It is not what we are on the outside that counts in the eyes of God, but who we are on the inside. No matter what we do to seem righteous in the eyes of the world, God knows the heart (Hebrews 4:12) and can see our motivation in all things. If our motivation is not pure, then “it profits us nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). Truly, it is the person within that is seen by God, and that is all that counts.
In the ministry of our Lord, He encountered and described many different kinds of people. It is interesting and encouraging to consider how he viewed those of the creation who saw themselves and righteous, though inwardly filthy, and those who viewed themselves as meek and humble, though inwardly rich in the grace of God. While the Pharisees proved themselves to be outwardly impressive people, Christ never spoke highly of them. On the contrary, He praised the faith and fidelity of the supposed “dregs” of society – the righteous tax collectors, the blind, the poor, the masses of destitute people, humbled by the love of God and the wisdom of Jesus.
In this lesson, I would like to examine two sections of scripture in which Jesus discusses the person within. In Matthew 23:25-28, our Lord considers the spiritual condition of the Pharisees and asserts that they are outwardly righteous, appearing to be religious and moral, but inwardly are full of sin. Contrary to that, Matthew 5:3-8 is a discourse on the people of this world who are truly blessed – people who humble themselves to the point that it would be hard to see them in the spotlight with the Pharisees. In the beatitudes, Christ defines what it truly means to live in the footsteps of God, rejecting false religion and pride and carrying a cross of gentleness and inward purity. It is my hope that we will all be able to see ourselves in this sermon – if not in the category of the inwardly pure, then spurred to change our lives and abandon inward filthiness.
Matthew 23:25-28 – Inwardly Filthy
In the last week of our Lord’s physical life before His crucifixion, Jesus made many attempts at confronting the Pharisees with the undeniable facts of their false religious potency. For most people of the time, the pinnacle of godliness was the Pharisaic class – a group of people who considered themselves the most educated and, therefore, most righteous people among the Jews. Nobody seemed more religious on the outside than the Pharisees. Beyond even complete observance of the Law given by Moses, this sect of Jews subjected themselves, and others, to a rigorous and inexcusable tradition of laws not originally part of the Covenant. By bringing in regulations from the service of the temple and applying them to everyday life, they sought to attain to the exhortation in Leviticus 11:44 to be a holy nation. However, in the process of imposing this tradition, the Pharisees alienated themselves from all other Jewish sects (thus the name Pharisee, which is related to the Greek word pharisaioi [farisaioi], which means “separate and apart”), and eventually came to the belief that their rigid lifestyles made them more religious. In response to this mentality, Christ condemned the Pharisees, claiming that they had chosen to follow the traditions of men more than the Laws of God (Matthew 15:9) and that in overemphasizing the details of obedience, they had “neglected the weightier provisions of the Law; justice and mercy and faithfulness…” (Matthew 23:23).
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” (Matthew 23:25). The word “hypocrite” is so very appropriate to the context. “Hupokrites (upokrithV) primarily denotes one who answers; then, a stage actor; it was a custom for Greek and Roman actors to speak in large masks with mechanical devices for augmenting the force of the voice; hence the word became used metaphorically of a dissembler, a hypocrite” (Vine’s Dictionary of New Testament Words, 242). The accusation made by Jesus, then, would be that the Pharisees are more like actors than anything else. They wear a mask around other people, but that mask only serves to keep hidden the truth about their motives, desires, and priorities. What kind of masks do we wear? Would Jesus accuse us of being actors in the religious world. Unfortunately, so many who claim to belong to Christ only put on the mask of the truth, but inwardly are just like the denominations. After all, just because a congregation has a sign that says “church of Christ” on the front door, and just because a church may look, feel, and sound like the Lord’s church, that does not mean it is!
“For you clean the outside of the cup, and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence.” No matter what kind of front the Pharisees put up, God could always see right through them to their innermost thoughts. In the same way, it does not matter how clean the outside of a cup is if the inside is filthy. Does one drink liquid on the outside? Although having a clean exterior may seem like a productive means to an end, it really accomplishes very little in the practical sense. A shiny, clean car with a coat of wax is worthless to the driver if he has not changed the oil in fifteen thousand miles. So why do any of us think that exterior religious seemliness means anything to God? What an abomination it is before the Lord to come before Him with sin in one’s heart, as is exemplified by Matthew 5:23-24. Even preachers can fall into this trap, for it was Paul who explained that many men were going about preaching with ulterior motives (Philippians 1:15-17). A heart that is full of envy, selfishness, and self-indulgence will always keep us separate from God, no matter what actions we may take on a pragmatic level.
