Distorting the Kingdom

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DISTORTING THE KINGDOM

You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape
being condemned to hell?
Jesus (Matthew 23:33)

What biting words! This is how Jesus concluded His
charge against the religious leaders of His day. Those who
heard Him understood the charges and knew the intended
audience. Yes, you say, what condemnation! But notice the
agony of soul as Jesus declared how He longed for them to
come home. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the
prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have
longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her
chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. Look, your
house is left to you desolate.” (Matthew 23:37-39).

Shortly after this sobering judgment, Jesus went to
Pilate’s Palace and the cross where He prayed to the Father
to forgive them, and gave His life for their redemption.
“Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what
they are doing.’ ” (Luke 23:33, 34). Jesus satisfied the full
measure of leadership.

The Contrast and the Condemnation
Without question, the religious rulers of that time had
distorted God’s intention regarding His Kingdom. They con52
cealed the most important aspects about God and His truth.
They were, Jesus said, “blind leaders of the blind.” But their
false teaching had become accepted as the “truth.” As a
result, people were blinded to God’s original plan.

To avoid any confusion, Jesus itemized how the religious
leaders distorted and corrupted eternal truth (Matthew 23):

 They blocked vision of and entrance into
the Kingdom (vr. 13)
 They guided people into condemnation rather than
redemption (vr. 15)
 The substituted material values for spiritual values
(vrs. 16-22)
 They replaced the major issue with those that are
minor (vrs. 23, 24)
 They made the external more important than the
internal (vrs. 25, 26)
 Their piety was a sham to cover up their corrupt
character (vrs. 27, 28)
 They built shrines in mock reverence to slain prophets
but their own actions condemned their motives
(vrs. 29-36).

Were these seven accusations made without any prior
notice? Did they come as a surprise to these rulers, unexpectedly
without warning? Or, was this stern rebuke issued
because they were already well aware of the Truth? Had they
not been around this Teacher from Galilee long enough to
know what His message was? Had they already determined
they would not permit this Man, no matter who He was, from
disturbing their position or authority? Could they see they
would be ruined and discredited by the people they were
“leading” if they abandoned the “truth” they had invented?
Despite Jesus’ personal appeal and anguish, they were
unwilling to be restored to relationship (Matthew 23:37). The
accusation against the religious leaders of that time was more
than just random censure. As we will see, it was a partial
view from a larger picture. Near the end of His teaching,
Jesus would reveal the true status of these religious rulers.

Since Jesus used the term hypocrites so deliberately to
describe them, the rulers must have been acquainted with the
truth. Returning to the Sermon on the Mount, we can see for
ourselves what Jesus had already told them. Remember that
the mountainside Sermon was at the very beginning of
Jesus’ teaching. This condemnation came near to the close.
So we can make the connection between the two passages,
we’ll put Jesus’ early teaching from Matthew 5, 6, and
7, in a column next to His Matthew 23 declaration.

THE DECLARATION
I have come to fulfill the
Law and the Prophets: 5:17, 18

Character is a matter of the
heart: 5:21, 22, 27, 28

God rewards what is not seen:
6:1-8, 16-18

God’s Kingdom is the major
priority: 6:25-34

Material treasures will be lost:
5:15-23

Watch out for false prophets—
Don’t follow them: 7:15-23

Enter the narrow gate—it leads
to life: 7:13-15

THE CONDEMNATION
Made mock reverence to
slain prophets: 23:29-36

Piety was a sham to cover
up their character:
23:27,28

Made the externals more
important than the internal:
23:25, 26

Minor issues replaced the
major priority: 23:23, 24

Substituted material values
for spiritual values: 23:16-22

Guided people into condemnation
rather than redemption:
23:15

Blocked entrance into the
Kingdom: 23:13

Mock Reverence to Slain Prophets
Early in His mountainside Sermon, Jesus linked Himself
to the Law and the Prophets. “Do not think that I have come
to abolish the Law and the Prophets; I have not come to
abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until
heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the
least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the
Law until everything is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17, 18).
He also said He was the fulfillment of the Old Testament
Scriptures: “You diligently study the Scriptures because you
think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the
Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me
to have life.” (John 5:39, 40).

What did Jesus mean? In summary, He came to complete,
to consummate, to provide the eternally correct communication
between God and His creation. Jesus said that the
forever-now-truth first declared by the Old Testament prophets
had been distorted by the religious leaders of His day.

Their “reverence” for what the prophets had written was a
mockery. They were rejecting Jesus’ teaching, yet His teaching
was not only in harmony with the Prophets’ teaching—it
completed it.

