A Simple Story with a Sobering Message

18 “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.

19 “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ 27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’” – Luke 16:18-31 ESV

At first glance, this section of Luke 16 seems to come out of left field. It appears to lack any context. There has been no change of venue or scene, and yet, suddenly and unexpectedly, Jesus starts talking about divorce, adultery, remarriage, and the law. But the key to understanding this apparent shift in topic is found in verse 15, where Jesus pointedly addresses His adversaries, the Pharisees, brusquely pointing out the nature of their problem:

You are the ones who justify yourselves in men’s eyes, but God knows your hearts. For what is highly prized among men is utterly detestable in God’s sight.” – Luke 16:15 NET

Jesus had just disclosed that it is impossible to serve God and money at the same time. Whoever tries will “will be devoted to one and despise the other” (Luke 16:13 NLT). And the Pharisees, whom Luke reports “dearly loved their money, heard all this and scoffed at him” (Luke 16:14 NLT). They found Jesus’ parable about the dishonest manager to be ridiculous and His comments concerning unrighteous wealth and true riches to be laughable. Obviously, his poor and uneducated Rabbi from Nazareth had not been blessed with great wealth as they had. They believed their superior social standing to be a direct reward for their faithful obedience to God’s commands.

But Jesus won’t let them take the high ground. He exposed them for what they really are: Men who love money, covet the praise of men, and pride themselves on being the spiritual elite of Israel. Their apparent allegiance to the law was simply a means to an end. It earned them the awe and reverence of the masses. They were looked upon as the religious rock stars of their day, holy men who lived in perfect obedience to the Mosaic Law. Yet Jesus knew the truth. These pious religious leaders spent far too much time justifying themselves in the eyes of men when they should have been worrying about what God thought about them.

Earlier, Jesus had given His disciples a sobering warning concerning the Pharisees.

“Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees—their hypocrisy. The time is coming when everything that is covered up will be revealed, and all that is secret will be made known to all.” – Luke 12:1-2 NLT

Their true natures would eventually be revealed for all to see. Their cleverly disguised hatred for Jesus would come to light when they forcefully arrested Him and dragged Him before Pilate, the Roman governor. There they would level false accusations against Him, demanding that Jesus be put to death for posing a threat against the Roman government. It was all be based on lies, but they would eventually convince Pilate to crucify Jesus. But Jesus, knowing exactly what the Pharisees had planned for Him, told His disciples, “don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot do any more to you after that. But I’ll tell you whom to fear. Fear God, who has the power to kill you and then throw you into hell. Yes, he’s the one to fear” (Luke 12:4-5 NLT). And that same warning applied to the Pharisees. That’s why they needed to show far greater concern about God’s assessment of their lives, rather than trying to impress their peers and the peasants.

Back to Luke 16. Beginning in verse 14, Jesus exposes the Pharisees’ lack of understanding of what is taking place right in front of their eyes. The kingdom of God that the law and the prophets predicted has appeared in their midst. Jesus, the Messiah of Israel has come to earth, and His arrival has inaugurated a new age.

“The law and the prophets were in force until John; since then, the good news of the kingdom of God has been proclaimed, and everyone is urged to enter it.” – Luke 16:16 NET

In a sense, John the Baptist was the last of the old-school prophets. He came proclaiming the coming of the kingdom.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” – Matthew 3:2 ESV

But John, like all the prophets before him, added a message of judgment.

“Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” – Matthew 3:10 ESV

John called the people to be baptized, and he clarified that it was intended to illustrate their willingness to turn from their sinful ways. He even told the Pharisees to “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8 ESV). John believed that Jesus, in His role as the long-awaited Messiah, would be bringing judgment.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” – Matthew 3:11-12 ESV

But Jesus had come to seek and to save that which was lost (Luke 19:10). He had told His disciples that His incarnation had been intended to make salvation available to those who already stood condemned before God.

“I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day.” – John 12:46-48 ESV

Jesus was offering sinful men and women a means of finding favor with God that was not based on human effort. The law of God had never been intended to provide salvation. According to the apostle Paul, the law was “given…to show people their sins” (Galatians 3:19 NLT). In his letter to the Romans, Paul expands on this thought by adding, “The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins” (Romans 8:3 NLT). 

All of this helps us better understand what Jesus is saying in the closing verses of Luke 16. He is attempting to explain the significance of His incarnation. He is the king of Israel whom the prophets and the law foretold, and He has brought His kingdom or, better yet, His kingly right to rule. He is the Son of God and the anointed Savior of the world. And everything He is doing and will do is in fulfillment of the law and prophets. That is why He declared, “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void” (Luke 16:18 ESV). Nothing and no one was going to stand in His way – not even the Pharisees. Jesus was faithfully fulfilling the will of His Heavenly Father. And, even after His resurrection, He would tell His disciples:

“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” – Luke 24:44 ESV

Yet, while Jesus was busy fulfilling the law, the Pharisees were doing it great harm. They were adding to it and creating loopholes for it. They were constantly coming up with ways to make its observance easier by designing clever workarounds. Even its clear teaching regarding divorce and remarriage had been diluted through their efforts. Adultery had become commonplace and the Pharisees had played a major role in justifying its ubiquitous existence among the Jews. This led Jesus to reiterate God’s unwavering outlook regarding divorce.

“Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery. – Luke 16:18 ESV

Then Jesus followed this up with a rather interesting story. One of the first things we need to understand is that this story is descriptive and not intended to be prescriptive. In other words, Jesus is not teaching a doctrinal truth about heaven and hell, this life or the afterlife. He is simply telling a story designed to expose the erroneous beliefs of the Pharisees. They are represented in the story by the rich man who enjoyed great wealth in this life. But he proved to be uncaring and uncompassionate to the needy in his midst. In fact, every day he callously overlooked the sorry state of a poor man named Lazarus. In the story, both men die, and that’s where it gets interesting. Contrary to the common view among the Jews of Jesus’ day, the poor man ends up in heaven, while the rich man finds himself suffering in Hades. This would have been a shock to everyone that heard the story, and that was Jesus’ intent.

The rich man, stunned at this unexpected turn of events, begged God to show him mercy. And notice that he asks that God send Lazarus to do for him what he had refused to do for Lazarus all those years. Now that he was suffering, he wanted Lazarus to relieve his anguish. But God gave the rich man some very bad news.

“Son, remember that during your lifetime you had everything you wanted, and Lazarus had nothing. So now he is here being comforted, and you are in anguish.” – Luke 16:25 NLT

As stated earlier, this parable is not meant to be a treatise on heaven and hell. Jesus was not suggesting that there are lines of communication between Hades and heaven. Jesus does not tell us how the rich man knew that Lazarus was in heaven because that is not the point of his story. The point of the story is found in its closing verses, where Jesus brings back up the law and the prophets.

“Then the rich man said, ‘Please, Father Abraham, at least send him to my father’s home. For I have five brothers, and I want him to warn them so they don’t end up in this place of torment.’

“But Abraham said, ‘Moses and the prophets have warned them. Your brothers can read what they wrote.’” – Luke 16:27-29 ESV

The law contained all they needed to know about the treatment of the needy and oppressed. And the prophets had more than clarified what God would do to all those who chose to disobey His laws. The rich man’s brothers stood condemned because they refused to obey.

But, unswayed by the words of Abraham, the rich man continued to beg, stating, “if someone is sent to them from the dead, then they will repent of their sins and turn to God” (Luke 16:30 NLT). And this is where Jesus drives home the real point of his story.

“But Abraham said, ‘If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’” – Luke 16:31 NLT

Subtly, but oh so clearly, Jesus reveals the underlying problem of the Pharisees. They were so arrogantly confident in their standing before God, that they refused to heed the warnings of Scripture. Jesus, the Son of God, stood before them and they refused to acknowledge Him. And even when He died and rose again, they would still reject His claims to be the Messiah.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Fear God, Not Man

1 In the meantime, when so many thousands of the people had gathered together that they were trampling one another, he began to say to his disciples first, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.

“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.

“And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, but the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God. 10 And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but the one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. 11 And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, 12 for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.” – Luke 12:1-12 ESV

It seems that the closer Jesus got to Jerusalem, the intensity of the exchanges between He and the Jewish religious leaders increased exponentially. The Sanhedrin, the high council of the Jews, was headquartered in the capital city and they were particularly wary of this renegade Rabbi peddling His influence on their turf. And the religious leaders had reason to worry because Jesus was proving to be just as popular in Judea as He had been in Galilee. Luke reveals that wherever Jesus went, “the crowds grew until thousands were milling about and stepping on each other” (Luke 12:1 NLT).

And wherever the crowds gathered, the Pharisees and scribes tended to show up like carrion circling a corpse. They never let Jesus out of their sight and were constantly trying to trick Him into saying or doing something that they could use against Him.

…the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees became hostile and tried to provoke him with many questions. They wanted to trap him into saying something they could use against him. – Luke 11:53-54 NLT

But Jesus refused to shy away from the confrontation, choosing instead to warn His disciples about the true intentions of these well-respected religious leaders. To the average Jew, the Pharisees and Sadduccees were considered the spiritual upper class of society. They were wealthy, influential, and powerful. And they were also revered for their apparent religious superiority. But Jesus was not fooled by their outward displays of personal piety and fervent law-keeping. He knew their hearts and wanted His disciples to know the truth about these pseudo-spiritual elitists, which led Him to say, “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees—their hypocrisy” (Luke 12:1 NLT).

