but themselves. They had bought into the mistaken idea that God can be placated and his disapproval averted by man’s “religiousness.” They were zealous about keeping the letter of the law but had failed to see that God’s intention for man was to go beyond just strictly adhering to the literal, “just what the bible says,” superficial interpretation of the law.

His intention for them – and for us – is that we be restored to the image of himself. In order to do that, his law would have to be obeyed perfectly if one were to achieve it by that means. There is not a thing in the law of God that man cannot obey. God would not have given man a law he could not live up to. But the fact is that no one does that.

But despite the fact that no one lives up to the demands of God’s law, people still keep insisting that they are going to be different and do what no one except Jesus has ever done before. The only problem is – instead of making the supreme effort that it takes to accomplish that they pare the law down to fit themselves. Instead of living up to the demands of God’s perfection, they remake God in their own image. Instead of allowing God to make them over in his own image through faithful obedience to his Son, they insist that God conform to their expectations of him.

This is where superficial, external religion comes from. Rather than seeing God’s perfection as the standard for man, man measures his relationship with God by what he wants it to be and then lives down to his own standard. Like the Jews of Jesus’ day, they take the commands of God at what they see as face value without looking beyond the law itself to see what God really wants from us when we obey that law to ourselves.

Look at the examples Jesus used of the religion of the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 5. In every one of the six things Jesus cites as examples of their concept of righteousness, when he looks beyond the mere recitation of a scripture quotation he shows there is more to the commands than their religion comprehended.

You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ (v. 21).

This was their “It says what it means and means what it says” kind of approach to scripture. But when Jesus said, “But I say to you,” he was telling them what God really meant for them to learn from what he had commanded.

But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” (v. 22).

Why hadn’t they learned this? It wasn’t as though God had not spoken to this issue before…

Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.” (Psalm 37:8).

Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent.” (Psalm 4:4).

They had not seen God’s character in the commands. They saw only themselves, measured themselves by themselves and congratulated themselves on having not taken anyone’s life. “What a good boy am I. I haven’t murdered anyone today – or ever. Therefore I have kept the law.” Meanwhile they are seething with anger at their neighbor, their wife or their children, putting them down, calling them names and such like. Then they would go to synagogue on the Sabbath, pray long prayers and tell God how good they were. Or they would go to Jerusalem with their sacrifice and offer it as though there was nothing at all wrong in their lives. Theirs was a superficial, external religion. No wonder Jesus called them hypocrites!

The same is true of people today whose concept of religion is a legalistic, “doing things by the book” kind of affair. Now, I have nothing against doing things by the book – IF we understand what it is that God through the Bible is really wanting of us.

God is really looking for a loving, heartfelt obedience to his will for us. It is when we see only the action and do not perceive the goal God has in view for us that we fall short. When we see only baptism and not the transformation of our lives into a new creation we have an insufficient view of obedience. It is not obedience as such that God wants of us, but obedience as trusting children who love him and want more than anything else to please him.

When we see the “work of the church” as a list of actions to perform in order to be the “true New Testament church,” and not as a living body of people who function here on earth as Jesus did when he walked among men, we have an insufficient view of what God really expects of us. Until we see that his purpose is that we be a blessing to the world, living out the life of his sons and daughters made in his image, we do not adequately understand what he wants of us. Such is an external religion.

When we fail to see that our entire life is to be a living proclamation of his glory, a view of worship as being a list of five items we perform is a special assembly is woefully inadequate. So is the “I’ll go to church because I have to” kind of obedience (?).

Ultimately an inadequate view of religion results from an inadequate view of God. When we think God will be pleased with our efforts because we are, we really don’t understand him.

God help us to see him as he reveals himself to us so that we can see what he wants us to be and to do in this world!

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