Following His Footsteps: “Numbing Ungodliness” – Matthew 23

pygmy rattlerA number of years ago a friend of mine clipped an article and sent it to me. I kept it because it really spoke to me, and maybe it will to you as well…Sam loved to fish so much he often skipped school to go down to the pond and dangle a hook. One morning the sheriff was out looking for a missing vehicle and observed the youth fishing, but the boy didn’t look right. He had been fishing for some time, and when the sheriff came upon him he was sweating profusely and his words were slurred. You see, he showed up at the pond without bait, and dug near a stump to get his worms. They were big and juicy. He put one on the hook and noticed a slight sting on his hand, but tossed in his line. Eight fish later, he thought he found the “mother lode” with his new bait. Unfortunately, he didn’t know they were actually baby pygmy rattlers, and with each one placed on the hook, more venom was entering his system. The first one numbed him, the next few added to the killer dose. Sam never made it to the hospital, but died in the back of a sheriff’s cruiser, with eight fish in his cooler. He died of the venom that he could not detect because he had slowly been numbed.

Have you ever stopped to consider that you could be becoming numb to God while thinking you are serving Him well? You and I can be slowly dying – losing our spiritual vitality – while filling the cooler with more spiritual fish. Today I don’t want to speak primarily of those who don’t know God – but of those of us who DO, but may be in the process of becoming hardened in the heart – even as we are ministering for God. One of the great dangers of serving for a long time is learning to do the work with a heart that is not full of the Savior at all. If you have been walking with Jesus and serving Jesus for years, you may be suffering from numbness and a venom that hardens our heart over time may be creeping in.

Key Principle: Mature believers are pipelines. We must deliberately allow the flow of our relationship with God to pass through our lives and into other lives – bringing them joy and attachment to Him!

If you have known the Lord for a long time, you have no doubt passed through “numbed times”. Sometimes people act like God moved into a dark shadow, but God’s Word is clear – He doesn’t do that. If He seems distant, most often the problem is with US. These are often times when we aren’t growing, and we aren’t surrendered, but we are probably still serving God in a ministry area – because we don’t say anything about it. This can be a terrible problem – because others expect that you are on the inside what you seem to be on the outside – and that may not be the case at all. When we are numb, we can be easily open to rationalizing our sin and moving toward one of the common error “extremes” of our day to explain it away. I often see two such extremes. The first is that of LICENSE, the second is that of COLDNESS.

In LICENSE, we see an extreme form of GRACE – one that costs me nothing to follow Christ, and affords me every opportunity to be self-indulgent while hiding behind theological smugness and Christian platitudes. This is mere selfishness in religious clothing, and is a temptation whenever we weary of the simple surrender required to properly serve the Lord Who saved us. It invites me to redraw the lines that define servant-hood, and serve myself instead of my rightful Master.

In COLDNESS, I allow a simple juxtaposition of serving the MASTER with serving the CAUSES of the Master. It is a subtle change at first, but the small “course correction” ends in vastly different destination over the long haul. When I allow my heart to follow the STANDARDS and not the SAVIOR my first steps seem pure. Slowly, it is the attitude of my heart that shows something is wrong. By the time others can observe it, it is far too late to slow the damage to myself and others. This second trouble was addressed by Jesus in Matthew 23, after Jesus encountered the hardened men and their attitudes in the Jerusalem Temple.

I think we all have to admit it – with long term religious life comes the temptation to follow the “comfort food” of legalistic rigidity rather than the more tender and nuanced response of following closely to the Savior – holding His hand and living to please Him – choice by choice.

Someone shared with me a few years ago these good words from Richard J. Foster: “…Rigidity is the most certain sign that the disciplines have spoiled. The disciplined person is the person who can live appropriately in life.”

In essence, this was the problem with the Pharisees at the time of Jesus. They lost track of the PERSON of God whom they served and replaced Him with the CAUSES of God they served… and that made all the difference. Jesus warned the exchange can be observed within by examining four attitudes or hungers that are WARNING SIGNS OF NUMBNESS.