“You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also” (Matthew 23:26). It is interesting to see the connection that Christ makes between the blindness of the Pharisees and the fullness of their sin. When we blind ourselves to the truth of the Gospel, everything else in life will be spoiled. Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:22-23 that it is the eye that helps determine how pure the rest of the body is. If the eye is closed to the good things in the Bible, then what will be the result? Surely, every other aspects of life will be adversely affected. Of course, if we close ours eyes to the filth within our souls, then we may never come to the realization that there even is a problem. Furthermore, a life without self-examination will never be improved. We must always strive to look deep within ourselves to see if there is filth. Sometimes we spend so much time worrying about the outside, the external aspects of our Christianity – church attendance, manners, communications skills, the image of dignity and self-control – that we do not even stop to consider what is inside. Christ makes it very clear in Matthew 15:11 that it is what is found deep within the man that defiles him, and brings about his spiritual ruin. Why do so many choose to ignore their innermost parts? Why, of all the things that can be neglected, do people like the Pharisees let their souls go into disorder? Perhaps it is because we do not always like what we find on the inside, and are ashamed. Self-examination requires a person to dig deep into the recesses of his mind and conscience, and when light is shed on those places it is not always pretty – some, in fact, find that the deeper they go into the soul the more they find that is rotten.
Rottenness must be rooted out, though, if it to be abolished. If we do not clean out the inside of the cup and dish, we will always find ourselves condemned by Christ as “hypocrites.” “…So that the outside may become clean also.” If we do take decisive steps to keep the inside, the heart and the mind, clean, then the outside will naturally take on the appearance of cleanliness as well. A person with a pure heart will always want to make good moral decisions, and his or her appearance will reflect that – wearing appropriate clothes, saying godly things, showing self-control in all areas of life.
“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” (Matthew 23:27). Just because a tomb is aesthetically pleasing does not mean it is any less a tomb. No matter how one may decorate such a dwelling, its primary function is to house death – can the same be said of our souls? Similar to the previous analogy, this verse should encourage us to examine our live carefully to see if we have only adorned ourselves with the outside appearance of Christianity. But underneath all of the nice ties and good singing, is there only dead men’s bones in our souls? “Even so you too outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” There is no lie that can be told to deceive God, and no matter how much you may be deceiving the person sitting next to you at church, God knows what is in your heart. He knows the person within.
Matthew 5:3-8 – Inwardly Righteous
In stark contrast to the ways of the Pharisees, Jesus Christ spent His earthly ministry lauding those who were considered unrighteous in the eyes of the Jewish leaders. He praises the tax collector in Luke 18:10-14 because of his ultimate humility in the shadow of the proud Pharisee. Jesus gives credit to the multitudes for coming to hear Him preach, even though the multitudes were often uneducated, sick, and poor. On the exterior, some of His disciples were the dregs of the earth – blue-collar fishermen, tax officers, the man who once was possessed by Legion the demon. On the interior, though, these were the most deserving people in the world of our Lord’s mercy. Jesus does not look for Pharisees, for He says it best in Matthew 9:12, “It is not those whoa re healthy who need a physician, but those are sick.” Essentially, He is indicating that it is not those who think they are healthy – but are inwardly dead like the Pharisees – who would come to follow Jesus, but those who admitted their sickness and embraced the love, mercy, and peace of our Lord. That is, people who have the inward righteousness that the Pharisees sorely lacked.
