Addressing Powerless and Baseless Church
The Wrong Idea About Religion
There are many wrong ideas in the world that are merely reactionary. And when one of us who has the right idea sees the wrong idea, rather than reasoning to the bottom of why somebody would think like that, we just say, essentially, “That’s wrong!” And then we go around touting Scripture as a defense.
Let me illustrate. A few weeks ago in Oklahoma, I saw a sign that said, “Hate church? But love God?” The sign was an advertisement for some megachurch in the OKC metro area. First of all, to imply that hatred of church is an idea compatible with loving God is absurdly false. I’m not at all okay with that billboard as an advertising campaign nor with the idea as a theological assertion.
That being said, there are responses far more helpful than merely saying, “You’re wrong! Jesus died for the church and gave himself for her (Ephesians 5).” As I said a moment ago, some of the ideas we see floating around are merely reactionary. And as we all know, human reactions don’t usually bring us to middle ground—they swing to the far side of the opposite end of the spectrum. And there’s usually a reason for the reaction.
There was a time in western society when nobody “hated church.” Or at least they weren’t vocalizing it. Now days we see mainstream pastors saying things like, “Jesus is greater than religion.” And a lot of mainstream Christians are on board with the idea. Again, it’s a false idea, but I think there’s a reason for the reaction.
There’s such a thing as worthless religion—the Bible even says so. James said, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” I think the world, for a long time, has seen a lot of worthless religion. There are leaders being caught in scandals; sermons talk of helping others, but very few are actually doing so; and very little emphasis has been given to the transforming power of God in the Christian’s life.
Such conditions do make for worthless church experiences—the kinds which might make somebody think, “I hate church!” Really, nobody should hate church, but before that idea can be corrected, we have to address the root issue.
Open your Bibles to Matthew 22. For the sake of today’s message, I’d like you to conceive of the Sadducees as church leaders, and I’d like you to imagine the general population’s groaning disposition toward them, their leadership, their use of funds, their lifeless messages, and so on. The people of Israel didn’t hold advertising campaigns, saying things like, “Hate Judaism? But love God?” but it’s safe to say they hated the way Israel’s leaders applied Judaism. Jesus said to the leaders, “[You] tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but [you yourselves] are not willing to move them with [your] finger. [You] do all [your] deeds to be seen by others” (Matthew 23:4-5).
The things Jesus said to Israel’s leaders in Matthew 22 are the very things he’d say to a hypocritical, theologically wrong, and powerless church in 2018. So my initiative this morning is to address the critical components affecting Christian religion and rendering it worthless.
Now, the way the text presents it is to illustrate one of the symptoms of worthless religion, after which Jesus gives a commentary on what really went awry. That’s how we’ll approach the message today.
A Symptom of Worthless Religion
23 The same day Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection, and they asked him a question, 24 saying, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies having no children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother.’ 25 Now there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died, and having no offspring left his wife to his brother. 26 So too the second and third, down to the seventh. 27 After them all, the woman died. 28 In the resurrection, therefore, of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they all had her.”
What motivates most every soul’s conversion to God? The desire for salvation! Israel’s salvational history was a nearly perpetual cycle of sin, judgment, misery, and repentance. When sins abounded, God brought judgment, and in the hardships of judgment, Israel turned in humility to God for salvation.
There’s not a story in the Old Testament where Israel begged God to remove his judgment so they might merely burn incense once again. In other words, when a soul turns to God, it is a turning unto salvation, whereby the security of God’s favor brings hope, purpose, and joy. The superficialities of religion were always requisite, though they served more of an intermediary purpose. The functions of religion were conducted to help souls make contact with God for salvation, which is why the Sadducees’ religious doctrine is so incredibly bizarre.
They were religious leaders, experts in the Law of Moses, and they didn’t even believe in life after death. According to Matthew, they said, “there is no resurrection.” When somebody dies, that’s it. Life’s over. This is just a mind-blowing perspective to be had by a religious leader.
“Hey everybody, you better follow God! And they say, “So what happens if I don’t?” And you say, “Nothing.” “So why would I do it?” “Because God said so!” This is essentially what was happening. Thus, the ultimate extreme of worthless religion is to place zero emphasis on the next life. That’s what a worthless religion would be—one that places no emphasis on preparation for the next life; one that never talks about the next life.
There are some so-called Christian groups who aren’t very different from the Sadducees. I’m not sure Joel O’Steen actually believes in life after death—at least he doesn’t act like it; he’s literally living his Best Life Now, which is tragic and ironic. But it’s too easy to pick on Joel O’Steen and others like him.
The fact is, whether we teach about life after death is secondary to whether we live like there’s a life after death. It’s not all that unbelievable that a religious leader believed there was no heaven when we have religious leaders today living like earth is heaven.
Do we long for the next life? Do we say with Paul, “It is better to depart and be with Christ?” If so, I don’t see a lot of it! The vast majority of our human strivings are pursuing secular things—bigger houses, nicer cars, better clothing, higher status, less persecution. We live totally content in the here and now, thinking far more of this life. Very little of our conversations are even related to things of substance. We can talk for hours about sports but spend very little time in mutual encouragement for salvation. These are symptoms of a worthless religion.
In the narrative, the Sadducees conspired and thought assuredly they would pin Jesus in the corner.
The gist of their argument was this: A married man or woman dies, and their spouse remarries. In heaven, whose spouse is whose? GOTCHA.
I know a lady whose husband, a preacher, died from diabetes. She’s now married to another faithful Christian. In heaven, whose wife will she be? GOTCHA.
These guys were so slick and so sure, but they were completely wrong. That’s the first thing Jesus said in response to them—“You are wrong (Πλανᾶσθε)” Before gaining from his critique, let’s just pause here for a moment.