This kind of talk must have shocked His disciples. Not only would they have viewed it as disrespectful, but they would have deemed it to be highly dangerous. It had already become clear to them that the Pharisees were not big fans of Jesus, so why would He poke the bear? What possible good could come from making such incendiary statements about such powerful individuals? But Jesus wasn’t out to win friends and influence enemies. He was preparing His followers for life in His absence. His earthly mission was quickly coming to a close and it would not be long before He had to leave the work of the ministry in the hands of His disciples. So, He wanted them to know the truth.

Jesus didn’t want His disciples to emulate the ways of men – even those who appeared to be the icons of religious virtue. According to Jesus, the Pharisees and their peers were nothing more than hypocrites. The Greek word He used to describe them is hypokrisis, which was commonly used to describe actors in a play. Jesus was exposing the Pharisees as nothing more than pretenders. Like thespians in a Greek drama, they wore masks to disguise their true identity and fool the audience into thinking they were someone else. It was all a cleverly orchestrated charade. But unlike actors in a play, the Pharisees had become self-deceived, believing that they were exactly who they portrayed themselves to be.

And Jesus wanted His disciples to know that this delusional mindset was contagious and dangerous. Like yeast that spreads through a batch of dough, the fake faith of the Pharisees had begun to permeate its way through the nation of Israel. The religion of the Jews had become all about outward displays of righteousness with very little emphasis on the true condition of the heart. And Jesus was fully aware that this mentality had already crept into the thinking of His disciples. They had a pharisaical outlook on life, measuring their spirituality by actions rather than attitude. But Jesus wanted them to know that behavior was always a byproduct of belief and not the other way around.

This led Him to state, “The time is coming when everything that is covered up will be revealed, and all that is secret will be made known to all” (Luke 12:2 NLT). Jesus is revealing that the true condition of the Pharisees’ hearts will soon be exposed. With His coming arrest, trial, and crucifixion, the disciples will get an up-close and personal glimpse into the dark recesses of these men’s hearts. Their true intentions will be put on display for all to see, and it will not be a pretty picture. 

The sinister and secretive planning of the high priest and his fellow members of the Sanhedrin will become readily apparent. Their obsession to eliminate Jesus will finally come to fruition and all their carefully crafted questions and well-orchestrated encounters with Jesus will be exposed for what they were all along: Hypocritical lies motivated by hate and emanating from sin-darkened hearts.

What the disciples needed to know was that the day was coming when the roles would be reversed. They had been living in fear of the animosity of the religious leaders. They knew these men were powerful and could make or break the ministry of Jesus. But according to Jesus, the disciples would soon be declaring the good news of the kingdom of God from the housetops. Despite the threat of persecution, they would carry the message of the Gospel to “Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8 NLT).

This led Jesus to encourage His disciples to live fearlessly and faithfully even in the present hour. They had no reason to fear the high priest or the rest of the Sanhedrin. Yes, these men were powerful, but they were nothing when compared with God Almighty.

“Dear friends, don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot do any more to you after that. But I’ll tell you whom to fear. Fear God, who has the power to kill you and then throw you into hell. Yes, he’s the one to fear.” – Luke 12:4-5 NLT

Jesus clearly acknowledges that the religious leaders had the power and authority to take a man’s life. He was well aware that they would play a major role in determining His own death. But He wanted the disciples to understand that God was sovereign. The influence of these men was purely physical and temporal. They could take a man’s life but had no power over his eternal life. They could kill but they couldn’t condemn. They could cast a man into the grave but had no authority to cast a man into hell. But God could. He was sovereign over all things, including a man’s death and the fate of his eternity.

The Pharisees could have cared less about Jesus and His disciples. They viewed them as little more than thorns in their side that needed to be removed and disposed of. But God placed a high value on Jesus’ followers. The Creator-God who cares for the insignificant sparrow cared for them. So much so, that He was aware of the number of hairs on each of their heads. The Pharisees didn’t know a single disciple’s name, but God knew everything about them, including their eternal state.

With that amazing reality in mind, Jesus encouraged His disciples to focus their attention on the mission at hand. They were not to be distracted or deterred by the threats of the Pharisees. Instead, they were to boldly proclaim the message of Jesus’ Messiahship to the ends of the earth.

“I tell you the truth, everyone who acknowledges me publicly here on earth, the Son of Man will also acknowledge in the presence of God’s angels.” – Luke 12: 8 NLT

Their faithfulness to follow through on their commission would reap significant rewards. And while the Pharisees and their fellow members of the Sanhedrin would threaten and oppose them, the disciples would one day hear the words of Jesus, saying, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let’s celebrate together!” (Matthew 25:23 NLT).

But the Pharisees faced a far different fate.

“But anyone who denies me here on earth will be denied before God’s angels. Anyone who speaks against the Son of Man can be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.” – Luke 12:9-10 NLT

They refused to acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God and the Messiah of Israel. As a result, they would be denied access to God’s Kingdom. The very men who believed themselves to be at the pinnacle of the spiritual mountain would one day find themselves barred from God’s presence. These men would pay dearly for their refusal to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah and for attributing His Spirit-enabled power to Satan.

But Jesus encourages His disciples by telling them that the very same Spirit would indwell and empower them in the days to come.

“…the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what needs to be said.” – Luke 12:12 NLT

He didn’t sugarcoat the future. He clearly warned them that persecution and literal trials were going to be a part of their experience. But they would find themselves empowered by the Spirit of God. Despite the threats of the Pharisees, the disciples would boldly confess Jesus before men. No pretending. No pretext. No play-acting. These men would discover the truth behind the promise Jesus made to them just prior to His ascension into heaven.

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” – Acts 1:8 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

You Fools!

37 While Jesus was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him, so he went in and reclined at table. 38 The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner. 39 And the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. 40 You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? 41 But give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you.

42 “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 43 Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces. 44 Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it.”

45 One of the lawyers answered him, “Teacher, in saying these things you insult us also.” 46 And he said, “Woe to you lawyers also! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers. 47 Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed. 48 So you are witnesses and you consent to the deeds of your fathers, for they killed them, and you build their tombs. 49 Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ 50 so that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, 51 from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be required of this generation. 52 Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.”

53 As he went away from there, the scribes and the Pharisees began to press him hard and to provoke him to speak about many things, 54 lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say. – Luke 11:37-54 ESV

There was no love affair between Jesus and the religious leaders of Israel. These men found the actions of this Rabbi from Nazareth to be perplexing and irritating. He had burst onto the scene, virtually out of nowhere, capturing the attention and the hearts of the people. From the wilderness of Judea to the shores of the Sea of Galilee, this itinerant Rabbi had regularly drawn huge crowds who gathered to hear Him teach and watch Him perform miracles.

And everywhere Jesus went, a contingent of scribes and Pharisees shadowed His every move. They had been commissioned by their superiors on the Jewish high council, the Sanhedrin, and tasked with finding evidence that would convict Jesus of a crime worthy of death. The high priest and his companions on the council had already determined that Jesus was a threat to their authority and needed to be eliminated at all costs.

And, as we have seen, these so-called spiritual leaders of Israel had stooped so low that they had been dessiminating libelous rumors about Jesus. One of the worst was their accusation that He cast out demons by the power of Satan. They had no proof to support their claim, and as Jesus so clearly revealed, it was an illogical assertion that made no sense. If anything, Jesus’ authority over demons provided irrefutable evidence that He had been sent by God. But the religious leaders were not interested in facts. They were obsessed with exposing Jesus as a fraud and labeling Him as a danger to the nation. They had even taken to demanding that He perform some kind of sign that would prove His claim to be the Messiah. If He really was the long-awaited Savior of Israel, He was going to have to do more than heal the sick and cast out demons. To the Pharisees and scribes those were nothing more than parlor tricks. If He wanted to convince them of His Messiahship, He was going to have to do something truly spectacular that would be in keeping with the predictions of the prophets. In other words, Jesus was going to have to show that He could set the nation of Israel free from its subjugation to Rome.

Jesus couldn’t go anywhere without being shadowed by these disingenuous and deceitful men. Their modus operandi was to destroy Jesus, yet they continually tried to act as if they were sincere disciples who were seeking to learn more. On this occasion, one of the Pharisees extended an invitation to Jesus and His disciples to join him for dinner in his home. Interestingly enough, Jesus accepted. And it seems that Jesus knew that this innocent-looking event was all a set-up. Fully aware of His host’s intentions, Jesus purposefully neglected to perform “the hand-washing ceremony required by Jewish custom” (Luke 11:38 NLT). Jesus knew He was in the home of a law-abiding Pharisee and yet He chose to sit down to a meal without having first ceremonially purified His hands. And Luke records that “The Pharisee was astonished” (Luke 11:38 ESV).

Sensing His host’s surprise at this egregious breach of protocol, Jesus used the opportunity to expose the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.

“You Pharisees are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and wickedness.” – Luke 11:39 NLT

It’s likely that this man had faithfully adhered to the hand-washing mandate, and his astonishment stemmed from Jesus’ blatant disregard for their religious customs. But before he could get too worked up over his own display of spiritual superiority, the Pharisee had his pride deflated by Jesus’ harsh-sounding words. Even the disciples must have felt uncomfortable listening to this exchange between Jesus and their host.

