Yesterday I looked at the danger of focusing on image enhancement at the church level, a concern raised by John MacArthur in a February Tabletalk article and by Sophia Lee in a December WORLD article. Today I want to address the danger of focusing on image at the personal level.
MacArthur writes, “Worst of all, this attitude is pervasive at the individual level. Far too many Christians live as if a pretense of righteousness were as good as the real thing.”
He goes on to point out that this was the major error of the Pharisees. So true is this, in fact, that the very words “Pharisee” or “pharisaical” are now used to describe someone who is far more concerned with the external than the internal. Dictionary.com defines “pharisaical” this way: “practicing or advocating strict observance of external forms and ceremonies of religion or conduct without regard to the spirit; self-righteous; hypocritical.” Hypocrite is probably one of the most common synonyms for Pharisee in any contemporary vernacular. Not exactly anything to aspire to!
The Pharisees’ problem was that they had mastered the art of making, interpreting, creatively bending and then living by the rules. So hung up on rules were they that they greatly added to the Ten Commandments God gave Moses and generated lists of hundreds of rules. So hung up on rules were they that they condemned Jesus for healing someone on the Sabbath, condemned His disciples for grinding grain on the Sabbath when they plucked a few heads of grain with their hands while walking through a field. So hung up on rules were the Pharisees that they completely missed–indeed even denied–that Jesus was the Messiah because He did not fit their idea of what/who the Messiah should/would be.
MacArthur writes, “The Pharisees’ teaching placed so much emphasis on external appearances that it was commonly believed that evil thoughts were not really sinful as long as they did not become acts. The Pharisees and their followers became utterly preoccupied with appearing righteous.” Jesus, of course, turned that manner of thinking on its head, making clear that hating someone or lusting after someone is no different than murder or adultery. In other words, thoughts matter just as much as actions! No wonder the Pharisees hated Jesus; He challenged their entire religious system and made clear that all their rule-keeping was for naught.
Few, if any, of us have the same fastidious attention to countless rules that the Pharisees did. That does not mean at all, though, that we are not just as hung up on external appearances. How comfortable we can get carrying our Bibles to church every Sunday and bowing our heads before every meal, deluding ourselves into thinking that surely means we’re doing pretty good. God doesn’t look at that stuff, though; He is far more concerned with our hearts. He made it clear way back when Samuel was anointing a king for Israel that man looks at appearances but God looks at the heart.
What we do matters; do not take anything I am saying here to mean otherwise. James, of course, makes it crystal clear that our faith must be demonstrated by our works. But faith must precede works. The Pharisees saw no need for faith; works was their means to salvation. So we should carry our Bibles and go to church on Sunday, we should tithe and give offerings, we should show love and mercy in our interactions with others, but all of those things must flow out of a heart transformed by the realization that none of that will get us to heaven or earn us anything. We must also grasp that none of those things negate any “secret” sins of the heart and mind. No one else may see or no about them but God does, and He cares about them. They matter to Him.
In MacArthur’s words, the central lesson underscored by Jesus was this: “External appearance is not what matters most.” Let us not forget that.