It is entirely possible to be confidently assured in something totally false. So does that leave room for even a shred of arrogance in our walk with the Lord, in our assessment of Scripture, and in our general understanding of the Christian faith? No, because more likely than not, we all carry some cultural baggage into our study of the Bible.
The safeguard, as I see it, therefore, is to approach God and the Bible with a humble and contrite spirit, willing and open to hear a word from the Lord, no matter how much it may rock your world.
You Do Not Know the Bible
Now the primary reason the Sadducees religion was worthless is not that they were hypocrites, as we might suppose. The primary reason it was worthless was because it wasn’t true! It doesn’t matter how good an illusions feels or looks, or even how effective an illusion is—if it’s fake, it’s worthless.
So Jesus says pointedly why they were wrong—how they were wrong. In verse 29 the Greek literally reads, “You are wrong, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God.” Let’s look at each of those two ideas in turn because this was the underlying reason for their worthless religion.
First of all, they didn’t know the Bible; therefore whatever conception they had was wrong. If a religion isn’t Biblically accurate, then it’s wrong, and it’s therefore worthless. This idea speaks very broadly to secular humanism—there’s no Bible there. So it can’t be right. It’s wrong. It speaks to Islam and Hinduism and Buddhism. Those views are not Bible, therefore they are wrong. Adherents to those religions do not know the Scriptures. They’ve perhaps made some surface conclusions concerning the Bible, but if they do anything other than obey it, they are wrong. That’s what Jesus is saying.
And I think we can get on board with that stuff pretty easily; but it gets a bit messier when you say to a Bible expert, who’s memorized huge sections of the Bible, “You don’t know the Scriptures!”
“What do you mean we don’t know the Bible? We just quoted a passage of the Law from memory! We know the Bible.”
So Jesus says implicitly, “You memorized Scripture, but you don’t know the Scriptures—that’s why you have falsely concluded that there’s no resurrection.”
“Have you never read what was said to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’?”
God spoke those words to Moses, out of the burning bush, in Exodus 3. Was that word from God intended to address the resurrection from the dead? No! That wasn’t at all the main point. God was introducing himself to Moses. “I’m the God of your forefathers,” God said, essentially.
So how does this prove that God raises men from the dead? Answer: God said, “I am (present tense) the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, men who died hundreds of years ago.” So because God said he was presently the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Sadducees and everybody else were to conclude that the resurrection was a reality. Jesus commented, “He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” This is both astounding and terrifying.
Knowing the Bible, by Jesus’ standard, means studying its depths to the degree that we even pay attention to verb tenses in order to gain theological insight and accurate understanding! That’s essentially why we’ve now spent 111 weeks in Matthew! I don’t want us to miss any of it!
Every once in a while I’ll hear from a brother or sister who’s studying the Bible like this at home, and I get pumped about it! Don’t rely on your preachers and teachers to give you what you need. We can only give a few meals a week.
Now, before moving on to the next point, let me encourage you a bit. Over our furlough, I was talking with one of my sisters about the importance of knowing the Scriptures and the dangers of being misled. It’s so easy to be misled! After agreeing, she said, “We just can’t forget the promise of Jesus: ‘Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the ones who knocks it will be opened.”
God expects us to know the Scriptures, deeply, but his promise is this—if you’re seeking God with a hungering spirit for righteousness, you’ll find him.
You Do Not Know the Power of God
Not only did the Sadducees misunderstand the Scriptures, but they also didn’t know the power of God. They didn’t believe God had enough power to make a lifeless body live again. So they refuted the resurrection—because they didn’t believe God was powerful enough. Imagine having that conception of God.
I know everybody in this room, and I know everybody believes in the resurrection. We believe God is big enough to raise a body from the dead; yet, somehow we don’t always believe he’s powerful enough to conquer our personal problems. Isn’t Christianity worthless if our God can conquer the biggest problems but is powerless over the smallest ones?
I think people looked around and saw a lot of professed Christians, who were bent on worldly vices, who kept going back to the same destructive substances, who had the same hopelessness in the work place, whose attitudes were just as grim and glum as everyone else, and as a result they were just totally turned off by it. To them, it was worthless. And it was!
Let me give you three symptoms of doubting God’s power, and then I’ll close with a word of encouragement going forward.
One, you may doubt God’s power if you spend more energy in human exertion than in prayer. A friend of mine preached a sermon last week from Colossians, and he mentioned Colossians 3:12, which reads, “Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.”
The word “struggling” is the Greek word ἀγωνίζομαι (agonizomai, ie, agonizing). He prayed to the point of agony. Amazing.
Two, you may doubt God’s power if you believe the resurrection but have failed to be raised to newness of life. Paul said, “How can we who died to sin still live on it?”
Three, you may doubt God’s power if you have a hard time giving sacrificially because you believe you’ve got to fend for yourself. Jews were demanded to give ten percent of all they had.
I think the religious world is reacting to the worthless Christianity they’ve seen. So many neither know the Bible nor the power of God, so simple things—like living every day in hopes of future salvation—are marginalized, and we are content to exist forever on this earth.
The church isn’t supposed to be empty and powerless like that. The apostle Paul said a prayer, and it’s recorded in Ephesians 1. I’m gonna cut out some parts to speak the portion I want you to hear: He said, “I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers…that God…may give you the Spirit of wisdom…that you may know…what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead” (Ephesians 1:16-20).
The power available to a Christian is (1) immeasurable, (2) great, (3) the very power God used to raise Jesus from the dead.
Go forward and shine your salvation with Scriptural grounding and spiritual prowess.
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