Four attitudes that Numb Spiritual Vitality (23:2-7):

1. Authoritarianism: “Do as I say not as I do”: A Pharisee may even be a person with accomplishment and authority, but they often leave a bad personal example (Matthew 23:2-3).

Matthew 23:1 Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, 2 saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; 3 therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them.

The attitude of authoritarianism opposes the attitude of equipping. The former is interested in maintaining a distinction, while the latter is interested in reproduction by example. When I remove myself from the standards that I teach, I am suffering the first strike of the snake. Authoritarian belief is setting myself ABOVE the Master’s call because of the past choices to follow, or because I feel I have followed long enough to distinguish myself. In the end, it lacks hunger to please the Master, and replaces it with an unreal and awkward view of self. My journey ceases to “live and breathe to please Him”, but changes to becoming recognized as an authority for what I have already done in that journey – while (at the same time) being divorced from expectations by which I once lived. People don’t just follow words, they follow example. A life un-surrendered will promote a pattern of following the CAUSE with great vigor. In servant-hood I must relinquish my right to be ABOVE the standard, and joy in following the Master both in word and deed.

When I am unwilling to be deeply examined by the Savior, to be inspected by the standard that I preach – I am not walking with Him but rather FOR Him – and that isn’t what I was called to do.

2. Exclusivity: Do as I say but do it yourself!: A Pharisee may set high standards, but they show little desire to help others in their call and journey (23:4).

Matthew 23:4 “They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger.

The attitude of exclusivity empowers the one laying the burden on the other by showing the attainments of self-strength evident in the Pharisee. It is like the accomplished weight lifter placing a laden barbell on the rack of the novice to make the point that his accomplishments should be revered. The STANDARDS have become more important than the follower – the CAUSE more important than the DEVELOPMENT of the next generation of those who will serve. The path of following Christ becomes the focus, as opposed to the point of following Him – to be WITH HIM in the walk.

When I am unwilling to be HELPFUL to those who hunger to walk with my Savior, I am preaching a BINDING rather than pulling others to WALK beside Jesus with me. My tenderness must be developed BOTH to the Savior’s voice and to the voice of the weak one who will need my help to join us on the walk.

I have sought to understand why many I know who have followed Christ have become so unhelpful in the journey. I stumbled, by God’s grace, on a story that helped me:

There once was an ant that felt imposed upon, overburdened, and overworked. You see, he was instructed to carry a piece of straw across an expanse of concrete. The straw was so long and heavy that he staggered beneath its weight and felt he would not survive. Finally, as the stress of his burden began to overwhelm him and he began to wonder if life itself was worth it, the ant was brought to a halt by a large crack in his path. There was no way of getting across that deep divide, and it was evident that to go around it would be his final undoing. He stood there discouraged. Then suddenly a thought struck him. Carefully laying the straw across the crack in the concrete, he walked over it and safely reached the other side. His heavy load had become a helpful bridge. The burden was also a blessing. [Illustrations for Biblical Preaching compiled by Michael P. Green]

I think when one is trying to struggle with the load of following; it is hard to be sensitized to the needs of others around them. Could it be that surrender is SO HARD in my flesh that many a leader of our faith is still learning to carry their straw, and hasn’t learned to see how the burden was intended to be a blessing. It is worth considering carefully as I continually look at the state of my own spiritual sensitivity, and the encroaching numbness that easily sets in.

3. Affirmation Hunger: Watch me as I do what I do: A Pharisee may have an excellent reputation for “being on the red carpet”, but they seek recognition (23:5).

Matthew 23:5 “But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments.

One of the hungers that can easily grow within (that I must constantly monitor) is that of the desire to be recognized and affirmed. It doesn’t go away, and even after long dormancy can come roaring to the surface like a submarine that has been in the deep.