What the Law and the Prophets proclaimed did not
spring up from the shifting sands of what religious leaders
thought. Their teaching was from God. When Jesus claimed
that His own message was part of God’s grand blueprint, He
underscored the consistent content of God’s communication
to mankind throughout history. His own teaching continued
and fulfilled God’s message through the Prophets. God’s
purposes from eternity had not changed.

By implication, those who tamper with God’s Word no
matter what period will not honor God’s eternal truth any
more than they did during Jesus’ lifetime. He said,
“Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and
teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you
will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to
town.” (Matthew 23:34).

Pious Activity to Cover Up Character
To show how pious activity can cover up corrupt character,
Jesus chose two gross sins—murder and adultery—as
examples (5:21, 22, 27, 28). Each had an obvious visible
result: A dead person and a shattered relationship. Most
societies condemn both. In Jesus’ time, there were capital
penalties for these offenses carried out either by the Romans
or the religious rulers.

Jesus then placed these two examples into the light of
eternity. Murder, He declared, was but an expression of
hatred; adultery was lust in action. All are offensive to God.
Yet both lust and hatred can be concealed from human eyes
by pious conduct. God, however, is not deceived. He sees the
true condition of the heart. To others, a person’s behavior
might appear wholesome and clean, covering up the sickness
of the heart and mind. Outwardly, the rulers of that day
condemned murder and adultery, Jesus said, while inwardly,
they condoned lust and anger.

God’s interest is always the heart, not the appearances.
Ever since the Garden of Eden, it has been God’s intention to
change our character, not polish our reputation. “Then the
eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they
were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made
coverings for themselves.”

“Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord
God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day,
and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the
garden. But the Lord called to the man, ‘Where are you?’
“He answered, ‘I heard you in the garden, and I was
afraid because I was naked; so I hid.’ And (God) said, ‘Who
told you that you were naked?’ ” (Genesis 3:7-11). The first
couple tried to cover up what they knew was wrong. God’s
concern was what had happened internally, a change Adam
and Eve tried to hide.

Made the Externals More Important than the Internals
The principle seen in the Garden of Eden is one we find
in other parts of Scripture. For example, Samuel, the great
prophet and seer of ancient Israel, was searching for a king
for Israel. Even he had to be reminded of God’s viewpoint.
“When they arrived (Jesse and his sons) Samuel saw Eliab
and thought, ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before
the Lord.’ But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his
appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord
does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the
outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’ ” (I
Samuel 16:6, 7). Nearsightedness afflicts even the best of us.
Further into the mountainside Sermon, Jesus spoke to the
futility of pretending godliness through external displays.

Jesus confirmed that giving, praying and fasting produce
rewards, both internal and eternal. However, what interested
religious leaders of that time was the external display and
recognition they could get. Jesus said the value in giving,
praying and fasting had nothing to do with the show and
recognition. If these were done only to get acclaim and status
for themselves, He said there was no heavenly reward.
(Matthew 6:1-4 {giving}; 6:5-8 {prayer}; 6:16-18 {fasting}).
Read Jesus’ words on each topic:
“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before
men . . . ”(Giving)
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites . . .”
(Praying)
“When you fast, do not look somber as the
hypocrites . . . ” (Fasting).
You will notice that Jesus didn’t say, “Stop giving, don’t pray
and quit fasting.” His question was, “What’s the motive?”
On that question, the religious leaders were champions of
style over substance.

Jesus censured the motives for religious practice prevalent
at that time. Make every effort, He said, to keep your
giving, praying and fasting a private matter between yourself
and God. Any other motive limits their benefit to current
standards of style and cancels the eternal purpose and value
intended by God. As David learned from bitter experience,
“Surely you desire truth in the inner parts . . . Create in me a
pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. . .
You do not delight in sacrifice . . . The sacrifices of God are
a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will
not despise.” (Psalm 51: 6, 10, 17).

Minor Issues Replaced the Major Issue
In the Sermon passage, Jesus took two of mankind’s
basic needs—food and clothing—to teach us what is important
in eternity. First, He affirmed the necessity of both food
and clothing. In fact, He informed us our heavenly Father is
already aware of those very needs and asks us not to have
anxiety over those needs. They are secondary.

The primary issue of life, Jesus said, is God’s Kingdom
and right living in God’s sight. “Therefore, I tell you, do not
worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about
your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important
than food, and the body more important than clothes?
“So do not worry, saying ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What
shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans
run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows
that you need them.

“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all
these things will be given you as well.” (Matthew 6:25,
31-33). Jesus insisted that by elevating these secondary
issues to primary importance they were acting like
nonbelievers. By bringing “things” under God’s power and
wisdom, He under-scored Kingdom priorities. He said, “Seek
first God’s kingdom and his righteousness.”

