We’ve been looking at the theme of how Jesus interpreted Scripture to learn how we ought to interpret Scripture in our own time. Obviously, Jesus correctly handled any aspect of Scripture that he dealt with since he was God in the flesh. In today’s post I want to focus on Jesus seven woes to the religious leaders of the time. It is recorded in Matthew 23. As Jesus begins the discussion he notes for the disciples that they should follow the things the religious leaders were saying since they sat in Moses seat. They were speaking with authority with regard to Old Testament worship and service for the time. But Jesus declared that they should not follow their example because these leaders often said what was right without living up to what they said. Besides that, their motives were often completely wrong. Jesus talked about how they loved the most important seats in the synagogues and to be greeted in the market place as rabbi. He challenged his own disciples to not be like that at all. He told them that greatness wasn’t found in some title they might have but in serving other people. He noted that He alone had the place of authority among them and that if they humbled themselves they would be exalted but if they exalted themselves they would be humbled.
Jesus then launched into the discussion of the seven woes. Instead of focusing on the particular woes, I want to see points about interpreting Scripture from different ones of the “woes”. His first charge was that they were shutting up the kingdom of God in the people’s faces. They wouldn’t enter themselves nor would they allow others to enter. Here is the point I want us to see from this that the way we look at the Scriptures and teach them can either help people see the kingdom of the Lord and long to be part of it or we can cause people to get only a distorted view of the kingdom and as a result shut it in the faces of those who would seek to enter. Critical, harsh, divisive spirits that can’t stop cutting and criticize fellow members of the body of Christ turn honest people away because they simply don’t want to be part of God’s family if that is the way people are going to conduct themselves. When we present the Christian life as being so up and down that every time a person makes a mistake they are lost again and must make some kind of public acknowledgment to become right with God and the church again, we shut God’s kingdom in the faces of people. Jesus came to seek and save the lost not to run them off like the elder brother in Jesus story of the prodigal son.
The second woe was that they would travel land and sea to make a single convert, but when they made the convert they made them into twice as much a child of hell as they were themselves. Looking back over almost fifty years of preaching I can easily see dozens if not hundreds of examples of this taking place. Someone was studied with and brought to conversion and were baptized into Christ and the church. But the person who led them to Christ was such a harsh, critical teacher that the convert was led to believe that they had to agree with the person on every little detail or they wouldn’t really be Christians or accepted in the church. A few years ago I was in a meeting with a church in another state and rejoiced to see a young man in his mid to late twenties come to be baptized. He explained that one of the men there had been studying with him and he was ready to become a Christian. It seemed like the perfect situation. But it was only a few months later that I received a lengthy email from the man explaining that he was leaving the church there because they were living in sin because they mentioned Easter and his greatest horror came when they on halloween had a “Trunk or treat” for the kids in the church parking lot. They were, to his way of thinking on the road to hell and needed desperately to repent. My efforts to reason with him were not successful at all but seemed to enrage him even more. I don’t know what happened to him, but I suspect he spent years trying to find a church that agreed with him on every point. But if he found such a church, it is certain they didn’t get along for long before someone disagreed on some minor point that led to another division. To interpret Scripture in a way that demands everyone agree with you on every detail is not only pharisaical, it is to have a Messiah complex thinking that you are the authority on everything.
The third of the woes was about making silly distinctions between matters that left honest people scratching their heads wondering what to do in every situation. Jesus called them blind guides because of the foolish distinctions they made. Look at just a couple of them. “If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.” Listen to Jesus response. “You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred?” In trying to draw a line between what was acceptable and what wasn’t they had missed the point entirely. To be honest this sounds a whole lot like discussions from a few years ago about what one could and couldn’t do inside the church building. I was visiting a friend of mine who preached for a church in another city in Arkansas and mentioned getting a cup of coffee. He informed me that we would have to go outside the building to drink it since the elders felt like it was wrong to drink coffee in the building and had forbidden him to have a coffee pot in his office. Pharisees are still in plentiful supply. Another example Jesus gave was “You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing: but anyone who swears by the gift on the altar is bound by the oath. You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred?” Interpretation of Scripture that looks for ways to draw imaginary lines to split hairs on what can and can’t be done tend to make the same blind mistakes these religious leaders made.
The fourth woe we looked at a little in the last post. They were straining out gnats and swallowing camels by the way they emphasized paying tithes of every herb they grew in their garden but not thinking of the huge matters of justice, mercy and faith. Some years back I was preaching in a meeting in a large city in another state when I observed a strange thing taking place. There were lots of people coming into the building for the meeting and many of them were guest from their area. But there were two elders stationed at the main entrance of the building. When a woman or girl came to the entrance who wasn’t dressed in a way they thought was acceptable they escorted the lady or girl to a clothes closet they had off the foyer for her to change into a dress they felt was appropriate for them. As I watched I noticed that just about every person they escorted to that room ended up leaving without changing outfits or staying for the service. They were so focused on what people were wearing that they lost complete sight of winning the person for Christ. I doubt seriously if most of the ladies and girls inside the congregation would have agreed with the assessment of what was acceptable that was made by these elders. When our interpretation of a Scripture leads to us losing sight of the primary mission of the church of winning the lost for Christ it is always a mistaken interpretation. Think of Jesus welcoming the man Legion who came to him without any clothes on at all but after his conversion he sat with Jesus clothed and in his right mind.
The final three all seem to emphasize the point that they became so focused on the outside that they forgot the more important thing was what was on the inside. They cleaned the outside of the cup but ignored the inside. They whitewashed the tombs but forgot what was inside. He said they were trying to look the part of ones who were servants of the Lord while their inside was full of greed and self indulgence. His charge was to clean up the inside and then the outside would also be clean. The point I would drive home for us on this is that we too can easily become so focused on the ritual, the actions of worship or how the songs are sung or which songs we sing we miss the heart of the people who worship. We can focus on how the preacher makes a point or how he dresses and miss the whole message of the gospel. If we clean up the inside, the heart of the person and they are in a right relationship with God, these matters won’t be of significance any longer.
For Scripture to be interpreted correctly we must learn to emphasize what God emphasizes and see as insignificant that which he sees as insignificant. We must see that the primary focus is on winning the lost to him rather than making them conform to our own standards of acceptable behavior.