When we receive a reward in this life, we rob the reward we will receive from the Savior later. Jesus said it in an earlier sermon: Matthew 6:5 “When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 6 “But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”

When we get the reward now, we lose the hunger to keep following for the reward later. We can easily stop following the call of our Master to walk daily with Him, and easily fall into the immediate rewards of the affirmation of men. They may not be as GOOD as hearing “Well done, good and faithful servant!”.. but they are easier to attain. Our sight is too low when our heart is tuned to the affirmation of other servants and followers. We must constantly recognize the voice of the Savior and retune our heart to hunger for His approval alone.

4. Entitlement: Give me what I think I deserve (Don’t you know who I am): They may be seen at the most important events, but they want the perks of power (23:6,7).

Matthew 23:6 “They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, 7 and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men.

The word “respectful” in the greetings tips off the attitude of entitlement – I CAN COME TO THE PLACE WHERE I believe I DESERVE a certain response from people when they see me. This is hunger for affirmation allowed to flourish within while others feed it from without – the “prima donna factory” of faith.

When I become authoritarian and slip from under the standards of my own preaching, when I become insensitive to modeling truth and just start preaching it, when I hunger to be recognized, and when I think I am not getting my share of the pie… There is but ONE solution: Change my HUNGER… Jesus wanted His followers to seek to EXALT HIM, not to be EXALTED (23:8-12).

Real servants keep their eye on their Master’s desires, even seeking to anticipate his next want, but learn to grow even more numb to their own yearnings. He said:

Matthew 23: 8 “But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 “Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. 10 “Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. 11 “But the greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.

Dave Navarro wrote an article entitled: “The Five People Who Secretly Control Your Life.” In it, he says, we may not realize is how many people influence our life, feeding us ideas and in many cases secretly controlling our life by influencing how we make our most important, life-guiding choices. They are “secret” by virtue of the fact that we usually don’t know they are so influential. Who are they? They are our heroes, our nemesis, our parents, our spouse, and our image of who we should be. When we refine our understanding of servanthood, we will recognize that Jesus’ desires should be the one that defines all the others.

Eight attitudes to Guard Against (23:13-32):

The numbness symptoms identified, Jesus quickly drew a line around some attitudes that lay beneath a troubled heart…

1. Legalism: Jesus wants people to have a relationship with God. By trying to control people for power’s sake – you push them from a walk with God. (23:13).

Matthew 23:13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.

The essence of legalism is trusting in the religious activity rather than trusting in God. It is putting our confidence in a practice rather than in a Person. And without fail this will lead us to love the practice more than the Person. Jack Deer, Surprised by the Power of the Spirit, p. 151

2. Religious Manipulation: Jesus wants servants who have broken hearts for broken people. By using your religious words you take advantage of the poor and unsuspecting (23:14).

Matthew 23:14 [“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you will receive greater condemnation.]

Two monks went on a pilgrimage and came to the ford of a river. There they saw a girl dressed in all her finery, obviously not knowing what to do since the river was high and she didn’t want to spoil her clothes. Without much discussion, one of the monks took her on his back, carried her across, and put her down on dry ground on the other side. The monks then continued on their way. But the other monk started complaining, “Surely it isn’t right to touch a woman. It’s against the commandment to have close contact with women. How could you go against your rules as a monk?” The monk who carried the girl walked along silently, but finally he remarked, “I set her down by the river and hour ago. Why are you still carrying her?” Today in the Word, December 19, 1994

3. Self-focus: Jesus wants mentors and disciple makers that tie people to a living relationship. By drawing others to yourself you put them in relationship to rules – not God (23:15).

Matthew 23:15 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.

“What must I forsake?” a young man asked. “Colored clothes for one thing. Get rid of everything in your wardrobe that is not white. Stop sleeping on a soft pillow. Sell your musical instruments and don’t eat any more white bread. You cannot, if you are sincere about obeying Christ, take warm baths or shave your beard. To shave is to lie against him who created us, to attempt to improve on his work.” Quaint, isn’t it—this example of extra-biblical scruples? And perhaps amusing. The list has constantly shifted over the 1,800 years since this one was actually recorded. Living Proof by Jim Peterson, NavPress, 1989, pp. 106

4. Lawlessness: Jesus wants leaders to follow after His consistent principles. In preaching legalism with intricate loopholes, you make up your own rules – and they aren’t even logical! (23:16-22).

