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Friday, September 16, 2016

Worse Than Idolatry?

 Repost from

Last time we looked at the tug of war between the Pharisees and Jesus for the soul of the Jewish nation. We saw the Pharisees advance the theory that the indisputable works of Jesus were done because He was possessed essentially by Satan. And that was utterly unforgivable. This time we find ourselves a bit further advanced in the exact same conversation (Matthew 12.38-45).

          I find it mind-boggling that immediately after telling the people that Jesus does miracles in the power of Satan they immediately ask Him to do another one. Talk about adding insult to injury! And if they really believed in what they proposed they were actually asking to see Satan at work.

          Jesus rightly and angrily refuses, and tells them the only sign or miracle that He will now furnish them is one similar to the Jonah of the Old Testament, a resurrection when all hope was gone. Then, following up on the thought of Jonah, He informs them that Ninevah repented under Jonah's preaching, and He Himself is greater than Jonah. Speaking of greater than, the Queen of Sheba was eager to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and He is greater than Solomon. In other words, if the people of Ninevah and the Queen of Sheba could speak at the moment they would condemn the Pharisees and Israel for her complete lack of response to her actual Messiah.

          Jesus then proceeds to give them a powerful illustration of just exactly what is wrong with the Pharisees' approach. To me, this illustration is both enlightening and convicting.

          Jesus likens a man to an empty house, one in which an unclean spirit lives. The unclean spirit is kicked out, and rightly so. The house is then cleaned, fixed up, and prepared with care to be occupied again. The problem is that it remains empty, and now it is actually more attractive to that unclean spirit than ever. It finds some unclean spirit friends, and comes back and takes over the now fixed up empty house in which it used to live. The culmination of the story is that the house's condition, and thus the man's in Jesus' story, is worse now than it was at the beginning.

          This is precisely what Israel, under the influence of the Pharisees, had done.
          Think of Israel in the Old Testament, and how she continually struggled with one particular sin, that of idolatry, the worship of other gods. The proscription against this is the very first of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20.3). Yet before Moses gets down off the mountain with the tablets in which that commandment is inscribed they've built a golden calf and are worshipping it.

They failed at obeying this commandment repeatedly in the Old Testament. They failed under the leadership of Aaron. They failed in the time of Joshua, and after him during the judges. They failed at this under so many of the kings. Ezekiel said it had gotten so bad toward the end that secret rooms had been hollowed out underneath Solomon's Temple, and Israel's leaders worshipped idols right there below the Temple. The prophets repeatedly railed against the violations of the first commandment, and promised that God's judgment would fall on His people if they continued (Jeremiah 1.16). It was precisely for this disobedience specifically that Solomon's kingdom was divided in two after he died (I Kings 11.32-33). It was precisely for this disobedience specifically that the northern kingdom of Israel was carried away into Assyrian captivity (II Kings 17.6-12).

          God's judgment was poured out in fiery indignation, first splitting the nation in half, subjecting her to the will of her enemies, and then consecutively swallowing up each half thus causing the nation to effectively cease to exist.

          This finally seemed to make an impact, and we can see, in the five centuries between the return from the Babylonian Captivity under Ezra and the time of Jesus, that Israel never did return to idol worship. In fact, she became, if anything, more secure and stable in her monotheistic worship of only one God, Jehovah, than she had ever been.

          Well, what could possibly be wrong with that? At first, under the wise and godly leadership of Ezra and the last of the Old Testament prophets, and then later under the originally sincere though unscriptural Pharisees, and now finally under the insincere and wicked rabbis she had rejected idolatry firmly – but she had replaced that idolatry with a system of unscriptural, highly complex, extra-biblical, vain traditions. The Pharisees and their rabbis, slowly, over centuries, tore the heart out of Israel's religion, and even though she wasn't in idolatry she was so wicked as to reject and put to death her own Messiah. And instead of ceasing to exist as a nation for 70 years, as happened during the Babylonian Captivity, this time she would cease to exist as a nation for 1900 years. 'Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first. Even so shall it be also unto this wicked generation' (Matthew 12.45).

          At the risk of boring you to tears with Edersheim again, here is my favorite author on the life of Christ in reference to this story:

The folly of Israel lay in this, that they thought of only one demon – him of idolatry – Beel-Zibbul, with all his foulness. That was all very repulsive, and they had carefully removed it…But this house, swept of the foulness of heathenism and adorned with all the self-righteousness of Pharisaism, but empty of God, would only become a more suitable and more secure habitation of Satan; because, from its cleanness and beauty, his presence and rule there as an evil spirit would not be suspected…and thus the last state – Israel without the foulness of gross idolatry and garnished with all the adornments of Pharisaic devotion to the study and practice of the Law – was really worse than had been the first with all its open repulsiveness.

 I see several lessons here. First, nations and people are both harder to reach when they are self-righteous than when they are exceedingly sinful and admit it. The Israel of Jesus' day was open with egregious sin. There is little record of any rampant homosexuality, or child sacrifice, or idolatry. It was outwardly buttoned up, and inwardly hypocritical. 'Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness' (Matthew 23.37). Jesus, with all of His powerful preaching and jaw-dropping miracles, couldn't reach that generation. They thought they were good, and refused to see that they weren't. On the other hand, you give me a man or a nation that is living openly in the full squalor of sin and I will show you a man fully conscious of his own deep need for salvation. The mind runs immediately to the recently discussed story contrasting Simon the Pharisee and the prostitute, doesn't it?

          Secondly, we must never lose sight of the importance of the heart. I've preached so about the heart recently in our church that I often feel like I'm beating a dead horse when I bring it up again, but I have to continue to bring it up for I keep finding it again and again in the Word of God. The vast majority of the problems that Jesus dealt with concerned a people outwardly following Jehovah to the letter and yet inwardly bankrupt. We must take great care, to the extent that we can, that such does not happen on our watch to our children, to our church, or to ourselves.

          Thirdly, a religion that is full of rules and empty of a relationship with God is an open door to the devil. I do not believe rules are wrong. I believe unscriptural rules are wrong, and I believe rules without a warm relationship with God are wrong. Don't tell me how many i's you dot and t's you cross if you also can't tell me that you are spending large chunks of alone time loving on Jesus. Don't tell me how many Christians notice and approve of what you are doing if you and God aren't living together moment by moment throughout the day. Don't tell me what position you occupy in the kingdom of God if you aren't yielded to Him in private and alone. Don't tell me all that you do and don't do if your heart isn't holy.

          One of the most fearful examples of this in Scripture is Judas Iscariot. Outwardly, he had it all together. Inwardly, he was rotten to the core, and the devil targeted him like a heat seeking missile. 'And after the sop Satan entered into him' (John 13.27). You can chase out of your life all the worldly pollution of wrong music, wrong friends, wrong entertainment, and wrong fun, and that is good. You can then fence yourself and your loved ones off from those things, and that is also good, in my opinion. But I beg of you not to leave the inside empty. Rot draws flies, but inward rot draws devils.

          If you ever get to the place where you think you are pretty good you are in deep trouble. Self-righteousness is such a terribly subtle and yet awfully damaging temptation to which to succumb. On the other hand, when you stay close to the Lord and the cross you stay constantly reminded of your own sinful condition and the great grace of God, and that is a wondrous protection to genuine spirituality.

          …and if you don't your last state will be worse than the first.

If you would like to listen to the audio version of this blog you may find it here on our church website. Just press 'launch media player' and choose We Preach Christ 37, 'The Last State Worse Than the First'.
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