That’s not what the religious rulers of Jesus’ day were
teaching. Life’s most important issue had gotten sidetracked.
For the man “who had everything,” here was their plan: “I
will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I
will store my grain and my goods. And I’ll say to myself,
‘You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take
life easy; eat, drink and be merry.’ ”

And what did Jesus say? “But God said to him, ‘You
fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you.’
This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for
himself but is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:13-21). Jesus
was giving everyone the truth about life and priorities.
Substituted Material Values for Spiritual Values
Jesus said we have a choice in making our investments—
heaven or earth, spiritual or material: “Do not store up for
yourselves treasures on earth . . . But store up for yourselves
treasures in heaven . . . For where your treasure is, there
your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21). That’s the truth
about how members of the Kingdom should arrange things.

To reveal what had been going on, Jesus used the human
eye to make a compelling analogy. “The eye is the lamp of
the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full
of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full
of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how
great is that darkness!”

Jesus also said, “No one can serve two masters. Either he
will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to
the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God
and Money.” (Matthew 6:22-24). Now, see the truth He is
talking about as we put these two ideas (sight and servitude)
together. For example, if you look at something in a store,
what do you see? What do you “bring into your thinking”
through your eyes? Do you see something to be possessed
and owned for your own benefit and status? It’s like going
“window” shopping—we have nothing in mind to buy, but
perhaps we will spot something we want. The eye, you see,
can satisfy greed as well as need.

When you meet an individual, do you see this person as
one who will raise or lower your status in the eyes of others
as you talk together? At a party, how quickly do we walk
away from a person we “bumped into”? Well, that depends
on who they are, right? Notice how celebrities always attract
an admiring crowd! We all want to be seen with the “right”
people.

Hidden to everyone but God and us is the driving force
that controls our lives. The eye, however, can uncover the
inner workings of the soul by what it “takes in” to feed on.
And what is it that determines what we will look at and bring
in to take possession of our thoughts? It is the mind that tells
the eye what to see or look at. The eye is the door through
which passes all the goods of the material world to provide a
feast for the mind—if that’s the desire of the heart. The
heart’s desire controls what the eye sees, spends its time
looking at, brings into the soul and incorporates into a
person’s actions.

Our eyes permit us to absorb and even consume what we
see. Thus, this process creates an appetite that is never fully
satisfied. What does the heart tell the eye to do? What do we
bring into our lives through our eyes from T.V., movies or
the Internet? What do we perceive when we look at things
and people? What kinds of passion are aroused by the things
that money can obtain for us? Jesus said these reveal our
master: God or money; light or darkness; spiritual or
material.

So Jesus taught if we are serving God, our eyes will
bring in light. The eye will be directed to see things from
God’s perspective, in the light of eternity. If we are serving
money (or things), the eye will tell the story. If it is being
directed by the heart to see things in terms of material value,
Jesus characterized this condition as “being full of darkness.”
If we block the light, all that remains is darkness.

Guided People Into Condemnation Rather Than Redemption

As Jesus neared the end of the Sermon, He warned His
listeners to be alert about whom they follow. You may be led

into condemnation and damnation, He said (Matthew 7:23).
He identified these leaders (Matthew 7:15) as being “false
prophets” who will even perform miracles and cast out
demons in His name (Matthew 7:22).

God’s purpose is to bring the human race back into relationship
with Him, not to bring condemnation. “He (Jesus)
was in the world, and though the world was made through
him, the world did not recognize him . . . Yet to all who
received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the
right to become the children of God—children born not of
natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will,
but born of God.” (John 1:10-13).

Since God’s goal is to bring us into relationship with
Him, Jesus cautioned us to be aware of leaders who are blind
(refusing to follow God’s truth) and leading others to their
destruction. We are not accountable for their sin and hypocrisy,
He told us, but we are responsible for what we do with
what we have heard. He warned, “Not everyone who says to
me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only
he who does the will of my Father who is in
heaven.” (Matthew 7:21). We will not be excused from
judgment by pleading we were just following religious
leaders. We are accountable for the road we travel.

Blocked Entrance Into the Kingdom
Jesus said the roadway to the Kingdom was narrow and
obscure. There are few travelers. Another road, broad, easy
on the feet and well traveled, led to destruction (Matthew
7:13, 14). After describing the second road, he gave a graphic
warning about those who were directing traffic. “Watch
out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing,
but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” (Matthew 7:15). In
other words, don’t be fooled by the deception that will
spread. Rather, He cautioned, be discerning, be alert about
whom you follow. Examine their actions and their fruit as
well as that of your own (Matthew 7:16-20).

