A Form of Godliness Condemned
“Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi. But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.” (Matthew 23:1-12)
That which the Word of God calls “godliness” is the worship of God. — “Godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Tim. 6:6). Blessed are they who, being born of God, worship God in Spirit and in truth! Blessed is that person who, trusting Christ as his Savior and Lord, worships God, ever coming to God by Christ Jesus! But, when the Bible speaks of “a form of godliness” (2 Tim. 3:5), the reference is to the mere practice of religion. “A form of godliness” is going to church. “A form of godliness” is engaging in religious activity. “A form of godliness” is “saying your prayers.” How few there are who have the blessed great gain and sweet contentment of godliness! What multitudes there are who have a form of godliness! The apostle Paul warned us that in the last day the vast majority of the religious world would have a mere form of godliness, an outward show of religion, while denying the very power of true godliness, which is the gospel of Christ (2 Tim. 3:5). In the days of our Lord’s earthly life and ministry Judaism had already withered into a mere form of godliness; and the Son of God abhorred it.
Matthew 23 records the very last words ever spoken by the Son of God in the temple at Jerusalem. Judgment was about to fall on that nation. In just a short while God would destroy the city, the nation, and the temple. In this chapter our Lord tells the multitude and his disciples why such judgment must come. The first twelve verses of this chapter show us how utterly contemptible a mere form of godliness is to the Son of God.
In these verses, and in those that follow, our Savior gives a withering exposure of the religion of the scribes and Pharisees, and of their disciples today. He sharply rebukes them, both for their doctrine and their practices. Their religion retained the Word of God and the name of God; but it was nothing less than an utter denial of God. By this time, Judaism had been reduced to nothing short of idolatry! Will worship, ritualism, and legalism prevailed. And our Lord despised it. Knowing well that his time on earth was almost done, knowing that soon his followers must be left alone like sheep among wolves, he warns us plainly against the false shepherds and false religion that surrounds us in this world.
Nothing is more abominable in the sight of God than a self-righteous form of godliness. Here are five important lessons to be learned from these twelve verses.
1. It is the solemn responsibility of every faithful servant of God to warn his hearers of the false teachers and false religion that surrounds them.
It is not meekness, but cowardice, that causes men to hold back in denouncing false doctrine. No man was ever more meek, more gracious, or more loving than the God-man. Yet, no man ever more boldly denounced false religion (Matt. 7:14-23).
That man who refuses to identify heresy and heretics is unfaithful to his charge as God’s messenger and God’s watchman (1 Tim. 4:1-8; 2 Tim. 2:16-18; 3:1-5; 4:1-4; Phil. 3:17-19; Col. 2:8-23). No sin is more sinful than silence when alarm is needed! All preachers of free-will, works religion are false prophets. All who make salvation dependent upon man’s will, man’s works, or man’s worth are destroyers of men’s souls and must be treated by us as God’s enemies (2 John 10).
2. It is the responsibility of every man to try the spirits and judge preachers and their message by the Word of God (vv. 2-3).
“Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world. Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.”
Those who sit in Moses’ seat are responsible to teach what Moses taught. And they are to be obeyed, followed, and honored, only as they obey, follow, honor, and teach the Word of God (Heb. 13:7, 17; 1 Thess. 5:12-13). But we must not allow any man to be our pope. Like the noble Bereans, we are responsible to search the Scriptures for ourselves. We must receive nothing taught by any man that we do not find written in the Book of God.
3. Nothing in all the world is more obnoxious, abominable, and damning to the souls of men as an outward, self-righteous form of religion (vv. 3-7).
In verses 3-7 our Savior identifies self-righteous religion by four common traits. It may have many names, varied ordinances, and conflicting ceremonies, but false religion can always be identified by these four things. There are many other things to identify it, as we have seen; but these four common characteristics of false religion are observable by everyone, except the people involved.
First, false religion always seeks to bring people into some form of legal bondage. — “All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers” (vv. 3-4). Obviously, when our Lord said, “Whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do,” he was speaking sarcastically. He had already declared that by their traditions they had transgressed the commandment of God and made it of none effect (Matt. 15:3). The gospel of Christ proclaims liberty to sinners in captivity. All human religion seeks to bind the captive more securely. Like the Gadarenes had often bound the demoniac with fetters and chains, religious people seek to bind the souls of men in the chains of the Mosaic law, the fetters of religious customs, and the bonds of religious superstition. When the Lord Jesus comes in the saving operations of his grace, he sits the captive free (Mark 5:1-15). His word to his servants, with regard to all he has raised from death to life, is “Loose him, and let him go” (John 11:44).
“Till God the sinner's mind illume,
‘Tis dark as night within;
Like Lazarus in the dreary tomb,
Bound hand and foot by sin.
Yet though in massy fetters bound,
To God's free grace a foe,
The gospel has a joyful sound: —
‘Loose him, and let him go.’
Sinners shall hear this joyful sound,
When God designs it so;
Grace shall beyond their sins abound; —
‘Loose him, and let him go.’
Justice, beholding his attire,
No more appears his foe;
He says, ‘I've all that I require; -
Loose him, and let him go.’
He stands accepted in his name
Whose blood for him did flow;
The holy law proclaims the same: —
‘Loose him, and let him go.’”
