Jesus was pretty stern in his treatment of the pharisees. In contrast to his usual gentleness, he rebuked them in the hardest, most offensive terms, on more than one occasion. Matt 15, 7-9:
“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:
‘“These people honour me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.”
Matt 23, 15-33:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are…Woe to you, blind guides…you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness…You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel…You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean…Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness…You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous…You snakes! You brood of vipers!”
Let’s not pretend this was anything other than utterly damning, so why so harsh? Did Paul not exhort the Philippians to ‘let your [their] gentleness be evident to all’? Did not Jesus himself speak of the blessedness of the meek, the peacemakers and the merciful?
The answer, I believe, lies in another of Jesus’ rebukes, also directed at the Pharisees, in Matthew 15, 3-6:
‘Jesus replied, ‘And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, “Honour your father and mother” and “Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.” But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is “devoted to God,” they are not to “honour their father or mother” with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.’
The pharisees were nullifying (reducing to nothing) the word of God, replacing its life-giving truths with traditions of their own invention. There is a difference in God’s eyes between the teacher and the taught. The Bible is clear that when we become teachers, we take on a new level of spiritual accountability. When we become shepherds, we answer to the Great Shepherd, who jealously guards his sheep. When we teach untruths from the pulpit, and replace the word of God with powerless traditions, we harm the children of God, and God is protective of his children. Luke 17, 1-2:
‘Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied round their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.’
Hebrews 13, 17:
‘Obey your leaders and submit to them—for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account.’
James 3, 1:
‘Do not become teachers in large numbers, my brothers, since you know that we who are teachers will incur a stricter judgment.’
The reason for Jesus’ anger toward the Pharisees is that this influential group of religious leaders were damaging those they were called to lead. By preferring their traditions over the word of God, they misled God’s chosen people, turning them from the liberating truths of the word of God and binding them in powerless ideas and practices instead.
If Jesus so fiercely guarded the integrity of the word of God against limiting or misleading religious traditions, does he not also do so today? He is the same yesterday, today and forever, and I do not see him growing tired of that which motivated him on Earth.
I’m going to come clean. I believe that we in the Evangelical movement have become hopelessly compromised by insidious traditions which nullify the word of God – misleading ideas which have an appearance of humility, but confuse us about the very nature of God. This is a theme I will return to on other occasions, but I want to use a single, simple example today – something I hope most believers can get on board with. I’ll present the word of God first, and the tradition second. John 14, 12-13:
‘Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.’
Jesus was speaking to his disciples from the heart, in the knowledge that the cross awaited. Contextually, he is talking about his miracles, urging his disciples to believe in him as the Son of God because of the works he has done in their sight. Caught up in the Spirit, he prophesies that those who believe in him, including believers down through the ages, will perform the same, and even greater miracles. In the power and effectiveness of his children, Father God will be glorified. What a glorious promise!
Now, the tradition: In the church of my upbringing, this passage was interpreted by numerous teachers in an unnervingly singular way.
(NB: identikit interpretations, especially when they reduce glorious and powerful passages of scripture, are one of the signs of a tradition which nullifies the word of God.)
As a young man, my ears pricked up at ‘greater things than these will you do’. How exciting, to think Jesus wanted me to perform miracles! But the fire of the Spirit was quenched by identikit sermons, which taught (without deviation) that when Jesus spoke of greater things, he was referring to leading someone through a process of conversion. The argument was that salvation is a greater miracle than any other, and Jesus never got to lead anyone in that.
I’ll attempt to take that seriously for a moment. First of all, Jesus’ initial statement is that we would do the miracles he had done. The additional clause of ‘even greater things will you do’ builds on that, rather than diminishes it. But even then, if I screw my eyes up real tight and ignore the first statement, what of the idea that Jesus never got to lead someone to salvation? What of Thomas, often called Doubting Thomas, who responded in disbelief when his friends said they’d seen the risen Lord? John 20, 25-28:
‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.’