Matthew 23:16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is obligated.’ 17 “You fools and blind men! Which is more important, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold? 18 “And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering on it, he is obligated.’ 19 “You blind men, which is more important, the offering, or the altar that sanctifies the offering? 20 “Therefore, whoever swears by the altar, swears both by the altar and by everything on it. 21 “And whoever swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it. 22 “And whoever swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it.

A pastor found the roads blocked one Sunday morning and was forced to skate on the river to get to church, which he did. When he arrived the elders of the church were horrified that their preacher had skated on the Lord’s Day. After the service they held a meeting where the pastor explained that it was either skate to church or not go at all. Finally one elder asked, “Did you enjoy it?” When the preacher answered, “No,” the board decided it was all right! Today in the Word, MBI, December, 1989, p. 12.

5. Poor Prioritization: Jesus wants leaders that know His priorities. You don’t know how to put first things first. (23:23-24).

Matthew 23:23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. 24 “You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!

During the early days of the Salvation Army, William Booth and his associates were bitterly attacked in the press by religious leaders and government leaders alike. Whenever his son, Bramwell, showed Booth a newspaper attack, the General would reply, “Bramwell, fifty years hence it will matter very little indeed how these people treated us; it will matter a great deal how we dealt with the work of God.” The Wycliffe Handbook of Preaching & Preachers, W. Wiersbe, p. 185

6. Externalization: Jesus wants his people to know the difference between compliance and obedience. You think that by changing behaviors you have reached hearts (23:25-26).

Matthew 23:25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. 26 “You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also.

Peter T. Forsythe was right when he said: “The first duty of every soul is to find not its freedom but its Master”.

7. Hypocrisy: Jesus wants life to flow from Him through us to the world. You live in an external show with no living relationship and obedience within (23:27-28).

Matthew 23:27 “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. 28 “So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

Consider the healthy view…Hudson Taylor was scheduled to speak at a Large Presbyterian church in Melbourne, Australia. The moderator of the service introduced the missionary in eloquent and glowing terms. He told the large congregation all that Taylor had accomplished in China, and then presented him as “our illustrious guest.” Taylor stood quietly for a moment, and then opened his message by saying, “Dear friends, I am the little servant of an illustrious Master.” Wycliffe Handbook of Preaching and Preachers, W. Wiersbe, p. 243.

8. Religious arrogance: Jesus wants people who humbly admit their flaws and reflect on their blessings. You believe you are better than those who came before you, and you will not repeat their mistakes (23:29-32).

Matthew 23:29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, 30 and say, ‘If we had been living in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partners with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 “So you testify against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. 32 “Fill up, then, the measure of the guilt of your fathers. 33 “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how will you escape the sentence of hell?

William Carey is considered the father of modern missions. The man who spent his early years as a cobbler became one of the greatest linguists the church has ever known. It’s reported that Carey translated parts of the Bible into as many as 24 Indian languages. When he first went to India, some regarded him with dislike and contempt. At a dinner party a distinguished guest, hoping to humiliate Carey, said in a loud voice, “I suppose, Mr. Carey, you once worked as a shoemaker.” Carey responded humbly, “No, your lordship, not as a shoemaker, only a cobbler.” Carey didn’t claim to make shoes, only to mend them. Today in the Word, September 21, 1995, p. 28.

Mature believers are pipelines. We must deliberately allow the flow of our relationship with God to pass through our lives and into another’s life – bringing them joy and attachment to Him!

Beloved, it is easy to get numb, and takes effort to remain a flowing source of God’s work. The best way to keep the flow steady is to consciously allow life to flow in, and share it with JOY – not DUTY.