But there was a certain man named Ananias who, with his wife, Sapphira, sold some property. He brought part of the money to the apostles, claiming it was the full amount. With his wife's consent, he kept the rest. -- Acts 5: 1-2 (NLT)
We speak often about the spirit of religiosity within the church today. In the 23rd chapter of Matthew's Gospel, we see Jesus rebuking the religious leaders of His day. Within His admonitions we see the characteristics of this spirit of religion. It is a spirit that is not from God although it uses His name quite frequently. This spirit would try and carry over into the New Testament church as well; which we will see shortly. Going through the 23rd chapter of Matthew's Gospel however will lay the proper foundation.
"The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don't follow their example. For they don't practice what they teach. They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden. -- Matthew 23: 2-4 (NLT)
One of the recurring themes through the teachings of Jesus is against hypocrisy. When we realize that even today hypocrisy is the number one reason why the unsaved claim to not want to go to church, we understand why our Lord focused so prominently on it. That is what Jesus is saying here -- they do not practice what they preach. I have seen Christians in the secular workforce absolutely destroy the witness for Christ. I have seen congregants at Bible believing churches treat new people like they have the plague. I have seen pastors preach consistently about things they clearly do not adhere to in their own lives or in the management of their church. The lost are spiritually blind beloved -- not physically blind. They are looking for any reason to believe or not believe. Which do we give them? Which do our lives give them? I read a minister's leaders article recently excusing poor behavior within a church because we are all human. Of course we are! But the article espoused the notion that we should love the imperfections. I couldn't disagree more. If there is pettiness and unforgiveness in your church you should not love it in an attempt to embrace our collective humanity but rather seek to eradicate it to embrace our shared Spirit.
"Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra long tassels. And they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the seats of honor in the synagogues. They love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces, and to be called "Rabbi.' -- Matthew 23: 5-7 (NLT)
Everything they do is for show. The religious spirit is a very showy spirit. It demands the attention that is supposed to be paid to God. Sure the language may appear right. The religious spirit knows all the buzz words and uses them to make people feel as if what they are hearing is spiritual but at the heart is carnality. It is the same spirit from as far back as the Tower of Babel:
Then they said, "Come, let's build a great city for ourselves with a tower that reaches into the sky. This will make us famous and keep us from being scattered all over the world." -- Genesis 11: 4 (NLT)
This will make us famous! How many of the churches across this land are more about the fame and fortune of the pastor than about the Gospel of Jesus Christ? How many Towers of Babel must we plant and call churches? Waterfalls in the lobby; millions of dollars spent.
"What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people's faces. You won't go in yourselves, and you don't let others enter either. -- Matthew 23: 13 (NLT)
Besides being hypocritical and showy, the religious spirit simply should know better. This charge from our Lord might be the most serious. The Pharisees and Scribes knew the truth but they preferred to hold onto the power they had on earth. They crucified the Messiah they claimed to be waiting for! When they saw the miracles they immediately dismissed them as not being from God because the teachings of Jesus stood to interrupt their religion. The religious spirit will do whatever it has to in order to survive.
So from that time on, the Jewish leaders began to plot Jesus' death. -- John 11: 53 (NLT)
What egregious act prompted this response from the religious leaders? What unspeakable act did Jesus commit that would drive the leaders to seek His death? This reaction came immediately following the raising of Lazarus from the dead! So in the face of the greatest miracle any of them could have ever witnessed in their lives, their reaction is to seek to kill the miracle worker. That is what the religious spirit will do when faced with a threat. David Wilkerson once said that the first response from false teachers is to cry legalist! But back to the thirteenth verse here we see the charge Jesus is leveling against them. They actually shut the door of heaven to those truly seeking. It is bad enough that a leader might choose the broad path to destruction but to then lead others down that same path is abominable. Yet how many hundreds of thousands of people sit in churches every Sunday thinking they are assured a salvation they do not possess? How many have been told to recite a two sentence prayer and voila! Welcome to the family of God! No discussion of their sin or their dire need to repent. No discussion of the blood. Paul Washer once said you cannot have a new relationship with God until you first have a new relationship with sin.
"What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are! -- Matthew 23: 15 (NLT)
Along the same theme we see Jesus continue to dissect the spirit of religion. Here in verse 15 we see that the spirit of religion is not necessarily even aware of what it is that they do! The Pharisees certainly appeared to believe they were right in what they were doing. They were sincere. As my pastor likes to say however -- you can be sincere and sincerely wrong. Not every false teacher or prophet is wearing a neon sign like Benny Hinn. Remember, a great many of them are wolves in sheep's clothing -- that means they have the appearance of sheep. Beloved -- it is not about Joel Osteen, Rick Warren or Joseph Prince -- it is about what they teach! We have churches throughout this land who genuinely seek to make disciples but the purpose driven model they use skips the part about genuine salvation. You can grow the church horizontally but without a vertical growth you are just ensuring more chairs will be needed on the deck of the Titanic.
"Blind guides! What sorrow awaits you! For you say that it means nothing to swear "by God's Temple,' but that it is binding to swear "by the gold in the Temple.' Blind fools! Which is more important--the gold or the Temple that makes the gold sacred? And you say that to swear "by the altar' is not binding, but to swear "by the gifts on the altar' is binding. How blind! For which is more important--the gift on the altar or the altar that makes the gift sacred? When you swear "by the altar,' you are swearing by it and by everything on it. And when you swear "by the Temple,' you are swearing by it and by God, who lives in it. And when you swear "by heaven,' you are swearing by the throne of God and by God, who sits on the throne. -- Matthew 23: 16-22 (NLT)