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Beware the Religious Spirit (part II): The Pharisees

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So, you too outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matt. 23:27-28)

 “Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction…”(1 Cor. 10:11)

While Jesus dwelt with flesh, the only people He engaged in open battle with were the religious leaders of the temple. He did not display such attitudes towards the worst of sinners, even to the Romans as they mercilessly mocked, scourged, and crucified Him. The Scribes and Pharisees, et al, have forever become renowned as the examples of what the religious spirit is all about. In this article we will track where I believe it all went wrong for them, because I believe the Bible spends the amount of time on the subject it does “as an example, written for our instruction.” God gave these religious leaders, and those who preceded them, only ten commandments and a few holy days to observe. Yet, by the time Jesus arrived on the scene they had added over 3,000 “do and do not’s” to the laws of Judaism. These self-imposed laws dominated their every thought and action. So many were their rules by which to live, none of them could have possibly kept them in any given day. The religious spirit had transformed them from seeking “first His kingdom and His righteousness” in the laws of the living God, to pursuing false [self] righteousness Isaiah referred to as “filthy rags in God’s sight.”

Breaking down Matthew 23 above we find Jesus referring to them, as was His regular practice, as “hypocrites.” In part 1 of this series we discussed this at length, where I quoted Johann Van Der Hoven’s excellent definition of religion which stated, in part, “It is the lie that comes to deceive us, to make us believe that we are in fact living and being led of The Holy Spirit (walking in His righteousness), while we are doing our own thing (walking in our righteousness).” Another definition of hypocrisy discussed in part 1 was “an inability to connect that which we believe with that which we practice—who we are.” In Matthew Jesus describes the Pharisees as outwardly appearing beautiful, but within being full of uncleanliness, bringing up the term “lawless” to describe them just as He did the group in Matthew 7:21-23 also discussed in part 1. Lawlessness is a fascinating study, and it will be fully unpacked in the last part of this series. In short, it is a damning, ultimate “hypocrisy” in those who should know better. The religious spirit inwardly always expresses one thing outwardly, hypocrisy, and that is the term Jesus used more often than any other to describe the Pharisees. Jesus’ rebuke of these hypocrites which connects them to  our Believer’s Amortization Schedule [see below] revealing the genesis of the religious spirit is found in John 5, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life. It is these that testify about Me and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life…but I know you, that you do not have the love of God in yourselves.” Let’s track their error, because it is what I believe to be the path to the religious spirit for any who go there, even today. They began with the disciplines by “searching the Scriptures,” at the time I believe a righteous pursuit they engaged in with the best intentions. Remember, the Holy Spirit had not come to indwell men and so examining the Scriptures was the way to God. I don’t believe anyone with a religious spirit, then or now, begins their journey thinking “What a wonderful lifetime pursuit, to spend years perfecting our disciplines only to have Jesus call us ‘hypocrites’ and condemn us to hell.” Really?

We see on our schedule that according to Hebrews 12 everyone must begin with the disciplines. Ah, but at the crossover point on our schedule for the Pharisees, which is when Jesus arrived in the flesh, they continued to follow their original course of “doing” in the form of “examining the Scriptures” rather than simply “coming to Him.” They continued down their path of works when, true to those very Scriptures they examined so carefully and so long, He came! Rather than following the blue arrows above into “being” with Jesus, as the rag-tag group He called to be His disciples did, they followed the red arrows into the vortex of the religious spirit. As Johann would define religion, “It teaches people to rely upon God’s principles, rather than upon His Presence.”

When God’s “presence” came they should have moved into just being with Jesus! Rather, they kept on “relying upon God’s principles!” Jesus was saying, “You are unwilling to come to Me to gain the peaceful fruit of righteousness, you just keep trusting in your disciplines.” They had become so blinded by the religious spirit they couldn’t even see the Messiah, when they should have been the first ones to recognize Him! When the time came for them to move in to “the love of God within themselves” by simply being with Jesus, they chose to double down on “examining the Scriptures” and missed Him altogether.