But Jesus was simply exposing the hypocrisy of His self-righteous critics. This Pharisee, like all his companions, was guilty of conflating religious rule-keeping with righteousness. They were obsessed with outward adherence to a set of rules, while neglecting the inner condition of their own hearts. That’s why Jesus reminded this man, “But give as alms the things that are within you, and you will see that everything is clean for you” (Luke 11:41 BSB).

Jesus was reminding this man that true cleanliness was a matter of the heart. Outward adherence to laws and regulations meant nothing if the inner disposition of the heart remained unchanged and unmoved. This is exactly what Jesus meant when He said:

“It is what comes from inside that defiles you. For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these vile things come from within; they are what defile you.” – Mark 7:20-23 NLT

This is the very same message Jesus had conveyed in His sermon on the mount.

“Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you the truth, they have received all the reward they will ever get. But when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you. – Matthew 6:1-4 NLT

And the apostle Paul would later pick up on this same theme.

If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it, but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing. – 1 Corinthians 13:3 NLT

This self-righteous Pharisee viewed himself as somehow superior to Jesus and His disciples because he had washed his hands. But because he lacked love for others, he was actually filled with greed and wickedness. His outward observance of ceremonial laws may have fooled others, but it had not fooled Jesus.

At this point in Luke’s account, he portrays Jesus as amping up His rhetoric in an unabashed attack on these so-called religious leaders. As Jesus prepares to follow His Father’s will and head to the cross, He goes out of His way to expose the truth about His enemies. But His words are not intended to be a vindictive attack on those who disagree with Him. He is simply pulling aside the veil and revealing the long-hidden truth regarding these men. They are not what they seem to be. And, before He leaves this earth, Jesus wants to ensure that His disciples understood what true religion should look like.

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. – James 1:27 ESV

At this point, Jesus makes His message much more direct by turning His attention directly to the Pharisees and teachers of religious law. This is the part where He pronounces His seven woes or warnings against them. It is important to recognize that this is all about two distinctly different ways to approach God. What Jesus has to say is less about their behavior than the focus of their ministry.

Woe #1:They misunderstood the true nature of the Kingdom because they tended to major on the minors. Since they believed that entrance into the Kingdom was based on the keeping of the law, they ended up nitpicking the law to death. Jesus accused them of being meticulously observant of laws concerning the tithing of fruit, grain, and other produce – to the point of absurdity. But in doing so, they conveniently overlooked the more important commandments concerning justice, mercy, and faith.

Woe #2: These men were all about appearances. They lived to impress and were addicted to the praise of men. As long as they looked good, they believed they were good. External appearances and outward behavior were the criteria by which they judged a man’s righteousness, but God looks at the condition of the heart. Matthew records another stinging indictment that Jesus delivered against these men.

“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

There were all about being recognized for their outward displays of righteousness. They wanted to be noticed and revered. They were more concerned about the praise of men than they were with the approval of God.

Woe #3: Whether they realized it or not, their actions were deceptive and highly destructive. Jesus accuses them of being like “hidden graves in a field. People walk over them without knowing the corruption they are stepping on” (Luke 11:44 NLT). The true nature of their spiritual state was invisible to those around them. They had successfully disguised their inner moral decay. But anyone who came into contact with them was deemed impure by association.

“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

At this point, Luke reveals that there were other religious leaders in the room. A scribe or lawyer interrupts Jesus’ diatribe, stating, “Teacher, in saying these things you insult us also” (Luke 11:45 ESV). This expert in religious law wanted everyone to know that he had been personally offended by Jesus’ words. But this man would regret having spoken up because he became the focus of Jesus’ attention.

Woe #4: As an expert in the law, this man could parse all the particulars concerning the Mosaic law and meticulously hold everyone accountable to every minute detail found in the law. But he cared nothing for those who were burdened by their inability to live up to this impossible standard.

“…you crush people with unbearable religious demands, and you never lift a finger to ease the burden. – Luke 11:46 NLT

They were legalists who lacked love for others. In fact, they loved the law more than they loved those for whom God had given the law. They cared more about adherence to a set of rules than they did about those who were burdened down by those rules.

Woe #5: In failing to recognize their own sinful condition, they had become just like their ancestors – rebellious, stubborn, and resistant to God. The Israelites had built tombs and monuments to honor the prophets of God but had failed to listen to their words of warning. In fact, they had killed many of them. And Jesus made it clear that the religious leaders of Israel had done the same thing in His day. They had rejected the most recent prophet of God: John the Baptist. And in just a matter of days, they would arrange to have the very Son of God put to death.

Woe #6: These men had refused to accept Jesus as the Son of God. But their stubborn denial of His identity as the Messiah of Israel had influenced others to reject Him as well. They were passionate. They were zealous. They were religious. BUT THEY WERE DANGEROUS! They had become obstacles to the Kingdom of Heaven. Their misplaced zeal had led them to become stumbling blocks.

Jesus said to his disciples, “Stumbling blocks are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him to have a millstone tied around his neck and be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.” – Luke 17:1-2 NET

These men DID NOT represent the way into the Kingdom of Heaven. They didn’t even know the directions. But where do we see this today? In the myriad of false and pseudo-Christian religions. We see it in anyone who denies that salvation is through faith alone in Christ alone. We need to learn to look for these characteristics.

  1. Posing as spokesmen for God, but denying people access to the Kingdom of God
  2. Giving people false hope by offering them a false gospel
  3. Providing easy workarounds to true holiness and commitment to God
  4. Judging righteousness based on their own standards, rather than God’s
  5. Refusing to acknowledge sin, while emphasizing self-righteousness
  6. Putting undue emphasis on the praise of men, rather than that of God
  7. Failing to see their status as enemies of God

The spirit of the Pharisees is alive and well today. It’s evident in every religion that refuses to acknowledge Jesus Christ as the only way. It’s prevalent in many mainstream denominations that preach a gospel of works, not grace. It can be found anytime legalism and rule-keeping replace love for God and others. It shows up whenever our religion becomes more important than our relationship with Christ. It takes the form of hypocrisy – when what we say we believe fails to impact the way we behave. When we love the praise of man more than pleasing God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Debt Relief

36 One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table. 37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” 40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”

41 “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Luke 7:36-50 ESV

Almost as if on cue, Jesus gets an opportunity to demonstrate exactly what he meant He described “the people of this generation” as “children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another” (Luke 7:31, 32 ESV). Jesus portrayed the unbelievers who refused to accept Him and John the Baptist like petulant children who always have to have their own way.

“‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
    we sang a dirge, and you did not weep.’’ – Luke 7:32 ESV

And it just so happened that one of these childish, self-absorbed, and unbelieving individuals invited Jesus into his home for a meal. He was a Pharisee, a member of one of the leading religious sects of the day, which meant he was a very powerful and influential man in the community.

Luke does not reveal the motivation behind Simon’s invitation, but it would appear from the context that he was not a follower of Jesus. It seems much more likely that he was either curious to find out more about this mysterious Rabbi from Nazareth or he had been commissioned by the Sanhedrin to catch Jesus in a trap. It could be that the entire affair was a set-up, including the sudden appearance of the woman. Simon may have prearranged for her to show up on cue so that he could see how Jesus would react. In a sense, Simon the Pharisee wanted to see if Jesus would “dance to his tune.” Would He respond to this woman in an appropriate manner, recognizing her as a sinner and treating her accordingly, or would He prove HImself to be “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34 ESV)?

What’s fascinating is that Jesus accepted Simon’s invitation, even though He was probably aware of his intentions. And as they reclined together at the table to share a meal, an unidentified woman appeared. Luke does not provide her name, but simply identifies her as “a woman of the city, who was a sinner” (Luke 7:37 ESV). The Greek word Luke used is hamartōlos and it refers to someone “devoted to sin.” While there has been much speculation regarding the woman’s particular sin, Luke doesn’t provide any details. Throughout the passage, she is simply referred to as a sinner, even by Simon. It was not uncommon for the Pharisees and other religious leaders to refer to all people of the lower class as sinners because they failed to live up to their impossible standards. These arrogant and pride-filled men viewed themselves as spiritually superior because they believed themselves to be scrupulous when it came to keeping the law. But in their self-righteous minds, the average Jew was nothing more than a law-breaking sinner who refused to dance to the tune they were playing. And this woman was just such a hopeless and helpless case.

But this “sinner” came in search of the Savior. Whether she had been hired by Simon or had simply heard that Jesus was a guest in Simon’s home, she came prepared with a gift with which to bless Jesus. In a sense, she brought a sin offering with which to anoint the Son of God. Luke describes the scene:

Then she knelt behind him at his feet, weeping. Her tears fell on his feet, and she wiped them off with her hair. Then she kept kissing his feet and putting perfume on them. – Luke 7:38 NLT

Jesus would have been laying on his side, His elbow resting on a pillow and his head nearest the table. His feet would have extended away from the table. So, this woman came up behind Him and began to pour the expensive perfume on His feet and clean His feet with her own hair. It is interesting to note that Simon makes no attempt to stop her. This lends credibility to the idea that he had expected her arrival. Simon simply watched the woman, silently ridiculing Jesus for His apparent ignorance of her sinful state.