I was once in bondage, cursed and condemned by my sin. I lived under the galling yoke of the law, bound by the heavy chains of guilt, the willing captive of Satan. But the Lord Jesus saw me, had compassion upon me, came to my dark dungeon, and said, “Loose him, and let him go!”
“Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray —
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
Still the small inward voice I hear,
That whispers all my sins forgiven;
Still the atoning blood is near,
That quenched the wrath of hostile Heaven.
I feel the life His wounds impart;
I feel the Savior in my heart.
No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.”
The Lord Jesus Christ has brought me into the blessed liberty of his free grace. My soul overflowed with unspeakable joy, “looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life” in “the glorious liberty of the sons of God.” It is this blessed liberty of grace that I want you to know and enjoy. I urge you to count as your soul’s enemy every preacher, and every form of religion that seeks to bring you into bondage.
Second, false religion is always marked by the glaring hypocrisy of those who seek to impose it upon you. — “They say and do not.” They bind heavy burdens and lay them on others, “but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.” They talk about obeying the law; but they know they do not obey it. They require from others things they do not practice themselves.
Their religious rules and regulations, their rituals and ceremonies, their sabbath days and duties are bound together in creeds, by-laws, church covenants, and constitutions like huge intolerable burdens. They form a galling yoke that no man can bear. Like the scribes and Pharisees, false religion piles its great load upon ignorant men and demands obedience, but offers nothing to help the needy soul. The Lord Jesus is not like them. His servants are not like them. Our Savior says, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30). His sweet yoke of grace gives rest to weary sinners.
Third, all the outward works of false religionists are performed only “to be seen of men” (v. 5), so that men will approve of them and applaud them as godly, holy, devoted people, so that others will admire them as great lovers of God. False religion teaches people to dress in a way that will show others their godliness. False religion teaches people to find a way to demonstrate their giving, so that people will know how sacrificial they are. False religion teaches people to advertise the amount of time they spend reading the Bible and praying, so that others can observe their devotion. False religion teaches people to “humbly” let people know when they fast, so that their spiritual gravity can be applauded.
All these things, our Savior tells his disciples to do in secret (Matt. 6:16-18). How often have you heard someone say, “I want the world to see Jesus in me.” What they really mean is, “I want the world to think I am a good man, not like them.” The world did not see Jesus in Jesus. It certainly will not see him in you and me! False religion teaches people to “make broad their phylacteries and enlarge the borders of their garments,” to put “I love Jesus” and “WWJD” (What Would Jesus Do) bumper stickers on their cars, so that the world can acknowledge them as devoted people.
Throughout the New Testament, our Lord and his apostles teach us the very reverse of these things. True godliness, true worship, true faith in Christ is a matter of the heart. It causes saved sinners to seek the will of God and the glory of God in all things. Its works are always portrayed as works of love and faith. Those who perform them are totally unaware of having done so (Matt. 25:34-40), while those who boast of performing them never do (Matt. 25:41-46). Beware of every form of religion that teaches you to do anything “for to be seen of men.”
Fourth, false religion encourages the love of recognition (vv. 6-7). False religion says, “Stand up and testify.” The Word of God teaches us to bow before the throne of grace and worship. The scribes and Pharisees loved the best place in public meetings. — “The upper most rooms at feasts.” They sought the most prominent place of recognition in church. — “The chief seats in the synagogues.” They craved the recognition of men, having their names recognized and honored. — “Greetings in the markets.” And they loved titles of distinction, by which they were pretentiously elevated above others. — “To be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi,” or “Reverend,” or “Father.” Religious hucksters love to be first and foremost. God’s servants teach, by practice and precept, the unity of God’s saints in Christ as brethren.
4. It is absolutely wrong for believers to give any man the names, titles, and honors that belong to our God and his Christ alone.
“But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ” (vv. 8-10).
C. H. Spurgeon wrote, “In the church of Christ, all titles and honors which exalt men and give occasion for pride are here forbidden.” To call a man “Father” is to rob God of his supremacy and Fatherhood as God. To call a man “Reverend” is to rob God of his supremacy and holiness as the “Holy One.” — “Holy and reverend is his name” (Ps. 111:9). To speak of a man as “your priest” or “intercessor” is to rob Christ of his Priesthood. To call a man “Doctor” or “Rabbi”, or “Master” is to rob Christ of his glory as our Teacher.
5. The secret of greatness in the kingdom of God is service to the kingdom of God.
“But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted” (vv. 11-12).
Richard Baxter said, “Church greatness consisteth in being greatly serviceable.” The desire of the Pharisee is to receive honor, and to be called “Master.” The desire of the believer is to do good, devoting himself and all that he has to the glory of God and the service of his people, each esteeming the other better than himself.
“If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies, Fulfil ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.” (Phil. 2:1-4)
What a solemn passage this is! If there were no other passage in the whole Book of God to warn us of man-centered, self-righteous, works religion, this should be sufficient to alarm us and cause us to abhor it. It seems that our Savior considered no language sufficiently strong to express his utter contempt for man’s religion and religious customs. Pretentious sanctity and the outward show of religion, a mere form of godliness, are things detested by the Son of God! Our attitude toward such should be the same.