Matthew 5:3-12 is one the most memorable passages of scripture in the Bible, and its place in this sermon is integral. Few other texts have the qualities of inner righteousness so concisely and clearly laid out, so a brief of study of its words will help us see what Christ expects of us in contrast with the Pharisees. The overriding theme of the beatitudes is that the quality of a person cannot always be measured by his or her outside appearance. For example, our Lord tells us, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3). But who are the poor in spirit? Are they not the humble believers who refuse to take the spot light? Are they not the ones who prefer to do their work behind the scenes, quietly fulfilling their duties in the kingdom without seeking recognition or praise from men? The poor in spirit are the kind of Christians who know they deserve Hell and give complete acclaim to God. They are not always brilliant, fantastic, or loud, so it is easy to overlook the poor in spirit if we judge only on what is outside of the heart.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (5:4). Again, mourning is not glamorous, and it is not always easy. But it is not the fool who laughs at everything who will find comfort in the arms of God. In Ecclesiastes 7:2-4 we are told that the house of mourning is the place of wisdom. “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, because that is the end of every man, and the living takes it to heart” (7:2). It is often stated that funerals help us appreciate life more. Indeed, when we spend time with those who are mourning the loss of a loved one, it teaches us in the most poignant way to enjoy life and not waste it with frivolity or grudge-holding (Ephesians 5:15-16). “Sorrow is better than laughter, for when the face is sad a heart may be happy” (7:3). The word sorrow means “melancholy, or thoughtful sadness” (Deane, 156). Introspective sadness often has a purifying effect on our souls – it sobers us, grounds us in reality, calms our mind, engenders self-reflection and moral honesty. The result of melancholy, then, is deeper contentment. When the initial pain wears off, sadness leads to contentment and acceptance of in injustice and suffering. It helps us lead more mature lives. In contrast to this, laughter is sometimes used as a tool to hide how miserable we are on the inside (Proverbs 14:13). “The mind of the wise is in the house of mourning, while the mind of fools is in the house of pleasure” (7:4).
“Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth” (5:5). Tell this to a Pharisee and see what happens! In the eyes of so many worldly-minded Christians, getting ahead in life is the most important quality that can be found. It is popular and glamorous to be a “go-getter” or a “cut-throat.” But on the inside, the power-hungry businessman has only vanity.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (5:6). Of course, the Pharisees had a hunger and a thirst for righteousness, but it was manifested in a wholly unrighteous way. While they sought the acceptance of God through appearance, the truly God-pleasing person seeks it through complete dependence on the Word.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (5:7). Mercy must come from within – it cannot truly be replicated without the proper heart behind the actions. To the Pharisees, mercy was something that must be earned, or merited. They did not seek, necessarily, the mercy of God, for they were convinced of their own moral superiority in this world. They had a heart that was blackened by pride and arrogance. Instead, we must seek a heart of humility, understanding and accepting that we do not deserve the mercy extended to us by God. We cannot earn that mercy, as the Pharisees thought they could, for we must treasure the fact that God’s love is unmerited.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (5:8). This is, perhaps, the most significant verse to our lesson, as it exhorts us to maintain hearts of purity and righteousness. In words that are so sweet and simple, the Son of God makes it absolutely clear that He judges a person by his heart, not by appearances. Is this not the lesson that was so quickly set aside by the Pharisees? They had worked so hard at establishing themselves as righteous people by the letter of the Law and by the outward manifestations of godliness, yet had neglected the most weighty provisions of the same Law: the purity of the heart. True righteousness starts on the inside of a person, and blossoms into actions that prove his righteousness. We cannot ever let ourselves fall into the trap of the Pharisees by thinking that purity in heart means nothing!
As we close the lesson, let us remember the damning words of Jesus Christ with reference to the Pharisees. He was not pleased with their lives because they only had the appearance of righteousness, while overlooking the person within. The good news is that we can change, just as some of the Pharisees eventually changed and became Christians! We all have the opportunity to make ourselves better people, more spiritually-minded people, by searching our hearts and removing the filth. Clean the inside of the soul, and the outside will naturally follow. Make the person within righteous, and the person without will not be far behind.
In Acts 2:37-38, the listeners on the Day of Pentecost heard Peter preaching about Jesus Christ and were pricked to the heart. In response to the message, they asked Peter what they had to do to be saved. His answer was simple: baptism. As a true act of faith and obedience, baptism embodies the self-sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ. Romans 6:1-11 makes it clear that we should never expect to “live with Him” until we have likewise died with Him through baptism. He suffered for us, was hung on a cross for our sins, and was buried to prove the love and mercy of God. “Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). If you want to walk in newness of life, then you can do that now by humbling yourself and following Jesus. “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16).