“If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. She’s a sinner!” – Luke 7:39 NLT

Simon judged Jesus. He condemned Jesus for failing to recognize this woman as unworthy to be in their presence. But Simon failed to recognize that Jesus knew exactly what he was thinking. Jesus had quietly allowed the woman to do what she did, all the while knowing what was going through Simon’s mind and the woman’s heart. So, when she had finished, Jesus said to Simon, “I have something to say to you” (Luke 7:40 ESV).

Simon diplomatically refers to Jesus as a teacher, but in his mind, Jesus had lost all credibility. Jesus’ decision to allow Himself to be touched by this sinful woman had rendered Him unclean and unworthy of Simon’s respect. In Simon’s mind, Jesus was no more the Messiah than He was a prophet. He was just an itinerant Rabbi from the backwater town of Nazareth who was a friend of the dregs of society.

But Jesus responded to Simon by telling him a story.

“A man loaned money to two people—500 pieces of silver to one and 50 pieces to the other. But neither of them could repay him, so he kindly forgave them both, canceling their debts. Who do you suppose loved him more after that?” – Luke 7:41-42 NLT

Jesus returned the favor and set Simon up. He told him a simple story about two people who had sizeable debts forgiven. Neither individual was capable of clearing up their debt on their own. They were hopelessly and helplessly obligated to their lender and facing possible indentured servitude in order to fulfill their financial indebtedness. But to their surprise and joy, each had their entire debt forgiven. And Jesus asks the Pharisee which one of these individuals would have had the greater reason for gratitude and love.

Simon knows the right answer but seems a bit reluctant to share it. He seems to know he is being set up. But he responds, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the larger debt” (Luke 7:43 NLT). Simon could sense what Jesus was doing but there was nothing he could do about it. The answer was obvious and so was Jesus’ point. Simon was smart enough to know that the two characters in the story represented him and the woman. Simon fully understood that Jesus was inferring that he too was a sinner. And Jesus affirmed the correctness of Simon’s answer.

“You have judged rightly.” – Luke 7:43 ESV

In quoting Jesus’ response, Luke uses the Greek word krinō. This word has a variety of meanings. It can mean “pronounce an opinion concerning right and wrong ” or “to pass judgment on the deeds and words of others.” It seems that Jesus is confirming two different things about Simon. He had been correct in his judgment of the woman as a sinner and he had given the correct answer to Jesus’ question. And in answering the question correctly, Simon had judged himself to be a sinner as well. In fact, he had unknowingly confessed his indebtedness to God and his inability to repay what he owed. He stood in need of forgiveness just like the sinful woman he so despised.

And Jesus confronted Simon for his insensitivity and judgmentalism by comparing his actions with those of the penitent and grateful woman.

“Look at this woman kneeling here. When I entered your home, you didn’t offer me water to wash the dust from my feet, but she has washed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You didn’t greet me with a kiss, but from the time I first came in, she has not stopped kissing my feet. You neglected the courtesy of olive oil to anoint my head, but she has anointed my feet with rare perfume.

“I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.” – Luke 7:44-47 NLT

By her actions, the woman had shown her awareness of the overwhelming nature of her sin debt. She sacrificed her dignity and her livelihood in order to express her sorrow for her sin and her hope for forgiveness. She never said a word to Jesus but her actions clearly indicated how much she longed to be cleansed from her sin. But Simon had done nothing. He hadn’t even shown Jesus the common courtesies that any host would show a guest in their home. He had invited Jesus into his home but then failed to treat Him with the respect and honor He deserved as the Son of God. Simon didn’t feel as if he owed Jesus anything because he didn’t think he was a sinner in need of a Savior.

And Jesus reveals the ignorance of Simon’s self-righteous perspective.

“…a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.” – Luke 7:47 NLT

In essence, Simon showed Jesus no love at all because he saw himself as owing nothing to God and in no need of forgiveness. But in a shocking display of His divine authority, Jesus turned to the woman and said, “Your sins are forgiven” (Luke 7:48 NLT). And at this point, Luke reveals that there were others reclining at the table with Simon and Jesus. We have no idea who there were, but it is likely that they were peers of Simon. Their response to Jesus’ statement reveals their surprise and incredulity at His words.

“Who is this man, that he goes around forgiving sins?” – Luke 7:50 NLT

They are appalled at Jesus’ audacity. He was claiming the right to forgive sins, something only God could do. And Jesus, knowing their thoughts, adds fuel to the fire burning in their hearts by telling the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7:50 NLT). Jesus was clearly insinuating that it was the woman’s faith, not her sacrifice that had led to her salvation. It was not the expensive perfume or her selfless act of washing His feet that had led to her forgiveness and salvation, but her belief that He had the right and authority to forgive her insurmountable sin debt.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Wretched, Miserable, Poor, Blind, and Naked

1 “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan,
    who are on the mountain of Samaria,
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
    who say to your husbands, ‘Bring, that we may drink!’
The Lord God has sworn by his holiness
    that, behold, the days are coming upon you,
when they shall take you away with hooks,
    even the last of you with fishhooks.
And you shall go out through the breaches,
    each one straight ahead;
    and you shall be cast out into Harmon,”
declares the Lord.

“Come to Bethel, and transgress;
    to Gilgal, and multiply transgression;
bring your sacrifices every morning,
    your tithes every three days;
offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving of that which is leavened,
    and proclaim freewill offerings, publish them;
    for so you love to do, O people of Israel!”
declares the Lord God. Amos 4:1-5 ESV

As Amos continues to convey to the people of Israel God’s righteous indignation with them, he focuses his attention like a laser on the wealthy women of Samaria. Addressing them as “you cows of Bashan,” Amos is unapologetically brutal in his description of their selfish and luxuriant lifestyle. These well-to-do women were guilty of flaunting their wealth and social status by treating others with contempt and condescension. Amos accuses them of “oppressing” the poor and “crushing” the needy.  In the Hebrew language, those two words paint a stark and highly unflattering picture of these women from the upper strata of Israelites society. The word translated as “oppressed” is ʿāšaq, and it means “to violate, defraud, do violence.” Amos is accusing these women of taking advantage of the poor for personal gain. They were defrauding and deceiving the less fortunate in order to increase their own wealth and further enhance their luxurious lifestyles.

In Hebrew, the word “crush” is rāṣaṣ, and it too carries a much more sinister and sinful connotation. It means “to crack in pieces” and can be used either literally or figuratively. In the figurative sense, to crush someone is to treat them with such disdain and disrespect that they are left broken or crushed in spirit. It conveys a lack of empathy or compassion, a total disregard for the worth or well-being of the other.

It seems that Amos is targeting these particular women because they represent that segment of Israelite society that had enjoyed a certain amount of personal success during Jeroboam II’s reign. Under his leadership, the nation had expanded its borders and many of these wealthy families had probably profited from the boom environment this growth created. In the very next chapter, Amos points out the injust nature of their treatment of the poor.

You trample the poor,
    stealing their grain through taxes and unfair rent.
Therefore, though you build beautiful stone houses,
    you will never live in them. – Amos 5:11 NLT

Amos is not suggesting that these women were responsible for all these injustices. But they were enjoying the fruit of someone else’s unjust “labor.” Most likely their husbands were the ones who were “trampling the poor” by levying excessive taxes and charging exorbitant rental fees for their properties. And all the while, they were using their ill-gotten profits to build luxury homes for themselves and their wives.

And Amos portrays the wives of these men as demanding taskmasters who treat their husbands like slaves. Amos purposefully uses hyperbolic, over-the-top language to illustrate the decadent and immoral lifestyle of the upper-class members of Israelite society. His portrayal of these women as lounging on their couches and demanding their husbands to bring them another drink is meant to expose the narcissistic nature of their lives. They are self-consumed and more interested in personal pleasure than in keeping God’s laws.

But by all appearances, these very same women were faithful members of the religious community of Israel. They made regular trips to the altars and shrines set up in Bethel and Gilgal. They worshiped the false gods that Jeroboam II and his predecessors had set up all throughout Israel. In other words, these wealthy women were outstanding members of the faith community. And they most likely believed that their wealth and prosperity had been a gift from the gods.

But Yahweh sees through their sanctimonious and self-righteous displays of mock-godliness. He sees behind the walls of their ostentatious homes and witnesses their “Lives of the Rich and Famous” lifestyles. But He also sees into the recesses of their sin-hardened hearts and knows that they are uncaring and unrepentant of their many transgressions. That’s why He sarcastically challenges them to keep doing what they’ve always done. He encourages them to continue offering their sacrifices and tithes to their false gods.

“Go ahead and offer sacrifices to the idols at Bethel.
    Keep on disobeying at Gilgal.
Offer sacrifices each morning,
    and bring your tithes every three days.
Present your bread made with yeast
    as an offering of thanksgiving.
Then give your extra voluntary offerings
    so you can brag about it everywhere!
This is the kind of thing you Israelites love to do…” – Amos 4:4-5 NLT

They’re worshiping the wrong gods and for all the wrong reasons. They want to be recognized for their religious zeal and applauded for their sacrificial displays of self-righteous sacrifice.

In His sermon on the mount, Jesus exposed this kind of hypocritical religious play-acting. He viewed it as nothing more than an attempt to gain the praise of men.

“Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. – Matthew 6:1 NLT

These very same women who were oppressing the poor and crushing the needy were regularly offering their sacrifices and tithes at the temple. They even offered “extra voluntary offerings” but only so they could brag about it to others. Everything they did was all about inflating their own sense of value and worth. It wasn’t enough to be rich. They wanted to be esteemed. But to God, their acts of religious pietism were nothing more than evidence of their sin-hardened hearts. And Jesus would go on to point out the hypocritical nature of giving to get noticed.

“When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity!” – Matthew 6:2 NLT

But God makes it clear that these kinds of people will pay dearly for their actions. He cannot and will not tolerate this kind of behavior among His chosen people. God has sworn by His own holiness that the guilty will be punished. This statement is intended to stress the otherness of God. He is set apart and holy. He is fully righteous and without sin. He cannot simply turn a blind eye to the unrighteous behavior of His people. His holy nature requires that He deal justly with the blatant disobedience of those who bear His name and have been called to be His light to the nations.

And God announces that these self-absorbed, pampered, and pretentiously pious women will suffer a devastating and humiliating fate.

“The time will come when you will be led away
    with hooks in your noses.
Every last one of you will be dragged away
    like a fish on a hook!
You will be led out through the ruins of the wall;
    you will be thrown from your fortresses.” – Amon 4:2-3 NLT

God predicts a less-than-flattering outcome for these women. They will one day find themselves on the receiving end of the oppression and crushing. When the Assyrians invade Israel, lay siege to the capital city of Samaria, and eventually breach the walls, they capture these women, leading them out of the city with hooks in their noses – just like cows being led to the slaughter. Their wealth and luxurious homes will provide no comfort or protection. Their tithes and extra volunteer offerings will do nothing to garner aid or assistance from their false gods. They will be unceremoniously marched out of town and led to a life marked by poverty and oppression.

But it didn’t have to be this way. As Amos will reveal in the following verses, God had given them ample opportunity to repent and return to Him. He had warned them. He had even afflicted them with plagues, diseases, famines, and troubles of all kinds. But they had repeatedly refused to heed His warnings or be humbled by His judgments. And God will repeatedly remind them, “you did not return to me” (Amos 4:8 ESV).

In the book of Revelation, the apostle John records the words of Jesus regarding the spiritual state of the church in Laodicea, and it is not a flattering picture.

You say, ‘I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!’ And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.” – Revelation 3:17 NLT

This indictment from the lips of Jesus seems to apply to the wealthy women of Samaria who were living during the days of Amos. They were convinced that their wealth was evidence of their spiritual superiority. They were blessed. And they somehow believed that they deserved even more, which is what led them to oppress and crush the poor and needy. But like the Laodiceans, they were actually wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked. And the day was coming when their true spiritual condition would be exposed for all to see.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Going Through the Motions

21 And the king commanded all the people, “Keep the Passover to the Lord your God, as it is written in this Book of the Covenant.” 22 For no such Passover had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, or during all the days of the kings of Israel or of the kings of Judah. 23 But in the eighteenth year of King Josiah this Passover was kept to the Lord in Jerusalem.

24 Moreover, Josiah put away the mediums and the necromancers and the household gods and the idols and all the abominations that were seen in the land of Judah and in Jerusalem, that he might establish the words of the law that were written in the book that Hilkiah the priest found in the house of the Lord. 25 Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses, nor did any like him arise after him.

26 Still the Lord did not turn from the burning of his great wrath, by which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him. 27 And the Lord said, “I will remove Judah also out of my sight, as I have removed Israel, and I will cast off this city that I have chosen, Jerusalem, and the house of which I said, My name shall be there.” – 2 Kings 23:21-27 ESV

Josiah’s efforts to restore the worship of Yahweh in Judah were unprecedented. He did more than any of the other kings of Judah to reestablish and reaffirm the nation’s commitment to the covenant they had made with God. But he faced a formidable and seemingly endless task. His own father had bequeathed to him a kingdom that was in a state of spiritual disarray and moral decline. It seems that everywhere Josiah looked, he found more idols, altars, and shrines to the many false gods his predecessors had erected in Judah. Their pervasive presence provided tangible evidence of the nation’s steep spiritual decline. Like cancer cells in the human body, idolatry had invaded the nation of Judah, spreading its deadly influence to the far corners of the kingdom. And Josiah spent a lifetime attempting to seek and destroy every last vestige of idolatry from the land.

But Josiah knew that even if he was successful in removing every idol, shrine, and altar,  there would still be a problem. The eradication of idolatry would not necessarily result in faithfulness to Yahweh. To restore the peoples’ faith in God, Josiah knew they would need to be reminded of the greatness of God. That is why he spent so much time and money restoring the temple, the symbol of God’s presence and power. It also explains his determination to reinstitute the celebration of Passover.

This annual feast had been divinely ordained by God and was intended to serve as a perpetual reminder of God’s miraculous and gracious deliverance of the nation of Israel from their captivity in Egypt. On the night that God had sent the death angel to enact the tenth and final plague against the Egyptians, He had given the Israelites instructions that would guarantee their safety. Each family was to sacrifice a lamb and sprinkle its blood on the doorposts and lentil of their home. Then they were to gather inside their homes and “eat the meat the same night; they will eat it roasted over the fire with bread made without yeast and with bitter herbs” (Exodus 12:8 NLT).

The people of Israel were expected to faithfully observe this rather strange ritual in order to escape the judgment that was about to fall on the land of Egypt. And God assured them that if they would obey His instructions, they would be spared.

“I will pass through the land of Egypt in the same night, and I will attack all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both of humans and of animals, and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment. I am the Lord. The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, so that when I see the blood I will pass over you, and this plague will not fall on you to destroy you when I attack the land of Egypt.” – Exodus 12:12-13 NLT

And even before the lambs were slaughtered and the death angel appeared, God commanded His people to make this an annual celebration.

This day will become a memorial for you, and you will celebrate it as a festival to the Lord—you will celebrate it perpetually as a lasting ordinance. – Exodus 12:14 NLT

They were to observe it every year as a reminder of God’s power and provision. And Moses even told them what to say when the future generations of Israelites asked about the nature of this strange celebration.

“It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, when he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck Egypt and delivered our households.” – Exodus 12:27 NLT

But by the time Josiah became king, the celebration of Passover had become a distant and fading memory. Generations of Israelites had grown up having never celebrated this annual feast or having heard the story of God’s deliverance. As a result, they were ignorant of His goodness and greatness. In their minds, Yahweh was just one more God in the pantheon of gods worshiped in Judah. And when Josiah systematically removed all the other options, they found themselves left with a God they didn’t know and could not fully appreciate. And because they had not been taught the Book of the Covenant, they failed to understand the danger of their ignorance of and indifference to God. Centuries earlier, before the Israelites entered the land of promise, Moses had warned them:

“Then when the Lord your God brings you to the land he promised your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to give you—a land with large, fine cities you did not build, houses filled with choice things you did not accumulate, hewn-out cisterns you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—and you eat your fill, be careful not to forget the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, that place of slavery. You must revere the Lord your God, serve him, and take oaths using only his name. You must not go after other gods, those of the surrounding peoples, for the Lord your God, who is present among you, is a jealous God—his anger will erupt against you and remove you from the land.” – Deuteronomy 6:10-15 NLT

Everything Moses had warned them about had happened. They had forgotten God. They had failed to revere and serve Him. And Josiah was desperately trying to remedy the situation by calling the people to recommit themselves to Yahweh. He used all his authority and power as king to reestablish the primacy of the one true God. He poured every ounce of his passion into the process and spared no expense to see that Yahweh was honored in a manner worthy of His greatness and goodness. Josiah went out of his way to ensure that this Passover was a spectacular occasion that would reaffirm God’s incomparable value and reignite the peoples’ faithfulness to Him.

Never since the time of the prophet Samuel had there been such a Passover. None of the kings of Israel had ever kept a Passover as Josiah did, involving all the priests and Levites, all the people of Jerusalem, and people from all over Judah and Israel. – 2 Chronicles 35:18 NLT

Josiah’s tireless efforts to restore the worship of Yahweh in Judah would not go unnoticed. He would go down in history as one of the greatest kings of Judah.

Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses, nor did any like him arise after him. – 2 Kings 23:25 ESV

He was a man of great faith who used his divinely ordained role as king to lead the people back to God. Like his ancestor David, Josiah was a man after God’s own heart who shepherded the flock of God “with a true heart and led them with skillful hands” (Psalm 78:72 NLT). He did all he could do to reestablish the holiness of God’s name and reinvigorate the hearts of the people to serve Him alone. But his efforts, while sincere, would prove unsuccessful. God was not going to relent concerning His judgment of Judah.

Even so, the Lord was very angry with Judah because of all the wicked things Manasseh had done to provoke him. For the Lord said, “I will also banish Judah from my presence just as I have banished Israel. And I will reject my chosen city of Jerusalem and the Temple where my name was to be honored.” – 2 Kings 23:26-27 NLT

God knew their hearts, and He was fully aware that their outward displays of repentance were insincere and insufficient. The idols had been removed, but their hardened hearts remained. And this sad state of affairs would lead God to declare through the prophet Isaiah:

“These people say they are loyal to me;
they say wonderful things about me,
but they are not really loyal to me.
Their worship consists of
nothing but man-made ritual.” – Isaiah 29:13 NLT

Josiah had torn down all the idols, shrines, and altars, but he could do nothing to heal the hearts of the people. Despite all his efforts, the people remained just as unfaithful and unresponsive to God. The prophet Isaiah would accuse them of having a diminished view of God.

