In recent years a fairly popular criticism of Christians in Western society is that those in traditional churches are playing the part today of the “religious leaders,” also called the Pharisees, who clashed with Jesus in the first century.
I maintain that this position compares avocados and watermelons. The Pharisees were trying to work their way into God’s good graces, even as they rejected Jesus. Christians—if they are actual followers of Christ—have understood that our best efforts fall short of God’s glory and have instead accepted the work of Jesus at the cross.
Does the fact that Christians follow Jesus mean we can then live as we please and do as we wish? Certainly not.
The instruction in the New Testament is for Christians, which I think we American believers sometimes lose sight of. Rather than concerning ourselves with all that the Bible says to Christians, we work to bring all of society into a godly lifestyle.
To an extent, this is not a bad thing. Christ’s teaching is life-changing and all of society would be better off doing what He says, but the truth is, it’s possible to clean up the outside of the cup and leave the inside disgustingly dirty.
Jesus didn’t advocate scouring the outside and leaving the inside filthy. Just the opposite. He said, essentially, clean the inside and the outside will take care of itself: “You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also” (Matt. 23:26).
Here’s what Jesus was really getting to:
“So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matt. 24:28)
In other words, He was talking to pretend Christians, or to religious people in other faiths who think doing a bunch of good deeds will put them in right standing with god or the universe or whatever it is they worship.
To be honest, a lot of those people clean up well. Their outside can look all spiffy and clean. One reason Christians team up with Mormons in political matters, I believe, is that Mormons are so very moral. They are pro-life and pro-marriage, don’t drink or smoke or gamble, go to church, give to charities, and generally present a face of kindness.
Clean cups, at least on the outside.
Honestly, moderate Muslims are right there beside them. The women dress modestly, all are law-abiding, they worship regularly, they oppose homosexuality, drinking, and abortion.
I could say the same about any number of people of religion—they do many, many right things because in their belief system, they have to. The doing is their ticket to “God’s” good graces—whether that means enlightenment, nirvana, heaven, or another planet where they will rule.
Shockingly, atheists can fall into this category, too. Their list of “right things” will differ from Mormons, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and pretend Christians, but they still have their list. Be tolerant of people who hold a different belief system than traditional Western culture, take care of the environment, avoid even the appearance of prejudice, speak only in a politically correct way, support gender equality, gay marriage, and labor unions.
The gods that the atheists are trying to please, of course, are themselves. They talk much about doing something meaningful for society and leaving a legacy. This is their nirvana, but to get there, they must clean the outside until it shines.
Jesus said he didn’t come for the people who have these spiffed up outsides. Those folk see no need for Him because they believe it’s up to them.
For the religionists God expects them to measure up, and for the humanists, they have to measure up to the standard they’ve set for themselves. So both groups busy themselves cleaning the outside of the cup, and when drink splatters, which it always does, they hurriedly wipe it away. When greasy fingers leave a smear, they wash and polish, until the outside shines again.
All the while, germs roam free on the inside. They can hate and lust and covet to their heart’s content. They can doubt God and rail at Him, they can be disappointed and think He’s let them down or doesn’t really care or isn’t really there. Just so long as on the outside, no one knows.
Jesus said He came to heal, but only sick people need healing. The well send physicians away. Services not needed here—only healthy people on site.
But that attitude is indicative of the spiritually blind. All people have fallen short of God’s glory—His righteous standard, and the only standard that matters.
Children run races and win trophies, but how silly if they strutted around claiming to be the fastest runner in the world. They have measured themselves against themselves and decided they are the best. But if they were to measure themselves against the world record holder, they would clearly, consistently, and always fall short.
So too with Man’s efforts, as soon as we measure ourselves against God’s holiness.
We might shine the outside of our cup in an effort to fool ourselves and others that it is clean, but to kill the germs crawling around inside takes the touch of the Master, the work of Jesus, the healing of the One who came to save.
This post first appeared here in June 2013.