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’
Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’
Thomas refused to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead, denying the testimonies of the other disciples. His heart was hard to the truth, preferring the evidence of his own eyes, but when Jesus appeared among them his heart was changed in a moment. Jesus even offered him the evidence he had demanded, but Thomas refused it, responding in faith instead – ‘My Lord and my God’. Is that not a perfect example of what conversion looks like? Was Thomas not saved by grace, through faith, at that exact moment?
When dying on the cross, Jesus spoke with one of the criminals hanging next to him. Luke 23, 39-43:
‘One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’
But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’
Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’
Jesus answered him, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’
The presence of Jesus ministered to the mind of the dying criminal, who recognised that the man beside him was God – ‘Don’t you fear God, seeing as you are under the same sentence?’ He also understood Jesus was perfect – ‘this man has done nothing’ – and he responded from the heart, knowing Jesus was Lord, and that the cross was not the end for him – ‘remember me when you come into your kingdom’. Somehow, this condemned man, though agonised and dying, saw past the blood, the darkness, the chaos, the frothing crowd, and the fury of the other criminal, and received divine revelation that Jesus was Lord. He confessed with his mouth and believed with his heart that Jesus was Lord, and Jesus responded to his faith – ‘today you will be with me in paradise.’
If that is not a story of salvation, I don’t know what it is.
Furthermore, the New testament is clear that those who came before such as Abraham, who believed God when he revealed himself to them, received salvation through the cross. As a nod of the head to brevity, I won’t demonstrate that today.
On hearing this lifeless tradition in place of the word of God, I had to make a choice. On the one hand, Jesus promised we would perform the miracles he had performed – divine healings, deliverances, even raising the dead – and went on to say we’d do even greater things. On the other hand, I heard person after person saying that Jesus didn’t mean what he said, and that leading someone to the Lord was the miracle to focus on. As a young man I didn’t have the resources or knowledge to override what I was being told, but suffice it to say that over the years, I have learned to choose Jesus, and to take him at his word.
(NB: I don’t lay the blame for this teaching at the feet of any individual. Unlike the pharisees, those propagating it meant well and were caught up in the same misleading lies they then passed on, but I must be clear on what was taught, and the impact of what was taught, for the sake of clarity. There is more at stake here than hurt feelings, though I hope even they can be avoided.)
The consequences of believing the false tradition over the word of God are serious. We lower our expectations of God, reducing his incredible promises to match our experience. By doing so, we lose our hold on faith, because we are no longer clinging to his word – our grip has been transferred instead to the tradition, and we are well adrift of the truth. Once we drift from the truth of God’s active, compassionate, interventionist love, and the promises of his miraculous provision, deliverance and healing, we lose sight of who God is altogether. We paint a lesser picture and worship it instead.
Who might benefit from insinuating reductive lies into common doctrine? What forces oppose the Gospel and might gain from this? Who might want us to expect less from the Lord?
It’s so easy to lean into these seductive lies, because they tell us not to fight for breakthroughs in the Church. They tell us to get comfortable. If we ask for the promises of God and they do not come, they tell us the outcome must be his will, instead of exhorting us to hold to his promises, because breakthrough is coming. These lies in themselves make God a liar – unreliable, inconsistent, unfaithful. Revivals don’t happen over cups of tea in a living room, where compromised ideas are exchanged without challenge. They don’t happen after identikit sermons, telling us to release our hold on the promises of God. No great revival has come after years of accepting a status quo. Revivals burst into our reality because of spiritual dissatisfaction and a Church determined to seek the Lord. They happen when we believe, and hold to the truth, and continue to believe, until we’re in a place to receive from God and the breakthrough comes.
Lord forgive us our complacency and compromise. Bring us back to your word, and to belief in your promises. Bring us back to faith, hope and love. Bring us back to you, that your kingdom may come, and you may be glorified. In Jesus Name!
(NB: I’ll be writing on this in other posts, going into other traditions I believe nullify the word of God, but if anyone who wants to get ahead, I delivered this talk during lockdown, which goes into those other examples in depth.)