It’s so easy to look at people being knuckleheads in the Bible and think, “those ignorant people! How could they not get it? I would never do that!”
My Bible reading plan has me read passages from different sections of the Bible, which is really helpful especially when you hit Numbers. Assuming you make it past the laws in Leviticus. And then you hit the genealogies in the Chronicles, and you’re tempted to just give up. Reading from different sections has been helpful because it reminds me that the Bible is one grand story of redemption, and that God uses different genres, literary styles, and authors to accomplish this.
This morning, among other sections, I read from Jeremiah 9 and Matthew 23. In Jeremiah, the prophet mourns over his people because “they are all adulterers” (v 2), deceitful, oppressive, and evil, and it’s because of this: they have “stubbornly followed their own hearts and have gone after the Baals.” (v 14) They’re in open, outward, outright rebellion against God by worshiping false gods! And the Lord calls them to repentance.
In Matthew 23, Jesus famously has a rebuke-fest with the scribes and Pharisees, the super religious. They do everything right. These guys even tithed of their mint and dill and cumin! When is the last time you tithed out of your spices? And yet Jesus calls them hypocrites and “white-washed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead peoples’ bones and all uncleanness.” (v 27) They appeared holy and pious, but remained wicked, greedy, and self-indulgent inside.
Israel had turned to other gods to try to find pleasure and salvation. The scribes and Pharisees had turned to law-keeping to find pleasure and salvation. So here we have God calling two groups to repentance: those who do evil, and those who do good. Those who break all the rules and those who are pretty good at keeping all the rules. And interestingly, both passages show that the reason they are both far from God is because what’s on the inside hasn’t been dealt with. They have uncircumcised hearts. (Jer 9:26)
David recognized this need when he pleads to God in Psalm 51, “Create in me a clean heart, o God!” This “man after God’s own heart” knew of the wicked bent of his own heart; he was repenting of sleeping with Bathsheba and having her husband murdered.
The antidote to being bad is not just being good. The Pharisees knew that God was displeased with their ancestors for following other gods, so they thought they could win his favor by being really really good and keeping all of God’s laws. But they, like their ancestors, didn’t really want God. Idolatrous Israel and the hypocritical pharisees were not that different. They both have unchanged hearts.
The gospel confronts the notions that you can find fulfillment by following your own passions and that you can find fulfillment by trying really hard to mold your behavior and outer appearance. By reminding myself, my heart of the gospel every day, I remember that all the pleasures of the world are to be found in God and his love in Christ, so I don’t have to seek it elsewhere. By reminding myself, my heart of the gospel every day, I remember that Christ didn’t die for me because I was beautiful, but to make me beautiful, and so all the good works and behavioral modifications I could ever muster up don’t change that fact.
This frees me to be honest about who we really are, and to be honest about who Christ is. This truth changes our heart, when we’re faced with the overwhelming love and grace of God in Christ.