Those who listened and followed him, Jesus said, were
living in eternity. Their house was secure from the storms of
life. “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and
puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house
on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the
winds blew and beat against that house; but it did not fall
because it had its foundation on the rock.” (Matthew 7:24,
25). That is the great promise for those who follow Him!
On the other hand, those who lived for the present day
disregarded what he said. Their house will fall “with a great
crash” (Matthew 7:26, 27). All have heard the news; each is
responsible for how she or he responds. We know that even
as Jesus was speaking to the crowd on that mountainside and
proclaiming the truth, many continued to follow the false
teachers of their time. Others did not. Jesus said each person
is answerable for what each did with the truth. With those
words, Jesus concluded His teaching recorded in the early
chapters of Matthew. These are strong, hopeful, yet sobering
words.

Why This Teaching?
At the end of His life, Jesus told Pilate He had come to
earth to be a “witness to the truth.” We have been looking at
the very beginning of Jesus’ teaching ministry. As we have
noted, His teaching conflicted with the thinking of His day.
“. . . the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he
taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of
the law.” Jesus was direct. His Sermon was easy to understand
but difficult to accept by those who had bought into the
prevailing ideas of religious thought. The question as to why
Jesus presented this teaching deserves an answer.

First, we have seen the direct link between Jesus’
teaching on the mountainside and the seven woes in Matthew
23. The mountainside Sermon was clear and unmistakable to
everyone. His preaching was consistent with the Old
Testament Prophets. God’s purposes for mankind have not
changed. Jesus revealed in greater detail and clarity the true
meaning of the Kingdom of Heaven. In spite of that, the
religious leaders continued to alter what God had said for
their own purposes. From Matthew, we realize they even
rejected God’s standards and basic purposes.

What the religious leaders were doing was as old as the
Garden of Eden itself. There, Satan (in the form of a serpent)
hinted, “Has God really said . . .?” Mankind’s response was
to place their ideas above what God had said. They also
developed reasons to challenge God’s rules for the Garden.
“When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for
food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining
wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her
husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” (Genesis 3:6).

Thus, the first couple turned their backs on God’s rules to
act on their own thinking. Their act ruined the human race.
Yet, even today, each person has the same choice.

The King’s Invitation
In the sermon, Jesus announced that God wanted to give
us gifts for our good. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek
and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.
For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to
him who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7, 8).
God’s desire was so great, Jesus told Pilate, that He came
into the age of the day to bring eternal truth to the world. He
was a king, the King. Before Pontius Pilate He declared,
“My kingdom is not of this world . . .” Pilate responded,
“You are a king, then!”
Jesus’ answer to Pilate was, “You are right in saying I am
a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came
into the world, to testify to the truth.” (John 18:36, 37).
Jesus’ mission was not only to point us toward eternity; it
was to bring us into His Kingdom. He wants us to abandon
the tyranny of our time and surrender to the loving care of
the heavenly Father. That requires our having and seeing the
truth which only a Divine and eternal God can provide. His
invitation still stands: “Come unto me, all you who are
weary and burdened and I will give you rest.” (Matthew
11:28-30). I’ll give you what you truly need and want. Yes,
it’s for eternity. But it’s also for today!

You see God’s rules are not arbitrary. We now realize the
“why” of the rules. They originate at the very character of
God Himself. They come from the core of His being: His
holiness, love, mercy, and justice. Jesus came not only to
reaffirm God’s rules, but also to perfectly display them to
humanity. It is possible, He said, to have life in relationship
with God the Father that cancels our human inability to obey
His rules.

Right from the very beginning of His teaching, Jesus said
publicly, “The Kingdom of heaven is near.” (Matthew 4:17).
That news is out of this world! Without delay, at John the
Baptist’s introduction of Him as teacher and at the outset of
His teaching, He announced there is a Kingdom, that He is
the King, the Kingdom has rules and standards, and here are
the rules! And the Kingdom has a Ruler! Jesus did not
equivocate.

Throughout history, religious leaders have attempted to
alter and revise those rules. The cause might be self-interest,
greed, power, autonomy, or pressure from the culture of their
time. They placed the interests of their time over the interests
of God and His eternal Kingdom. Jesus warned, however,
that we change His Kingdom’s rules to our own everlasting
peril. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter
the kingdom of heaven, but only he (she) who does the will of
my Father in heaven. Many will say to me on that day,
“Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your
name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I
will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you
evildoers.’ ” (Matthew 7:21:23).

What is the truth Jesus gave us here? Those who seek the
Kingdom of heaven must relate their lives to God’s Word
and will. It is not a question of what we think, but of what
has God said! Jesus informed us of God’s plan. That plan is
that eternity can invade our lives today. Eternity is present,
now. Living for this present age is a denial of the evidence of
eternity that surrounds us. Jesus did not leave His audience
in suspense. He gave us the key to living in eternity and
invited us to enter.