Wineskins Archive

November 26, 2013

Proclaimers of Rigid Righteousness (Sept-Oct 2001)

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By Al Maxey

They were the people’s party — the champions of the common man against the aristocratic Sadducees and the ever-encroaching influence of paganism. With roots reaching deeply into the early postexilic period, and with the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah providing the impetus, this party of puritanical progress boldly presented a program designed to instill a practical, living faith among God’s people. They were reformers intent upon turning the hearts and lives of their brethren back to God. They were the Pharisees.

Some have characterized them “the back-to-the-Bible movement of the pre-Christian era” due to their great loyalty to the law and their desire to see it become the standard by which men regulated every aspect of their walk before God. Their beginning was noble; their motivation honorable; their goal godly.

The Divisiveness of Uniformity
As is often the case with such movements, however, they eventually began<BR>losing sight of their objective. Insisting on uniformity of thought, their actions became tainted with arrogance, and their devotion to God deteriorated into detachment from their brethren. The law itself came to be held with less regard than the many opinions and positions they had formulated concerning it. They perpetuated an oral tradition, or Halakah, that was esteemed so highly it bordered on absolute veneration. Josephus reveals that they viewed themselves as “the most accurate exegetes of the law,” although their exegesis was primarily devoted to bolstering their biases and promoting their prejudices. Prominent teachers and their disciples began to meet together on a regular basis for study of the Scriptures – meetings which frequently were characterized by heated debates on various points of interpretation.

It was inevitable that such a narrow perspective would lead ultimately to a spirit of isolationism. Regarding themselves as the only ones capable of correctly interpreting the divine writings, the only ones truly living and worshiping acceptably before God, the only ones worthy of salvation – they withdrew themselves not only from the world, but also from their fellow brethren. They became the “separated ones,” thanking God that they were superior to other men.

History is filled with examples of movements that began well and nobly, but that ultimately failed to achieve their godly goals due to an arrogant, self-serving spirit. In light of the tendency for history to repeat itself, the people of God today would be well advised to engage in some reflective retrospection. Is it possible that the follies of the past are being foisted upon the present by an element who view themselves as the elite among the elect? Is the unity of the Spirit being rejected in favor of a uniformity among separatists? Are we becoming a fractured fellowship, fragmenting into scores of warring camps, fighting to the death over matters of perception, practice, and preference, while God’s Word and those literally dying to hear it stand unnoticed on either side of the battlefield?

The Harmony of Grace
Brethren, the time has come for us to cease the strife that has been generated by generations of arrogant religionists proclaiming a rigid righteousness and to rally around the Redeemer who has come proclaiming grace! Grace is a difficult concept for those whose hearts and minds are focused on law. Acceptance of one another, harmony, and unity are practices unappreciated and unattainable by those proclaiming a rigid religion of righteousness acquired through coerced compliance with personal and party preferences. It is only by embracing a Person, rather than a position, that unity is truly acquired. Focusing on position generates only uniformity – and in its wake, division.

The apostle Paul admonished the saints in Colossae, “Therefore let no one act as your judge…..Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize” (Colossians 2:16, 18). The prize of which Paul spoke was “the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14), which is a Christ-centered life resulting ultimately in one’s eternal salvation. When Paul spoke of those who seek to “defraud” God’s people of this priceless prize, he utilized a very rare Greek word: katabrabeuo. Occurring no where else in the Bible, this word means “to rule or decide against.” When used secularly, it denoted an umpire who would rule against one player and for another during the course of a contest. One could just as correctly translate this passage, “Let no man act as your umpire and in so doing deprive you of your prize.” When one’s fellow believers begin acting as umpires over one’s Christian walk, dissension and division are rarely far behind. Much contention has been caused and many prizes have been forfeited because a few sought to umpire the faith of their brethren!

The Folly of Rigid Religionists
Our Lord’s most scathing rebukes were reserved for those rigid religionists who sought to “weigh men down with burdens hard to bear,” (Luke 11:46) and, in so doing, made their disciples “twice as much sons of hell” as they themselves (Matthew 23:15)! Not knowing about the righteousness of God, they sought to establish their own (Romans 10:3), and thus they formulated an oppressive religious system that destroyed faith rather than developed it. The people of God grow and mature only in an atmosphere of grace; they wither and die in an environment of rigidity.