And so, the uncomfortable question becomes what is our version of “examining the Scriptures?” We doers all need to fill in the blank and ask ourselves if it is that thing that makes us look so good to Christianity, but might at the same time be keeping us from Christ? Is it ministering to the poor, teaching, counselling, preaching, or, in my case, writing and pursuit of true Christian community? Even as I write this, I have to ask myself is it part of my religious spirit to want to write about it? That’s what we teachers and writers do: teach and write about issues to help others, thinking that’s part of being when in fact it may be just more righteous looking doing. What are we doing that began as a pursuit from the heart of God, but has become one that has replaced our pursuit of the heart of God and thus fails to bring us peace? What is that activity making you look good at church and in Christian circles that allows you to hide a life that belies frustration, chaos, anxiety and anger? What is making you look good on earth, bringing you under man’s governance, and yet somehow you feel you’ve been taken out of alignment with God’s kingdom governance? What is it that leads you away from simple belief and into behavior as your belief system? What is the last thing you are doing for God you would want to give up? Whatever it is, if you are engaging all manners of Christian-looking activity, yet you are still frustrated, unable to break out of troublesome patterns, and wanting more than God wants to give, a religious spirit has found fertile soil in you. Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees is the same as to you and me: “Stop ________________, and just come to Me that you may have the heart of God within yourselves!”

Those of us struggling in the grip of the religious spirit need to understand we’re not immune to it. In fact, thinking we have reached a point of Christian maturity that precludes us from it is precisely the best culture to grow it in! Like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, “given as an example to us for our instruction,” this is the one with its crosshairs directly on leadership. Its genesis is found in good deeds and church authority that become our belief system, to the detriment of “the heart of God within us.” Paul said we could “do” all sorts of righteous-looking things, have all faith, and be able to display miraculous signs and wonders, yet without love we would be “nothing” (1 Cor. 13). We need to learn to hear the call of Jesus to “come to Him” for needed times of rest if we want to move from the doing, even of righteous things, to simply having the love of God within us through abiding in Jesus’ love.

We must be constantly aware of the Bible’s examples of the religious spirit, those always angry, resentful, and sorrowful Pharisees who couldn’t stop doing when He was calling them into being. How sad and how tragic, to stay in the “disciplines that will [now forever] seem not joyful, but sorrowful,” never moving on to that “peaceful fruit of righteousness” we all seek. If we wish to learn from this particular example set for us for our instruction, we need to give all our righteous deeds to Jesus from time to time and spiritually walk away, seeking only to hear His voice and find His peace. If the good things that may have led us into the religious spirit were, in fact, of Christ they will be returned to us and blessed as never before in purity, in heart, and in motivation so we need not worry about giving them up. If they were not of Him, they would only have led us into shipwreck on the reefs of the religious spirit anyway. That is never a concern for those who abide in Jesus’ love. In being with and knowing Jesus, and Him knowing us, is where we experience the peaceful fruit of true Christ-righteousness even in our doing.

Author’s note: In this article I questioned my “examining the Scripture” may just be writing. Do I have a religious spirit founded in my “ministry” to help others understand the enemy’s attacks and deceptions, when I can’t see writing is the good looking religious thing I do keeping me from simply “coming to Jesus” that is where he’s deceiving me? Do I do what I do to look good to men, or to please and glorify God? I honestly don’t know, and it is a question we dare not answer wrongly. As I’ve said here, it’s in the things we think we do for God, many times the ones that appear successful to the world, that the religious spirit is born. There are so many voices, especially His, literally shouting at me from everywhere, “Slow down! Rest, and just stop all this good-looking doing for a bit.” As a prophet in my life said recently, “Build in secret.”

And so, I will be taking a break from writing and get back to something I did every day as a younger Christian: reading His Word, praying, and seeking in silence to hear from my Abba-Father. I won’t know the answer to this critical question unless I stop what may be all that makes me look good, humble myself to be open to His voice, and see what the Spirit does with it. Only He can discern the answer, not me. As Paul would say, “In fact, I do not even examine myself. For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord. Therefore, do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts” (1 Cor. 4).

Pray for me, and maybe for yourself. I am privileged to have many in positions of leadership who read my blogs. I know I believe in and love Jesus Christ, but something I need to experience a whole lot more of is peace: with where I am, decisions ahead, and where God wants me. Like David, I need to get with the One who directs our steps and plead, “Search me, O God, and know my heart. Try me and know my anxieties. See if there is any wicked way in me and lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps. 139). If that religious spirit is there, I need Him to find it and deal with it so I can find my heart in His and my sole value in “Christ in me, the hope of glory.”

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