Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
During his ministry, Jesus made it an especial point to call out hypocrites. In fact, it’s likely that his crucifixion was largely due to the fact that he was constantly locking horns with the religious ruling class, who he frequently accused of acting hypocritical. Though even in his regular teachings to the people our Messiah and King told us to check ourselves before we started judging others. Jesus tells us,
Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye (Matthew 7:3-5).
When Jesus explains it like this, it seems obvious. But quite honestly, a lot of people are walking around with a whole big bag of problems while trying to help others with theirs. Our Savior says that we need to get our stuff sorted out before delving into the problems of others.
A major component of Jesus’ ministry was his war with the religious ruling class. Now we all know that they pushed for Jesus’ death and they were going up against him constantly. However, you have to remember that the Pharisees, Sadducees, and teachers of the Law were perfect people. That is to say, they looked perfect to the average person. The Jews have some 600-some rules that they were expected to follow according to the Law, and the religious ruling class followed these rules to the letter. They appeared to be completely perfect, and without sin. So it was pretty shocking that this guy who was supposedly the Son of God kept butting heads with them, considering that they were the most holy people around (or so it seemed). But Jesus was not a man, he was God in bodily form, and he could see their hearts and minds as well as their actions; and he realized they were hypocrites through and through. And so we read,
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisees! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean (Matthew 23:25-26).
By saying this, Jesus wasn’t talking about dishes, but how the religious ruling class handled their lives. They were living outwardly holy lives, but their hearts were wicked, filled with greed and other bad things. While reading this, the Holy Spirit cleared his throat for me and suddenly I felt convicted- and I suspect many other people are called out by this passage too. There’s a strong urge to shine the light on the church at this moment, but honestly, hypocrisy is a problem that penetrates all people these days. We feel that we should look a certain way (in the case of a Christian: holier-than-thou) on the outside and we put a lot of effort into that. We smile when we don’t want to, make friends with people we hate, and don’t speak our mind because if we did we’d probably get fired or maybe run out of town. Our fake face looks good (or holy), but honestly a lot of people are pretty icky on the inside. There’s greed, perversion, anger, self-centeredness, and a whole host of bad stuff where people can’t see. But Jesus speaks out against this, and afterwards he notes that if the inside is clean, the outside will look good too. Even if a person isn’t dressed well, or is a little rough around the edges, someone who has a good heart still looks good. Such people also probably have less stress because they have to watch themselves less since their image is derived from their real personality. Paul brought this up during his ministry. Many Jesus-believing Jews, who kept the Law were upset about the gentiles coming into the church, as the gentiles did not follow the 600-some rules. But Paul defended these newcomers to the church by writing,
Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending (Romans 2:14-15).
He noted that even though the Gentiles did not even study the Law (or care about it), when they came to believe in Christ, the Holy Spirit had such an impact on them, that though they were ignorant of the Law, they fulfilled much of what was required by the Law automatically. Therefore, though the Gentiles were without care for the Law, they outshone the Jews because their hearts were made pure by God.
A lot of people read the Gospels for the miracles and the softer things that Jesus teaches, but really he is very confrontational, especially with the believer. When reading I often end up glossing over the healings just because they are so frequent, but while I’m doing so, Jesus suddenly gets up in my face with something like,
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like white-washed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness (Matthew 23:27-28).
And again the Holy Spirit clears his throat for me. This is not the “Buddy Christ” that Jesus has gotten the reputation for. This is God, the same God from the Old Testament, in the form of his Son. The same God that had Ezekiel eat food cooked over poop to demonstrate just how messed up things had gotten is the same God that is within the body of Christ. So when we read lines like these, we need not get freaked out or anything. Instead, listen to the (wake-up) call. If Jesus is using Old Testament sort of imagery, then we should probably take some Old Testament advice: “To the law and the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn” (Isaiah 8:20). When the Spirit calls us out we need to consult the Word and pray for guidance to get back on track. But it’s more than just reading the Bible. I’ve met people who read the Bible every day and are still awful- heck, I read the Bible every day and Jesus along with the Holy Spirit still called me out during my read-through of Matthew. No, for people like me God sent James, who is most certainly not your buddy. He writes,
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it- he will be blessed in what he does (James 1:22-25).
James doesn’t mince his words. Anyone who reads the Bible and doesn’t actually live according to it is either stupid or mentally deficient. Thanks James. But he’s right. Those of us in Christendom need to check ourselves daily against the Word because it’s so easy to get off track. We need to pray and consult the Holy Spirit, and when the Spirit of God points out a particular passage, we should take note.
Jesus knows the times we live in, and he understands. Because of this, he tells us in Matthew 24:12-13, “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.” We live in an evil world, but as followers of Christ we are called to stand firm against that evil. We are called to not follow the world’s ways, but to be steady and not lose our footing. And what is it that we are supposed to stand firm in? Love. For even in his war with the rule-abiding Pharisees, Jesus was able to narrow the entire 600-some rules of the Old Testament into two commandments. The Bible says,
Jesus replied: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments (Matthew 22:37-40).
As far as God is concerned, if I’m not keeping in tune with the way of the Spirit and the Law, it’s out of a lack of love. Either I’m not loving God they way I should, or I’m not loving others like I ought to. This was the problem with the religious ruling class of Jesus’ day, and this is the problem with many today. Think about new Christians, they shine with the light of God, though they do not know the law. Why? They have been filled with the love of God and a love for God. And through that love they become a law unto themselves. In writing to the church, Peter reminds us, “The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:7-8). The Lord doesn’t expect you to be perfect; if that were even possible he wouldn’t have sent his Son to die in our stead. Rather, don’t forget your love, your love for God and your love for others. If you mess up, that’s fine, but by living in love you should be in the right most of the time both publicly before others, and privately before the Lord.