God has called us to be ambassadors of grace and ministers of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-20). We are commissioned to proclaim release from a narrow, legalistic approach to justification and salvation. We are citizens of a kingdom characterized by mercy, not harshness; acceptance, not alienation; freedom, not slavery. To proclaim anything else is to merit anathema; to practice anything else is to sever oneself from Christ.

Seven times in Matthew 23 Jesus pronounced “woes” upon the Pharisees, the rigid religionists of His day. Seven times He exposed them for the hypocrites they had become.

#1 – WOE TO YOU for slamming the door to God’s kingdom in the faces of those seeking His grace. You put on a good show for men with your lengthy prayers and pious parading of yourselves, but your actions against My people reveal the true nature of your hearts. Hypocrites! Pretenders! (vv. 13-14, author’s paraphrase)

#2 — WOE TO YOU teachers with your missionary fervor. You travel throughout the world to win others to your party and succeed only in depriving them of God’s grace. (v. 15, author’s paraphrase)

#3 — WOE TO YOU blind, foolish guides. You are constantly looking for loopholes in God’s law, ways in which you can impose legalistic restraints upon others, but avoid them yourselves. (vv. 16-20, author’s paraphrase)

#4 — WOE TO YOU camel-swallowing gnat-strainers! You have majored in minors for so long that you no longer can discern those things that are truly significant in the sight of God. While meticulously counting out the exact percentage of mint, dill, and cumin to present to God, you have totally neglected to present hearts of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You have spent so much time preaching the letter of the law, that you have had no time to practice the intent of it. (vv. 23-24, author’s paraphrase)

#5 — WOE TO YOU sightless externalists. Assuming God to be concerned only with the outward show of religion, you neglect the inner man. Your cup, though it sparkles on the outside, is filled with the bitter wine of greed and self-indulgence. You perform all your acts of worship with legal correctness…..and with hearts of stone. Playactors! (vv. 25-26, author’s paraphrase)

#6 — WOE TO YOU masters of the whitewash! You actively promote the illusion that you are alive, but you are dead and decaying. A tomb, no matter how beautifully decorated, still provides housing only for the deceased. Outwardly you present yourselves as righteous, but it is a whitewash; inwardly you are filled with spiritual decomposition. (vv. 27-28, author’s paraphrase)<br><br>#7 — WOE TO YOU descendants of murderers. Just as your forefathers persecuted the righteous, so also do you hate, slander, defame, and afflict those who refuse to submit to your religious rule. (vv. 29-32, author’s paraphrase)

Jesus concluded His characterization and chastisement of these proclaimers of rigid righteousness by saying, “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (v. 33). The answer to that question is the same today as it was then: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). Our various positions, preferences, and practices – while they may indeed prove to be interesting – will never prove to be redemptive!

At one time Paul was a proclaimer of rigid righteousness, but when he finally came to know God’s Son, his message changed! The greatest desire of his heart was for the salvation of those who were still blind to the marvelous grace of the Father. Paul did not demean their zeal, but he bemoaned their ignorance. “For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (Romans 10:2-4).

The Pathway to Unity
The pathway to unity among the children of God, and ultimately to that grand and glorious reunion around the throne, is through the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. When we proclaim Him, ours is a message of selfless grace resulting in brotherhood; when we proclaim anything else, ours is a message of selfish greed resulting only in scattered sects of warring brethren. Near the end of his life, Moses E. Lard lamented the time he had wasted in such wrangling, declaring, “If I had my life to live over, I would not preach another gospel, but I would preach the same gospel in a different spirit. I would not allow myself to be stranded on the desert of dogmatism and a narrow construction of the love of God, but I would preach with a new vision of its meaning.”

With the proper perspective and the proper proclamation, perhaps the prayer of our one Lord for one Body can finally be realized. “What we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, that you also may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write, so that our joy may be made complete” (1 John 1:3-4).

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