Those who try to hide their plans from the Lord are as good as dead,
who do their work in secret and boast,
“Who sees us? Who knows what we’re doing?”
Your thinking is perverse!
Should the potter be regarded as clay?
Should the thing made say about its maker, “He didn’t make me”?
Or should the pottery say about the potter, “He doesn’t understand”? – Isaiah 29:15-16 NLT

Josiah had purged the land of idols, restored the temple, reinstituted the Passover, and refamiliarized the people with the Book of the Covenant. But he could do nothing to legislate heart change. While he had successfully transformed the environment in which they lived, the people of Judah remained just as unfaithful as ever. God would later warn the prophet Ezekiel to be wary of the hypocritical hearts of the people of Judah.

“So my people come pretending to be sincere and sit before you. They listen to your words, but they have no intention of doing what you say. Their mouths are full of lustful words, and their hearts seek only after money.” – Ezekiel 33:31 NLT

Judah would experience the same fate as their neighbor to the north. Their disobedience and unfaithfulness to God would result in their destruction. Josiah had done his best, but the fall of Judah was inevitable and unavoidable because the hearts of the people remained unresponsive and unrepentant.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Serious Heart Condition

14 And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: 15 There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” 17 And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, 19 since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” Mark 7:14-23 ESV

A small contingent of scribes and Pharisees had confronted Jesus with an accusation presented in the form of a question. They were demanding that Jesus explain the “shocking” behavior of His disciples.

“Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” – Mark 7:5 ESV

What shocked these pious religious leaders was the sight of Jesus’ disciples consuming food without having first cleansed their hands properly.  The word “defiled” is a translation of the Greek word, aniptos which means “unwashed.”  Mark provides a clue as to what was motivating the religious leaders.

For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders… – Mark 7:3 ESV

According to these men, the disciples had violated established protocol. The “tradition of the elders” or oral law, required that all Jews go through a ceremonial cleansing of the hands before eating. Jews were required to wash their hands and say a blessing before eating any meal that included bread. The ritual was known as netilat yadayim, and involved the use of a cup that was used to pour water onto the hands and allowing it to flow down to the elbows. The ritual had nothing to do with personal hygiene but was done for ritualistic purposes.

According to the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges, this was nothing more than a ceremony that had little pragmatic value.

When, therefore, some of the Pharisees remarked that our Lord’s disciples ate with “unwashen hands,” it is not to be understood literally that they did not at all wash their hands, but that they did not wash them ceremonially according to their own practice. And this was expected of them only as the disciples of a religious teacher; for these refinements were not practised by the class of people from which the disciples were chiefly drawn. – Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges

And Jesus was well aware of the intentions of His accusers. These men were trying to label He and His disciples as law-breakers. But Jesus took the opportunity to teach His followers a valuable lesson on hygiene and holiness.

While the Pharisees had focused all their attention on the outward practice of hand-washing, Jesus took the conversation deeper. To put it another way, He went to the “heart” of the matter. Gathering the people around Him, Jesus said, “All of you listen…and try to understand. It’s not what goes into your body that defiles you; you are defiled by what comes from your heart” (Mark 7:14-15 NLT).

And that was all He said. As usual, Jesus’ reply was short and succinct, but not exactly clear. And Mark indicates that even the 12 disciples had a difficult time understanding the meaning behind Jesus’ abbreviated lesson. When they were able to be alone with Jesus, they asked Him to explain the meaning behind what they understood to be another one of His parables. But this was less a parable than it was a moral object lesson. What had precipitated Jesus’ comment was the emphasis of the scribes and Pharisees on ritualistic cleansing. These men were all about appearances and used their lengthy list of man-made rules as a way to promote and prove their own righteousness. Their behavior became their badge of honor. Rule-keeping became their primary means for measuring righteousness. But Jesus was much more interested in the inside than the outside. On another occasion, He would level a stinging accusation against the Pharisees, exposing the farcical nature of all their religious rule-keeping.

“you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence!” – Matthew 23:25 NLT

These attacks on the well-respected religious leaders always left the disciples scratching their heads in confusion. Weren’t the scribes and Pharisees to be revered for their obvious displays of righteousness? How could Jesus get away with calling them hypocrites and blind guides? Why did He feel the constant need to anger them?

But Jesus was attempting to teach His disciples that the problem mankind faced was not of a physical nature but of a spiritual one. It all had to do with the condition of the heart. And no amount of outward cleansing or ritual purification could result in a holy heart. So, He reiterated His original statement one more time, but with further clarification.

“Can’t you see that the food you put into your body cannot defile you? Food doesn’t go into your heart, but only passes through the stomach and then goes into the sewer.” – Mark 7:18 NLT

Food was little more than fuel, taken into the body as a source of energy, then passed out as human waste. The washing of hands, pots, pans, and the food itself, while beneficial from a personal hygiene perspective, had no value when it came to a person’s spiritual condition. Food may help power the human heart, but it can do nothing to influence the moral state of the human soul, either positively or negatively. Drinking from a ritualistically cleansed cup may make one feel purer, but it was nothing more than a  facade, an exercise in self-deception.

Mark adds another important parenthetical statement intended to provide further clarification for the readers of his gospel.

By saying this, he declared that every kind of food is acceptable in God’s eyes. – Mark 7:19 NLT

This expanded explanation most likely escaped the disciples. But it would become clearer to them when Jesus had ascended back into heaven after His resurrection. In the days after Jesus departed and the Holy Spirit ascended, the disciples would obey His commission and take the gospel to Jerusalem, Judea, and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). And, before long, there would be Gentiles accepting the free gift of God’s grace made possible through faith in Jesus Christ and receiving the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God. The addition of Gentile converts to the early church would produce an important debate among the disciples about the role of the Mosaic law in the lives of these former pagans. There were those, like Peter, who believed that any Gentiles who came to faith should be required to keep the Jewish religious laws, just as they did. But Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, would push back strongly against this unnecessary requirement. In doing so, he was not denigrating God’s law, but simply denying that salvation was by faith alone in Christ alone, with no other requirements necessary. Paul would argue vehemently that the law had no place in the lives of these Gentile converts. The Jewish dietary laws no longer applied. And even the Jewish rite of circumcision was to be set aside.

For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. – Romans 2:28-29 NLT

It was all about the heart. And that was the very point Jesus was trying to make with His disciples. And knowing that their hearts were hardened (Mark 6:52), making it difficult for them to grasp the meaning behind His teaching, Jesus made it plain and simple.

“It is what comes from inside that defiles you. For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these vile things come from within; they are what defile you.” – Mark 7:20-23 NLT

This less-than-flattering list is similar to one found in Paul’s letter to the believers in Galatia.

When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God. – Galatians 5:19-21 NLT

These ungodly, unholy, and unrighteous actions are not the result of unwashed hands but an unregenerate heart. Man’s heart is wicked and controlled by his sinful nature. It is not the byproduct of poor living conditions, improper hygiene, insufficient education, or the failure to keep a set of religious rules.

James reminds us that “Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death” (James 1:14-16 NLT). The prophet Jeremiah adds, “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” (Jeremiah 17:9 NLT).

So, Jesus was trying to communicate a deep and abiding truth regarding the nature of man’s sinful state. No amount of ritual cleansing was going to solve the problem. The Pharisees could cleanse the outside of “the cup,” but they would be missing the real problem. Like all men, they were suffering from a serious heart condition that was untreatable by human means. Even their strict adherence to the laws of Moses and their faithful keeping of the traditions of the fathers could do nothing to render their hearts holy and acceptable to God.

And as Paul would later tell the Galatian believers, “it is clear that no one can be made right with God by trying to keep the law. For the Scriptures say, ‘It is through faith that a righteous person has life’” (Galatians 3:11 NLT).

This was news to the disciples and it went against everything they had been taught as young boys receiving training in the local synagogue. Jesus was letting them know that the problem of sin was far greater and more pervasive than they realized. Man’s defilement and condemnation before God was an internal problem, not an external one, and there would be only one solution. And He was standing right in front of them.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Fakers and Frauds

53 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored to the shore. 54 And when they got out of the boat, the people immediately recognized him 55 and ran about the whole region and began to bring the sick people on their beds to wherever they heard he was. 56 And wherever he came, in villages, cities, or countryside, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and implored him that they might touch even the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well. 

2 Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,

“‘This people honors me with their lips,
    but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’

You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 11 But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)— 12 then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.” Mark 6:53-7:13 ESV

One can only imagine the conversations that took place in the boat as the disciples made their way to the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Just minutes before, they had been fighting the winds and waves of a ferocious storm when suddenly, Jesus had appeared to them, walking on the water. Not recognizing their friend and teacher, they had thought Him to be some kind of ghostly apparition. But Jesus spoke to them, entered the boat with them, and calmed the storm that surrounded them. And the rest of their trip to the region of Gennesaret must have been filled with whispered discussions about what they had just witnessed. These men, desperately trying to take in all that had happened over the last few days, were struggling to reconcile their experiences and expectations. They wanted to believe that Jesus was the Messiah and He had given ample evidence to convince them, but they were still doubtful. Mark indicates that “they still didn’t understand the significance of the miracle of the loaves. Their hearts were too hard to take it in” (Mark 6:52 NLT).

As they arrived in Gennesaret, they disembarked from their boat and were immediately engulfed by the crowds of people attempting to get to Jesus. News of their arrival spread fast and, before long, they found themselves immersed in the circus-like atmosphere that followed Jesus wherever He went.

Wherever he went—in villages, cities, or the countryside—they brought the sick out to the marketplaces. They begged him to let the sick touch at least the fringe of his robe, and all who touched him were healed. – Mark 6:56 NLT

It would appear that the people of Gennesaret had heard the rumors about the woman who was healed simply by touching the edge of Jesus’ robe. This news emboldened people to take matters into their own hands, likely resulting in Jesus being swarmed by those attempting to touch Him so they could be healed. And Jesus graciously allowed them to invade His personal space so that “all who touched him were healed.”

But there were others who wanted to lay their hands on Jesus, not to be healed but so that they might arrest Him. A contingent of Pharisees and scribes had arrived from Jerusalem and they had one purpose for their mission: Find evidence that would convict Jesus of breaking the law and justify His arrest.

The scribes and Pharisees, as experts in the Mosaic Law, were well-equipped for the task they had been given by the high priest. Their extensive knowledge of both the written and oral laws of Israel provided them with a virtual treasure trove of potential rule violations with which to convict Jesus. Surely there was some obscure law He was breaking that they could use as evidence against Him. If nothing else, they hoped to discredit Jesus by portraying Him as ignorant of God’s laws or guilty of willfully ignoring them.

So, it is no surprise that they approached Jesus and demanded that He explain the questionable behavior of His disciples.

“Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” – Mark 7:6 ESV

To help his readers understand what is going on, Mark provides a parenthetical explanation of Jewish purification rites.

The Jews, especially the Pharisees, do not eat until they have poured water over their cupped hands, as required by their ancient traditions. Similarly, they don’t eat anything from the market until they immerse their hands in water. This is but one of many traditions they have clung to—such as their ceremonial washing of cups, pitchers, and kettles. – Mark 7:3-4 NLT

These “ancient traditions” were not part of the Mosaic Law but had been created and passed down by men. Essentially, they were add-ons or man-made additions to God’s law. And they had nothing to do with physical cleanliness or hygiene. These rules or rituals were followed in order to demonstrate and declare one’s righteousness. It was all about appearances. Jesus would later say of them:

“They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden. Everything they do is for show.” – Matthew 23:4-5 NLT

And He would go on to level some serious accusations against these self-ascribed icons of righteousness.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence! You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.” – Matthew 23:25-28 NLT

Their righteousness was nothing more than a facade, a carefully crafted image meant to obscure the true condition of their hearts. And when these men confronted Jesus about the unacceptable habits of His disciples, He responded by quoting Scripture.

“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote,

‘These people honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship is a farce,
    for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’

For you ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition.” – Mark 7:6-8 NLT

Jesus used the Old Testament Scriptures against them. Using the writings of one of their revered prophets, Jesus exposed their self-righteous indignation for what it was – nothing more than prideful pretense. They were nothing more than hypocrites and pretenders. In fact, the Greek word, hypokritēs was used to refer to an actor in a play, someone who assumed the character of another.

These men had fooled everyone into believing that they were holy and righteous. But they had made their own man-made rules more important than the commands of God. They were guilty of giving precedence to their “traditions,” even creating loopholes that allowed them to violate God’s laws.

“You skillfully sidestep God’s law in order to hold on to your own tradition. – Mark 7:9 NLT

And Jesus provides them with specific examples.

“For instance, Moses gave you this law from God: ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you.’” – Mark 7:10-11 NLT

Jesus was referring to their law of corban. This man-made law allowed someone to dedicate something as an offering to God but did not require them to relinquish possession of it. As Jesus reveals, it was nothing more than a convenient way for someone to tie up their assets so that they wouldn’t have to share them with others. This was in direct violation of God’s law. The Ten Commandments had made it clear that the Jews were to honor their parents, and in a society that lacked any kind of welfare system, this would have included the provision of financial support. But corban provided a convenient loophole. By dedicating their resources to God, a Jew could excuse themselves from assisting their needy parents. And because they were not required to immediately turn over their assets to God, they were free to use them for their own personal benefit. And Jesus exposed corban for what it was: Lawlessness.

“In this way, you let them disregard their needy parents. And so you cancel the word of God in order to hand down your own tradition.” – Mark 7:12-13 NLT

These men had no right to question Jesus about the behavior of His disciples. They were nothing more than whitewashed tombs. Their sanctimonious self-righteousness was little more than a show, a poorly veiled display of moral pretense and hypocrisy.

In attempting to judge Jesus, the scribes and Pharisees left themselves open to judgment. And Jesus pulled no punches. He wanted His disciples to understand that the laws of God always took precedence over any rules or regulations made by men. And Jesus came to fulfill each and every one of the laws given by His Heavenly Father. In His sermon on the mount, Jesus declared His God-ordained mission to fulfill the law of God – down to the very last detail.

“Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God’s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved. So if you ignore the least commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But anyone who obeys God’s laws and teaches them will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.” – Matthew 5:17-19 NLT

And because the scribes and Pharisees were guilty of ignoring God’s law by replacing it with their own, they would be least in the Kingdom of Heaven.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Danger of Self-Righteousness

13 He went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them. 14 And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.

15 And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16 And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 17 And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Mark 2:13-17 ESV

Jesus has just displayed His power and authority over the physical realm by healing the paralyzed man. But, more importantly, His astonishing ability to restore the man’s health was a demonstration of His God-given authority to forgive sin. As the Son of God, Jesus had come to earth in order to set men free from their slavery to sin and their condemnation of death. The formerly paralyzed man, while physically whole and forgiven, would still end up committing sins and face the ultimate penalty for doing so: physical death and eternal separation from God.

But Jesus had become a man so that He might serve as the substitutionary atonement, the ultimate sacrifice for the sins of mankind. His death on behalf of sinful humanity would satisfy the just and righteous wrath of God, and provide all those who placed their faith in His atoning work with a way to be restored to a right relationship with His Father. And, as a result of Jesus’ selfless sacrifice, they would enjoy forgiveness of all their sins – past, present, and future. The author of Hebrews describes it this way:

…he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. – Hebrews 9:26 ESV

And the psalmist provides us with a powerful reminder of the sin-forgiving power of the Son of God.

As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.
 – Psalm 103:12 BSB

Mark transitions his narrative from the crowded confines of Simon and Andrew’s home to the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee. But will maintain his emphasis on Jesus’ power and authority to forgive sin, and continue to reveal the growing divide between Jesus and the religious authorities.

While walking along the seashore, Jesus continued to teach the crowds that continued to follow Him wherever He went. And as they made their way along the roadway that ran from Capernaum to Damascus and along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, they came across the tax booth of a man named Levi. This was not some chance encounter but a divinely-scheduled appointment. When Levi woke up that morning, he had no idea that his day would include a one-on-one meeting with the Messiah of Israel.

Luke describes Levi as a “tax collector” (Luke5:27). His chosen profession would have made Levi highly unpopular with his fellow Jews. He was an employee of Herod Antipas, the Roman-appointed puppet king of Israel. And his job was to collect all taxes having to do with trade and customs. Because Capernaum was located on a major trade route from Damascus, Levi would have been responsible for collecting export and import fees, sales and customs taxes, as well as tolls. But what made men like Levi particularly unpopular was their tendency to extort additional fees and surcharges from the fellow Jews. Tax collectors were seen as social pariahs who worked for the enemy and took advantage of their own people to line their pockets.

So, when Jesus issued Levi an invitation to follow Him, the Jews would have been shocked and appalled. In their minds, Levi was a traitor to his people and the epitome of a godless sinner. And to make matters even worse, Mark reveals that Jesus decided to share a meal with this social outcast. Luke records that Levi threw a party in Jesus’ honor and invited a large number of guests.

Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. – Luke 5:29 ESV

And Mark provides the added detail that “many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples” (Mark 2:15 ESV). It seems that Levi was forced to invite his friends, who like him, were considered to be the dregs of the community.

Yet, Jesus accepted Levi’s invitation to dine at his house and willingly chose to associate with those whom the Jews considered as unclean and unacceptable. And Jesus’ actions did not go unnoticed.

But when the teachers of religious law who were Pharisees saw him eating with tax collectors and other sinners, they asked his disciples, “Why does he eat with such scum?” – Mark 2:16 NLT

They were shocked and disgusted by this shameless display of poor judgment on Jesus’ part. He should have known better. By entering Levi’s home and sharing a meal with this motley collection of sinners, Jesus had made He and His disciples ceremonially unclean. They had contaminated themselves.

There is a clear us-versus-them vibe going on. The Pharisees viewed themselves as righteous because of their meticulous adherence to both the written and oral laws of the Jews. They were the law-keepers and the law-enforcers. And, as far as they were concerned, Jesus had chosen to associate with the scum of the earth. By entering Levi’s home, Jesus had done the unthinkable and unforgivable.

The Pharisees had no compassion for people like Levi. They had no desire to reach out to those whom they considered sinners. They bore no sense of responsibility for the spiritual well-being less fortunate, whom they considered to be unworthy of mercy. In the minds of the Pharisees, it was the sin-prone common people who held back the nation of Israel and kept it from enjoying the full favor of God. To the self-righteous Pharisees, it was the sorry likes of Levi and his friends that kept Israel from being all that it could be. They were a blight on the nation and now, Jesus had clearly revealed His love for the unloveable and His heart for the irredeemable.

But Jesus knew exactly what was going on. He was fully aware of the disgust and distaste His actions had caused, and He chose to address the issue head-on.

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” – Mark 2:17 ESV

With this simple statement, Jesus exposed the glaring difference between Himself and His accusers. They considered themselves to be spiritually healthy and whole. They were well and had no need of a Savior. But what they failed to understand was that their good deeds were of no value to God. As the prophet Isaiah had written hundreds of years earlier: “We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6 NLT).

Jesus was not impressed by the Pharisees and their outward displays of righteousness. He would later call them out for their hypocrisy and lack of compassion.

“…they don’t practice what they teach. They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.” – Matthew 23:3-4 NLT

“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

These men considered themselves to be the cream of the crop, the religious elite of Israel whose unblemished behavior guaranteed them a place in God’s kingdom. But Jesus let them know that their self-confidence was misplaced and mistaken. He had come to minister to the sick – those who recognized their spiritual malady and sought help. Like the paralyzed man, the tax collectors and sinners gathered in Levi’s home were in need of assistance. They knew they were sinners and were fully aware that they lacked what was necessary to “heal” themselves.

It was the apostle John who wrote, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9 ESV). The sinners reclining around the table with Jesus were just the kind of people Jesus came to save. They were sinners in need of a Savior. And if they would only confess their sin, they would know the joy of having their sins forgiven and their spiritual sickness healed.

But the Pharisees, riddled with pride and a misplaced sense of self-righteousness, were unable to see their need and unwilling to confess their sins. But their self-confidence would ultimately result in their own self-destruction. Their stubborn insistence that they were well would be their downfall. And the apostle Paul describes the dangerous path they had decided to take and the deadly destination to which it would lead.

Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. – Romans 1:21-22 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

In Spirit and Truth

16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.” – John 4:16-26 ESV

The woman wanted what Jesus had to offer. The thought of a source of freely flowing water that would eliminate her constant need to draw water from the well of Jacob was more than appealing to her. But, like Nicodemus, she was missing the point of Jesus’ words. She had come to the well to meet a physical need. Her mission had been to draw water from the well for use in drinking, bathing, and cleaning. Water was a daily necessity that made living in that arid region possible. Without it, life would be impossible.

But even water has its limitations. It can be consumed to quench thirst, but in time, the thirst will return. Water can be used to wash away the dirt and grime of life, but it can’t prevent one from becoming filthy again. That’s why the woman was forced to return to the well on a daily basis. Her need for water was insatiable.

Yet Jesus had piqued the woman’s interest with His mention of  “living water.” But don’t miss how He had opened His conversation with her.

“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” – John 4:10 ESV

The woman was clueless as to Jesus’ identity. When she had arrived at the well, she was surprised to find an unknown Jewish man waiting there. And her surprise turned to shock when this stranger dared to speak to her – “For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (John 4:9 ESV). Yet Jesus assured her that, had she known who He was and the nature of the gift He had to offer, she would have been the first to speak that day.

Jesus, in need of water to satisfy His thirst, had stopped at the well. But as the woman pointed out, He had “nothing to draw water with” (John 4:11 ESV). So He had asked her for help because she was the only one who had the means by which to satisfy His need. Yet, the inference behind the story is that the woman had a need for something far greater than water. And if she had only known the true identity of the stranger at the well and what He was capable of offering her, she would have been begging Him for the gift of God. 

It is easy to overlook the fact that both Nicodemus and this woman were worshipers of Yahweh. He was an orthodox member of the sect of the Pharisees. She was a Samaritan. He worshiped the God of Abraham at the temple in Jerusalem. Her people chose to worship Him at Mount Gerizim. Nicodemus prided Himself on his identity as a purebred Jew and a strict adherent to the Mosaic Law. The Samaritan woman, though viewed as a half-breed by the Jews, believed that her people were worshiping Yahweh in the manner prescribed by Moses. But what both failed to take into account was their need for a Savior. While the Jews and the Samaritans believed in the prophecies concerning the coming Messiah, they were clueless as to His real mission. 

The primary message found in chapters 3 and 4 is that of need, and Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman had the same need in common. The need for eternal life. But in order to have eternal life, they would have to experience cleansing from their sin. Jesus had described it to Nicodemus as birth from above. He described it to the woman at the well as living water. Both of these individuals, despite their obvious differences, would be denied access into God’s kingdom for the very same reason: Sin.

Nicodemus, while outwardly righteous in appearance, was guilty of hypocrisy, just like the rest of his fellow members of the Pharisees. Jesus would have some harsh words of indictment against these well-respected members of Israel’s religious elite.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence!” – Matthew 23:25 NLT

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity.” – Matthew 23:27 NLT

But the woman at the well had her own set of issues. Not only was she a Samaritan and, therefore, guilty of practicing idolatry, but she was also guilty of violating the law of God. As Jesus was about to point out, she was an adulteress. When he asked her to go get her husband, she confessed that she was unmarried. But Jesus knew more about her than she could have ever imagined, and He revealed to her the true nature of her need.

“You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” – John 4:17-18 ESV

Suddenly, Jesus shifted the topic of conversation away from water to sin. He made it painfully personal. And while the woman’s statement had been anything but a confession, Jesus declared that what she had said was more true than she realized. She had no husband because she was in an adulterous relationship. She was guilty of sin.

But in a somewhat awkward attempt to change the subject, the woman declared, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet” (John 4:19 ESV). She desperately wanted to talk about something other than her five failed marriages and her current live-in relationship. So, sensing that Jesus had some kind of prophetic powers, she decided to ask Him about an important point of controversy between the Jews and the Samaritans.

“Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” – John 4:20 ESV

By refocusing the topic of conversation, she was hoping to divert attention away from her own personal problems. But Jesus was not going to allow that to happen. He addressed her question, but in a way that brought the focus right back on her. In essence, Jesus let her know that the issue had less to do about where God should be worshiped, but the motive behind the worship. The Jews and Samaritans were busy debating about location, but Jesus was far more interested in motivation. Why were they worshiping God?

And Jesus dropped a bombshell on her that must have left her reeling.

“Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. – John 4:21 ESV

The worship of God wasn’t about a temple in Jerusalem or a shrine on Mount Gerizim. It was a matter of the heart. While the Jews had a more accurate understanding of God, they were guilty of worshiping Him falsely. Jesus would later declare of the Jews, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God” (Matthew 15:8-9 NLT).

And He told the Samaritan woman, “You worship what you do not know” (John 4:22 ESV). The Samaritans practiced a form of syncretism that blended the worship of Yahweh with that of false gods. Their doctrine was polluted and filled with pagan ideas that rendered Yahweh virtually unrecognizable.

Jesus fast-forwarded the conversation to the future, revealing that a day would come when “when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him” (John 4:23 ESV). Worship will no longer be about location and the ritual observation of rules and regulations. It will be about a relationship with God based on spirit and truth. And Jesus informed the woman that the future hour to which He referred was actually “now here.” It had arrived. And He had been the one to usher it in.

But what did He mean by “spirit and truth?” And how had His arrival changed the nature of man’s worship of God? The two terms “spirit and truth” are actually meant to convey one idea. Jesus is attempting to define worship that which is “truly spiritual.” In other words, it is not some physical activity practiced in a particular place and according to some man-made set of governing rules. It is a matter of the heart, not the head. It is spiritual in nature and not physical. Going through the religious motions either in Jerusalem or on Mount Gerizim was not going to cut it. Both the Jews and the Samaritans had been guilty of worshiping the one true God falsely and unfaithfully.

But Jesus had come to make the true worship of God possible, by restoring sinful men and women to a right relationship with Him. To do so, they would have to be born of the Spirit, just as He had told Nicodemus. They would have to have their spiritual thirst quenched by the living water Jesus would provide. And just a few chapters later, John will describe Jesus standing in the temple courtyard, shouting:

Anyone who is thirsty may come to me! Anyone who believes in me may come and drink! For the Scriptures declare, ‘Rivers of living water will flow from his heart.’”(When he said “living water,” he was speaking of the Spirit, who would be given to everyone believing in him. But the Spirit had not yet been given because Jesus had not yet entered into his glory.).” – John 7:38-39 NLT

The true worship of God would be made possible by the presence of the indwelling Spirit of God. And to receive the Spirit, one would have to accept the gracious gift of salvation made possible through the sacrifice of God’s own Son.

These words left the woman in a state of confusion. She was having a difficult time following what Jesus had to say. But she proclaimed her belief in the coming of the Messiah and her hope that He would clear up all the confusion regarding where to worship God. And that’s when Jesus boldly proclaimed to her, “I who speak to you am he” (John 4:26 ESV). The not-yet had become the now. The long-awaited Messiah had shown up and He was talking to her. The answer to her question regarding the true worship of God was standing right in front of her.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson